On February 23rd 2012 the doors at 3 Mills Studios, East London opened for ten days to hundreds of hopefuls looking for a chance to perform in one of the biggest shows ono the year, the opening ceremony of the Paralympic Games in Stratford, London.
I had been appointed weeks earlier as the assistant choreographer to Kevin Finnan who would be leading the choreography for the ceremony under the artistic direction of Jenny Sealey and Bradley Hemmings. I eagerly anticipated who would step forward for such an amazing opportunity and a chance to perform in the Olympic Stadium in front of a worldwide audience.
For myself I was hesitant and unsure what to expect. Nervous about creating a show on such a scale-but excited by the challenge. As I watched the huge television studios fill up, with what would become an inspirational team of dedicated volunteers, I was amazed the energy these people brought into the space as soon as they waked through the door. There was a real air of ‘bring it on’.
As I fixed my ‘Madonna’ mic to my head and giggled slightly at both my own nerves and excitement, I took a sidewards glance into the room I was about to introduce myself to. The diversity was something I will never forget. 250 or so people of all ages and abilities/disabilities were eagerly waiting to be auditioned for the opportunity of a lifetime. Everyone was chatting to one another excitedly, encouraging one another to ‘just go for it’.
For a moment-time paused slightly overwhelmed. It was one of those moments that reminded the arts are flippin fantastic. What else brings people together in this amazing way?
Empowerment section choreographed by Parlor and Finnan.
Each audition lasted around two and half hours and it was fairly non-stop. The auditionees were introduced to the formation/mechanics/rules of mass movement by mass movement director Steve Boyd and his team. It was inspiring to see how quickly people tuned into the mechanisms and were already creating wonderful shapes and patterns across the space and we were only half an hour into the audition. There was already a sense of ‘We can do this’.
The Paralympic Opening Ceremony was to be all about storytelling. Eventually there was going to be a script, of sorts, a narrative and a raw energy to the show so we needed to find the volunteers who could convey characters who were driven and dedicated. The audition explored elements of dance theatre, renaissance dance and punk and each audition ended with a real party vibe with literally hundreds of volunteers punching their arms in the air and kicking their legs out to the side. As I led each audition, and there were about three per day, I always finished the session with a slightly blotchy face as if I had done a Mr Motivator aerobic session! But, I just couldn’t stop moving. The auditionees energy was just too addictive. I had to join in each time, with each group of volunteers and be with them in the moment.
After the ten days of auditions Kevin and I began to formulate a team of our own and found eleven dance captains, who all specialised in different areas, to help us make and deliver a show of epic proportions. We were creating material for all sections of the Opening Ceremony working alongside a brief/script created by artistic directors-the original ‘Jen’ and ‘Brad’ (Jenny Sealey and Bradley Hemmings) whilst also collaborating with costume designer Moritz Junge and designer Jon Bausor. The score for the work was composed by Nick Gilpin and Martin Koch.
My role in this was very different to what I had experienced before. In the past my role has been about creating a whole work from its conception through the design all the way to the choreographic production. For the opening ceremony we were all blessed as we had the luxury of focusing purely on the movement and the volunteers but we had the challenge of making these blend together and work with all the other aspects of the show without having the full control of how these other aspects were progressing. It certainly was a learning experience. I have always wondered how these large scale productions work and here I was, right in the heart of one of them.
Paralympic Empowerment rehearsal section in the London Olympic Stadium with Helen Parlor, Assistant Choreographer for the Paralympic Opening Ceremony, speaking to the fantastic cast of volunteers through their moves and counts.
As the script developed the choreographic sections became clearer. Our work was to feature in 4 main sections – Prologue, which later became ‘Miranda’, Brave New World, Navigation, Gravity and Empowerment.
Both Kevin and I had to grasp what was the most important element of each section and how to define this physically and on a large scale. We spent a long time exploring the key elements/images for each section and how we would define the story for each layer of the show.
It was also a new challenge to create material for an audience that were not within a ‘stones throw’. Arm movements often disappeared as soon as you sat five rows back in the stadium, lower leg dance vocabulary became fairly impossible to see but what did work was a sense of the ‘whole’. As soon as performers involved both their minds and their bodies something was communicated out into the stadium. It was as though captive energy had been released and as it vibrated through the audience you could feel a real sense of what the Paralympic Games meant to people here in the United Kingdom.
Miranda became the central character throughout the Opening Ceremony. The character was inspired from the heroine character from Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’, a character who looks at the world with a sense of wonder and excitement.
The idea was that we (the audience) saw the show through her eyes ‘The glimpse of nebula in space, Newton’s apple, navigation at sea, astronomy and colliding sub-atomic particles help us to unravel the mysteries of the universe’ as the programme for the show explained it. We hear the voice of Stephen Hawking “ Ever since the dawn of civilisation people have craved for an understanding of the underlying order of the world. Why it is as it is and why it exists at all. But, even if we do find a complete theory of everything it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe.”
At this point the celestial sphere, hanging above the central umbrella onstage, is dropped through the centre creating the big bang, sending the 6oo volunteers out across the field of play with silver pyrotechnic jets. At the point where the cast had expanded to their fullest they began to be drawn back together as if to create a new star after the explosion of a nebula. Choreographically we tried to use this sense of people being drawn together. The umbrellas used as a sharing of an experience, partnerships and a sense of comradeship. The umbrellas were a symbol of shelter, safety and unity.
