The Olympic lighting ceremony: Masterminding the flame in Ancient Olympia
When high priestess Katerina Lehou kindles the 2016 Olympic flame next Thursday, one person will be watching more intently than anyone else. Choreographer Artemis Ignatiou is responsible for every last detail of the flame lighting ceremony in Ancient Olympia.
The journey of what Baron Pierre de Coubertin called “The Fire of Olympia” has become one of the most recognisable Olympic symbols. It begins from the site of the Games of antiquity, a spectacular backdrop and an inspirational setting.
“The choreography for the lighting of the Olympic Flame is unlike any other work,” says Ignatiou.
“Ordinarily, I express my own inspiration and ideas for the needs of a specific play, but when choreographing for the Olympic Flame, I serve an idea which first belonged to my country Greece and now belongs to the whole world.”
Ignatiou has been an integral part of the flame lighting ceremony for almost 30 years.
Back in 1988, she was a dance student who responded to a call for performers to take part. The ceremony in Olympia was then organised by veteran choreographer Maria Hors. Ignatiou later became a dance teacher and choreographer herself. She was asked to assist Hors with the production of the 1992 ceremony and has been involved ever since. The pair were destined to work together for a decade.
Hors had been involved in the very first Olympic torch relay in 1936. Still a teenager, she had been invited to take part in the ritual by her teacher Koula Pratsika who lit the flame to be carried from Olympia to Berlin. A tradition was born.
This year marks the 80th anniversary of that first relay but Hors died last autumn at the age of 94, so for Ignatiou and many of her fellow performers, the ceremony will have a special poignancy.
Since taking over as the lead choreographer, Ignatiou has seen the ceremony become a major television spectacle. As many as 30 dancers now represent the priestesses and a group of young men also perform representing the “heralds”. In the days of antiquity, they were responsible for taking news of the Games to each Greek city state. In recent years the heralds have danced alongside the priestesses in the Altis, the special area where the flame is actually ignited.
The priestesses are all drawn from the theatrical community in Greece and are chosen for their bearing and grace. All wear specially designed costumes based on those from ancient times.
“I have sole responsibility for the costumes, the sandals, even the hairstyles of the priestesses,” said Ignatiou.
“I choose the designer and work with them during the design and selection of material.
“I give instructions to the hairdresser and check all the girls one by one before the ceremony.”
This year, Ignatiou selected costumes designed by London born Eleni Kyriacou, once a pupil of Alexander McQueen. Woven in Merino wool, they appear a very pale turquoise but when the dancers are in motion, green and light blue pleats can be seen, reflecting the colours of the olive groves of Olympia and the seas which are an integral part of the Greek landscape.
’My primary goal was staying true to the ancient spirit, making the moment when the world is taken on a journey to the ancient site as enchanting as possible,’’ said Kyriacou.
The lighting ritual itself begins in the temple of the Goddess Hera. The ancient columns form a dramatic and appropriate backdrop for the moment when the flame is kindled in a parabolic bowl from the rays of the sun.
As the great moment approaches, the high priestess steps forward to offer a prayer to Apollo: “Let the sky, the earth, the sea and the winds sound, mountains fall silent, sounds and birdsong cease.
“Apollo, king of the sun and light, send your rays and light the sacred torch for the hospitable city of Rio de Janeiro, and you Zeus give peace to all peoples on earth and wreath the winners of the sacred race.”
The flame is then lit by the high priestess from the rays of the sun in a reflective bowl using a special torch. Designed by Athenian silversmith Ilias Lalaounis, it is a representation of a column in the temple. It is deliberately distinct from the torches that will be used in the relay to Rio. Once lit the flame is placed in a small pot, or amphora, by a priestess known as the Estiada. She is joined by the other priestesses who begin a stately procession to the ancient stadium.
There is a brief pause as a small boy, known as the Amphithalis Pais, cuts an olive branch. It is laid down that both his parents must be alive. At ancient Greek weddings, the presence of such a child at the festivities was a good omen for a fruitful marriage. In 2008, Ignatiou watched proudly as her son Errikos took this role and younger brother Karolos did so in 2012.
For those watching in the ancient stadium, the first view of the procession and the flame comes when the priestesses appear on the brow of the hill. They perform their dance movements on what is a steep slope leading down to the site.
“The rehearsals on the hill in Olympia are very important for us,” said Ignatiou. “Firstly for technical reasons, since we rehearse mostly on the flat but we have to perform it on the slope of a hill.
“Secondly it is because that specific place has such energy. It is an energy which emerges from its great history.”
The musical accompaniment has been composed by Yiannis Pseimadas who provided the music for the Lillehammer Youth Olympic lighting. The soundtrack has taken on ever greater importance in the last few years.
- By Philip Barker
- Republished with permission insidethegames.biz