Awaiting the final event at the Sochi Olympics


Sculptures portraying a hammer and sickle float above a street scene during the well-received Opening Ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics at the Fisht Olympic Stadium on Feb. 7. (Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images)
February 21

As the flames shot up the side of the 160-foot-tall Olympic cauldron and the last notes of Stravinsky’s “The Firebird” fell like so many embers across the darkened arena, 150 people in the glass control room caught their collective breath, exhaling in a prolonged scream.

When the scream ended, they drank Champagne straight from the bottle. After two years of work, they had pulled off the Opening Ceremonies of the Sochi Winter Olympics, and it was spectacular. But more difficult days lay ahead. What has opened must be closed — that ceremony comes Sunday, followed by two Paralympic programs in March. They had only a moment to marvel at what they had done before starting all over again.

“It’s like sitting in a spaceship,” said Andrei Nasonovsky, executive producer of all four ceremonies. “You know it should fly, but you don’t know exactly how it does.”

Details of Sunday’s Closing Ceremonies have not been revealed, although the organizers promise an intimate look at Russian art, dance, music, literature — and don’t leave out the circus. There are reports of a 1,000-member children’s chorus. And one thing is known: The evening will end with the extinguishing of the Olympic flame.

Putting on the shows that open and close the Olympics is a wonder of grand gestures and infinite details. The people in the control room manipulate lights (132 spotlights alone) and sound (500 loudspeakers), signal action (15,000 walkie-talkies) and move complicated scenery (a volcano representing Kamchatka weighed nearly five tons).

And the space at Fisht Stadium — 91,000 square feet — may well be the world’s largest theater. Only the brave dare fill it. “It’s like an aerodynamic tunnel,” said Nasonovsky, a Muscovite with experience producing big shows.

“We have approximately 25,000 cues during the show,” said Nadya Nasonovskaya, director of communications and partner with Nasonovsky, her husband, in the Ceremonies Staging Agency. “One second off can jeopardize the whole show.”

One voice is crucial: Julia Whittle, the show caller. “She’s the most important voice of the Olympics,” Nasonovsky said. “She says go.”

Let them start at the beginning. The hardest part was finding the people with larger-than-life experience. “We understood the major thing was to gather the team,” Nasonovskaya said, “people whom it was impossible to gather.”

The artistic director and screenwriter, Andrei Boltenko, was close at hand. He was a Russian Channel One television director who had cut his spectacle teeth directing MTV award programs in Moscow.

They went on to recruit 17 nationalities and 400 employees for a program that would reveal the Russian soul to the world. Two Americans were at the heart of that effort. George Tsypin, an opera stage designer who did the set for the musical “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” was the artistic director. He was born in the Soviet Union but has lived in the United States since 1979.

Daniel Ezralow, an American choreographer who had worked with Tsypin on “Spider-Man,” joined him to create one of the most delicate parts of the ceremony, portraying the Russian Revolution.

“Your passport doesn’t matter,” Boltenko said. “Your soul is what’s important.”

The ceremony told the story of Russian history. How to describe the revolution and Soviet period was troublesome. Westerners remember the Cold War unpleasantly. Many Russians, especially older ones, recall those days of their youth nostalgically.

“We wanted to say goodbye to the past with a smile,” Boltenko said. “We did it metaphorically.”

Unexpectedly, the episode turned out to be an audience favorite. First they summoned the revolution by re-creating its avant-garde art — the arena turned into a Kazimir Malevich painting, with vast geometric shapes gliding high above the arena. Then giant red tractors rolled in, turning into a huge industrial machine with cog­like people caught up in it.

That scene required 450 cast members along with 80 professional dancers, aerialists and more. It was huge, full of the sense of the revolution, where ideas were so much bigger than tiny, insignificant people.

“I was surprised people liked it, especially the younger ones,” Boltenko said. “Maybe we’ll have them Googling Malevich now. It means we did something useful.”

The show made people proud. “It was very unexpected,” Nasonovsky said.

The Closing Ceremonies, they said, will be very theatrical. The splash of the Opening Ceremonies has raised expectations.

“Now everyone is waiting for even more,” Nasonovsky said, though closings are expected to be different.

“You don’t have the requirement of delivering your business card to the rest of the world,” Boltenko said. “It can be more fun and entertaining.”

The artists, directors and technicians have the burden of creating a signature moment. Russians still remember the Closing Ceremonies at the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics, when Misha the bear, Games mascot turned into giant balloon, drifted slowly out of the stadium toward the heavens. Spectators had tears in their eyes.

“We’ll have a few signature moments,” Nasonovsky promised.

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