By Rita Bratovich
It’s the queer highlight of the year and an internationally recognised event that attracts thousands of tourists, and it will wind through the centre of Sydney like a glowing serpent for the 41st time this Saturday. The 2019 Sydney Gay And Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade will feature almost 200 floats, involve 12,500 participants and emit a radioactive level of fabulousness.
“It’s certainly much bigger than it’s ever been before and I think the floats are just getting better and better each year,” says Greg Clarke, Creative Director of Mardi Gras. Clarke has the monumental task of designing the festival and parade, ensuring diversity and quality in the program without ruffling anyone’s feathers. He is assisted by a tight creative team, including a parade panel who assess hundreds of entries for criteria such as relevance to the LGBTQI community and message, as well as visual impact.
“This year’s theme is “Fearless”, and I do know a lot of the floats have embraced that fearless theme,” says Clarke. “Being strong and courageous and owning your own identity.”
Each year, Mardi Gras chooses three organisations with whom to collaborate on floats. This year’s floats are: Twenty10, providing support for LGBTQI people under 25; Trans Pride Australia, supporting trans and gender diverse people; and Selamat Datang GLBTIQ, a group that raises funds for LGBTQI communities in Indonesia. Mardi Gras helps the three with design, budget, choreography, logistics, and construction, but participants are also encouraged to get involved.
“They come into our workshop and they work with our workshop team and create some wonderful things that they’re going to wear in the parade,” says Clarke.
The order of the floats in the parade is vital to the overall success. Clarke has to distribute the 200 odd floats so that there is variety, flow, momentum, safety, and a sense of cohesion. The parade day itself is a behemoth of planning and orchestration requiring a selfless commitment of over 1500 volunteers.
“We couldn’t do this parade without volunteers,” says Clarke bluntly. “They’re all along the parade route making sure the audience and the participants are safe – you just couldn’t do anything of that scale without the volunteers. It’s wonderful because they become a part of the parade as well, they talk to the audience, and it’s really good, it’s a really wonderful night.”
Markham Lane was taken to watch the second Mardi Gras parade in 1979 when he was only eight years old. He saw a cowboy on a horse that was strung over with fairy lights, and he said out loud: “One day that’s going to be me!” Last year, Lane led his own float, Colours Of Our Community, in the 40th Mardi Gras parade. Mission accomplished. It was such a good feeling that he’s doing it again this year.
Colours Of Our Community began life as a 10 year retrospective photographic exhibition of Lane’s work for 2017 Mardi Gras festival and it has morphed into an ideology, realised, among other things, as a parade float.
“The Colours Of Our Community is a human movement that celebrates our diversity,” explains Lane.
Last year was Lane’s first parade as a participant and organiser and it was a huge learning curve. On the back of a pledged sponsorship deal, Lane commissioned bespoke LED lit adornment from a designer in New York for 80 float participants. At the last minute, the sponsorship fell through and Lane had to foot the nearly $10,000 bill himself.
“This year we decided we weren’t going to spend that much on costumes again and we were going to get everybody to come in and help contribute to creating them,” says Lane.
With a design team and workshops, it’s much more a group effort all round this time. The field is 80 strong again, split into six groups each representing a colour of the LGBTQI rainbow. At the head of each colour group will be a “hero/general” wearing appropriately coloured illuminated horned headwear and large, foil silver wings. They will be an LGBTQI army, marching in formation, breaking briefly at fixed intervals for a moment of “fearless expression.” (It’s a surprise).
Thirty years ago, Lane went to his first Mardi Gras parade as a gay adult and he is marking that anniversary by using the pink triangle – the original symbol adopted by the queer community. The Pink Triangle Queen, a drag artist in a couture gown and donning a large pink triangle front piece, will lead the float, followed by a small retinue wearing retro-inspired metallic silver costumes.
The Colours Of Our Community float includes participants from interstate as well as overseas (up to 22 countries are represented). Many joined via Facebook and the entire group will meet for the first time at 12pm on the day of the parade where they’ll be given a basic run-through:
“Here’s the music; here’s how you make formation; here’s your position in the parade.”
Lane says it is a very basic routine, so they won’t require rehearsal. His main objective is to reclaim some pride after a slide featuring last year’s Colours Of Our Community float was shown at this year’s parade briefing with the caption: Do not create any gaps in the parade.
He’ll be focused on keeping strict formation this year.
“I’m shooting for best float!”
Some of the most spectacular, humorous and imaginative parade entries are not floats but individual costumes, and many of the most iconic Mardi Gras costumes have been the creation of preeminent designer, Rene Rivas.
“My house is like two drag queens just had a big fight,” says Rivas, describing his home at this, one of his busiest times of the year. “I think I’ve got glitter in my hair, I’ve got sequins somewhere in my ears.”
Rivas came here as a refugee from the civil war in El Salvador. He has endured kidnap, torture, then later rejection from his family after he came out, yet he exudes warmth and joy in person and imbues his work with artistic celebration and freedom.
“All these beautiful, amazing costumes that I make. People see them as art…but they all have a story to tell, an experience, a soul – they are living souls to what I’ve been through,” explains Rivas. When he makes a costume for someone else, he also wants it to reflect their thoughts and feelings, their essence.
This year he is making around 20 costumes – significantly less than usual – to be worn in the parade, the VIP area and various other events.
Rivas refined his craft several years ago while in Brazil where costume making for Samba is a specialised, respected industry. He has also made costumes for theatre and film, and worked with Catherine Martin and Baz Luhrmann on Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert and Moulin Rouge.
Rivas is a big advocate for the environment, sourcing biodegradable materials, EVA foam, cardboard, and recycling/ re-purposing whenever he can. His humble upbringing taught him to be inventive with whatever was available and he has kept that discipline. Last year he created a paper origami bird dress for a Mardi Gras exhibition, and he once cut plastic feathers from shopping bags and sprayed them gold to use for rain-proof wings in London. The real feathers he uses come from reputable bird farms (not hunted birds), and they are harvested from what naturally falls off the bird.
There are lots of secrets beneath the papier mache, feathers, and crinoline: harnesses, frames, padding. Very big costumes require a sort of cage on wheels.
“It’s like you have two Woolies trollies together,” explains Rivas. “And the person has to pull it, like a baby walker.”
As you can imagine, that’s hard work up the incline of Oxford Street. Adrenalin, the intoxicating atmosphere and two Baroccas help Rivas get to the end, but he’s usually exhausted, bruised, and sore. Then there’s the invisible menace – wind. For the 20th anniversary parade, Rivas wore a huge sun headpiece.
“My God, that was heavy, but the wind… I flew for a metre and a half! And the people they had to grab me and hold me,” he says.
Now he ensures there are vents in any large headpieces, wings, capes etc.
For Rivas, his costumes are his voice and his truth. They are a unique expression of strength, triumph, individuality and a way to share joy and creativity. His advice to the wearer is:
“Make sure you are comfortable with yourself and be who you want to be at that moment in time.”
Mardi Gras Parade: Mar 2, 7pm; for parade route and details visit: www.mardigras.org.au