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A celebration of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales influenced the proceedings at the recent WorldSkills London 2011 opening ceremony…

Every two years, the very best brains in over 46 disciplines convene in one location to pit their skills to be crowned WorldSkills champion. This year WorldSkills is taking  over ExCeL, London, welcoming 1,000 competitors from 58 countries. It’s the largest event ever to take place at the venue, taking over its entire 90,000 square metres of exhibition space.

Such an enormous event – in terms of scale and presence – requires an even bigger opening ceremony of epic proportions. And so to kickstart this year’s proceedings a grand gala evening of song and dance is about to transform The O2.

Stand Out is standing outside the arena, surrounded by hundreds of visitors who are blowing whistles and waving flags. Horns and hooters are being squeezed, rattles are being shaken and everyone is singing. The scene is more akin to the World Cup and carnival not an event that celebrates the best in mechanics and floristry. Yet, the audience is pumped and the visitors are quite clearly proud people.

Tonight, Grass Roots is producing the WorldSkills London 2011 opening ceremony, and Stand Out is being given a tour of backstage. As a group of us peruse the technical nerve centre, we are ushered to the side by crew and police officers to make a clear path for Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. He is this evening’s key speaker and will later address the gathered audience of MPs and dignitaries from across the globe that herald the skills competition and hold it in high regard.

Grass Roots’ Ben Cole is producing tonight’s event, which features over 300 singers from the Southwark Splash choir, four choirs from England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, 70 dancers, five aerial artists and an eight-piece

live band. The performers are under the watchful eye of Karen Gillingham, artistic director, Hannah Conway, musical director and Natasha Khamjani, choreographer.

Cole explains: “We have been working on this event since October 2010. It’s been a long process. The basic premise of the event is to profile the UK and show how skills can shape the world and city we live in.”

Cole is working with Grass Roots’ Nick Harvey, creative director, and both are liaising with Gillingham, Conway and Khamjani to produce the two-hour show.

“The big thing was to have involvement from the devolved nations. We could quite easily have hired choirs from London and asked them to sing in the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish aspects of the show but the event is partially funded by each country and so each country has to be involved, as it encouraged youth development.”

Working together

The core elements of the opening ceremony include a Parade of Nations and the taking of the WorldSkills oath. The rest of the event was open to interpretation. A series of speeches, including one from Nick Clegg who walked on stage to audible boos, opened the event yet did not set the tone – the energy and skill of the youth performers did that, appealing to the audience with popular culture.

Nine, 12-metre high LED banners hang across the stage and enable the production team to create different scenes, as there is no physical set that normally would tie a performance to a corporate look. The banners display a variety of graphics and flags throughout the course of the evening and 6m x 3.5m LED screen also provides a focal point for the set.

Working on the event are Creative Technology (AV), Hawthorns (sound), Fentura and Neg Earth (lighting) and Pro Stage (staging) – Grass Roots appointing all as partners for the event. A crew of 150 are working on the event – five stage managers are overseeing the actual performance and these are being helped by a further 30 volunteers, proving invaluable to manage the sheer number of participants.

“Load in began at 6am yesterday,” continues Cole. “And we had our first rehearsal on Sunday. We hired the leisure centre in Stratford and this was the first time that all the dancers and acts could come together. The music was issued to all the music groups in August and then the artistic team travelled for two weeks in September, visiting each group and rehearsing for two days.”

The event has also been brought to life by L’Oreal Professional’s academy of trainee hairdressers, trainee make up artists at West Thames College and Coleg Morgannwg, which designed the performers costumes.

Simon Allison, director of operations and production, event production at Grass Roots, worked alongside Harvey, Garin Wilby, technical production manager, and Sam Smith, head of logistics, to ensure a smooth show.

This evening’s catwalk and central stage have been incorporated to ensure that the competitors effectively come into the audience. The performers too need to interact in between and around the seated guests and it is an essential element to the ceremony.

Allison explains: “Learns from the past have shown that competitors have previously watched the show. We want them to be involved. At WorldSkills Calgary 2009 they were seated in a grandstand and removed from the activity. They were spectators rather than participants, and we really want everyone to be as lively as possible. “The competitors have spent two years of their lives working to get into the competition and so they had to be up close to the action.”