The Opening Ceremonies: To see ourselves as others see us

Paul Wells reports on the “sometimes incomprehensible, but sometimes heart-stoppingly beautiful” show

What would a latter-day Alexis de Tocqueville discover if he came to Canada today? And for that matter, what would de Tocqueville himself look like today?

In this fractured and spectacle-besotted world, perhaps he wouldn’t be a staid and earnest Old European gentleman. He’d be flashier, perhaps more shameless, with a touch of Meredith Wilson’s Music Man about him. There might even be two of him: the producer of a musical called Hot Shoe Shuffle, say, and the lead singer of a punk cabaret band called Jimmy and the Boys. A couple of nice Australian fellows.

Meet David Atkins and Ignatius Jones, the artistic team behind Friday’s sentimental, sometimes incomprehensible, but sometimes heart-stoppingly beautiful opening ceremonies for the Vancouver Olympics. The question some of us had was whether Canadians could put on a real show. The answer may not entirely satisfy: we didn’t, not alone. The Vancouver Olympic Committee gave the gig to outsiders, to veterans, to the same men who executed the same task — marvellously — at Sydney in 2000. But the undercard, from onstage talent to much of the backstage creative team was packed with talent from home. And when I read my production notes (during Jacques Rogge’s speech, natch) and re-discovered those Australian CV’s at top, I couldn’t find it in my heart to feel more than a pang of regret. Because if Atkins and Jones brought something to the job besides funny accents, endless cheek and a track record few in the world could beat, it was a fresh perspective.

They toured the country for two years, sightseeing and interviewing our homegrown artists, and let’s be honest here, to a very great extent what they found was what we could have told them they would within five minutes after they got off the boat: fiddlers, snowboarders, First Nations drummers and Measha Brueggergosman. But there would never have been any point in pretending such fare isn’t part of our culture; the challenge was always going to be to look at it with fresh eyes. Canadian cultural events are at their least inspiring when they feel like the rote and dutiful ticking off of boxes on a checklist. Oh look, aboriginal drummers. Oh look, a Celtic fiddler.

This sometimes-magical show was something else entirely. Just about the only advantage I have over you who saw it on television was that I was lucky enough to be inside B.C. Place watching it live, and all I can report that you don’t already know is that for most of the night the spirit of the show absolutely filled the cavernous venue. Canadians sometimes strain to fill the awesome space the gods of geography bequeathed us; on this night that really wasn’t a problem.

It began, off camera, with no great promise. Ben Mulroney and a nice BC TV weather lady coached the audience endlessly in the proper manipulation of the cardboard drums and electric lights we’d found on our seats when we arrived. Of course nobody got the choreography. Of course the whole night looked like it was careening downhill before it even began. Of course Ben’s suit looked like a million bucks.

Just before the world tuned in, a voice-over informed the arena that the evening was dedicated to Nodar Kumaritashvili, the Georgian luger who died when his body shattered against an abutment at Whistler earlier in the day. There is really nothing adequate to say or do about such a thing, and everyone’s earnest and conscientious attempts to find a way didn’t do much to help. The show just had to go on.

On a movie screen, a snowboarder came down from a mountaintop, bursting into three dimensions and real life. Almost immediately the evening started showing something I’ve almost never seen at a CanCult event: rhythm. A pulse. Which is not the same (attention Canada Day programmers) as frenzy. From the outset, Atkins and Jones and the rest of their multinational creative team showed a willingness to speed through the stuff that didn’t need time (the briskest Vice-Regal Salute on record for Michaëlle Jean and a double-time RCMP march-in with the flag) but also to linger over the stuff that would reward it (young Nikki Yanofsky, more persuasive with every step she takes away from Ella Fitzgerald impressions, singing a gorgeously languid O Canada).

The welcome from the First Nations hosts was the cue, on Twitter, for the usual complaints about too much Aboriginal claptrap. But it was the tweeting that felt rote. The dancing, the music by Sandy Scofield and Bob Buckley (both Vancouverites), and above all the four towering Salish Welcome Poles felt like something still vital and relevant.

For the Parade of Athletes, little could be done. There were a lot of athletes. They paraded. The music was off-the-rack CTV Theme Song Peppy. The athletes looked beautiful, perhaps none more than South Korean bobsledder Kwang-Bae Kang, who beamed so broadly and waved his country’s flag so vigorously he seemed to brim over with the hope of the evening. The rest was fashion faux pas (the Czechs wore red-and-blue spotted camouflage ski pants, seemingly prepared, if necessary, to launch an alpine assault on the Macy’s Christmas Parade) and drudgery.

