Four out of seven groups that sang and danced tirelessly down the purpose-built Sambadrome parade avenue until the early hours Monday portrayed themes representative of their new sponsors, prompting critics to liken the popular event to an advertising campaign.
Although the rules bar any advertising by the parading troupes during the televised gala, sponsors can dictate the parade themes.
As a result, giant dragons and Portuguese galleons with semi-naked beauty queens dancing in front of cross-embroidered sails mixed with 30-foot-high figures of business executives in a hurricane of lights, glitter and rapid-fire samba.
The main difference from previous carnivals is the growing exodus of illegal lottery barons who used to bankroll samba schools from poor shantytowns, preferring to remain in the shade themselves. Police efforts to eradicate the lottery in the past years have forced its bosses to keep a low profile.
Instead, businesses and politicians have officially assumed sponsorship of samba schools, which grew out of 1920s samba bands and street processions and now include hundreds of musicians, thousands of dancers and million-dollar budgets.
Purists say it drives the event away from its humble roots in the slums -- the "negative trend" they say started 18 years ago when parades moved from the streets to Sambadrome.
"It's like an ad campaign now on the Sambadrome," said Celso de Andrade, organizer of an independent street procession, which unites revelers who dance, sing and drink, rarely wearing costumes more sophisticated than a T-shirt.
"Here we have the real Carnival fun which is close to the roots. The Sambadrome event is a beautiful opera, but poor people can't even afford to buy a ticket to see it." The cheapest tickets cost about $3.50. In sprawling Rio's slums, whole families often spend no more than that in a week.
Although barred from advertising, two samba schools, one after the other, told a very similar story of aviation from Icarus to the space age, but with a focus on two different Brazilian executives, late heads of TAM and Varig airlines, which were the sponsors.
"This 'merchandising' process is natural in the contemporary culture world," said one of the parade judges. "There are purists, including some judges, who will object, but where the film industry would be now without sponsors?"
One school on the same night dedicated its parade to the birthplace of Rio state Gov. Anthony Garotinho -- a contender for presidency in the October 2002 elections. Another sang the praises of northeastern Maranhao state, home to Gov. Roseana Sarney, also a leading candidate in opinion polls. Both states paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to the schools.
But the event has only gained in itsplendor. Defying rain, thousands of paraders danced a rapid-fire shoe-shuffle as giant cranes lifted bare-breasted dancers in high heels and feathers onto floats the size of four-story buildings.
For the second year in a row, U.S. stuntman Eric Scott, fitted with a James Bond-style jet pack and invited by trend-setting Grande Rio school, flew over the Sambadrome to the ecstasy of the public, lifting clouds of feathers and glitter as he landed. Model Angela Bismark of the Caprichosos de Pilares group drew applause for her "costume" - little but gold paint.
Special guests included former first lady Barbara Bush, the 76-year-old the mother of President Bush. She did not speak to the press, but made a thumbs up sign to the cameras.
Many in the crowd strained to get a look at Mrs. Bush, who declined a special box equipped with bulletproof glass and watched the parade from the box of a beer company, Brahma.
The former U.S. first lady and mother of the president waved, clapped and snapped photos as the dancers paraded by - and left after midnight, when the show was just getting warmed up.
Elsewhere in Latin America's biggest country of 170 million people, the revelry also was in full swing. In the historical town of Paraty, thousands smeared themselves in mud and danced down the streets in the traditional "Clay Procession."
The judges' decision is announced Wednesday, when the pre-Lenten bash ends - theoretically, at least - and the country slowly returns to work. But the top groups parade again on Saturday, and lively parties are usually held through the week.
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