Last week I attended the largest ever disability arts event in history, the 2012 Paralympic Games Opening Ceremony. A previously unimaginable spectacle, it featured the crème de la crème of British disabled artists, scientists and athletes; the theme of the ceremony was enlightenment. We were taken on a bright, and at times bewildering, journey of discovery with Professor Stephen Hawking as our guide.
It’s hard to describe the sheer scale of the show. With a cast of well over three thousand and an audience of eighty thousand, the stadium felt, at times, almost unnervingly euphoric. It was easy to get caught up in the sense of defiant jubilation, but also possible to see how the emotions of a vast, unified crowd can be manipulated for good or evil.
Visual showstoppers included an enormous ‘Newton’s apple’ – representing the discovery of gravitation – and the huge revolving book symbolising the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A giant whale followed by a glowing ball of energy representing the Higgs Boson were also breath-taking. Disabled artists glistened and danced above our heads; a sea of beautiful coloured umbrellas spun beneath our feet.
It was thrilling to see so many familiar faces in key roles – Sophie Partridge, old school friend John Kelly, Caroline Parker and Matt Fraser to name but a few – all disabled artists I have admired and followed for several years. A far cry from the dingy student venues I saw them performing in at the start of their careers!
Many defining moments stick out – watching Matt Fraser address eighty thousand people during the warm-up sent shivers down my spine. (I first saw Matt performing to ten people at Sheffield University). At one point he encouraged every single audience member to bite into a (freely provided) apple at exactly the same moment, following a dramatic countdown. The thunderous crunch was audible even to those watching at home, but what couldn’t have come across on TV was the sweet smell of apple juice that hung in the air for minutes.
It was great to see a reproduction of Marc Quinn’s hugely influential ‘Alison Lapper Pregnant’ sculpture on stage. I also loved watching the show’s central character ‘Miranda’ (a nod to Shakespeare’s The Tempest) breaking a symbolic ‘glass ceiling’ with a walking stick.
But the highlight of the ceremony came when the Graeae Theatre Company jerked the audience out of their seats with a version of Ian Dury’s misunderstood classic, Spasticus Autisticus (accompanied, somewhat incongruously, by Orbital). After hours of ethereal pop balladry, earnest ‘new commissions’ and dirgey classical interludes, this impassioned rallying cry came as a welcome surprise.
On a negative note, I found (like journalist Lisa Egan) the ‘inspirational’ ‘triumph over tragedy’ commentary about the athletes, both during the live show and throughout the short clips, slightly nauseating and unnecessary.
It is also arguable that many of the disabled high flyers being celebrated in the show have risen to the top of their respective careers against the backdrop of a more secure welfare system. The threat that current ’reforms’ pose to disabled people was, for me, a troubling thought that recurred throughout the night.
But Professor Stephen Hawking summed up the true message of the ceremony when he said:
“We are all different, there is no such thing as a standard or run-of-the-mill human being but we share the same human spirit. What is important is that we have the ability to create. This creativity can take many forms, from physical achievement to theoretical physics”.
An unforgettable night that has certainly sparked a new interest in disability sport!