NBC didn't air the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs choir covering"Get Lucky" or T.a.T.u's defiantly gay-friendly performance. But Friday night's telecast of the opening ceremony for the 22nd Winter Olympics in Sochi was an enthralling, if occasionally odd, swirl of East and West, old and new, strange and familiar.
It was also a showcase for the increasingly aggrieved political subtext that threatens to overshadow the Games. All early coverage has been couched repeatedly in pejorative — for Russia's anti-gay laws, the expense of the facilities and shoddiness of accommodations; for the arrogance of the president and the joylessness of the population. In conversation with Bob Costas on Thursday, American journalists David Remnick and Vladimir Posner agreed that the event would be a success if it just managed to avoid a terrorist attack or big infrastructure breakdown.
Who doesn't want to be the opening act for that international sporting event?
The "Frozen" juggernaut being what it is, one might have expected NBC to have enlisted the talents of Olaf, the singing snowman, to lighten the tone. But it was "Game of Thrones'" star Peter Dinklage who voiced the network's introduction, which was full of sweeping Westrosian vistas and epic "GoT" phrasing — "snow has become the realm of the young," "winter will not be a burden but a theater." NBC execs clearly see Russia as way more HBO than Disney.
Not that the Russians would necessarily agree. Reliant on light and color if not exactly whimsy, much of the ceremony revolved around a girl in a white nightgown, first in a bit of pre-taped surrealism that used the Russian alphabet to represent the country's many accomplishments (the corn mowing machine was, apparently, invented there; who knew?), and then in several live-action dreamscapes.
As the ceremony itself began, she rose above the stadium, a forest of inflatable onion domes blooming beneath her. The floor turned into an Impressionist swirl of color, and the forms arranged themselves into a fish, which was followed by a series of islands, each representing some part of Russian topography or populace.
It was a weird and lovely preface for all that was to come — dance and musical sequences running the gamut from "Doctor Zhivago" to "Tron" that included twirling jellyfish and luminescent roller skaters.
Or at least it would have been, if the NBC commentators — Matt Lauer, Meredith Vieira and "New Yorker" editor Remnick — had been able to keep their mouths shut for three minutes put together.
Some consideration should be given to opening night jitters but when a little girl in a nightgown goes flying into the sky, we do not need Vieira explaining that this story will be told in dreams because Russians think of themselves as dreamers. Nor do we need Lauer nervously pointing out that although some of the images/actors/letters on our screens may seem odd to the American audience, they are quite familiar to the live audience who are, you know, Russian.
But most especially, we do not need Remnick pontificating about what "Putin is trying to project" as beautiful bits of floating landscape dart by, or explaining that a delightful group of candy-colored dancers and wildly circus-like props is a representation of the creation of a Russian state "isolated from the rest of the world, isolated from the Renaissance … in a sense the source of all of Russia's problems."
Remnick will no doubt prove an invaluable source of insight throughout the Games, but during the opening ceremon, he was one big drag-fest, and not the good kind. "Interesting that the period they skipped over," he mused toward the end of almost two hours of music, light and dance, "was the collapse of the Soviet Union and the years of Boris Yeltsin."
Yes, that is what the world wanted to see: a musical tribute to Boris Yeltsin.
For the record, "they" also skipped World War II, in which they played a pretty big part. Also skipped were Bloody Sunday and the assassination of the Romanovs, though it must have been hard to give up a big Rasputin dance number.
The entire history of Russia may not have been told in scintillating detail, but the floor of the stadium was used to amazing effect in a variety of ways and we did get to see some lovely ballet and fireworks. The Dance of the Whirling Jellyfish, in which "Swan Lake" was interpreted by dancers garbed in glowing strands kept aloft by endless twirling, was … unfortunate, but who doesn't love "Swan Lake?"
Although it lasted three hours, this ceremony was not as self-aware as the opening ceremonies for the London games (no Bono), or as lavish as in Bejing. But then the Winter Olympics are never quite as big a deal as summer's. It was fun to watch, as, no doubt, the Games that follow will be — if the commentators don't try to read the past, present and future of Russia in every twist and turn.
Yes, context is important, as is protest of human rights violations and concern about violence, but for better or worse the Games are being held in Sochi, which is in Russia, which is ruled by President Putin. Let us all try to enjoy them for what they are.
Me, I thought it was interesting that the part the NBC commentators chose to skip were those god-awful Polo sweaters the American athletes were forced to wear. What on Earth is Obama trying to project with them? And talk about human rights violations….