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Carnival in Rio: Marlene and the Big Bad Wolf

Goethe-InstitutCopyright: Mauro Samagaio
Waiting for the big day: Carnival figure in the workshop of Unidos da Tijuca (Photo: Mauro Samagaio)

8 February 2013

Hello, Germany! This year, the samba school Unidos da Tijuca at Carnival in Rio is inviting us on a journey to the “land of poets and philosophers.” Poets and philosophers? None here! It’s a journey to the realm of frogs and gods. By Anne Essel

Orderly chaos abounds in the workshops of the Unidos da Tijuca samba school. Bilious green wolf’s eyes sparkle from a pile of white wool. In the other corner, rows of six-foot rocket costumes lean, ready for take-off. A headless display dummy in a Cinderella costume stands between black plastic sheeting and not far away are freshly lacquered jumbo Playmobil figures and oversized pieces of cake.

Any child’s eyes would pop in this wonderland of Carnival, the cidade de samba. As an adult, we gain an impression of the work behind the scenes of the huge Carnival spectacle that takes place every year in Rio de Janeiro. Two nights, twelve samba schools each with about 4,000 participants and 300 drummers with the aim of bringing the mood of the 80,000 visitors at the samba stadium (Sambódromo) to boiling point.

Unidos da Tijuca is one of the oldest and most traditional of Rio’s samba schools. This year on Carnival Sunday it plans to excite the audience with the theme of “Germany.” The journey through “enchanted Germany” will be led by no lesser than the thunder god Thor. The director Paulo Barros, responsible for the artistic realization, is known for his inventiveness.

Carnival expedition through intellectual history

The audience was entranced when Barros introduced them to the theme of “science” with an intricately choreographed DNA float, a so-called living allegory. His welcoming committee’s potential to amaze while leading and beginning the Carnival procession is already infamous and is highly anticipated. In 2010, the dancers changed their clothes in the twinkle of an eye, in 2011 they lost their heads. This year, there are rumours of a sudden blackout and fizzling lightning effects.

Hence, the Year of Germany in Brazil, which will begin officially in May, will be launched by a Carnival expedition through German intellectual history: It ranges from Germanic mythology to literature, films and music and German inventors’ zeal. In addition to Vikings and Valkyries, kobolds, dragons, dwarfs and giants, the fairy tale cast of the Brothers Grimm – Cinderella, the Frog Prince et al – will perform. Prominent characters and props such as Mephistopheles from Goethe’s Faust, the ghost ship of Richard Wagner’s opera The Flying Dutchman, the robots from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and of course many beautiful women like Marlene Dietrich will also be seen in the Sambódromo. An outing in the world of children – populated by life-size toys and a daredevil water slide on wheels – will be followed by German inventions: rockets, x-ray machines and zeppelins.

It will all come full circle in the end, with Thor bidding guests to a big feast with the gastronomic specialities that German immigrants brought with them to Brazil in the 19th century: sausages, sauerkraut and, naturally, beer. “Maybe we’ll march out in a huge sauerkraut float and hand out tasters to the people,” jokes Paulo Barros in an interview with the TV station Globo.

A native of Cologne on the tambourine

There are no limits to the imaginations of the Carnivalists. Nonetheless, the magic of Carnival is the result of lots of work and intense study. Following a journey to Germany organized by the Goethe-Institut Rio de Janeiro, an eight-person commission from the Carnival school discussed a few dozen themes with the help of cultural scientists and artists. Then, the costumes and floats were sketched out. The prototypes were approved by director Paulo Barros personally, reports Nalmbi, chief tailor responsible for the princess wings.

“The first princess frocks were too plain for our taste,” she explains and points out the final result, a multi-layer tulle skirt and a corset embroidered with glittering gems. Approximately 200 full-time staff and 100 suppliers work for the Carnival production of this samba school, which costs about four million euro. Luciano, who is just trying to get into the fur of the big bad wolf, is also a specialist. He is a student of stage design at the Academy of Fine Arts. He intends to write his thesis on scenographic sculpture and its evolution in the history of Carnival.

Chris from Cologne is also on the staff of the samba school. He has played the tambourine in the bateria, the percussion group, since 2004. When the samba teacher first came to Rio in 2003 he visited rehearsals that take place twice a week a few months before the big parade. He stood next to the drummers on the fringes and played along a bit. His skill drew attention and he was invited to join the rehearsals and then to take part in the procession. Although he was unable to accept the invitation that first year, he has been a part of it ever since 2004. “I know that I am just a small part of the whole, but the feeling of being part of the parade is overwhelming.” On Carnival Sunday, he will not only drum out the rhythm, but also sing along to the samba song that says “Brazil and Germany united, it will thunder – a year to remember.”
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