Then Canada’s team arrived to thunderous applause. They looked like home in their not-too-flashy red parkas and mittens. The theme-song music gave way to carnal, almost furious drumming while the team rounded the track. The only thing I’ve seen that matched it for lusty foreboding is the haka, the Maori war chant the New Zealand rugby team uses to intimidate its foes. But after the day’s events on the luge track, it was frankly a little unnerving.

There was no time to linger. Nelly Furtado and Bryan Adams came out to perpetuate the amiable fiction that Canadians look fantastic and (in the case of Adams) never age. They sang a new Adams tune with about six words in the lyric, and then the stage darkened and seemed to chill for the dreaded Profound Segment. Fabric facsimiles of the Northern Lights descended from the ceiling; a huge, luminous Stay-Puft Marshmallow Bear appeared, jetted itself briefly into the air like Paul Stanley from Kiss, and then sank beneath the — what? Waves? I never did get it. The Alberta Ballet danced, beautifully, to a song by Sarah McLachlan and then, in the only part of the night that seemed to me to fall quite flat, to Samuel Barber’s “Adagio For Strings.” These Canadians, they remember how sad it was when Willem Dafoe died in Platoon.

But then joy and magic saved the night. The joy came from Ashley MacIsaac and an army of Celtic-influenced fiddlers and dancers, kicking off sparks (in some cases quite literally) in a field of oversized maple leaves. The magic came from, well, where it usually comes from: the voice of Joni Mitchell, sombre, dark, craggy and wise, singing her classic “Both Sides Now” while a lone figure danced in the air (there was almost, but perhaps not quite, too much aerial wire work all evening; at times it played like Crouching Tiger, Hidden National Identity) over prairie wheatfields.

It was one of two moments when Atkins and Jones had the courage and grace to distill the all-singing, all-dancing spectacle down to one voice and one image. First, Joni Mitchell’s voice as big as prairie fields. Then, a little later, kd lang singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” perched on top of a great big gay-wedding cake. In this week’s Maclean’s Kate Fillion gets lang to admit she wouldn’t mind enforcing a moratorium on performances of “Hallelujah”; apparently that will have to begin on Saturday at the earliest, and I for one wouldn’t mind if it never did. Here too the Twitterverse grumbled a little that the song is overdone, but this is what it sounds like when a song is entering the Western canon, which this one surely is. Perhaps it took outsiders to give this song, sung by this woman, the unabashed adoration they have earned.

And then the entire cast of Saturday Night Live came out and lit the torch. About this very Canadian inability to make a freaking decision, the less said the better. As Stéphane Dion, Gilles Duceppe and Jack Layton stood nervously and in vain, holding their torches and waiting for the fourth giant silver doobie to lurch up out of the ice, I realized that here, too, was a tribute  to yet another Canadian symbol we are sometimes too shy to admit to ourselves that we need and use and love. They could have made the end of the show as exhilarating and functional as the rest of it if only somebody had remembered to bring some duct tape.

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135 Responses to “The Opening Ceremonies: To see ourselves as others see us”

  1. kcm says:

    'About this very Canadian inability to make a freaking decision, the less said the better'

    As a Canadian who wasn't born, or raised in this country, i have always been puzzled by Canadians who seem very consevative in many ways, yet have a equally strong attachment to liberalism. I've yet to come across a convincing expanation – until now! An endearing if ocassionally annoying national trait.

    Have to disagree with Paul on the anthem though…a talent i'm sure…but it did nothing for me.

  2. I was singing along in my living room, and it was a little out of sync, but worked nonetheless. I wished more people at the event would have sang.

  3. psiclone says:

    Well I see the usual malcontents have to find somehting to tear apart and use to denigrate which was indoubtably one of the most heart touching, eye stunning, meaning laden opening olympic ceremonies I have ever seen. By far and away the that young lady who sang the anthym was truly brilliant (and I know my music) she could front for me and my guitar anyday. The moment of silence for the luge fatality was almost intimate and in a way bonded all of those who were there and then when the canadian team came in the entire crowd started to rise up off their seats and there was such a feeling that I have never in all my 56 years ever experienced in canada – I have direct experience of all olmypic games since Montreal and there is no doubt that when all is said and done this will be the best ever – and no doubt about it – click away thumbs down folks – I feel sorry for you.

