SPECTACLE / Master of ceremony: Bouquets, caged birds and bats have inspired the opening ceremony of the Barcelona Olympic Games. Jan Murray reports

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The Independent Culture
DO YOU BELIEVE art can be created from the massed forces of anonymous bodies? Peter Minshall thinks so. So do the producers of the opening ceremony of the Barcelona Olympic Games. The rest of the world can pass judgement this Saturday, when the television screen carries the results of their collective conviction.

Minshall has conceived, designed and directed 'Hola]', the crucial first segment of the four-section stadium spectacle that precedes the athletics themselves. He is also responsible for the arena's vast floor-cloth (which is blue and in a mosaic style inspired by Gaudi) and is collaborating with the avant-garde Catalan theatre company La Fura dels Baus on the finale of the ceremony's entertainment section, 'Mar Mediterrani'. A Trinidadian artist who trained in London at Central School of Art and Design, he is a reassuringly imaginative choice.

He is one of only a handful of non- Spaniards playing important roles in the event. Andrew Lloyd Webber has composed the Olympic signature song, coyly entitled 'Friends for Life'; another composer, Angelo Badalamenti, of Twin Peaks soundtrack fame, wrote the music to accompany the lighting of the Olympic torch; and the American choreographer Judy Chabola (a veteran of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics) has been working with Minshall on 'Hola]'. The remainder of the performance overture, which leads to the entrance of the athletes, the Spanish royal family et al, is understandably dominated by Spanish artists and art forms.

Minshall has a mere four minutes of international primetime to open the Games on a dramatic high. But, after having spent two decades experimenting with designs for the Mas' (or 'Masquerade') of the annual Trinidad Carnival (he calls these designs 'mobile sculptures), and marshalling forces of upwards of 2,000 players for the costume bands, he is well equipped to deal incisively with the battalions involved in the ceremony.

'What I've created for Barcelona will have no obvious elements of the Caribbean Carnival,' he says . 'Rather, it's my tribute to a fascinating city and the local cultures which I've been exploring since I took up residence here last September. But of course, all my work is rooted in the Mas' concepts and the techniques I have evolved on the steamy streets of Port of Spain. My commitment has always been to release the creative energy of the individual through costumes and movement that magnify that energy.

'At first, the organising committee in Barcelona worried that Spanish volunteers wouldn't be able to dance, to 'play' like black people, so wouldn't do justice to my designs. I am convinced that if the costumes are properly structured they empower the player. Watching the final rehearsals for the ceremony, I think I've been proved right. The dancing form has been delivered into a greater, universal space.'

MINSHALL's close collaborator, the choreographer Chabola, is more obviously pragmatic. 'I've had to block the movement, grid the stadium floor, give the performers numbers,' she says, 'otherwise no one would know where to go. In 'Hola]' alone, there are 1,000 Catalan amateurs involved, gymnasts, scouts, folk dancers, you name it, the biggest age range I've ever had to deal with. In the USA we're more regimented. There I worked with drill teams and cheerleaders for events like the Superbowl half-times, and with professional dancers for the Busby Berkeley and Fred and Ginger routines in the LA Olympics. For those events, every movement is pre-planned and rehearsed. But in Barcelona I've been able to let the performers interpret some movements freely. Catalans are more passionate than Americans yet more methodical. I'm amazed by the heart that has gone into something like 80 hours of rehearsal.'

Minshall found inspiration for the imagery of 'Hola]' in the pedestrianised La Rambla avenue of Barcelona - specifically, the street stalls crammed with myriad flowers and caged birds. In consequence, spectators will be dazzled by a huge human bouquet in a thousand colours, the blossoms dramatically dispersed by, to quote the designer, 'two hundred yellow birds exploding across the floor- cloth'. Great 'rivers of cloth', controlled by the players, swirl into formations to spell out the Barcelona Olympic logo and the Spanish greeting 'Hola]', while Olympic Giants (towering kinetic structures) stalk the stadium. 'It's simple, naive, but joyous,' says Minshall, 'after all, we're welcoming the world.'

The Trinidadian's designs also form part of the final dramatic Mediterranean Sea segment, directed by La Fura dels Baus and depicting the mythical founding of Barcelona by the god Hercules. Minshall has conceived a sea of undulating performers to flood the stadium, as well as costumes for the Sun and various monsters. 'We think we are setting a precedent in terms of stadium performance art,' says Minshall. 'The theatrical content is extraordinarily exciting and the presentation with its organic energy, entirely contemporary.'

THIS IS NOT the first time Minshall has designed for drama. He has worked for the theatre in the UK and USA as well as in the Caribbean, and for contemporary dance and music theatre performances, often on a grand scale. In 1990, the French composer Jean-Michel Jarre invited four of his massive, mobile costumes to star in his Bastille Day extravaganza in Paris.

The impact of these glorious dancing creations was such that a Japanese television station flew Minshall to Tokyo to discuss and demonstrate his art of the Mas'; and the Feria of Nimes in France commissioned him to design a group for its opening procession. Next year they want him to design the entire festival.

The University of the West Indies has acknowledged Minshall's vital influence on local culture by awarding him an honorary doctorate. International recognition must surely now be within reach. Yet Minshall remains passionately patriotic and committed to the Mas'.

'Coming from a small island, where so many of the inhabitants have a background of slavery, we Trinidadians take our cultural traditions - carnival, calypso, the steel band - for granted, we don't consider them to be art. I do, and when Caribbeans watch the Barcelona opening on television, I hope they can see their contribution to my work and feel it to be art.

'The traditional bat character of carnival is the basis upon which all of my costumes are built: you attach the costume to the ankles, to the arms, and it works kinetically. You put that shape, that form - however large - on a human being, you turn on the music and that individual becomes the character, the caterpillar is transformed into the butterfly. The very nature of the Mas' is its reliance on so-called ordinary people. Now it has crossed a great bridge to leave my island and be reborn, in Barcelona, to find universal expression but without, I hope, forfeiting its essential vigour . . . If together we can give half the world even a moment of 'aaah', an instant of delight - what could be a greater privilege?'

The opening ceremony will be broadcast live on Olympic Grandstand, BBC 1, 5.15pm Saturday 25 July.

(Photographs omitted)

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