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The artistic director of the Winter Games opening ceremonies promises a dazzling show that will feature the Russian Revolution, the faux-lesbian band tATu, top ballet dancers and an electronic surprise to inject some juice into the often tedious athletes' march.
The four-hour ceremony starts at 11 a.m ET and will be capped off, of course, by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who, as head of state, will tonight officially declare the 2014 Games open in the Fisht Olympic Stadium.
He will rely on the ceremony to project a positive image of the games – and, by extension, Russia – to a potential audience of hundreds of millions of people around the world as the government faces an anti-Putin movement in Ukraine and a backlash against its gay "propaganda" law.
Konstantin Ernst, who is officially head of the Sochi opening ceremonies staging agency, told reporters that the program "should be an artistic masterpiece and informative because it targets people who may know very little of the country…We want them to carry a love of Russia."
Ernst has a hard act to follow. The opening ceremony of the London's 2012 Summer Olympics, directed by British film director Danny Boyle, won global plaudits for its creativity and artistic interpretation of British culture, history and institutions, including the dancing nurses from the National Health Service.
But Ernst, well aware that British cultural references are far better known globally than Russian ones, said his show will avoid performances that would be lost on foreigners. While he praised Boyle's show, he noted that the "medical part [the NHS nurses] was very much misunderstood by many other countries in the world…We are not going to feature any topics that will be only interesting for Russians."
He would not provide details about the program – pre-ceremony secrecy is a tradition at Olympic opening ceremonies – but confirmed that it will feature the country's best ballet dancers, opera singer Anna Netrebko, who will perform the opening hymn, and an athletes' march that will be "much more dynamic than before."
The march may emerge as the biggest surprise of the ceremony. Ernst said, "We are going to project the image of the Earth from outer space and every time a country is announced the Earth will rotate in such a way so we can see the the particular part of the Earth where [the athletes'] country is."
The Russian band tATu will preform in the program's pre-ceremony, Ernst said. Their song, Not Gonna Get Us, is about two schoolgirls in love, an odd choice given the country's new anti-gay laws. He said it was chosen because it was one of the few Russian pop songs that is known internationally.
Ernst is considered the most powerful man in Russian media and a close ally of Putin. He is director general of Channel One, the country's largest television station , which is 51 per cent owned by the state. He has also produced 30 movies and directed the 2009 Eurovison Song Contest, which drew an audience of more than 120 million.
He is directing both the opening and closing ceremonies.
Ernst ran into controversy last year when an old interview he gave to the Russian edition of Rolling Stone magazine surfaced. In the interview, Ernst commented on the pro-government bias of television, direct influence by the Kremlin on senior editors and the 1995 murder of a popular broadcaster, allegedly ordered by an advertising executive.
Forty heads of state and delegations will be among the 40,000 spectators at the Fisht stadium. Few Western leaders will be attending.