As part of the ongoing search to find creative outlets for young people, I learned about a couple, Alex Khan and Sophia Michahelles, who had travelled to Trinidad on a Fullbright scholarship to explore ‘mas’ in a residency at Caribbean Contemporary Arts (CCA), in 2005-2006. Since 1995 they had, and up until this day, coordinated a team of volunteers to create and perform the parade puppets that are at the start of the New York City Halloween parade.
The exceptional thing about living in New York City is the ongoing bucket list of things you must do at least once if you enjoy the arts and live in the city. From the annual dance and mermaid parades, to the Flags exhibition in central park and the Sleep No More production in Chealsea, the list keeps growing. This year, with the knowledge of Alex and Sophia’s involvement, I and two friends, decided to become participants, and not just a spectator, in the New York City Halloween Parade in the Village.
This parade for years reminded me of J’ouvert in Trinidad carnival. A contraction of the French “jour ouvert”, or “day open”, j’ouvert starts around 4 am on carnival Monday and signals the beginning of the two-day costume parade. One connection to New York City’s Halloween parade is that it is conducted mainly in darkness, though in Trinidad the participants start in the dark and move into sunrise, it is the opposite in New York City. They start in the light and move into sunset. Both experiences provide a place for individual and small group costumes that are hand made. The level of artistry is at times extraordinary and often times they voice perspectives on current social and political issues. Unlike the mass produced costumes that are purchased for carnival and for halloween revelers throughout the country, J’ouvert and the parade still offer a place for individual expression. Unlike the tradition of most street parades in the city, you can participate as long as you are in costume. Each year about 50,000 people choose to participate.
This year was the 40th anniversary of the parade. They chose the theme revival because of the first ever cancellation last year as a result of Hurricane Sandy. Alex and Sophia invited all volunteers to come to their farm in Rhinebeck to help with making the puppets and restore some of the older puppets from past parades that were being included this year to commemorate the 40th anniversary. I was able to take my nieces and sister-in-law with me. Together we worked on the papier mache of a dragon head that I would be wearing for the parade. We all had a blast getting our hands dirty in this beautiful setting. I was amazed at the number of people there to volunteer and help make this a reality. Alex, Sophia, and the parade organizers have it down to a science how to plan all the moving parts of the puppets and the people involved.
Come Halloween, we gathered at the start of the route, practiced ways to get into character and choreographed our dragon moves. As we started walking up the route we enjoyed running up to folks in the crowd that lined the street and giving them a big dragon roar that was less frightful and more of a way to put a smile on their faces. Children called to us as we wove in and out among the larger puppets, which were less mobile, yet visually spectacular. We ran among lighted puppets, a New Orleans brass band, skeleton back pack puppets and a large snake held by several people. The whole time I thought to myself, this is what we can do with a group of young people: work with them to come up with a theme, design and make their own costumes, and wear them on parade day. What a wonderful way to express yourself, and build artistic skills. Hopefully that day will come soon.
Thank you Alex, Sophia, and the annual Halloween parade in the Village for the experience.
For more about the parade and about Alex and Sophia, see below: