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Olympics: First Cultural Olympiad commissions announced

December 7, 2010

Now the first commissions for the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad have been announced, the two weeks of sporting competition which had hitherto seemed liked an ordeal worth leaving the capital for now feels like something to look forward to.

The Cultural Olympiad’s goals are clearcut. And it has an impressive list of board members too. And the broad range of commissions across art, theatre, dance, opera and music does much to emphasis the aspiration of connecting with as many members of the population as possible, it will be interesting to see how the events are marketed and how they’re received both critically and in terms of advance ticket sales and walk-up. And with the total cost of the 2012 Olympics likely to be in excess of £9.3bn, is £16m sufficient investment to transform what some might regard as nothing more than a sideshow into a creative opportunity producing lasting cultural contributions?

Musically speaking, the first wave of commissions includes some interesting collaborations including a co-production between Manchester International Festival and English National Opera seeing Damon Albarn, Rufus Norris and Jamie Hewlett working together on a new work. Composer James MacMillan will work with Coventry Cathedral on a premiere. A co-commission between the Barbican in London and the Vienna Festival will see award-winning Malian singer, songwriter and guitarist Rokia Traore work with novelist Toni Morrison and theatre and opera director Peter Sellars to create The Desdemona Project.

A special production of a rare work by Philip Glass – Einstein on the Beach – is a welcome addition to the rosta, but doesn’t necessarily stand up as truly of London 2012 by virtue of it not being written for London 2012.

Perhaps that hope will be achieved by the 20×12 competition. Twenty pieces each of twelve minutes length each will be performed at least three times during 2012. The competition is open to composers, ensembles, festivals and music organisations across the UK.

There will, I’m sure, be an expectation by some that something will emerge from the Cultural Olympiad’s activities which in time becomes a torchbearer for the Games. Maybe those torchbearing acts will emerge in the fullness of time either when more commissions are announced or when the ideas have been given a little more context for audiences.

I’d certainly like to see a more grass-roots, democratic arts endeavour not just for young people like the Film Shorts competition but for the wider population which – in turn – exploits the internet in an original way. Maybe that is yet to come. Maybe there are PR types somewhere who are working on just such a thing as I type.

Whatever it turns out to be, the Cultural Olympiad had better not be boring. The artistic types amongst us will be disappointed. So too Ruth MacKenzie, director of the Culture Olympiad.

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