You think it’s tough to follow Beijing? Try following Danny Boyle

The creative team behind the opening ceremony of the Paralympics are well aware of the challenge they face to outdo the Olympic gala, but they are ready

Nick Clark
Saturday 25 August 2012 00:24
Performers at the Olympics Opening ceremony. Boyle’s extravaganza will be a hard act to follow for Hemmings and Sealey
Performers at the Olympics Opening ceremony. Boyle’s extravaganza will be a hard act to follow for Hemmings and Sealey

Jenny Sealey and Bradley Hemmings have, in some ways, the most unenviable task out of anybody involved in the Paralympics.

It will fall to them, come Wednesday evening, to emulate Danny Boyle’s spectacular Opening Ceremony and dazzle the world once again at the curtain-raiser for London’s second Games. As the ceremony draws closer, the pair have been locked in rehearsals almost every waking hour. Yet despite the scale of the task in front of them, enthusiasm – albeit tinged with nerves – is the order of the day.

“It is immensely exciting and always terrifying, especially as the days are passing at the rate of knots,” said Sealey, speaking ahead of the first run-through this week. “There’s lots of work still to do. We are on a rollercoaster of a journey. And with us we have an awesome creative team, a wonderful, professional cast and an extraordinary team of volunteers.” Hemmings, her creative partner, says that the pair “couldn’t be prouder”. All those involved in the ceremony are under strict orders not to give away secrets, but The Independent can reveal that double Mercury Prize-winning singer PJ Harvey has been working with disabled artists who will premiere their music with her during the ceremony.

It also emerged this week that Professor Stephen Hawking is likely to be involved, although it is unclear whether he will be in the stadium or on the big screens. Paul Deighton, chief executive of Locog, said yesterday that “on the thought-provoking to lots of loud noises spectrum” the ceremony would be nearer the former.

We also know that the Paralympics opener has, like the Slumdog Millionaire director’s show, been influenced by William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. That is purely coincidence, Sealey and Hemmings insist.

There will be other elements of overlap between the two ceremonies. There will be an athletes’ parade and a speech by Lord Sebastian Coe, and Thomas Heatherwick’s beautiful cauldron, with new copper petals on its stems, will be re-lit using the Paralympic flame. The rehearsals, with volunteers once again playing a leading role, have been carried out in the same once-derelict site in Dagenham, Essex that has been built to reflect the size of the Olympic stadium. The space has been used to choreograph all four ceremonies for the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

But Sealey and Hemmings’ show, which has been given the title “Enlightenment”, will have its own distinct style – one that will champion disabled people in the arts in a way that echoes the Paralympics and sport. More than 100 deaf and disabled performers will take centre stage, in front of a global audience of a scale that few artists ever get, while many of the 3,000 adult volunteers and 100 children taking part also have disabilities.

It is not only Boyle that they must live up to. Conscious of the Paralympics’ origins in the Stoke Mandeville Games for disabled personnel first held in Buckinghamshire to coincide with London’s last Olympics in 1948, Sealey, who herself went deaf at the age of seven, speaks of a hope that the ceremony will “rise to the emotional and historic occasion of the homecoming of the Games”.

It’s a big ask. But this huge collaboraton is not the first time that Sealey and Hemmings have worked together. The pair have a long partnership in outdoor theatre; the former has been artistic director of disabled-led theatre company Graeae since 1997; the latter is artistic director of the Greenwich+Docklands International Festival.

Hemmings is also heavily involved in arts with disabled and deaf performers and curates Liberty, the annual disability arts festival in London. Their aim this time, he says, is to “make Britain proud,” and Lord Coe, who has described them as “the perfect team”, is apparently convinced that they can do it.

Eleven days afterwards, when the Games are finally over for a second time, it is an old hand who will pick up the baton and close London’s sporting summer for good.

Kim Gavin, the man responsible for the cavalcade of British music that formed the Olympics Closing Ceremony, will again bring big name musicians to the Olympic Stadium for the Paralympic version.

This time it will be Coldplay who anchor proceedings, as the director seeks to create “a celebration of the UK as a centre for festivals, which is a fitting finale to the amazing festival of sport that is the London 2012 Games”.

The band have been working closely with Gavin and Misty Buckley, their live show co-designer, who is also working as the designer of the Closing Ceremony “to play a set of their most iconic music alongside a cast of almost 2,000 in the Olympic Stadium”, on what singer Chris Martin said would be “one of the biggest nights of our lives”.

Safe to say that on Wednesday, as their Opening Ceremony begins, Sealey and Hemmings will feel something similar.

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