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Helen Parlor is a dancer and choreographer and the AD of Parlor Dance. Last year she was the assistant choreographer for the opening ceremony of the Paralympic Games of London 2012.
She spoke to us late last year about her experience working on one of the biggest outdoor live performances of the year.
Article19: How did you become involved?
Helen Parlor: Well it was an interesting one, I often talk about situations like this with people that I teach, young people going into the industry.
I actually just sent a "Merry Xmas" text to Kevin Finnan from Motionhouse [Dance Theatre]. He texted back saying that he had something that I might be interested in but he needed to know whether or not I could do it pretty quickly.
So I called him and he said that he has been offered the choreography job for the opening of the Paralympic Games and [there was] an assistants job as well.
He told me there were a couple of people that he was considering but could I let him know as soon as possible [if I wanted to do it]. Basically, I would need to clear my diary from June until the end of August.
I [already] had lots of stuff booked in, the regular stuff that I do, choreographic commissions and so on. I had to quickly organise all of that so the Olympic period was free [because] I felt it was an opportunity that I couldn't let pass me by. You don't get an Olympic Games in your country more than once in your lifetime.
The Paralympic Games Opening Ceremony for London 2012
Article19: What was your role specifically?
HP: My role was the assistant choreographer for the opening ceremony of the Paralympic games. I worked with thousands of volunteers to create the whole show which was two and a half hours long and to create various sections within that show.
It was also my job to work alongside Kevin and the dance captains, of which I think we had eleven in the end, to really develop the ideas for the material for each of the sections.
Within that we also had to work with a group of people called the "Mass Movement Team" who dealt with, obviously, the mass movement of all the volunteers to create shapes, symbols and images within the stadium.
When we talk about the volunteers we are literally talking about anybody, that's what's so wonderful about the Olympics and the Paralympics, is that anybody could come and audition and be part of the ceremonies.
[Before all of that though] we also had to run the auditions which was 10 days of work, with 3 per day and they were two and a half hours long each.
The auditions were amazing, we used these huge studios at Three Mills in London, basically TV studios. We had 300-400 people turn up for every session. Just watching the array of people coming though the doors was incredible. Different age groups, abilities and reasons for becoming involved in the Paralympic opening and I was really inspired by that.
I really enjoyed talking to the volunteers and getting to know why they were doing it. I think that most of them had no idea what to expect.
We began the auditions with story telling movement because we had to make sure people could convey a story, the opening was about story telling [after all].
It built up through the [day] to a punk scene near the end which was our Spasticus Autisticus section. So by the end of the audition we had everyone going absolutely crazy in this TV studio with red blotchy faces, they were sweating and there was a really good vibe about it.
We didn't start properly, on the show, however until the beginning of June (2012) with the volunteers.
Article19: Was there a theme for the show?
HP: Well, we were working alongside the Artistic Directors Jenny Sealey and Bradley Hemmings. The whole theme of the show was enlightenment and empowerment, knowledge and discovery and all of these themes were built into a script.
I don't mean a script with words that people had to learn but more of a journey of the central character, we see the story through her eyes.
Article19: The show is obviously on a huge scale so what particular challenges did you discover on a personal level?
HP: There were lots of challenges because as a contemporary dance artist you're not used to working at that scale. When I work I tend to work in a small company. I've got immediate access to the composers, the dancers, to basically all the collaborators. In this instance [though] we are basically working for the artistic directors so just getting your ideas conveyed through all the channels was more complicated than it usually is.
The Paralympic Games Opening Ceremony for London 2012
LOCOG (London 2012 Organising Committee), as an organisation, is massive so it's just making sure that everybody is happy with the journey and there are so many more people to consider.
[With this project] things were decided over a number of days or even a week just to get a final decision. That decision would be filtered down and then we would implement it with the volunteers and our dance captains. We did have a say in how things developed but its comes down to working with everyone to understand where that development goes.
