Presidents Report

Rag Morris at the London 2012 Olympic Closing Ceremony
Charlotte Smith – Rag Morris and Folk club President

‘Once in a lifetime’ is a phrase that is often overused in my opinion, however in this instance I feel its use is perfectly justified. When the invitation came to us in early February to appear in the London 2012 Olympic Closing Ceremony, there was a general air of shock and incredulity amongst us all. However, after the initial shock, the enormity of the situation dawned on us and the true meaning of ‘once in a lifetime’ really hit home. As one of a number of morris sides put forward to the organisers, we went for an audition in London. During the minibus ride, there was an air of tense excitement, which quickly turned to nervous determination once we reached the audition venue. Then, the whole audition was over within 5 minutes and, knowing we’d given the best performance we could, we left London on a high to eagerly await the organisers’ response.

When the news came through that we’d been accepted to perform, we were ecstatic! The reality of how we were going to be able to afford to participate quickly became an issue, as we were expected to fund our own transport and make our own costumes. However, due to the generous support of the University of Bristol Alumni Foundation, as well as other funding sources, the members of our group that were invited were able to perform. Making our costumes became social events, with many of the performers meeting regularly for days of assembling rag shirts and threading bells onto bell pads. As well as being productive days, it gave us the opportunity to discuss all the wonderful things we were doing and learning that we had to otherwise keep secret!

Although the rehearsals often involved lots of repetition and waiting around, the enthusiasm of the creative team, especially Gareth Walker (show director and choreographer), as well as all the other staff and volunteers, made them great fun. Knowing that we were going to be dancing to ‘Always look on the Brightside of Life’, sung by Eric Idle of Monty Python fame, we were a little unsure of how Morris dancing would fit into the performance. However, as soon as the first rehearsal was under way, we were all reassured and excited about the eccentric performance we were to be part of. After all, when you’re joined by roller-skating nuns, a male Welsh voice choir in traditional female Welsh dress, a Scottish pipe band, bhangra dancers, models dressed as angels, other morris dancers and a human cannon ball, who can say no?! We got to know the other volunteer performers in our section, and every trip started to feel like a catch-up with friends who were also ‘in on the secret’. Initially, the rehearsals were held at a small studio, 3 Mills, in East London. Here, the basic choreography was put in place with small groups of our section, although the big picture was very far from clear.

Then our rehearsals moved from the relative comfort and security of the 3 Mills studios to the old Ford plant in Dagenham, where the size of the performance could be truly appreciated. The 1:1 scaled site was vast. Over the course of several months, we travelled to and from London for our rehearsals, and by this point had become very familiar with early morning alarm calls to get us to East London in time for our 9 am starts. Other groups and sections started to appear at rehearsals, with the whole ‘Brightside’ number finally coming together with a few weeks to spare. Running the complete number felt fantastic and very exhilarating.

The dress rehearsal was our first opportunity to see how our small section fitted into the event as a whole. After our previous rehearsals, which were just for our section and the ‘Mr Bright Sky’ performers who preceded us in the running order, we were struck by the sheer number of people! Seeing a mass of individuals in beautiful, theatrical costumes turned a disused stretch of tarmac in East London into a brightly coloured sea of organised chaos. When we weren’t on the ‘field of play’ running through our routine, we were allowed to watch the other acts. This included most of the famous acts in the British Symphony of Music. Watching the Spice Girls zoom around on taxis or Annie Lennox entering on a demonic boat accompanied by ghoulish regency dancers was surreal, and knowing we were going to be part of the same show as them was such a fantastic feeling. Our run through went spectacularly well, and after handing over our costumes to be taken to the Olympic stadium, we left the Dagenham rehearsal site for the last time feeling very confident.

On the morning of the 12th August, we all had to be up early and ready to leave for the Olympic park at 9.30am. During the tube journey, many of us used it as a final opportunity to have a nap after a night of nerve induced restless sleep. Upon arrival at the Olympic park, we were shuffled through security to our backstage area next to the stadium, where we spent the best part of the next ten hours. After eating yet another specially provided lunch pack, there was nothing left to do but wait. Due to technical difficulties assembling the stage, the planned afternoon run-through in the stadium was cancelled, increasing tension levels dramatically backstage. We tried to keep ourselves entertained as best as possible by reading, playing cards and listening to music, but with the surrounding tense atmosphere it was difficult to concentrate on anything.

When the call came through to put costumes on and prepare ourselves to perform, there was a sense of relief at finally being able to do something. As successive groups were called down to the stadium for their sections, the remaining groups cheered off every performer and waited with varying states of impatience for their own turn. Although there was no screen in our dressing room to watch the show, we could hear the whole show through our in-ear monitors, and the roar of the crowd resonating out of the stadium. The atmosphere was electric. And then, it was our turn to be taken down to our entry points.

We had rehearsed the routine numerous times, knowing the steps and musical queues like the back of our hands, but nothing could prepare us for the noise of the stadium. As the last strain of ‘Mr Blue Sky’ played out, we lined up at our entry points looking out onto the audience and vast expanse of the stadium, totally and utterly deafened by the drone of applause. Then Eric Idle began singing ‘Some things in life are bad…’ and off we went. Dancing on stage with the fellow volunteers and performers in our section accompanied by 80,000 people singing along to ‘Always look on the Bright Side of Life’ was a great honour. Every face I saw whilst dancing had a brilliant smile on it, with the whole thing going according to plan and coming together to create a fitting celebration of British humour. As we stood in our final positions watching the human cannonball being fired across the stadium, the realisation that we had finally done it sunk in and there was an immense feeling of pride amongst everyone that was involved.

Once backstage again, group hugs and cheers of delight rang out, showing the strength of emotion that everyone felt at having accomplished something we’d been working towards for the past six months. Parading back onto the stage with the other volunteers whilst The Who played out the show with fireworks exploding overhead was a perfect party-feeling end to the London 2012 Olympic Closing Ceremony. Our immense journey was over and all that remained to do was celebrate before heading back to Bristol and to work!

Whilst camping in London, in between the busy rehearsal schedule we were able to take part in many other exciting events and take advantage of the varied cultural offerings of the capital. On the afternoon of the 10th August, we were invited to dance in the Olympic park to entertain crowds as part of a showcase of British tradition and talent. This allowed members of Rag Morris that could not dance in the closing ceremony to look around the Olympic park and experience the positive feeling that had swept across London. There was a lot of interest in our dancing, with crowds of people from all over the world stopping to watch us and asking enthusiastic questions.

Members of Rag Morris also managed to visit Cecil Sharp house, the headquarters of The English Folk Dance and Song Society. The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library is housed here, which contains one of the biggest and most important collections of material related to English traditional music and dance, including morris dancing. Several members of our group used this opportunity to learn more about the fascinating history of morris dancing, as well as getting the chance to perform jigs in this important location.

In between rehearsals, we also managed to watch some of the free Olympic events, such as the Men’s and Women’s triathlon in Hyde park, visit a few of the many museums London has to offer, and see some fantastic shows in the West End. Members of the side also attended a Folk music session with members of Blackheath Morris Men, the other side selected to perform in the closing ceremony, which was such good fun that we are currently trying to arrange a dance-out with them at some point in the near future.

In my opinion, the London 2012 Olympic Games have been a resounding success, and I feel unbelievably privileged to have had a roll in them and to have been part of the magic atmosphere that gripped the nation for two weeks. Thanks to your help supporting Rag Morris, we were able to be a part of history and experience events none of us will ever be able to forget.