This Saturday night, the Império da Tijuca samba school will bring to the Rio de Janeiro Carnival a parade dedicated to Utopies. Though most of the performers may be rather interested in singing, dancing, and having a nice time as they cross the Sambadrome, their party is purported to be a bridge between the very roots of human fantasy and the spirit of Carnival itself.
For those not acquainted with the Brazilian Carnival parades (I suppose that's the case of most Fantasy Matters readers, and having watched Moonraker or even Dreamworks' Rio won't help much), a brief introduction is due. Well, as brief as possible.
The samba schools actually are not schools, but associations of samba performers, composers and musicians, most of them deeply linked to a local community, often a shanty town. Schools work all year long in preparation for the Carnival parade, in which they present a subject - a story, an homage, sometimes even an essay - by means of their music, dance, and the visual spectacle of costumes and floats. It has been called a "popular opera." It's a party, it's an art form, but it's also a competition: judges award points for the performance and the highest scoring school is declared the champion of the year.
In 2011, Unidos da Tijuca, a samba school which has been establishing an out-of-the-box approach for the last few years, did a wonderful parade having Death as subject, borrowing themes from horror and fantasy movies. Paulo de Barros, their "carnavalesco" (roughly, a chief creator) designed floats that referenced Avatar, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Transformers, and the Coffin Joe films, among others, while Charon rowed his boat across the performers. The opening group was made of 15 "undead" dancers, who took their heads off to the public. Here is a video of this opening group:
Despite the impact of the special effects, the judges gave Unidos da Tijuca only second place.
This year, Paulo de Barros chose a more traditional subject, and Unidos da Tijuca will pay a tribute to composer and singer Luiz Gonzaga (1912-1989). But their neighbours from Império da Tijuca have decided to present a parade entitled "Utopies, a journey to the ends of imagination." Floats will make Atlantis, Avalon, Lorien, Agartha (and of course Utopia) come alive on the Sambadrome. Some of the costume designs can be seen here.
Império da Tijuca's carnavalesco Severo Louzardo explains his goal: "Stimulate the public to find answers to questions about the society in which they live; provoke the collective imaginary, reinstating the doubt on what would be an ideal human society, presenting as counterpoint other societies with unique features".
That's what I might define as the challenge of every fantasy author.
It's still early to know whether Império da Tijuca will fulfill Louzardo's ambitious expectations. After all, it's a "second division" samba school, not as famous and resourceful as the ones in the elite group, that parade on Sunday and Monday. But their journey has at least accomplished an important mission. It has once again linked the Rio de Janeiro Carnival to a very important part of its ancient meaning.
Just as in Venice, New Orleans and so many other places, costumed partiers are an important part of the Rio de Janeiro Carnival. Scholars trace that tradition back from Roman festivals such as the Saturnalia and Bachanalia, when masters and slaves changed their roles for a day, and masked people could disobey social norms, protected by the anonimity their disguise offered. On the streets of Rio, but most of all in the samba school parades, this swapping of social roles becomes capital. People from impoverished areas of the city may be not only kings and queens, but even more important, the stars of a show whose wonder attracts the eyes of the whole country. Their art and skill, so often despised, shine under the lights of the Sambadrome and on the TV screens.
Now allow me a quick digression. In Portuguese, the word "fantasia" has two meanings. It may be translated as "fantasy" or as "costume." So, dressing as pirate, fairy, elf, or clown is not much different from being (at least, in one's mind) a pirate, fairy, elf, or clown. Fantasia, be it a dress or a dream, is then what Carnival is all about.
In that context, Império da Tijuca's "Utopies" parade may provide an interesting reflection on the meaning of Fantasy. It serves, as Louzardo points, to help us understand our world and imagine another. But we can only fantasize about a better society because (and if) as individuals we are able to wear those "fantasias" both on our bodies and in our minds. It's the ability to dream that makes us able to create, and, when we do that, we're all kings and queens of the parade, even for a brief moment.