    • Lord Kitchener's Own says:

      We don't agree on many things I think psiclone, but I'm with you on this one. I'm torn on the anthem a bit only because I think I might have liked a more traditional tempo with 60,000 people all singing along under the dome, but the performance by Nikki Yanofsky was stunning nonetheless.

      Still, the reaction here does seem typically Canadian. No one craps all over Canadian efforts like Canadians (which brings to my mind how great and appreciative the NBC coverage was, both pre-ceremony and during, while the CTV coverage…)

      • kcm says:

        C'mon, the ability to be self critical or poke fun is a sign of security not insecurity. Overall i thought it was well done and on occasion moving. But i certainly don't share psiclone's over the top reaction. Proud to be Canadian yes sir!

    • Malcontent says:

      Why is it when someone dares to express an opinion that is different from your own,they are malcontents?

      I was not impressed with last nights ceremony;guess I'm a malcontent :shrugs: According to vancouver2010.com

      "Opening and Closing Ceremonies are unique, large-scale celebrations capturing the spirit and personality of our city, province and COUNTRY, and are a celebration of the world’s greatest athletes"

      What was presented in my opinion (yes,I know,I'm a malcontent) was poorly conceived and delivered little of what had been promised.To top it off ,the responsibility of of creating a uniquely Canadian show was left to an Australian! Would it not have been more appropriate to enlist the services and expertise of an ACTUAL Canadian?!?? Guy Laliberte' comes to mind.But hey,what do I know? Guy Laliberte' was actually born and raised in Canada.As for his qualifications,I dont' know,does being the founder/creator of Cirque de Soleil not qualify him?

      Last night was a miss.What a shame it is that the world was in on this amateurish debacle.Truly embarrassing.

  4. Gaunilon says:

    Great writeup.

    I don't think I've ever seen a more seamless integration of Canadian Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal culture in a public event. You really got a sense of how uniquely Canadian that combination is. It was awesome.

  5. Dave says:

    I do hope the young singer who went all “Mariah” on the national anthem goes on to win Canadian Idol.

    • Lord Kitchener's Own says:

      I have a feeling Nikki Yanofsky would never be allowed on Canadian Idol even if for some strange unfathomable reason she wanted to be.

      Once you've headlined a few times at the Montreal International Jazz Festival, performed at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center, collaborated with Herbie Hancock and Will.i.am, already have the most downloaded single in Canada, and are about to release your first solo album (produced by a 14-time Grammy winning producer and including writing collaborations with Jesse Harris, Ron Sexsmith and Feist) in order to kick off your upcoming international tour – Canadian Idol would be just a BIT of a step down.

  6. Brammer says:

    Anyone read Ouzounian's diatribe in the Star today? Basically ripped the entire production apart from start to finish. Me thinks it has something to do with the fact that Vancouver is not spelled T-O-R-O-N-T-O

    What a whiner.

  7. Guest says:

    I liked the NY Times take on the opening ceremonies.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/14/sports/olympics...

    • psiclone says:

      Thank You! excellent article – it is strange to see what the yanks thinks of us when the topic isn't some poitical difference beween our respective right and left – well done! .. I like the part about canada being the only one to ever have the nerve to put a poet on stage – never thought that – well done NY Times.

  8. Werthit says:

    Definitely a great (but long) opening, although apart from kd lang's tuxedo, the female singers' outfits looked like posh grad dresses. And the crippler shoes are not practical when one needs to move around on a large stage.

    Funny, I haven't seen anyone mention the conservative family values part of the show. "I Believe…Miracle…Devil…Hallelujah."

  9. Loraine Lamontagne says:

    Like Homegrownvanny I didn't recognize myself in this ceremony. For one thing there was less French in Vancouver than in Beijing, even though the official language of the Olympics is also one of the two official languages of the host country. I have nothing against professional hockey and basketball greats, but this being the Olympics I'd expected to see two great olympians, like Gaétan Boucher and Cindy Klassen, light the torch. The rest was OK. I liked k d lang.

    As for Ô Canada, if Canadians want jazz for a national anthem, write one. The Routhier-Lavallée is a patriotic anthem, to be performed at an upbeat tempo, reflecting that thy arm is ready to wield the sword, carry the cross and protect our homes and our rights.

  10. Gman says:

    Not sure how the confusion in the VIP box looked to the rest of the world but I couldn't help wondering if there was some type of last minute boycott on the part of the Native leaders as the Governor General officially arrived. If not, one wonders just how long it takes to get all those feathers in place. In any case, that moment looked very embarrassing indeed.

