Monday, March 12, 2012

Our Queen of Carnival: A passion for mas & medicine

The narrator gives his intro, his final entrée — "Mother of Humanity- the Weeping Madonna from bandleader, Brian MacFarlane's entry for the 2012 presentation, Sanctification- In Search Of, portrayed by Chariss Bovell". She gets her cue and glides gracefully onto the stage to the beat of tassa drums. Her depiction is unusually beautiful, red faced amidst a background of white, emotionally startling but purely fascinating. She carries this heavy 100 lb ensemble with such finesse and flair that it appears almost featherweight. She breathes life into her parade on stage and her facial expressions tell the story behind her Carnival 2012 Queen portrayal. "Who is she?" one newcomer to the Dimanche Gras marvels. "She must be a ballet dancer!" decides another spectator. "No, she is an athlete," argues a seasoned Dimanche Gras attendee. Everyone is amazed not only by the celestial presence of the elegantly designed masterpiece of a costume but by the celestial presence of the Queen herself.

Chariss Bovell
Today, more than three weeks since the Dimanche Gras Show, I learn that the majestic Queen who stole the hearts of fans and the auspicious 2012 Queen of Carnival title is a medical doctor with a passion for dance (not an athlete or a ballet dancer). For this Woman Express Interview, the 31-year-old Maravel resident is retrospective on her divine fate of playing the Weeping Madonna for Brian MacFarlane's 2012 Carnival presentation. "It happened by chance, it wasn't planned. I had registered to play mas with K2K, a new mas band my school friends had brought out for the 2012 Carnival season. Two weeks before Carnival one of my friends told me Brian MacFarlane wanted to meet with me (we never met before). The meeting was to discuss me being Queen for Sanctification. When he asked me I couldn't turn down what I considered the opportunity of a lifetime. I simply had to say yes and the rest was history," declares Bovell. She looks at me wisely and continues, "Many people thought it as blasphemy for a religious figure to be depicted in Carnival. But they didn't understand Brian MacFarlane's rationale behind his 2012 presentation. Sanctification revealed the different ills of society which exist today. The ills we lose ourselves in like lust, crime and other elements plaguing our lives. "The Weeping Madonna" IS THE Mother of Humanity in the story. The mother who weeps for her children as she witnesses their demise. The demise of her daughters to domestic violence, the demise of her sons to murder, she weeps. That was the idea behind the portrayal." A staunch Roman Catholic, she stood her ground and despite the controversy and skepticism surrounding her depiction of the "Weeping Madonna", Bovell embraced the challenge. Before she sits on her sofa in her gallery overlooking her garden she inspects for lizards and frogs commenting on her fear for anything creepy and crawly. How did a medical doctor with a fear for reptiles transform into "Mother of Humanity" on the big stage? This is a trick question as the answer I get uncovers the real Chariss Bovell, the woman behind the red paint and pretty costume.

She tells me that Carnival is in her blood. The graduate of UWI has always been a Carnival baby. Growing up she was exposed to a climate where both parents played mas and enjoyed the different faucets of Carnival. At age two she made her debut on stage (with baby bottle in mouth), her experience at age four being her real debut where she portrayed a cupcake designed by the now deceased veteran mas designer, Wayne Berkley. "I always loved the stage. I felt at home on the stage. When I played the cupcake, I remember Sparrow's song; 'Doh Back back' was out. I loved the song and I refused to come off the stage". For this year's Dimanche Gras, it wasn't a case of revelry though as she assumed a sombre mood as she fit into the character of a weeping mother. The aura of her performance was set by the tassa drums which MacFarlane so expertly chose as her accompaniment and her typically no-nonsense persona also helped in her depiction.
'Mother of Humanity the weeping Madonna'
Grace, poise and elegance. I learn that these qualities come naturally for Bovell because she is a true dancer. She learned modern dance, ballet and tap dance at a tender age from her aunts who taught dance and her father used to take her to Duke Street to dance bele. "My dream was to be a professional dancer but my dad said no to me pursuing it as a profession. He told me, 'dance all you like but you need a profession'. He didn't think T&T culture was serious about dance". This point brings us to another factor which steered her towards the big stage — her desire to follow in her father's footsteps. "I wanted to do the things my dad did. He loved to play mas and so I gravitated towards it. He never played King of the Band but he was always very involved and he steered me in that direction," says the former student of St Joseph's Convent, Port of Spain. Her aspiration to be "just like daddy" also propelled her towards the field of medicine but that's another story. "Daddy didn't want me to become a doctor despite the fact that he is an oncologist. He wished that I had become an accountant or engineer instead but I guess the Lord had other plans for me," Bovell states. Ironically, her passion for Carnival and her passion for medicine are almost the same as she claims that she enjoys the best of both worlds — the allure of the arts and the intrigue of science. Her father shares the same scenario. "It's as if I am split between two worlds but I enjoy them both. My mom is an artist, actually she used to design my costumes when I was younger and my dad has a passion for art as well while performing his role as a doctor. I go to my job at the National Radiology Centre daily and I feel accomplished when I contribute to someone's life and I contribute to the people in my society. When I come back home I use music and my dance to relax," the former pan player confesses. Not your typical medical doctor nor Queen of Carnival, Bovell isn't your typical church attendee either. However, she is a highly spiritual and religious individual. "I played the 2011 Carnival Queen for the Catholic band. My portrayal was 'Eve, of Eternal Light'," she informs me. This statement ushers in my next question: "One year you're Eve, the next year you're the Weeping Madonna. Is it all a coincidence?" She suggests that it may have been a divine coincidence but certainly not a planned decision but she is happy by the direction her mas compass has taken her. "I am a vintage soul. I love Carnival but I believe that it doesn't have to be vulgar and disrespectful to God to be culturally uplifting. It doesn't always have to be a forum for the best wining tune or indecent behaviour. I grew up keeping God as the centre of everything I do. He was there with me in medical school and He was there with me on the stage for the Dimanche Gras. I even said a prayer before I took the stage and I had my family and friends praying for my performance. Carnival is an art that doesn't have to be polluted by the very ills depicted by Sanctification; it can be pure and morally enjoyable." she argues. How can something so carnal be juxtaposed into something so pure? "As in everything, there are good and bad elements. As a doctor I know this all too well. But the people are what make or break the institution. The Health Sector in T&T can be a whole lot better but there are still good doctors and nurses in the sector. Likewise in Carnival, there are a lot of negative features in the greatest show on earth but there are still those out there making the sacrifice to save the true beauty of the festival!"
With the answers to the spectators' questions as to the true identity of the lady in the Weeping Madonna revealed, there is just one more question for the aspiring Medical Specialist/Carnival Queen/Latin dancer — Will she make another graceful entrance onto the Dimanche Gras stage for Carnival 2013? "I intend to play Queen once more, whether my portrayal be along the same celestial path, only time and divine intervention will tell!" Bovell concludes with a knowing smile.

By Lorraine Waldropt

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