9.52pm. 27 July 2012. Backstage in the Olympic Stadium. Sugababes “Push the Button” in my ears from my performers’ headset. “Tim Cast! 1…2…3…4… Let’s kick this pig!” screamed our cast coordinator. As hundreds of us began to charge towards the stage, dazzled by the lights and deafened by the roaring crowd, I thought of how months of rehearsals had culminated in this once in a lifetime event.
With no dance training to speak of I was not expecting much as I skipped along to the first audition for the Ceremonies all the way in Bow. I was even more surprised when I was called back for a second audition. While my friend was put in a Lindy Hop audition group, I found myself in a Hip Hop dance one! Those who know me will testify to how I am far from what could be described as ‘street’… We were told that whatever happened that day, we would come away having effectively had an amazing 3 hour dance lesson with renowned choreographers (from Boy Blue Entertainment). With that in mind I got stuck in and it was indeed immensely fun. I was overjoyed when I got the casting email saying that I was in Group 49-B in the Olympics Opening Ceremony.
The first rehearsal was in April and there we were given our own numbered bib with ‘TIM’ in big letters – Danny Boyle showed us a video outlining the gist and narrative of our section – music through the ages and thank you to Tim Berners-Lee for inventing the internet. The flurry of excitement amongst the hundreds of people in the room was palpable. Learning choreography started instantly – it was exhausting! Each rehearsal was 5 hours long with a 20 minute break for food. By the second rehearsal we were told what our costumes would be. I saw the girls on either side of me had ‘mirror dresses and ‘sequin dresses’ respectively. When I glanced down at my own costume laminate I saw it said ‘Light Up Dress’. How could I not be excited about what that could entail as a costume? I certainly was not disappointed.
Over the next couple of months it was incredible watching all the parts of our section come together. It started with 170 of us in a room learning dance routines in a grid formation. Then 350 of us in a room, which was the whole 60s music section. Soon there were 1500 of us rehearsing in a huge airfield in Dagenham and we were able to see each other’s routines representing British music through the decades. All the groups were so supportive of each other and it was impossible not to feel increasingly excited about what the end result would look like in the stadium.
From the end of June we were in the Olympic stadium for rehearsals. It suddenly all felt very real. I couldn’t get over how big it was. It was so exciting to think of how many people would be there for the ceremonies and also how many amazing athletes would be participating in events there.
Most of the cast were held in Eton Manor, a good 25 minute walk from the stadium, but the sense of camaraderie was fantastic and part of me quite misses sitting out on the lawn there chatting excitedly to others about the routines and our lives outside of the Olympics Park.
But boy did those Light Up Dresses have their problems! The dresses were all hanging up in a room under the stadium so we would assemble there in our leotards and wigs ready to be helped by the costume team. Each dress weighed 10 kilograms, was a metre in diameter and it took 3 people to get you in one – they would hold it out and you had to dive into it from underneath and then get strapped in. The light switch was hidden under your right armpit so it was a tad awkward to reach but luckily we got to practice enough that we could have done it blindfolded on the night.
The dresses looked incredible when they were lit up and they also had a rotating inner layer which looked amazing when we spun around. The problem with the weight was that after about 10 minutes the dresses started hurting our shoulders and they were pretty difficult to move in – the hole for our legs was actually quite small so it was very tricky to walk quickly or run. They were also very difficult to dance in which I know for some of the girls was quite frustrating having given their all over those hours of rehearsals to master the choreography.
We didn’t get to try them on until a couple of weeks before the ceremony and the Saturday before the performance was the first time where the 23 of us Light Up Dresses got to do a proper run through of the whole routine in full costume. Unfortunately we had been called too early to the stadium so had to wear the dresses for much longer than necessary and whilst waiting in the backstage tunnels (or vomitoriums) everyone was rather conscious of hindered mobility and achy shoulders. Unfortunately three girls then had panic attacks and had to be whizzed out of their costumes. Out of concern for the rest of us we weren’t allowed to do the run through and were told to return the next day. By the next rehearsal the girls had changed costumes and our costume team had got the remaining 20 of us a cardboard box each to rest the base of the dress on while we waited backstage to keep the weight off our shoulders until the last minute. Morale was quite low having seen our friends in distress so it felt quite tense at this rehearsal. Running to get on stage was pretty tricky in such a cumbersome outfit and getting up the stairs also felt a tad hairy what with being unable to see our feet under the dresses. Then when I got into position my dress didn’t light up because the battery pack had run out! Running on stage had also given me the biggest bruise I’d ever seen on my leg.
However, the ceremony creative team were amazing at swiftly rectifying issues so by the next rehearsal, i.e. the first Tech Rehearsal, they had fashioned a hoop skirt of sorts for each of us to catch the bottom of the dresses and keep the weight on our hips rather than our shoulders. Keeping the dresses a bit higher off the shoulders also meant we could move our arms easier and actually do the routines more effectively. Both the Tech Rehearsals went so well and we were allowed to invite two people to the Wednesday one – knowing that we had friends and family in the audience made it feel even more special. Having audiences at the Tech Rehearsals also meant that we were much better prepared for how surreal it would be running into the arena on the big day, with an 80,000 strong audience and all the incredible lighting and music.
When the 27th came round I was excited and nervous in equal measure. We’d all been encouraged to learn how to do our own make up and wigs but actually everyone was so supportive of each other and you always saw people helping each other with doing their make-up and prepping their hair for wig wearing – tying off hair into many sections flat to your skull, putting on a head sock, clipping it all down, putting the wig on (straight) and clipping that down too – basically a ridiculous amount of kirby grips! Everyone looked incredible.
Walking to the stadium for the final time was tremendously exciting but there was also the realisation that soon it would all be over. The backstage atmosphere was one of great excitement. It was finally time to show 1 billion viewers what we’d all been working on for the past few months and kick start the 2012 Olympic Games.
Running out on stage for the Olympics Opening Ceremony was probably the most exciting moment of my life. Luckily all the dresses lit up on the night! I was filled with pride that London was home to the Olympics and so impressed by how effectively the whole ceremony had come together, coordinating thousands and thousands of people to make a show like no other. Predictably it felt like it was over in seconds but standing in my 60s peace sign formation listening to the crowd response to the ‘Thank You Tim’ section and seeing all the other amazing routines (which never got old despite having seen them so many times!) is a feeling I shall never forget.
Madeline Adeane is the Press Officer at Dulwich Picture Gallery