A scintillating scroll through history - to a dream finish

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 August, 2008, 12:00am

Opening show mines China's past for bridge from east to west

It was a cultural performance that drew on 5,000 years of history and the resources of China's 1.3 billion people.

And its enormous scenes, elaborate costumes and detailed choreography epitomised the style of its driving force - the nation's best-known filmmaker, Zhang Yimou .

Last night's Olympic Games opening ceremony began with representatives of China's 55 ethnic minorities in traditional dress standing as soldiers raised the national flag. They sang the national anthem, the spectators, - including President Hu Jintao , joining in. Then, with the unfurling of a giant scroll, the cultural show began.

Projected onto it were historical and cultural icons including cliff paintings, bronze vessels and pottery from China's earliest days.

Dancers in black imitated the motions of brushstrokes to create a landscape painting.

Next came the building blocks of the Chinese written language - paper and printing, two of the 'four great inventions' China contributed to the world along with the compass and gunpowder. At centre stage, wood blocks used for the earliest form of printing moved in a wave, while 3,000 peformers in the traditional dress of Confucian scholars recited sayings of the sage.

The wood blocks created the character for 'harmony' three times in different styles, then the Great Wall - another icon. Suddenly the 'blocks' sprouted peach blossom and performers emerged from them to wave at the crowd watching enrapt.

A sudden clash of instruments gave away the content of the next segment to the Chinese in the audience - traditional opera, but on an immense scale: 900 performers acting out the triumphant return of soldiers. A single puppeteer reduced the focus to a small stage at the centre of the stadium.

Ties between China and the rest of the world was the theme of the next segment, 'Silk Road', which harked back to the ancient trading route linking east and west. A single woman dressed in flowing green silk danced on a moving stage resembling the deserts through which the Silk Road passed.

In a crowd-pleasing twist, the definition of Silk Road stretched to include the ancient sea routes which fostered exploration and trade. Banners formed ships which 'sailed' on the ocean, recreating the voyages of 15th-century Chinese mariner Zheng He.

The vast stretch of Chinese history was apparent in the segnment which followed. Five paintings from five dynasties - the Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing - were projected onto the scroll. Women in blue, orange, pink and yellow dresses performed traditional dances, accompanied by musicians on pedestals. In a surprise ending, the pedestals shot up several metres to become red columns twined with golden dragons.

The transition from ancient to modern was rapid. Suddenly, there was pianist Lang Lang sitting at a white piano, accompanied by a young girl. Around them were performers wearing fairy lights, giving the sequence its name, 'Starlight'.

They formed shapes, including a dove, A kite pulled another girl through the air, symbolising a bird looking for its nest - which she found as performers formed a 'Bird's Nest'.

'Nature' was the next theme, with a message of harmony and the need for environmental protection. Tai chi practitioners in matching white clothes performed mass exercises surrounding schoolchildren.

The tai chi took on a harder edge, becoming martial arts. The children began painting and reciting a warning about pollution and the need to plant trees, though the conclusion was ultimately hopeful.

'Spring again we see. Birds fly back with glee,' they chanted.

The finale, 'Dream', combined the sentimental with Chinese acrobats and star power. Sarah Brightman, the star of The Phantom of the Opera, and popular singer Liu Huan sang the Beijing Olympics theme song, You and Me.

The segment began with a sphere rising from the floor, the singing duo on top and acrobats skimming along the surface. The sphere flashed different images, finishing up with Planet Earth, as performers below held up hundreds of photos of children.

While the performance mined China's past, it did not offer a comprehensive history of the nation. It avoided some well-worn icons and sought to strike a balance between introducing the country's culture to a foreign audience and offering references with meaning to the Chinese watching.