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London’s Cultural Olympiad

cultural_olympiadJonathan Fryer discovers that London 2012 is a celebration of the finest minds as well as of the fittest bodies

Excellence and achievement can manifest themselves in many forms, and when the Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937) conceived the idea of resuscitating the ancient Greek Olympic Games, he was determined that they should be a cause for the celebration of the finest minds as well as of the fittest bodies. Accordingly, the founding charter of the International Olympic Committee stipulated that the host city and nation of the new quadrennial games should also put on a Festival of the Arts, showcasing some of the best of the visual and performing Arts from around the world to as wide an audience as possible, to help foster international understanding.

The UK accepted this challenge with gusto when London was awarded the 2012 Olympic Games. Since Beijing in 2008, it has organised what it is trumpeting as the biggest and best Cultural Olympiad ever. Over the past three-and-a-half years it has already produced some great artistic moments to savour, but now as this summer’s core ‘London 2012 Festival’ looms, it will provide artistic and literary experiences for millions of people up and down the country, most of them free of charge.

Some of the greatest names in contemporary British culture are being celebrated, from the painters David Hockney and Lucian Freud to that master of cinematographic suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. But, as one would expect from a nation that takes its heritage seriously, many figures from the past are also being brought to the fore, not least William Shakespeare, the playwright and poet reputedly read and performed more than any other creative writer on the planet.

The World Shakespeare Festival, opening this month, is part and parcel of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, and will offer productions of all 37 plays generally acknowledged to be the work of the bard, but with the added twist that they will be performed in 37 different languages, by companies from countries around the globe, in a wide variety of interpretations and styles. For example, there will be Arab takes on both Macbeth (in Leila and Ben – A Bloody History, adapted by Lotif Achour and Anissa Daoud, staged at the Riverside Studios in London as well as the Northern Stage in Newcastle) and Romeo and Juliet (in a stimulating adaptation from Iraq, at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon). A Russian company will perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream (in both Stratford and Edinburgh), and so forth. Some works derived from Shakespeare, such as Leonard Bernstein’s musical West Side Story and a Mexican National Theatre/Royal Shakespeare Company co-production of A Soldier in Every Son: The Rise of the Aztecs, will also feature.

The 2012 Cultural Olympiad also highlights historical as well as cultural links between the UK and other parts of the world. One fine example of this is a showcase of the art and music of West Africa by three major public art galleries in Manchester, reminding local people of past trading links between Lancashire and Africa, including the slave trade. But as the organisers explain, whilst acknowledging the past, this celebration of African talent ‘will focus on contemporary connections and ideas circulating today. Internationally important and resonant, the contemporary art in We Face Forward foregrounds fresh perspectives and reflects on the globalised nature of cultural production.’

Among the many musical events later this year, there will be a spectacular series of both classical and modern concerts along the River Thames – the BT River of Music. This will be an amazing, free curtain-raiser to the 2012 Games, taking place at various iconic locations along the banks of the Thames on the weekend of 21-22 July, a week before the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games. There will also be a number of new works specifically commissioned for the 2012 celebrations. Most notable is the Birmingham performance of a new 90-minute choral work by the Sutton Coldfield-born composer Jonathan Harvey: Weltethos. Originally commissioned by the Berlin Philharmonic, the work has a libretto by the German theologian Hans Kung, based on texts from the world’s six major faiths – Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism – and celebrates the common values between them, in a stirring manifesto for world peace. Massed choruses will join the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Edward Gardner. The composer enthuses, ‘I think music has an important role to play in society because, in my opinion, it is the most spiritual of all the Arts.’

By now, the idealistic nature of so much of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad should be obvious. This includes its aspiration to reach out to groups which are normally excluded from cultural events through disability, poverty or social class. Thanks to the generosity of sponsors, ranging from the Arts Council of England to commercial companies such as BT, many of the 1,000 plus events taking place around the country are free, so no-one should be put off by cost! And for those people who may find a concert hall or a traditional theatre an intimidating prospect, many of the performances will take place in outdoor spaces, especially during the summer months.

Moreover, the core of the London events will encourage people not just to watch but to participate. ‘The Big Dance’ will take dance in all its forms into the streets and squares of the capital and local groups elsewhere will be encouraged to run dance workshops for local youth, including people with disabilities. The Olympic Games are themselves followed by the Paralympics, of course, but within the artistic programme of the Cultural Olympiad, activities and shows for the deaf, visually-impaired or physically challenged are integrated into the whole.

Even people who have never taken part in any kind of cultural event before are being encouraged to join the Olympic and Paralympic spirit by becoming ‘Local Leaders’, organising celebratory events in their area. Participants can sign up to the London 2012 website (www.london2012.com) and get tips on how to plan their event, which could be anything from a garden competition, to a quiz or even a lantern festival. The boundaries between sports and the Arts are deliberately being removed, in the hope that everyone will both support their home country’s teams, and use this year to revitalise their local community and get involved.

Right from the start of London’s bid to host the 2012 Olympics there was a strong concern that they should leave a legacy, rather than just be a one-off event. The hope is that the legacy is not just about promoting sports among young people in Britain but also about broadening their cultural horizons. A physical legacy will also be left in the stunning architecture of the venues, the facilities, the new transport infrastructure and numerous community projects. Much of this legacy will be in East London, which is the most deprived quartile of the capital and also the one where the majority of sporting events will take place.

A permanent legacy of the London 2012 Festival will be left in the area in the form of a decorative frieze by Turner Prize laureate Rachel Whiteread, which will be added to the facade of the Whitechapel Art Gallery at Aldgate East, around the corner from Brick Lane. The original plans for the gallery, built in 1901, show that a frieze was conceived but never executed, but now, more than a century later, this imposing building will finally be completed with clusters of sculpted and gilded leaves and branches, drawing their inspiration from the Tree of Life. Herself an East London resident, Rachel Whiteread comments, ‘I hope my work will have a positive and lasting impact for the area and communities here.’


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