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.