Framed like this by event-goers, May Balls aren’t the best place to perform self-awarenessRuby Cline for Varsity

Or Picasso, or da Vinci, or even the new Foucault. May Ball Committees, I understand your plight. Each committee before you has been slandered on your college confessions page, and your Ball, which is essentially the emotional equivalent to your firstborn child, has been historically described as “mid”. It’s your job to change that. You have more money than you can conceptualise to play with, and you know that most of your college will attend. They also all know exactly who you are, thanks to the ‘meet the committee’ Instagram post which everyone has surely swiped the whole way through. The pressure’s on.

Of course, we all know that pressure makes diamonds out of coal. And you, having gone through archives of May Balls since before the invention of the lightbulb, have to come up with some diamonds. Or at least, that’s how it feels. But I promise that you’ve been misled.

“There’s a reason why some themes have never been implemented”

Nobody cares about you repeating a theme from five years ago, except possibly for a few alumni who honestly need to get a grip and stop romanticising their university days anyway. You can even stretch to ten years ago – ten decent themes on rotation for centuries with mild adaptations for the times and the budgets are absolutely permissible. There is no reason for you to come up with something that nobody has ever thought of before. In fact, it might be better if you don’t. After all, there’s a reason why some themes have never been implemented.

In particular, it’s hard to convince students that a May Ball theme is the perfect space to address global and existential issues. It feels like every year Balls are increasingly polarising, feeling overly expensive and gluttonous, reminiscent of performative wealth of decades long past. Many students take part in these events with a degree of ambivalence, sheepishly admitting that they’re not big fans of the whole idea but everyone else does it and it’s always quite fun, if a touch embarrassing. Framed like this by event-goers, May Balls aren’t the best place to perform self-awareness.

Churchill college's May Ball committee announced their theme of ‘Aftermath’ via a video apparently depicting the fall of the Berlin Wall and humans fighting robots. Following this, Churchill has been dealing with criticism from students who have fairly pointed out that advertising for a night of free cocktails shouldn’t use imagery reminiscent of news stories regarding ongoing conflict in Ukraine and the Middle East. One ChurchFesser stated: “How out of tune does an entire committee have to be for the May Ball‘s theme to include bombs, drone strikes and rubble?!” The committee has committed to changing the name of the theme and has recognised that the video was ill-judged. But the whole affair clearly demonstrates that May Ball themes are not the place to make commentary about a world which Cambridge students are disproportionately sheltered from. At best out of touch, and at worst deeply offensive, attempts to make May Balls self-aware seem to fail at launch stage.

“At best out of touch and at worst deeply offensive”

It could even be argued that the themes themselves make little difference to the experience of the night, but make life much harder for committees. Requiring specific decor which can’t be used again is unsustainable and absurdly expensive. Renaming perfectly normal cocktails to reference Ancient Greek gods or niche categories of jungle plants causes confusion and increased order time, exacerbating committees’ universal worst fear: complaints about queues. With the exception of King’s Affair, which leans into the whole “theme” concept so deeply that it even pre-themed its theme launch party, students barely bother with the themes of the Balls they attend anyway. Themes don’t exactly sell more tickets – Trinity and Johns certainly sell fine without them. I’d argue that themes often work the other way round, as a bad theme can convince on-the-fence potential attendees not to bother.

I love a themed event – in fact, I defended themes as a concept back in September. But when the fun of giving dress inspiration and silly food names becomes a devastating annual pressure to be the committee which comes up with something genius – and occasionally leads to embarrassing controversy due to failed attempts at self-awareness – it might be time to chill out and pick a concept which worked perfectly fine ten years ago and will be perfectly fine again this year.