SOCHI, Russia — Walking through the Olympic Village on Wednesday, choreographer Daniel Ezralow had to stop intermittently at checkpoints, like everyone. At one, he started singing a popular song from the Soviet era in Russian as he passed through.
"Let there always be..." Ezralow sang, looking invitingly at the Russian guard. The guard beamed back and sang: "sunshine!" Ezralow turned to another guard and sang the next line, again in Russian: "Let there always be ..."
"Blue sky," the guard sang back happily.
"You see? They understand me and they know the song too," Ezralow exclaimed. "Let There Always Be Sunshine" is a Russian pop song from the 1960s.
Few of the more than 40,000 spectators in the Olympic Fisht Stadium and millions more around the world watching the opening ceremony on television knew that the core pieces of the show were created and choreographed by an American, Los Angeles native Ezralow.
A former member of the Paul Taylor Dance company, Ezralow's work has been seen on the stage and TV, in music video: the Cirque du Soleil Beatles show "Love," Broadway's "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," and in the Julie Taymor film "Across the Universe" that is set to Beatles music. He was an original dancer and choreographer of the contemporary dance company MOMIX, and has also contributed original dances for companies including the Paris Opera Ballet and Hubbard Street Dance in Chicago.
Though he has Russian-Jewish family roots going back to the 20th century Ukraine and Belarus and 19th century Central Asia, working on the opening ceremonies brought Ezralow to Russia for the first time.
Even so, he was entrusted with two long episodes devoted to the 20th century history of Russia, which made up roughly half of the theatrical portion of the ceremonies.
"I said, OK, if it must be Soviet it must also be ironic, clever and joyful," Ezralow, 57, recalled. "I was born in America and I went through a vision of Cold War and have never been to Russia before and to do it right I needed to eat their food, to talk to the people and try to learn their language."
In the performance Friday, a young girl stood onstage with a little red balloon to the song Ezralow had sung with the Olympic Village guards, in a portion of the program called "Moskva/The Dream," reflecting the times of political and intellectual thawing in the 1960s after Josef Stalin's death.
In the culmination of the piece she is suddenly lifted by the balloon and then lets it go, symbolizing the end of the Soviet era filled with pioneers, pilots, cosmonauts and Uncle Styopa, the good cop and household name from children's poetry played by former world heavyweight boxing champion (and currently Vladimir Putin loyalist) Nikolay Valuyev.
Ezralow dubbed the Russian revolution portion of his contribution to the show "Red Volution." It started with a stylish reference to Russian avant-garde art and Kazimir Malevich, with huge elements from Malevitch's paintings flying over the stage. But it quickly turned to the industrialization of the Soviet countries.
"I created a sort of a red world in which there were these tractors which I have peopled with dancers like gears on the machines, which at some moment start working together as a huge hydro-electric plant," Ezralow said.
The stage was swarming with red tractors, which initially appeared to be plowing the earth but then started moving faster and faster. The dancers, clad in red and black costumes, along with the tractors and cogs and gears, were visibly running at the limit of their powers.
Ezralow made his first visit to Russia last August, then worked with a group of U.S. dancers in L.A. for two weeks in October "to play around with ideas and visions." He moved on to Moscow, where he handpicked a core of 76 dancers to be joined later on by 700 more when Ezralow arrived in Krasnodar, the capital of the region where Sochi is located.
Since Jan. 2, the group has been working for eight or more hours every day, Ezralow said, and at the same time, he watched the Olympic construction come together like "an amazing cartoon."
"I looked out my hotel window one day — it is all dirt," he recalled. "I looked the next day and it is a road, and the next day it was all planted. That was truly amazing and very inspiring."