'Hi honey, how was your day?" has become a complicated question for Jean Grand-Maître.
When he returns to the temporary Vancouver home he shares with his partner near Granville Island, there's not much he can actually disclose about his day. As the choreographer of the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2010 Olympics, Grand-Maître is under a strict confidentiality order: so no asking for advice, no gossip about the dance routines or costumes or sets - just short, vague answers.
"I can just say today was tiring, today was amazing, today was fulfilling," says Grand-Maître over a much-needed latte (his fifth of the day). "But you can't say too much. You can't say how many people are in the room with you, what the concepts are - especially that."
The stress is high and the perks non-existent. Free tickets to the ceremonies he's helping to create? Forget it. Grand-Maître, like everyone else, had to enter the online lottery. He managed to get a single ticket for both the opening and closing ceremonies for his partner ("not the expensive ones," he says).
What Grand-Maître, 46, will say is that it is an exhaustive (and at times exhausting) process, bringing thousands of volunteers together to create ceremonies that he says will represent the essence of Canada.
"You want to show your country to the world in a beautiful way that represents us intellectually, artistically, our amazing diversity." He is careful to point out that he is executing concepts that are coming from above - from executive producer David Atkins and his team, but adds that he's on-side. "I wouldn't have participated if I didn't like what they were going to do."
Grand-Maître, whose day job is that of artistic director at Alberta Ballet, says many of the ideas came out of the symposia Atkins and VANOC held two years ago, bringing in big thinkers in the arts from across the country to discuss their visions of Canada, and the ceremonies. Grand-Maître did not take part in those discussions, but he has been working on the ceremonies since last February, spending one week a month, and the entire month of June, in Vancouver. He's now moved to Vancouver for the duration and will return to Calgary - and Alberta Ballet - after the Olympics.
The days are long - some of his colleagues are working seven days a week, 14 hours a day - with meetings at offices in the Downtown Eastside and rehearsals in the big white tent next to BC Place. (They'll move into BC Place for rehearsals in early- to mid- January). Grand-Maître has a team of about 15 choreographers and assistants working under him for the enormous project. "It's like doing 10 Cirque de Soleil shows at the same time, that's how big it is," he says. "And it's exciting, it's a whirlwind."
Time is divided equally, he says, between rehearsing the opening and closing ceremonies. "You're working on both simultaneously," he says. "This is rocket science scheduling."
When Grand-Maître is backstage wearing his headset for the opening ceremony on Feb. 12, it will be his first in-person Olympic event. At 13, he drove with his family from Aylmer, Que., to Montreal for the 1976 Olympics, hoping to get tickets once they got there. They were out of luck.
But he has certainly watched enough Olympic ceremonies on TV to know the bar is high. "They say the opening ceremonies set the tone of an Olympics, so if the opening ceremonies are highly successful, there's a better chance of everything going well." He's less concerned about the world leaders who will be watching, than he is about the athletes. "For them it's the beginning of the adventure after so many years of sacrifice."
While Grand-Maître's background is ballet, there will be no classical ballet in the ceremonies but rather "a complete fusion of things ... a fusion of ideas and thoughts and people from different mediums of art." Reading between Grand-Maître's cryptic lines, it seems there will be a strong First Nations component to the ceremonies - not a surprise. Also, he lets slip a length for the opening ceremony: an hour and a half.
It is all being overseen by Atkins, an Australian, who created the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2000 Sydney Olympics and the 2006 Asian Games in Doha. Grand-Maître gushes about Atkins: He is full of energy and ideas, an innovator, a great leader who knows how to motivate volunteers. "He's a machine ... a beautiful inspiration," says Grand-Maître. When things are tense, Atkins cracks a joke. He never loses his temper despite the enormous demands.
"As it's getting more and more intense, you feel like he's a guy on a surfboard riding a hell of a wave. There's an energy but at the same time, precision. It's quite a ride."
The pressure is certainly on following the eye-popping opening ceremony at the 2008 Beijing Games. How will Vancouver be able to top that?
"You can't. Basically you go in a completely different direction," says Grand-Maître. "For me [Beijing]was an extraordinary performance that will never be done again. They rehearsed I think for three years. Now if you ask a guy in Vancouver to rehearse for three years he's going to give you the middle finger and go play beach volleyball."
There are rumours: Céline Dion and Bryan Adams will perform; Sarah McLachlan won't (hard to believe); a huge pit is being dug underneath BC Place to accommodate the shows' technical requirements. None has been substantiated. And at every single rehearsal, the volunteers - and staff - are reminded of the strict confidentiality agreement they have signed.
It's not an easy thing to keep secrets in the age of camera phones and YouTube (cellphones are allowed into the rehearsal hall but have to be shut off), but Grand-Maître says it is important to keep the secret.
"The IOC's very, very adamant that this has to be a surprise to the world. And I understand that, because it should be unveiled like a Christmas gift."