Last Saturday shortly after 6 p.m., a giant, hollow woman woven from sticks and cedar boughs made her way down Burlington’s Main Street to the almost funereal beat of a gong. With her came four tall “elemental spirits” whose candy-colored papier-mâché mouths formed ‘O’s like tuba horns, as if perpetually poised to unleash wild weather on the Champlain Valley.
But their work was already done. A few hours earlier, the forecasted thunderstorm had blown into town, scattering shoppers on the crowded Marketplace and couples who’d spread blankets in City Hall Park to hear live bands as part of the Burlington International Waterfront Festival. On the lawn of Edmunds Middle School, where marchers and performers from near and far were amassing in preparation for the massive Champlain 400 Parade, police officers urged everyone to take shelter in the gymnasium. Soon they had no choice — lightning cracked, and the rain poured down.
And kept pouring. After an interlude in the gym — where you couldn’t take more than a few steps without running into color-coordinated kids practicing a dance — the word came: The parade was starting!
Had the rain stopped, the sun peeked from the clouds? Well, no. Nor had the downpour become a discreet sprinkle. It was raining steadily, and it would continue to do so until shortly after the last costumed folks had made their way to the bottom of Main Street. But the parade went on.
The Celebrate Champlain brochure described the Champlain 400 Parade as a “unique art event” featuring “35 choreographers and hundreds of dancers.” It promised a procession that “takes viewers through time and space,” beginning with the Abenaki and their “lake between,” proceeding to the arrival of Samuel de Champlain and, finally, looking to the future with “dances of diversity.” Along the way, spectators would be treated to choreographic explorations of “first encounters, crossing borders, meeting ‘the other,’ and cultural appropriation.”
Maybe under the sun all that high-concept storytelling would have taken center stage. But in the drenching rain, the parade really had only one consistent theme, and it was a good one: the determination to put on a show no matter what.
One of the shirtless braves who was supposed to pretend to row the canoe of “Samuel de Champlain” nearly missed his ride when the parade lurched into motion — but he got there. The folks from Bread and Puppet Theater — who brought the aforementioned stick woman and the elementals, among other creations — did their thing with professional aplomb, as if the rain didn’t exist. The Saxtons River Parade Morris Dancers kept their feet flying and their sticks clicking. Cultural traditions passed in a dizzying, rain-blurred whirl: Peru Mestizo, Sambatucada!, Jeh Kulu Dance & Drum Theater, the Bosnian Lilies folk dancers, the drenched hip-hoppers of Cheeks Dance Company. Sometimes it felt like the sort of “art event” you might buy tickets for, and sometimes it just felt like the biggest community parade ever. (Dux the Balloon Man was there, as were the Zumba aerobics dancers.) From the French antique cars to the high-stepping equine from Dances With Horses, it was a one-of-a-kind spectacle of creativity, and grit.
Interviewed before the parade, one young Bread and Puppeteer admitted that she didn’t know the first thing about the Quad or Champlain. But it didn’t matter. Whether they were celebrating Sam’s arrival or something else entirely, Vermonters may not see another procession like that one till the Quincentennial rolls around.