  11. Guest says:

    Nice review. Guess you had to be there. Art by committee tries to ‘put everything in’, assuming it’s like consensus – or achieved through simple aggregation of information. But, not unlike the inability to decide on who should light the torch, the act of ‘adding more’ merely decreased the effect. What one chooses to leave out is equally important; the inability to distill is what made the ceremony fail.

    I had to stop watching at “fall”. It reminded me of the obligatory grade school art class – sponge-stamped “leaves” or paper cut outs dropped dutifully on construction paper (not that someone couldn’t do something beautiful with this – either in terms of references or materiality). It was the excess of niggling small scale symbolism, and the absence of larger metaphor which ruined it (traditional fiddlers, yes – and we have to show that we’re young and hip, so we dress them in some bizarre decades ago punk). The signifiers started piling up so thick you needed Olympic sized Canadian Tire leaf bags to clear the stadium yard.

    The totems looked like fast food outlet give aways. The sense of scale seemed wrong and static, no counterpoint, or distance, between the programmatic text and what was unfolding. Did we really need Samuel Barber? What about Glenn Gould – maybe even his "Idea of North", instead of some of those "readings".

    I’m amazed to learn that we had to pay someone from another former colony to travel Canada for two years to tell us who he thought we were. Despite his travels, Atkins appears to have taken his cable and harness flight right over Quebec – a place, ironically, that excels at precisely this kind of spectacle. One wonders what Cirque du Soleil or Robert Lepage might have done instead.

  12. elmer says:

    "too much Aboriginal claptrap" is right…Also, what about the dreadful neckbeard "poet"?

  13. mum says:

    The producers hired to present Canada to the world failed to project the majesty of this beautiful, expansive land! Where were the visuals of our gorgeous geography? Instead we projected disconnected, non cohesive visuals to the world. The Cirqe could have put on a much better program.

  14. Roger says:

    "Canadian cultural events are at their least inspiring when they feel like the rote and dutiful ticking off of boxes on a checklist. Oh look, aboriginal drummers. Oh look, a Celtic fiddler."

    The problem with Canadian international celebrations and July 1st fêtes is that they are too predictable. I can picture a floor director screaming, "Bring on those FN peoples! And where are those friggin' fiddlers?"

    My issue with these celebrations is that they create an illusion of Canada that doesn't exist in my daily life. From my vantage point in Toronto, I rarely encounter an Aboriginal person. If I do, he or she is just another invisible visible minority. That person is just another ethnic Canadian indistinguishable from the mélange of other Canadians. The only fiddlers I see are those who perform within the confines of a broken yellow lined rectangle inside one of many Toronto's subway stations.

    No, I did not see the real Vancouver, the real British Columbia, the real Canada, or the real world during the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics. I only saw an illusion.

  15. PolJunkie says:

    couldn't they come up with something fancier than a truck to get Gretzky to the cauldron? I thought that it looked a little cheap.

    having said that, k.d. lang made my night. she was amazing.

  16. John D says:

    Yeah there should have been more country music. Did the First Nations teach us how to spell "Phallicy?"

  17. NorthernPoV says:

    Wats a matter?
    yu got Phallicy-envy?

  18. Dot says:

    Looks tio me like Anon, Tiggy, Toporious, or whatever is wearing a different suit today.

  19. Fred_Moro says:

    "Phallicy one: First Nations Chief's are heads of state? Hardly!"

    Actually, unless the people at CTV were mistaken, the leaders of the four Nations are given temporary head of state status for the duration of the games.

  20. Spenc BC says:

    Its a play on words idiot. Check the last line. Phallic as in D!CK Note the upside down i.

  21. Spenc BC says:

    Well ya did you see the size!

  22. kcm says:

    Yeah, a racist clown suit!

  23. Lord Kitchener's Own says:

    :-)

    Keep in mind too that I've been on Facebook a good deal today, so I've been disheartened because while many of my friends LOVED the show, a fair number are really crapping all over it, in what I see as a very "I'm too cool for school" way, so my reaction to the comments here (and my reaction above is to the COMMENTS, not so much to Mr. Wells' original post) is really tempered by that sour experience.

  24. Jerry says:

    What could have attracted this sort of comment to a Wells thread?

  25. Spenc BC says:

    Racist is an easy come back when you dont have to think about what was said. Truth hurts huh!

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