Brave New World was the second of our choreographic sections and was performed centrally on the book stage, the umbrella rising through the smoke eventually created a huge reading light revealing groups of people below, all reading on a huge upturned book imprinted with the ‘Declaration of Human Rights’ beneath their feet.
This section was dedicated to the joy of reading through the ages-the release of imagination, interpretation and once again a sense of journey both individual and personal.
Even though it was only 90 seconds long, it became a real task to get right. Kevin and I, alongside our dance captains, created sub groups of readers across the space-some bringing to life the stories within their books, others wanting to read over the shoulders of those next to them whilst some were simply engrossed in their own stories-their worlds unable to be disturbed.
Navigation-again a sense of journey through difficult tides, an energy, a force with the dervish, Zia, swirling in flames and the whirlers in their swirling currents surrounding the main character on her boat; threatening her journey. This section symbolised that there are no boundaries to human endeavour, overcoming the hurdles before us to discover new things and navigate towards new ventures, safer passages and possibilities through uncharted seas.
Moritz, the costume designer had created wonderful whirling dresses with expansive sides and stretchy material which allowed us to really play with the idea of creating water effects, tides and currents.
The volunteers were not dancers; but they worked so hard to have ownership over the movement that I was able to work with them on the details and dynamic of this movement to create sharpness as well as a sense of flow.
We also had most of our visually impaired cast in this section who worked amazingly to re-orientate themselves in the stadium, perform all of the angle changes and change of positions without being led by another cast member. The whole over-riding theme of this ceremony was about empowering people and we, together with the Artistic Directors, felt that being led through movement sections did not feel particularly empowering so the dance captain and artistic team worked hard with the cast to ensure everyone’s safety so they had the confidence to dance in an unassisted manner.
Visually the scene was beautiful. As the storm settled and the whirlers collapsed to the floor they created beautiful rippling effects whilst laying around the boat.
Gravity. This section was inspired by Sir Isaac Newton and his observations.
Using the scene of a manor house garden with mazes and topiary Kevin, myself and the dance captains started to look at the formations of a Renaissance style masked dance but then fragmented the style to make it appear a little more dysfunctional.
The only thing that could allow this to work was absolute planning. We had 256 renaissance dancers, 36 maze book cast, 16 tandem riders, 24 skaters and wheelchair dancers, 45 wheelbarrow cast members and 12 Gandini jugglers with apples!
This was not a dance where everyone did the same thing but a scene of many pictures and energies-each holding the balance of the scene, the picture to create a colourful picture of play, order and discovery using integrated duets as a main focus.
We also had to get a topiary maze onto the main book stage to create an image from above-in the stadium I worked with dance captain Danielle Morris to create a maze book choreography which ran alongside 50 wheelbarrow pushers with inflated apples-reflecting the gravitational discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton. There was a great deal to fit on even in an Olympic Stadium.
Empowerment. It was important here to join people together through their diversity and differences-this final section of the opening ceremony was to celebrate our differences, our weaknesses and our strengths in a positive way.
I have never heard 450 people be so passionate about performing. This section had to connect inside the stadium so I knew, when I heard the music ‘Spasticus Autisticus’ by Ian Drury’, that this had to almost become our anthem.
The song was intended to show people with disabilities saying ‘this is me! Look! This is who I am! I am Spasticus Autisticus and I have something to say!’ So, it was about the voices of 450 speaking to each other and the audience.
This was an emotional, strong and heartfelt section-I can’t begin to tell you my frustrations at how badly Channel 4 filmed this section for the television audiences! They managed to miss the whole section choreographically and preferred to focus on the more famous entries of the ceremony; which as the assistant choreographer who put her heart and soul, alongside the 450 volunteers, into this section, was pretty soul destroying.
I think our eldest volunteer in this section was in her eighties (it was the most energetic section) and as they punched hard in the air, took their teeth out at me (!) and kicked their legs it brought a raw emotion out every time I watched it.
It took me a long time to get over the disappointment for these volunteers whose hard work was not shown fully on the television; I was there every time they had a rehearsal (where they had taken holiday from work to participate and had less time with family and friends just so they could be part of something they only get to experience once in a lifetime) and the energy was completely awesome.
Everyone in this section, wheelchair dancers, our hearing impaired dancers, those who haven’t danced in a very long time completely ‘kicked off’, providing a great party vibe within the stadium-it was just a shame the millions of television viewers did not get to see all of their hard work.
I really had to separate myself from the anger I felt about this; how could they get it so wrong when they had more television cameras than I have ever seen in one place? But, they managed it with a triple A, good work!
What I enjoyed so much about working on the Paralympic Opening Ceremony was working with the volunteers-here were people with no ‘agenda’, as it were, who were simply wanting to have a great time working together on a show-they absolutely made the experience a wonderful one. There were many strange/surprising elements to the experience which led to less harmonious experiences; but for now let’s concentrate on what was great about the 29th August 2012-the individual volunteer, the messages and voices that came alive throughout the ceremony, the emotion that rang so strongly and true throughout the stadium. ‘I am somebody-I am what I am.’
Helen Parlor, Oslo, Oct 18th 2012