It’s universally accepted that Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro is the greatest show on earth, borrowing the language of Barnum & Bailey. The fashion set, as always, takes it a mince further, describing it as the greatest fashion show on earth. Certainly both are true. Yet neither seems to adequately convey the unbridled pageantry, grandeur, and intensity of the shiny, happy spectacle that compels all of Rio to grab a caipirinha and sway to the samba beat that permeates the city and beyond.
Lasting from dusk to dawn over four nights, Carnaval is without a doubt the ultimate party (even the subways pitch in, operating all night, but only for Carnaval). Just before Lent each year, a holy time of abstinence and one killer hangover, the neighborhoods, beaches, and favelas of Rio erupt in song and dance, a bouncy blend of African (the word samba originates in Angola), Amerindian, and Portuguese influences — which is to say, Catholic on paper, bacchanalian in practice. Interestingly, the masquerade aspect derives from haughty Parisian balls of the 19th century.
But among the hedonistic chaos, there is order. Namely, the parade — a slow-rolling, extravagant display of towering floats strewn with gyrating samba dancers bursting out of their elaborate, beaded, gilded costumes. It’s an explosion of color, cheer, wit, civic pride, and fanciful storytelling rivaled only by the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, which, incidentally, will call Rio home in 2016, following the World Cup later this year. In fact, the most celebrated of Carnaval’s artistic directors, Paulo Barros, consults for the Olympics. So, clearly, for the foreseeable future, Rio is where it’s at.
At Carnaval, everyone dances the samba, both on the floats and in the stands, which makes the Sambadrome (Sambódromo) — a runway designed by the late, great Oscar Niemeyer exclusively for this purpose — a shimmying, caroling mass of humanity. Like a linear stadium, the Sambadrome stretches as far as the eye can see. It’s estimated that two million people congregate here over four nights and five days. On top of that, countless street festivals spring up across Rio and throughout Brazil. The tropical frisson and sex appeal can be intoxicating. Little wonder that those drawn to carnal visions of inner-city heroism, like Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci, make the pilgrimage each year. Never mind that the majority of Carnaval falls prohibitively during the Paris collections.
Strictly speaking, Carnaval is a competition among local samba schools. Except they aren’t exactly schools, at least not in the traditional sense. They’re the likeminded residents of the various districts of Rio, banding together to celebrate and represent their community in as unique a way as they can — as has been done for over two hundred years. In Rio alone, there are 200 samba schools, each given one hour to strut their stuff from end to end of the Sambadrome, in the high hopes of winning a very robust cash prize and major bragging rights. To someone who (sort of) remembers the early 90s in New York, samba schools are reminiscent of ball culture and vogueing houses, as in Paris Is Burning. There is a similarity in the movements, the resourcefulness, the deceptive athleticism, the absolute devotion — but with none of the internecine ‘reading.’
As guests of TexBrasil, the country’s equivalent of the CFDA, we were given generous behind-the-scenes access to the floats a day before the merriment was to begin. Everywhere we looked we saw last-minute welding, hammering, painting, and assembling of fantastical creatures and personages that, a day later, would be cobbled together into teetering allegories on wheels. Usually these allegories, or themes, are loosely interpreted from Brazil’s history, i.e. the discovery and settling of this corner of the New World, with plenty of respectful nods to its indigenous tribes. But sometimes they veer into zanier, campier territory. We craned our necks into massive hangars filled to the ceiling with oversized dragon heads, spaceships, geishas, music boxes, Hindu gods and a larger-than-life Mother Teresa — all waiting patiently for their big reveal. Floats used to consist of papier-mâché attached to an iron frame and were thus rather flimsy. These days they’re crafted — probably computer modeled — from polystyrene foam and high-tech plastic resins, costing in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The winner of Carnaval 2014 is the samba school Unidos da Tijuca, employing a theme based on the life of Ayrton Senna. The Brazilian race-car driver, who won three Formula One world championships, was killed in 1994 while racing in Italy. Upon his death, three million mourners flooded the streets of his hometown of São Paulo — thought to be the largest impromptu display of grief in the world. To the jury of Carnaval, the mix of celebrity, youth, dashing good looks, tragedy, piousness, and the millions of dollars he gave to Brazil’s poorest children, often anonymously, proved a winning combination.