11 August 2012
Since moving to Manor Park, five-minutes by train from the Olympic site, in 2008, I’ve watched the stadium rise from the wasteland north of Stratford during daily commutes to the City.
Beyond that physical manifestation of their approach, for most of the past four years the Olympic Games only impinged upon my consciousness to the extent of the predictable rows over their budget, occasional stories about Team GB and the reshaping of local land prices and transport connections. All that changed at the end of last year when a friend suggested I apply to be a volunteer cast member in the closing ceremony.
Ten thousand volunteers were required across all four ceremonies (opening and closing, for the Olympics and the Paralympics), and they were short of men who were unafraid to bust a move in front of half a billion people. I’m no John Travolta, but I’ve never been shy on the dance floor.
Attending the auditions brought home the massive scale of the operation humming away, down the road from Stratford, at 3 Mills Studios – Olympic command centre during the run-up to the Games.
Simply processing, auditioning and referencing the thousands of applicants was a huge logistical undertaking, and 3 Mills is a sprawling operation. At one point I was taken to a warehouse-sized room crammed with work desks over which wardrobe people busied themselves with scissors and sewing machines. In one curtained-off corner, cast members were being photographed and logged, in another they were descended upon by costume teams armed with pins and measuring tapes.
Rehearsals started in May. Teaching thousands of people (with mostly no professional performance experience) vast choreographed set pieces is no small undertaking. Kim Gavin, the artistic director, appeared at the beginning, then turned us over to his ‘captains’, a team of professionals dancers (all extremely helpful, very beautiful and, I formed the impression, a bit mental) who’ve been our handlers over the past three months.
Those dance captains are led by Mr Gavin’s two lieutenants: Nathan, a blond, hunky Australian fellow and Gareth, a grand master in the art of firing-up crowds and making them feel good about themselves. ‘Oh my God, you guys are so fierce!’ he would breathlessly declare into his microphone. After the first few rehearsals, everybody adored Gareth.
The volunteer performers are a mixed bag of locals, from healthcare workers to investment researchers to ex-military guys, and (this being London) a substantial smattering of foreigners. My 25-strong pod includes Chen from China, Ko from Japan, Adam from America and Csilla from Hungary. Volunteering was a major commitment (over 70 hours of rehearsals across 13 sessions) and from day one everyone took it very seriously.
At one point, when the dance captains were drilling us in waves, I climbed onto a giant piece of set lying at the edge of the rehearsal space. Every volunteer on a break was using the downtime to practise their moves. It was inspiring to behold: hundreds of people, working for free, throwing themselves into a giant creative project for the sake of London and the Games.
From June, the rehearsals decamped to Dagenham.
The site there is a stadium-sized car park near the Thames featuring a 60-foot, double-floored scaffold tower in which the creative team sit behind two banks of computers, and deliver their instructions via personal radios with which everyone is issued on arrival. That is how casts of thousands are directed in the third millennium. As they were coordinating multiple groups of performers and stage-management teams, for us volunteers there was initially lots of thumb-twiddling.
Then the Games arrived, and we all received tickets to the Opening Ceremony dress rehearsal, two days before the real thing. What struck me that evening was the electrifying atmosphere in the Olympic Park, which had metamorphosed from a ‘polluted dump’ (to quote Brett, a cast volunteer who has lived near the site for 30 years) into a sparkling, ultra-modern sporting complex, filled with spectacular beds of multicoloured flowers.
Whoever oversaw staff training had done a stunning job. The purple-coated Olympic ambassadors were everywhere – bursting with enthusiasm and throwing themselves into their work. In the Team GB shop, up-for-it young things were beside every counter, eager to discuss the merits of T-shirts and fridge magnets. They were also a bewildering ethnic mix – marking them out as locals to Newham, the most racially diverse borough in the UK.
That evening it really felt like the world’s greatest sporting event had arrived in the most cosmopolitan city on Earth. There was a palpable sense of collective joy, global belonging, openness, friendliness and freedom – one that I’ll wager Beijing could not match.
Since then, with the red, white and blue arena of dreams exploding with sporting action down the road, rehearsals have been taking up half our lives. Following the spectacle of the opening, we were determined to make the closing ceremony even more rock ‘n’ roll.
During the fourth Dagenham session a violent rainstorm crashed across the site, just as a thousand cast members were dancing and prancing over the set. The experience was bizarre, but the cast stoic. Half a day with soggy feet is nothing compared to the once-in-a-lifetime shared experience for which we were preparing.
Twenty-first century London is as vibrant and open-minded as metropolitan area which has so far existed. It is a global centre of the arts, science, commerce, cuisine, literature, finance, the media, education and sport. Three hundred languages are spoken within its bounds and it has an almost peerless cultural inheritance. Humanity is coming together here in a way unlike any other place during any previous period in history.
The closing ceremony will celebrate this remarkable golden age – while throwing in masses of cheeky British cultural references.
It’s been deeply fulfilling to play a tiny part in the extraordinary construct of the Olympics, in which hundreds of thousands of people come together to stage a celebration of life and the human spirit. The London 2012 Games are ready to pass into legend. For us, it’s nearly show time. If you look carefully, you might catch a glimpse of me in the stadium.
Peter Baker is a volunteer cast member in the London 2012 Olympic Closing Ceremony, which is due to start at 20.55 GMT on Sunday 12 August.
His book, The Jolly Pilgrim, is published by SRA books and available on Amazon.
Finally, big up to my team: Andy, Jo, Angela, Richard, Fiona, Roger, Mia, Richard, Sandy, Kimberley, Chris, Brett, Lax, Jamie, Senita, Csilla, Grace, Roslyn, Mary, Robert, Walter, Adam, Ko and Chen.