“When meaning culminates, a dream is born.” An interview with the director of the Preliminary Draw show

Felix Mikhailov on the Preliminary Draw show staged in St. Petersburg
Share 25 July 2015

The 2018 World Cup Preliminary Draw took today at the Konstantinovsky Palace, the Russian presidential residence at Strelna, near St. Petersburg. The official ceremony was followed by a grand show, featuring 350 artists, including Russian and international legends. welcome2018.com asked Felix Mikhailov, First Channel Director who staged the Preliminary Draw show, about the show’s central idea, about what unites football and Anna Karenina, and what Valery Gergiev’s conductor’s baton can do in thirty seconds. 

- What’s the central idea that served as the glue for the director’s concept of the show?

- The idea of the whole ceremony is expressed in its slogan: “A dream is born here.” “Here” in this case refers to St. Petersburg, Russia, and right this second. Any story that develops from a momentous event depends heavily on a good start, and, certainly, a beautiful ending. The idea, therefore, was to make the audience feel that a dream is born right here, right now. This kind of experience always comes with powerful fantasies, and is laden with emotion, anticipation, intensity… That’s what the ceremony is built on.

The whole team working on the show worked hard to create an emotional palette of varying temperature inside the show. No doubt, the protocol part is important, and yes, it has to be rigorously regulated and demanding on all those participating in every episode. The challenge for us was to build real emotions around that protocol part. We allow a degree of irony (in a good sense) on account of the traditional Russian phenomena, such as Matryoshka dolls, balalaikas and Gzhel art, giving them a modern spin. At the same time, we showcase Russia’s greatness in opera, ballet and jazz. What we put on display is a blend of the past and the present, a wealth of experience and a dream, which is where the experience comes from.

- The show was previously billed as containing five numbers, symbolizing the five continents. What does the show begin with?

- A slapstick performance by the Terem Quartet Theatre, which gets credit for having been the first folk band to use traditional Russian instruments for playing contemporary music, taking the whole concept of folk music to an entirely different place, resulting in music shows that are really fun and filled with banter. Together with Leningrad Centre, they’ve got this slapstick rock circus going, which will be a welcome address to all the guests. Aliona Akhmadullina, the Russian fashion designer who did the costumes for that number, has a very subtle eye for Russian identity imagery, and knows how to reformulate it into future trends. All the ideas that went into this amazing number are part of our attempt to translate folklore, merge it with hop-hop, and find cool accompaniment for street dancing and freestyle dancing, the best talent of which is on the show.

- The ad for the show stated that opera soloists Hibla Gerzmava and Vasily Gorello were going to take us “on a tour of Russia’s landmarks,” while performing the song Evenings Near Moscow. Who put together the music part of the show? Why were these particular compositions used, and not some others?  

- We chose Evenings Near Moscow because several generations know the tune. I’m sure the moms and dads of today’s football players remember the famous 1957 international festival of youth and students in Moscow, which, it is believed, was the first event to introduce the world to the idea that Russia (then the Soviet Union) was a normal country, not some snow-covered wasteland populated by bears. Evenings Near Moscow is a song that takes us back to the past.

- The third number is jazz, right? That’s why Igor Butman is billed as playing, among others?  

- The texture of this number is 100% American. Many differently nuanced jazz musicians are on, from UK, Israel, US, Brazil, Germany and Russia. It’s a real jam, played according to the laws of live improvisation. You know how short-tempered and feisty fans are in South America. They are so charged with emotion they will trash the stadium if their team loses the game. In this show, we underscored that kind of temperament with emotions from the jazz improvisation, and musicians representing the five continents got to share the stage.   

- As long as the 2018 World Cup Preliminary Draw is hosted by St. Petersburg, does the show reflect any St. Petersburg “ideation,” culture or historical heritage?  

- Yes, and it’s an important part. St. Petersburg is a melting pot of cultures. It has Russian and European architecture, it was the birthplace of Russian avant-garde art and of the great Russian ballet school, the city has been an inspiration for Russian writers and poets from Dostoevsky and Pushkin to Dovlatov and Brodsky. Every street here is a historical landmark or a cultural shrine: characters of some of the greatest works of literature of all times walked these streets. We have tried to integrate these subtle St. Petersburg motifs into our show, which is why we included a fragment of the ballet Anna Karenina, staged by Boris Eifman. This is a modern ballet show and one of the “golden greats” of world literature at the same time. It’s the most screened novel in the world and a very St. Petersburg story with a St. Petersburg feel. It was interesting for me to try and convey the “light insanity” of this city, to mix up styles, genres and trends the way they are mixed up in St. Petersburg, where, walking down the perfectly symmetrical Architect Rossi Street you suddenly find yourself staring at the new Alexandrinsky stage. St. Petersburg sometimes feels totally like Europe, but the next moment you’re back in the middle of some Dostoevskian hell-hole, some signature St. Petersburg “well” of a courtyard.  We wanted to invoke this emotional rollercoaster, so that every person in the audience, concentrated on the results of the protocol part of the draw just a second ago, could suddenly “exhale” and… inhale again, but this time absorbing what they call “the Russian spirit.” The concept is hard to explain in words, but trust me, it’s a readable and powerful performance.  On top of it, the ceremony is taking place in a historic spot, the 300 years old Konstantinovsky Palace, amid a scenic park complex, to the accompaniment of the falling twilight, which has this totally different feel in St. Petersburg than any other place. These are all kinds of emotional pinpricks for every person attending.

- The final part of the ceremony is the culmination of what exactly? What meaning is embedded in the episode with the children’s choir and Polina Gagarina?  

- The final number, starring Eurovision prize-winner Polina Gagarina, is Million Voices, a song and theme that seamlessly fits into the ceremony concept and the ideas we wish to share. This all works towards the culmination of the meaning, of the central idea: the birth of a dream. We intentionally put the extended children’s choir at ceremony’s end, in which the number of singers is the same as the number of countries claiming participation in the 2018 World Cup. Every soloist has the symbol of a particular country – its flag – on his t-shirt. This is not a formality or an imitation: the number really is the same. Every confederation will find its national emblem in the children’s choir. This is an extremely emotionally charged number. In the finale, the choir starts moving, but suddenly stops in front of some elements of technology. This expresses the idea that human emotion, the human soul, is more important than technology. Moreover, technology kills emotion and dulls the soul, making it insensitive. The message here is: join us, it’s going to be warm and nice and soulful and festive here. The Draw being the first event in which our country welcomes the guests of the 2018 World Cup, we wanted to highlight friendliness and hospitality. It’s like we’re saying, our soul is an open book, we open it up for the sake of this tournament’s dream, the dream of winning.    

- Was the staging of this ceremony a personal challenge for you? What you’re telling me, it’s either going to fly or not, but we have no right to make mistakes, and we cannot afford not to have an emotional response.   

-  Yes, it truly is a major event, but it shouldn’t be overdramatized. Too much drama wouldn’t be right. We also could have made the show more high-tech in the fashion of the day, but I thought understated minimalism would be more sincere, more soulful. We could have flooded the stage with tons of water, but trust me, this wouldn’t have been worth 30 seconds of music conducted by Gergiev.