Live From Pan Am Games: TO2015, Cirque du Soleil Pull Back Curtain on Opening Ceremony

Before the athletes take the field at the Pan Am Games, they will first enter the Rogers Centre for the most highly anticipated (and highly secret) event: the Opening Ceremony. Produced in collaboration with one of Canada’s most recognizable cultural exports, Cirque du Soleil, the Opening Ceremony officially kicks off the country’s largest multisport event to date.

From left: TO2015’s Neala Barton moderates an Opening Ceremony discussion featuring TO2015’s Saäd Rafi and 45 Degrees' Jean Guibert and Yasmine Khalil.

From left: TO2015’s Neala Barton moderates an Opening Ceremony discussion featuring TO2015’s Saäd Rafi and 45 Degrees’ Jean Guibert and Yasmine Khalil.

“There is no better place in the world to celebrate the values of diversity, inclusiveness, and joy in sport than right here in Toronto,” says Saäd Rafi, CEO, Toronto 2015 Pan Am Games (TO2015). “The Opening Ceremony will be an unforgettable shared experience that reflects the very best of who we are as a diverse people. I guarantee you’ll feel pride and awe in the iconic moments we’re about to create together, as we welcome athletes from 41 nations.”

For the past two years, Cirque de Soleil and its production company, 45 Degrees, have been heavily involved with TO2015 in building the design concept, collaborating on ideas, and creating a 2½-hour performance intended not only to incorporate the Games but to represent the region.

No stranger to large-scale events (Cirque du Soleil has performed during the Super Bowl and Academy Awards shows), the group has never done an Opening Ceremony. According to Yasmine Khalil, executive producer, 45 Degrees, creating tonight’s performance has taken the same amount of time and resources — if not more — required to create a permanent Cirque show projected to run for 20 years.

“We’ve had opportunities at Cirque du Soleil to explore and participate in great projects, including Opening Ceremonies. It’s not because we’ve never had the opportunity, but this really felt right for so many reasons,” she explains. “When we first met the TO2015 team, we were immediately captivated by their vision for these Games: how they wanted to really set a mark for Canada and for the region, for Ontario. For us as storytellers, we felt like this was a great challenge, and we really wanted to embark on it and, through our storytelling ability, be able to tell the story that they had in their vision.”

Because the Toronto Blue Jays are in season, Cirque du Soleil also had to work around the team and had only three days to load in more than 50 production trucks.

Although details of tonight’s performance have been largely kept under wraps, both Khalil and Creative Director Jean Guibert offered a sneak peek at what the sold-out audience of 45,000 spectators in the venue — and hundreds of millions more at home — can expect.

“It’s really in between surreal and very contemporary at the same time,” Guibert says. “The language of the show is not traditional Cirque. We decided to blend many new disciplines into our ceremony tomorrow — extreme sports, dance, hip hop, acrobatics — to do a show that is young and fresh. This is really the tone of that show. This is a show that must be contemporary; it must be relevant to the athletes, who are 19, 20 years old. We really loved this challenge of trying to reinvent ourselves, push the limits, and come up with a strong contemporary statement.”

The Opening Ceremony, which culminates in the lighting of the Pan Am Caldron at the base of the CN Tower, features an international cast of 625 performers — including 25 Cirque performers who are former Pan Am Games competitors — representing 25 nationalities. Festivities begin at 8 p.m. ET and will be broadcast on CBC in English, French, and American Sign Language.