A(nother) Great Leap Forward?

photo ©Emilio Naranja

Like much of the world, I was riveted to the television for 3 1/2 hours last night as the opening ceremonies of the Olympics unfolded. The cynic in me noted the overt propagandistic nature and shear economic cost of the evening. But the artist in me experienced moments of undeniable viewing ecstasy—the lighted batons of 2,008 drummers moving in unison in the dark; the undulating rectangle of character blocks; the tai-chi masters, whose movement from above resembled a swarm of bees; and the pièce—those “lighted dot” suits, flashing together at one point like a giant neon arrow. “This way China!”  It was an evening of Peking opera, Cirque de Soleil, and Jackie Chan all rolled up together. 

As one commentator remarked near the end: “they should retire the trophy for opening ceremonies.” Indeed, I am hard pressed to think how Vancouver or London, next on the list of host cities, will come up with programs that top not only the shock and awe technology on display last night but the colorful, graceful, well-choreographed, and often quite sobering symbolic elements of the program created by Zhang Yimou (pr: john-ee-moe). Nor should they perhaps: the extravaganza was rumored to have cost the government as much as $300 million. 

Not too long into the program, I developed a real fondness for its backdrop, the Bird’s Nest stadium.   We San Franciscans now have automatic affinity with Beijing through our two Herzog and de Meuron buildings; we’re the little guy city in a worldwide club of bigger venues (London, Munich, Beijing) and that’s good for an often-parochial city like ours. Our own de Young Museum is one of the few joyous exceptions in a skyline full of repetitively dull versions of the modernist glass box motif.  I completely understand why the Chinese have latched on so quickly to the Bird’s Nest as their 21st century icon. Nicolai Ouroussoff covers the details of this topic much better than I could in his article this morning in the NY Times. Additionally, Gordon Raynor of the UK Telegraph focuses on the symbolism of the structure very nicely in his 8/7 post “Guide to the Birds Nest.” 

Certainly director Zhang Yimou deserves huge kudos for conceiving and pulling off a spectacular show that had to have included thousands of logistical nightmares. (For starters, think about fashioning and fitting 15,000 costumes.) Obviously, he didn’t do it by himself; the international “concept” team included Steven Spielberg and choreographer Zhang Jigang. But in the end, it was his show. I’m not conversant enough with Zhang Yimou’s films (Judou, Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern) to offer meaningful commentary in that vein about last night’s extravaganza, so I’ve listed some other linkages below. Suffice it to say, he’s a master of visual symbolism.

In the final analysis, though, what better symbol of 21st century China than the army of human performers that were required to execute Zhang’s vision?  Not just marching mind you, but dancing, twirling and running, all in lock-step precision. These perfectly-harnessed masses were a sobering and disquieting reminder of the inherent force of a nation with 1.3 billion people at its disposal.   

In a telling moment, when asked about the huge number of people involved, Zhang is reported to have smiled demurely and said: “Well why not? We have them.”   

And that might just be the real point of last night’s entertainment. 

 Need more?

For those of you who missed the program (or just want to see it again), play the “Opening Ceremony: Sites & Sounds”  at NBC

Zhang Yimou and State Aesthetics

Interview with Zhang

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: