After a year of planning and rehearsals, Olympics opening ceremony choreographer Daniel Ezralow’s masterpiece finally premieres on Friday. With nearly 800 performers, hundreds of years of Russian history to represent, and a country under intense international scrutiny for its security situation and human rights policies, there’s a lot on the line.
Ezralow, who choreographed the 2007 Beatles-themed drama “Across the Universe” and “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” on Broadway, said he was approached by opening ceremony director Andrei Boltenko to design the section of the ceremony that, like in other Olympics, focuses on the history and culture of the host country.
“I’m presenting 20th Century Russia, which is, coming from L.A., quite a feat,” Ezralow said in a phone interview with TheWrap from Sochi.
Considering that Ezralow is an American telling Russia’s story and that the 20th Century was, to put it mildly, a complicated chapter of Russian history, Ezralow had a particularly tough challenge to tackle.
“Like any country, we can identify the dark aspects of different centuries, and also see the positive,” Ezralow said.
“What I did start to see here is that Russian culture and the Soviet life in Russia, to us as Americans, was very much the communist rule, closed down and everything,” he said. “But in a strange way, a lot of Russians lived very wonderfully. Obviously there were a lot of problems, a lot of issues – there are certain things I don’t talk about [in the piece] because they really don’t apply to the opening ceremonies.”
Instead, Ezralow said his section of the opening ceremony was inspired by great works of avant garde art that came out of Russia at the turn of the century, soundtracked by Russian folk songs that had audiences at Tuesday’s dress rehearsal singing along with glee.
“I think that it’s very important not just for these Olympics but for all Olympics, all performances of this nature, that when we’re doing sort of a mass kind of large scale unified world event — I choose very personally to focus on the positive, do something that is uplifting.”
Positive messages of unity may abound in Ezralow’s opening ceremony performance, but the Sochi Winter Games still face the very real threat of mass violence and terrorism from Russian separatists and Islamic extremists.
Matthew Olsen, director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, said in a report to Congress ahead of the games on Tuesday that the Sochi Olympics face “a number of specific threats,” largely from the Caucasus Emirate, which has publicly threatened to attack the Games.
But Ezralow said the threats have not posed too great a concern to him or his performers, nor has the overwhelming security presence impeded their ability to move about the compound and rehearse.
“What I’ve found is a very secure place – I think that’s true of hopefully about any Olympics that have happened since Munich,” Ezralow said, referring to the 1972 massacre of 11 Israeli Olympic athletes by a Palestinian terrorist organization.
“There’s security on a level which is pretty unprecedented,” he added. “They’re good about it; they’re doing a great job. I feel very positive that there won’t be an incident and I’m happy about that.”
Although Ezralow wouldn’t say anything specifically about Russia’s anti-gay law, he said he personally believes in “tolerance for all human beings.”
As far as being an American telling the Russian national story, Ezralow suggested that having an outsider’s perspective might be a boon to the ceremony.
“It’s strange. You would think that you’d need a Russian to do this, but in fact, maybe it’s the exact opposite,” Ezralow said.
“It’s not like I am a proud American coming there to make a statement, and it’s not like I’m an adopted Russian,” he added. “I am just me, a person who tries to … be a chameleon in a sense, and I try to adapt and understand where I am.”
It doesn’t hurt that Ezralow has Russian roots. His grandfather fled Russia during the 1905 revolution and settled in Canada; the choreographer is first-generation American.
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At the end of the day, Ezralow said, the opening ceremony is not commercial, nor propagandistic, and his primary aim as an artist is to represent Russia to the global community through song and dance.
“I don’t have a passport when I’m creating,” he said. “The passport is universal.”
That is the Olympic spirit, after all.