The Caribbean Carnival Extravaganza aims to bring a celebratory atmosphere to the theatre with a vibrant music and dance show. Unfortunately, you can’t expect balmy and breezy weather like you’d find in the tropics, but the performance brings a bit of sunshine to the stage (which makes sense with Sonny Blacks as the producer… Get it?). The evening is all about Caribbean traditions. You can expect glittering costumes, made by the late Wayne Berkeley, on a gaggle of dancers and songs from multiple countries.

Read our interview with Sonny Blacks to learn how he created the unique Carnival stage production.

Caribbean Cultural Show at Fairfield Halls

There’s a piano in the large, light-filled atrium of the newly opened Fairfield Halls in Croydon – but it sits silently. The South London arts venue isn’t quiet, though. The tinkling sound of tropical music trills as a diverse crowd of visitors picks up their tickets, eager for a dash of Caribbean culture. This evening’s programme, similar to Lindo’s Croatian folk show in Dubrovnik, alternates dance-heavy numbers with other acts that just feature musicians. This review focuses on the dance aspect of the Caribbean Carnival show.

“[This show is an] explosion of Caribbean culture – all that is Carnival…”

– Giselle Carter, Caribbean Carnival Extravaganza Emcee

Caribbean Carnival Extravaganza Review

Bacchanal Lady

Women in half-tops with ruffled sleeves sweep onto stage during Bacchanal Lady, their long skirts swishing with their swaying hips. They clasp a corner of their skirt in one hand and hold a large flower display near their head with the other. Smiling warmly, they flick their skirts, which scallop prettily at the bottom hem – like that of a less itinerant flamenco dancer. This first dance number of the show gives the audience a genuine welcome.

Soki Soki Dancers

When I learn that the Soki Soki dance has influences from French culture, I imagine high kicking Can-Can dancers. Instead, the ladies emerge onto stage with their backs to the audience, slightly bouncing as they step sideways. A bright orange semi-circular cape stretches out behind them; it has black triangles that look like seeds on a neon watermelon. The dancers promenade in tight circles on the spot, opening and closing their arms to reveal a glimpse of their torsos and bounce their hips up and down. Unfortunately, the dancers furtively glance at each other and perform the steps tentatively, which doesn’t jive with the Carnival vibe.

African Drummers

Traditional African dance rightly deserves a slot in a show that celebrates the many movement traditions of the African diaspora. Next, a talented trio of drummers from Burkina Faso takes the stage, two straddling their individual drums and creating the rhythm and pitch with their hands, while a third plays a set of drums with sticks.

In West African dance, the dancers interact with the musicians, listening for breaks in the music to determine when to switch their dance moves. It looks like the dancers for the Caribbean Carnival Extravaganza have set choreography, so they don’t pay much mind to the musicians except for the ending of this piece when they do take cues.

Throughout the rest of the piece, the musicians cover for the dancers as they take on some traditional dance moves mixed with more creative ones – such as hopping on one foot while completing a rond de jambe accompanied by breast stroke arms with pointed fingers. As a whole, the dancers remain rigid and very upright, while allowing the torso to tip forward and their steps to feel weighty would add more authenticity.

Flight of the Hummingbirds

The Fight of the Hummingbirds opens the second half of the show with Wayne Berkeley’s beautiful costumes that would make Victoria’s Secret ‘Angels’ green with envy – and it’s such a delight to see how the iridescent wings lined with gold glitter waver through the space on the dancers’ backs. The rise magnificently as the performers sink into plié, sway when the ladies turn and waft gently behind as the dancers whine [er, wind – the action if you’re confused] aka: let the hips swivel in Brazilian voltas.

Indian Music Golo with Dancers

Emcee Giselle Carter introduces this as an Indian-inspired dance. The choreographer takes inspiration from iconic mudras and poses. The dancers, clad in nearly blinding glittery gold costumes, touch their forehead, which references a decorative Bindi on their third eye. They also flip their wrists with splayed fingers – a gesture that can be seen in Bharatanatyam or perhaps even in Odissi dance traditions. They frame their body with their arms and swing their legs behind their torsos in back attitude with flexed feet.

 ‘Hot Hot Hot’ Curtain Call with Full Cast

The penultimate Calypso Medley section blends into the finale of the well-known Hot, Hot, Hot song – when the Caribbean Carnival production finally heats up and gets the audience to participate. The familiar song and the freestyle approach of the band and dancers makes this section feel like a celebration. The performers look much more comfortable as they leave choreography behind, showing that they can pull of samba moves like the aforementioned voltas, alongside criss-cross botafogos. Hot, Hot, Hot ends the show nicely; but it would have been better to ramp the energy up to this level from the beginning.

Final Thoughts on This Carnival-Inspired Show

The Caribbean Carnival Extravaganza has great potential, but this particular run wasn’t fantastic due to a few reasons. It would be better received in a smaller, more intimate venue that more closely resembles the proximity of attendees at an actual Carnival celebration. Fairfield Halls‘ Phoenix Concert Hall created too much space between the performers and the attendees – the party atmosphere didn’t erupt and many attendees were too shy to get up and dance, especially with the houselights just dimmed.

Although the musicians didn’t receive warm Caribbean camaraderie from the audience, they delivered a quality performance – especially the trio of drummers and the Calypso / Soca singer from Trinidad and Tobago. However, the dancers (except for one) were unable to embody the music and traditions to effectively transmit enthusiasm to the audience. The choreography was entertaining, but the performers looked timid and unrehearsed, moving in the wrong directions and continually (and obviously) watching each other.

The Caribbean Carnival Extravaganza isn’t a blowout fiesta (à la Jean Paul Gaultier’s Fashion Freak Show), but it does showcase a good variety of pieces of Caribbean heritage. Even so, additional narration about the instruments and customs during the transitions would really help to unify the show – though admittedly the Caribbean audience (that already knows this information) would likely be less amused than their peers.

Still, Croydon local, Ivy, enjoys the show so much – she sees it every time it returns Croydon. She doesn’t go to Carnival any more, and she holds onto the back of the chair as she dances to the music in the theatre. This was her third viewing, and she admits the crowd’s energy was lacking tonight, but her eyes light up and a smile spreads across her face as she talks about “the music, the dancing, the colours…”

Star Rating:

Disclosure: Dance Dispatches received complimentary attendance to the Caribbean Carnival production to provide an open and honest performance review.

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