Other challenges? Just working within a time frame with a vast number of volunteers. Making sure that you're getting the best out of them and that you're empowering them with this enthusiasm to do what was the biggest show on Earth at that point in time.
Getting people to understand the sheer size of the show before they actually get into the stadium [was tough] because most of our rehearsals took place in the TV studios which did not give them any idea of how the stadium was going to feel.
We spent time in Three Mills and then moved to Dagenham to an open air rehearsal site which, because of the summer we had in 2012, got lashed with rain and wind. The volunteers though did not complain, they just got on with it.
I learned a lot during that time about how these massive shows really come together, I had always wondered about that.
Article19: Normally you work as the person in charge of a particular project, how was it being one among many for this?
HP: When there are so many collaborators it is a difficult balance and sometimes you have to go right through the process. There were times when I knew some things were not going to work and Kevin also knew they wouldn't work but you still have to go through the process.
So, we [we would] go through the process and you had to point out and say "you see now? this actually isn't going to work" and we had to change a design or a costume or whatever it was that wasn't working.
There were moments of frustration but also moments of "actually that bits really nailed now because we've all worked together" and realised that this is the way to go even though it took a long time to get there.
The Paralympic Games Opening Ceremony for London 2012
Article19: When the show was running live, you were on a headset in the control room?
HP: This was quite a nerve racking experience for me. I'm very used to speaking to people and leading a room full of 600 volunteers. But, I was in the control room and you're mic'd up to all the volunteers (they all had in ear headphones) so they can hear your voice. If you've ever been to a big concert you know that you get play back [issues].
So if you're stood in the middle of the stadium the play back of the music is about 2 beats behind because of the time it takes sound to travel.
To counter that all the volunteers have the headphones in so they can hear the music at the right time and [they can hear] myself and the other members of the Mass Movement Team talking them through the choreography or just giving them words of encouragement.
You may have noticed that during the ceremony things were very layered, we had different people doing different things at different times. So, I would be speaking to the wheelchair dancers and talking them through the duets, the counts, etc.
Obviously they know all of this before they do the show but you talk them through it so they don't feel isolated an alone in such a big space.
What you have to try and block out is the idea of the hundreds of millions of people potentially watching this thing on TV and if you bugger it up you're in big trouble (laughs).
Helen Parlor on the stage at the Olympic Stadium during rehearsals
Article19: Did the television audience see the same show as those in the stadium?
HP: It's a difficult one because you do get a different show, there's nothing quite like being in the stadium, it's the same as watching a rock concert. When you're there the atmosphere is so electric and you get to choose what you watch and you get to see the whole picture because [our] show was about the whole picture.
Of course when it gets transmitted onto television things are edited in a particular way and things do get lost. You do get an insight into some of the smaller details but, because I know the whole show, I felt that some of it was lost, especially some of the choreography.
It's just one of those things [though] you can't have control over everything. We've [just] got to remember that there were thousands of people in the stadium enjoying the show and thousands of volunteers participating [and having a great time].
Some great things were shown on television, they did capture the story telling aspect and the characters within the show. If I was to do it again I would love to see more of the detail in the choreography, particularly in the Empowerment section which was the very last section.
Article19: What did you personally take from the experience?
Learning what works in different spaces. It's all about making work. When you're working in a stadium you've got to create movement that really translates over a distance. Even now, when I look back at some of the footage, if I was going to do it again I would change that bit and I would develop that other bit to make it bigger in a particular way.
The type of choreography that you're doing is really important, what message are you trying to put across. Just working with such a vast and diverse array of people was so delightful and I'll never forget that.
Some of the volunteers that we worked with were just amazing. you can safely say that you met or knew so many of them and that's unusual in a show of that scale.
Some of the people that did the show amazed me with their strength of character and their commitment to do the movement despite various problems with mobility.
They were all just completely awe-inspiring. Most definitely the best part of doing the opening ceremony was working with those people.
Parlor Dance will be performing their new work 'Close/Distance' on tour throughout the Spring of 2013 opening at Swindon Dance on February 1st. Check their website for further details.