Paralympic opening ceremony to feature Stephen Hawking


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The Independent Online

The Paralympic opening ceremony will be an “exquisite journey of discovery” with Professor Stephen Hawking as a guide, its co-artistic director Jenny Sealey has said.

The Big Bang theory scientist, who has motor neurone disease, is appearing live at the curtain raiser in the Olympic Stadium in Stratford, east London.

Co-artistic director Bradley Hemmings said: "Our talks with Stephen Hawking began towards the end of last year.

"We worked very closely with Professor Hawking to develop a series of messages which are very much integrated into the storytelling of the ceremony. We have spent time with him in Cambridge and have been so incredibly gratified with him giving his time.

"Everybody knows about Professor Hawking and his extraordinary theoretical work and writings about science which have made very complex ideas accessible to all of us, but what came through in our meetings with him was the humanity and the humour of him. He is a fun guy."

At the show, called Enlightenment, the 60,000-strong crowd will be encouraged to be part of the world's largest "apple crunch" and take a bite out of an apple all at the same time. The apples will be handed out on entry.

Empowerment and challenging perceptions are some of the themes of the show which also stars Sir Ian McKellen and references Shakespeare's The Tempest.

Sir Ian McKellen will play the role of Prospero during the ceremony.

Co-artistic director Jenny Sealey said: "Tonight you will be taken on the most exquisite journey of discovery inspired by the wonder of science. It is about the wonder of science and it is Stephen Hawking who guides us.

"Both Hawking and McKellen in their narrative talk about what we all need to remember; don't just look down at your feet, look at the stars, be curious."

Organisers describe the show as "profoundly about science and humanity".

Miranda, the central character in the ceremony, will fly up and break a glass ceiling and the lighting of the cauldron is going to be "extremely spectacular and like nothing you have seen in previous ceremonies", according to Mr Hemmings.

A flypast by Aerobility, a charity that trains disabled people to become pilots, will open the show. Ex-serviceman David Watson will be at the controls.

Describing it as "an extraordinarily emotional moment", Mr Hemmings said: "We look up and see above us a disabled pilot flying overhead with pyrotechnics and LED lights."

Prof Hawking talks about humanity and out of his words a volunteer cast of 600 umbrella-holding dancers, backed by pyrotechnics, move out to create a big bang and an "amazingly spectacular" opening, he said.

An aerial ballet, a "storm of ideas" and a giant whale will also feature.

There are also scenes which will pitch the audience in Sir Isaac Newton's garden as the apple drops, complete with giant apples in a "slightly mad and crazy maverick world" in which gravity is played with, Mr Hemmings said.

Injured soldiers and past Paralympic athletes are among the cast who have been on an eight-week circus school course in preparation for the event.

There are 50 performers who have been getting ready for a high wire act that will involve aerial work on a 35m tall rig.

There is also a host of deaf and disabled artists, local children and performers newly trained in circus skills.

Ian Dury's song Spasticus Autisticus, penned as a protest to the United Nations declaring 1981 Year of Disabled Persons, will also boom out during the ceremony.

Dury, who had childhood polio, found the idea patronising. It will be a "massive moment of celebratory anarchy", according to Mr Hemmings.

A huge remake of Marc Quinn's 3.6m tall marble portrait of disabled artist Alison Lapper heavily pregnant that once graced Trafalgar Square's fourth plinth in 2005 will also be unveiled as part of the ceremony.

It was picked because it stood as "an icon of the creative and inclusive city that London is", Mr Hemmings suggested.

All the athletes will be centre stage watching the show.

Sir Ian helps to bring the show to the 21st century and the world of modern-day science.

Mr Hemmings said: "It struck me that as we speak there is a fragile vehicle exploring the surface of Mars, called Curiosity. We have also been reminded sadly in the last few days of the miraculous 'one small step' quote (when astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the Moon). Just earlier this summer there was the long-prophesied Higgs Boson particle.

"Jenny and I are very excited to have been on the money in terms of the science particularly as we are from an arts background and all those things have been brought together neatly this year."

A large Hadron Collider, accompanied by a talk from Prof Hawking, is also part of the show.

Soul star Beverley Knight sings I Am What I Am and a specially commissioned track called Spirit In Motion, based on the motto of the Paralympic movement, will be sung by a blind soprano.