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PUBLICATIONS Inside Illinois Vol. 21, No. 15, March 7, 2002

UI designer had hand in opening ceremonies of Winter Olympics

By Sharita Forrest, Assistant Editor
(217) 244-1072; slforres@illinois.edu

Photo by Bill Wiegand
The Fire Within Benny Gomes, a lecturer in the UI’s theater department, helped design the ‘dancing mobiles’ costumes for the opening ceremonies’ "The Fire Within" number of the 2002 Winter Olympic Games. The costumes, some of which towered 40 feet high and spanned 32 feet in width, were the largest costumes to date designed by the Callaloo Company.

A designer from the UI’s Urbana campus, Benny Gomes, helped light up the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.

No, Gomes did not run in the torch relay, but he helped bring heat to Rice-Eccles Stadium as one of a team of designers who helped stage the opening ceremonies’ dramatic hallmark segment, "The Fire Within."

Gomes, a lecturer in the UI’s theater Department, is one of several associate designers working with the Callaloo Company, a performance art company based in his native Trinidad and headed by creative director Peter Minshall.

"The Fire Within" production incorporated Callaloo Company’s "dancing mobiles" – enormous costumes that combine the theatricality of sculpture with the expressiveness and mobility of the human body. The parachute-like costumes radiate yards above the wearers’ heads and out beyond their limbs using Fiberglas fishing poles akin to umbrella spines that move in tandem with the performer.

An early line drawing for the snowflake costumes, which were a steel-colored mesh that encased the performer. As the performers turned, the circle spiraled and gave the motion of falling/turning flakes.

The costumes are derived from the mas’, what the locals call the masquerade of Trinidad’s Carnival celebration, another event for which the company designs costumes and stages productions.

The 2002 games marked Gomes’ third Olympics design project with Callaloo. The company also staged productions for the 1992 and 1996 Olympic Games in Barcelona and Atlanta, respectively.

The dancing mobiles for the 2002 Winter Olympics, some of which towered
40 feet high and spanned 32 feet in width, were the largest costumes to date designed by the company.

Callaloo’s designs for the 1996 Olympics production had incorporated 24-foot fishing poles. However, the design team had since found a company in Scotland selling 32-foot poles and decided they would top their production from the previous Olympics.

Structural engineers helped create the skeletons of the dancing mobiles to help achieve the correct balance and placement of the various moving parts.

"It’s almost like having stilt walkers, but the performer is actually controlling all of the movement with their limbs," Gomes said. "They have a kind of towering energy. They’re quite extraordinary."

Callaloo’s design team began working on the production number for the 2002 Olympics approximately 2 1/2 years ago. Given the theme, "The Fire Within," the designers were charged with creating a dramatic but simple story and illustrating that story through a stadium-sized production number containing little or no narration.

The design team conceived a scene akin to a Grimm fairy tale in which a child would wander through a magical winter forest and become lost in the darkness and would be beset by crones and a snowstorm of "icicle people" until the child was rescued by hundreds of other children carrying lights.

"And that’s where we had 750 other children coming into the stadium with their little lights," Gomes said. "So it was really a story of the human spirit but told with light."

For the Trinidadian design team, an added challenge was that the adult performers, the dancing mobiles, would be ice skating rather than walking, in keeping with the season of the games. Thus, the team had to find a way to incorporate the skaters’ boots into the designs so they would not be obtrusive and demystify the illusion created by the rest of the costume.

In addition, outfitting skaters also posed a few challenges for the designers because of the added speed and wind resistance. Yet another challenge was that the designers were working with a choreographer with whom they had never worked.

The designers also had to create the production keeping in mind that the majority of its viewers would see it by television rather than in person as they would a theater production.

"Designing for the box, for television, is quite different than designing for the theater, which is an entirely different shape and different scale," Gomes said. "It can’t be called anything but ‘spectacle,’ " Gomes said.

Nonetheless, the performers and designers had only two dress rehearsals prior to the opening ceremonies.

Frigid 30-degree weather and a television viewing audience of millions made for "controlled chaos," Gomes said.

Throughout his 30 years with the Callaloo Company, Gomes has helped design costumes and stage productions for other major events, including the 1994 World Cup Soccer Tournament in Chicago and the 1987 Pan American Games in Indianapolis.

Gomes earned his undergraduate degree in theater production from Boston University and his master’s degree in lighting design from the UI. Gomes joined the UI’s theater department in 1999. He has worked in costume and lighting design internationally, and his credits include productions of "Angels in America, Part 1: Millennium Approaches" (1994) and "La Boheme" (2001).

Gomes is designing costumes and lighting for the upcoming production of "Song of Songs," which opens at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts March 30. The production draws upon verses from the Quran and the Bible’s Song of Solomon.

"I think that will be quite a treat," Gomes said. "It involves multi-media and is probably one of the most collaborative efforts in the theater I’ve ever experienced. The actors and the director are bringing ideas and the costume designs are evolving from that rather than the costumes being designed beforehand. It’s quite a different way of working."

Gomes’ preliminary designs sketches show multi-layered costumes, symbolizing the multi-dimensionality of the texts from which the stories are drawn.


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