Peeking Inside Cassiopea’s Workshop

Much like the constellation of Cassiopea from which they take their name, when carnival fever strikes, Les Cassiopées shine brightly, stars not to be overlooked in the carnival canopy. Year after year, their performance in the overcooked streets of Gustavia earns them a shower of superlatives as they share the results of months of labor with the crowd. Take a peek into their workshop, where dreams are shaped, from the drawing board to parade.

As elsewhere in the Caribbean, in St. Barts carnival defines the social rhythm of the weeks between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday. Of course Mardi Gras is the highlight, as a costumed crowd takes over the streets for the annual festive marathon where originality is a prerequisite and excentricity meets with a welcoming smile. However, thanks to a good deal of personal initiative and some pooling of forces and resources, this popular heritage grooves to a slightly different beat, the St. Barth carnival is quite unlike any other in the islands. It was in the year 2000 that Bertrand Larreguin, restaurant owner and respected chef, decided to get together a few friends and found Les Cassiopées, a carnival “school” as one would say in Rio, now forty strong, to add some fairytale imagery with showtime quality to the event.

Significantly, Bertrand’s Cassiopeans take their time to put each year’s parade together. This year’s carnival will barely be over when Bertrand begins to figure out next year’s surprise. He is not afraid to multitask, drawing sketches of the disguises he dreams up, working on the soundtrack, selecting and ordering the materials, he is much the director-composer-scenographer, guided by one idea: the next parade must be better than the last.

It is no doubt during his tenure at La Banane, Jean-Marie Rivière’s famous cabaret, where he was both deputy chef and an admired Tina Turner impersonator, that he whetted his appetite for a musical cabaret career.

The workshop tasks are organized months in advance. Everything is pinned down to the last detail, silhouettes are defined with surgical precision, the hunt for the most scintillating materials is on, not to mention king size accessories. The would be participants meet with little mercy. Man, woman and child turn into haute couture workshop elfs. “During the workshop phase, we take our laughs, we work a lot and we squabble just a little.” There may be as much as 90 000 sequins to be hand-glued, 850 meters of tulle to be plied into feathery light costumes, pounds of pheasant feathers to be adjusted just so, for the wind to play with, miles of fabric to be put into perfect plissés. And then all this hard work must be highlighted by more hard work, thanks to a special choreography designed by Kim, the island’s resident dance teacher and cabaret veteran. When all has been rehearsed down to the last detail, the group is ready to hit the streets of Gustavia, forty times in a row.

Thus, on D-day, Les Cassiopées are guaranteed to surprise and to charm. Thanks to the crowd, the show is not restrained to the street. Bird women take flight in luminous costumes trailing strains of light, artfully arranged fabrics vibrate to the smiles and photo flashes of all and sundry. Over the years, we have been treated to Inca gods, elfs and trolls, a string of Marie Antoinette’s and Indian goddesses mingling in wild dance. The crafty mastery and the rich imagination at work never fail to impress. Finally, after Vaval has been reduced to cinders, we are left with the ideal souvenir food of hundreds of pleasureful images.

Source: Tropical magazine n° 16, season 2006-2007.

Photos: Laurent Benoît & private collections

Text: Nathalie Esperabé

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