Sochi’s Opening Ceremonies: Mother Russia’s epic speedskate through her own history

Russia! So big, yet so easily edited! NBC’s telecast Friday night of the Opening Ceremonies at the XXII Winter Games in Sochi showed a Russia breathlessly ready and able to take its place in the bizarre art form of opening ceremonies everywhere, in which a millennium of burdensome history can be turned into a high-tech and only occasionally lovely piece of performance art.

To do this requires an awkward mash-up of interpretive theater, dance (ballet and large-scale choreography), puppetry, rave-style decor, pyrotechnics, filmmaking, special effects, lighting. If you’ve done it correctly, the result is an inoffensive, upbeat, Epcot Center-style exercise in national promotion that people forget about within hours of its completion. Congratulations, Russia — through the magic of show biz, you’ve made your history look like everyone else’s.

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A burst of fireworks filled the night sky over Sochi on Friday as Russian President Vladimir Putin declared the Winter Olympics open.

A burst of fireworks filled the night sky over Sochi on Friday as Russian President Vladimir Putin declared the Winter Olympics open.

ASHLAND, MA - APRIL 15: J.P. Norden stands on the pavement as he's greeted by students from Ashland High School while walking in the 1st Annual Legs for Life Walk on April 15, 2014 in Ashland, Ma. The fund raising walk was put together by the Norden family, whose two sons, J.P. and Paul Norden lost their right legs during the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. The walk took place on the exact Boston Marathon route on the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

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Who knows what it might look and sound like on TV without NBC’s hosts (Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira) talking all the way through it. Would it be more entertaining without the narration, the factoids, the banter? We always complain and wish they’d shaddup, but I’m not so sure I’d like it without them.

To wit: “Imperialism in Russia is about to be swept away by two important events — the Russian revolution and this commercial break,” Lauer said at one point during the three-hour-plus spectacle. (A brilliant line, rehearsed or otherwise.)

To my eyes and ears, it seemed as if NBC had scaled back a bit on the yakkity-yak since the last Opening Ceremonies, at the 2012 Summer Games in London. Or maybe the chatter sounded better thanks to the elevating expertise of New Yorker editor David Remnick, who made his career writing about Russian politics and culture. “Anyone looking for scholarship here, this is the wrong place,” Remnick dryly observed. “It’s more of a kitsch version of Russian history.”

Boy, was it ever. Russia presented in Fisht Olympic Stadium what today’s business gurus might refer to as a brand story, told through the narrative device of a small girl having a dream about her country’s enormity. It’s a favorite cliche of the opening-ceremony genre: the naif embarks on an Alice-style trip through history and folklore, lost among a troika of horses, dancing Orthodox spires, Peter the Great, Tolstoy, ballet, Industrialism, revolution, topped off by what turns out to be some Vladimir Putin-approved nostalgia for the look and feel of the Stalin era — their very own “Mad Men” craze.

There were great touches throughout the ceremony, but none of them amounted to anything jaw-dropping. Each country’s athletes paraded out into the arena, while a team of dancers in puffy white parkas performed light-impact Jazzercise routines to an outdated-sounding Euro-techno beat.

Meanwhile, the fashion report: U.S. athletes came out beaming in their much-derided shawl-neck Ralph Lauren cardigans covered in knitted Stars and Stripes. Beyond the jokes on Twitter about ugly Christmas sweaters and exploding quilts and half-off sales at T.J. Maxx, the outfits once again raise the issue of why the Americans are so often clad in hyper-patriotic apparel that’s too matchy-matchy to Old Glory — something comparatively few nations do.

It’s too early to judge these Olympics on fashion and cultural theater alone — either from the Russian perspective or through the prism of what NBC decides to show us.

So many of us can’t help but have judged them already, whether through our distaste of Putin’s handling of dissent and gay rights, or through our horror at the financial and environmental costs of these Games, or simply through our shared bemusement at the slipshod delivery of facilities and amenities for a world of visitors. (For you, comrades, we have giant malfunctioning snowflake. Is very Russia. The errant snowflake, which was supposed to transform into the fifth of five Olympic rings, appeared again at the end of the show — beaten into compliance, one imagines.)

Even with all its fleeting beauty and precise staging, the Sochi Opening Ceremonies remind us of another problem that so often vexes the Olympic spirit: boredom. This looks like a job for Pussy Riot.

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