Just 30 days before the Opening Ceremonies.
For the past three weeks, a rounded dormer-like structure has poked out of the top of Beijing National Stadium. Nicknamed the Bird's Nest for the warren of crisscrossing steel that make up its outer frame, it effectively conceals any goings-on inside. This, in plain view, is the literal manifestation of the shroud of secrecy surrounding the Opening Ceremonies. Everything about it—from performers down to color schemes—remains a state secret.
Last Wednesday, however, the Chinese media allowed people a rare peek inside the rabbit hole. China Daily ran a colorful two-page spread about the August 8 ceremony, quoting various choreographers and openly speculating we could see a show involving opera singers, 10,000 bicycles and a 50-meter-tall inflatable panda.
Raymond Zhou, a prominent Chinese film critic, offered tidbits about Opening Ceremonies director Zhang Yimou (Red Sorghum, Hero, Curse of the Golden Flower, etc.) and concluded, "The show will feature hi-tech wizardry and it will have eye-catching scenes galore."
At the same time, Zhou warned that bigger isn't necessarily better.
"The Chinese people are very picky," Zhou told us when reached by phone. "Some of the things [Zhang] does is totally kitsch in the Chinese's eyes … With him, there's no middle ground: people either feel his work is good or it's bad."
The most anticipated event in recent Chinese history—the Opening Ceremonies is expected to draw more than one billion TV viewers—comes fraught with potential pitfalls. There's just too much material. Think about the Four Great Inventions of ancient China—compass, gunpowder, paper, printing—and the many ways they can be represented (shadow screens to depict movement, flow; pyrotechnics, a lot of it; calligraphy, paint); think about China's 56 ethnic groups, the dozen or so dialects; think on the dynasties, the famous warriors, myths, superstitions, proverbs. How does one fit 5,000 years of culture into 50 minutes?
"Don't over-glaze it with too much pizzazz," recommends Doug Jack, who has choreographed opening and closing ceremonies in six Olympiads, including the past four summer Games. "I believe if the story is hitting on marks that are true to the heart and soul of humanity, then that to me is bigger and better."
Zhang and his team have lots of work yet ahead.
"You have a world stage, you have a world voice, and my hope is that you appeal to every person watching, in their hearts, to think, Good on you," Jack says. "Thank you for showing us a glimpse of your heart."
ALSO ON THE PODIUM …
Newsweek's Countdown to Beijing blog offers a reason to rethink the notion that China will overtake the U.S. in the final medals count: Chinese athletes are "notorious choke artists".
First President Bush, now French President Nicolas Sarkozy: both leaders announced last week they'd attend the Opening Ceremonies, though at least one of them isn't welcome. Sino-French relations have cooled considerably over the past few months, with dueling protests (torch relay, Carrefour) resulting in a sharp decrease of Chinese tourists in France. No official renaming of fries, however.
"In our common aspiration to realize the ideals of the Olympic Games, we, the undersigned, urge the international community to convince the Government of Sudan to observe an Olympic Truce for Darfur before, during and after the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games." Thus begins an open letter signed by 129 current and former athletes. The New York Times elaborates.
A senior Chinese security official warns that "a range of anti-China forces and hostile forces are striving by any means and redoubling efforts to engage in troublemaking and sabotage." Then there's this: a glimpse at China's anti-terrorist drills.
Jonathan Spence, a preeminent China scholar whose book The Search for Modern China is canonical when it comes to English-language texts on Chinese history, recently gave a lecture called "The Body Beautiful" about China's athletics and sporting culture. In it, he traces China's sporting past through war and poetry, weaving in tales of archery, feet-binding and baseball, exploring themes of Chinese nationalism and identity, ultimately linking it to this summer's Games.
Torch relay update: Just passed: Lanzhou, capital of Gansu, after a brief stop at the west end of the Great Wall. Next up: Hohhot, capital of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, an ancient city that's ethnically diverse and imbued with culture, containing links to the origins of Chinese civilization.