Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Not The Turnaround We Need

In case you did not yet vote, please do so. And please vote for Barack Obama.

Just before the London Olympic Games, Mitt Romney many an Olympic gaffe. Unfortunately, his own Olympic record (of leading a very successful Salt Lake 2002 Winter Olympics organizing committee), could not save him (and likely contributed to his foot-in-mouth statements that rudely insulted the brilliant Olympic host city).

I once met Romney in Atlanta at the launch party for the Salt Lake Olympic Torch Relay. He was very polite. And his leadership for SLOC impressed me. The book "Turnaround" is a good read for those interested in a great Winter Games.

But the leadership he brought to SLOC is not what we need in the USA or in the world on this day (or any). Please vote. Just not for Romney.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Happy Birthday Phoebe Mills

It's November 2. Happy birthday, Phoebe Mills, the Olympic bronze medalist with 40 reasons to celebrate!

When I was 15 and it was spring of 1988, Mills emerged as a contender for the Seoul Olympics gymnastics competition around the time a newspaper ad appeared in the Daily Oklahoman inviting folks to volunteer for U.S. Olympic Festival '89. Chatting with a friend, I signed up to donate time stating, "Maybe this is one way I could meet that cute gymnast (who is my age), Phoebe Mills."

That volunteer gig changed my life, and on an early volunteer assignment we sat in a rain-soaked tent at the State Fair of Oklahoma recruiting more volunteers and watching Mills win bronze on the balance beam via NBC's Olympic coverage. So cool!

Of course, a few months after Seoul, Mills wrapped up her gymnastics career before the '89 Festival (drat!), but I did meet one of her sisters, a figure skater, when she competed in Oklahoma City. Phoebe was nice enough to reply to a fan letter I sent to her, and that was pretty much the end of that.

Until ...

Fast forward to the summer of 1993, during which I picked up a Texas Torch Relay volunteer spot for U.S. Olympic Festival '93 in San Antonio (another life-shaping experience that influenced my selection of public relations/journalism pursuits). When the relay ended at the gleaming new Alamodome (the Olympic Festival opening ceremony was the venue's debut event), in the press box I learned Phoebe Mills returned to Olympic pursuits as a competitive diver (hooray!).

It was a bummer to learn, however, I'd miss her diving competition by a day or two (with the Torch Relay complete, I went on back to Oklahoma early during the Festival, seriously bummed).

Just a college year later, during the summer of 1994 (best ... summer ... ever, working as U.S.O.F. employee in the Olympic Village at Washington University in St. Louis, site of 1904 Olympic competitions), the stars aligned, sort of, and I shared a brief, albeit embarrassing, introduction to Phoebe Mills. Hopefully she does not remember this intro.

You see, one morning in the Olympic Village dining hall, I dragged myself (dog tired) in to breakfast, and while dispensing grape juice or some other beverage, half-awake I looked up to find Phoebe Mills standing beside me in line at the juice bar. Hello!

In an instant I thought, "Finally, I can tell this person she changed my life! If I hadn't volunteered in 1989, specifically to meet her, my Olympic aspirations might have remained dormant. I'm your No. 1 fan! Thank you for changing my life, Phoebe! You're beautiful ... (etc. etc. more embarrassing crush stuff)."

If only I had spoken up!

Sadly, these thoughts were all for naught as in my dazed and surprised state, the grape juice I dispensed overfilled my glass, pouring over my clueless hands and cascading into a messy pool at our feet.

Mortified, I stepped away apologizing, retreating to retrieve an Olympic Village mop, and by my blushed return, Phoebe Mills vanished from the dining hall and my message of thanks remained only in my brain. Until now.

I appreciate that Phoebe Mills, the newest 40-something Olympian, was driven during the 1980s in gymnastics and that she inspired me (and I suspect thousands of other fans) to step into the Olympic circles and get involved with this great Olympic Family. I am thankful that Phoebe's family pushed her, and her fellow Olympic siblings, as members of a peer family in the Midwestern U.S. (still have the magazine article about their collective five-ringed aspirations).

I also wish our paths had crossed again at one of the eight Olympics and two Olympic bids at which I worked or volunteered over the years (we had a near-miss again in Salt Lake as we apparently were on the same Park City bus but I was on a new-fangled cell phone too many aisles away).

It is really cool that Phoebe continued with athletic pursuits after gymnastics, first as a diver and then as a snowboarding entrant (it's my understanding she now is an attorney and/or board member with the U.S. Snowboarding team). See, she turned out to be beautiful and athletic and smart, too! Bravo!

While visiting family in Oklahoma last week, I stopped by the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame, which is now nestled in the science museum in Oklahoma City. But there was no mention of Phoebe Mills! Hello, will someone in the international gymnastics community wake up and nominate Mills for the Hall of Fame?!? She's a bronze medalist, after all. Duh! Wake up, H.O.F., and get this nomination started, pronto!

Just now online, a quick search yielded Mills' name among the inductees for the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame (whew!).

Writing this post tonight, there was also a reminder that in London at USA House this summer, I shook hands with Bela Karolyi, the famous coach of Nadia, Mary Lou Retton, Mills and other U.S. women's gymnasts, and asked him specifically about Phoebe, "Do you keep in touch?"

Karolyi smiled, then sort of winced and said in that Bela voice, "Not as often as I should."

Here's hoping on this milestone birthday year he remembered to reach out and catch up with Mills.

Phoebe Mills turns 40 today. Happy birthday and thank you.

Photo copyright Corbis via this link

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Talking TOTEM by Cirque du Soleil

When Cirque du Soleil is in town, I'm there. Well, most of the time.

My introduction to the Montreal-based entertainment extravaganza took place under the Grand Chapiteau at Turner Field's parking lots in 1999, when the big top tour of "Dralion" arrived in Atlanta. The Headline Group -- the boutique public relations agency for which I was then a new employee -- worked with Cirque du Soleil from their early 1990s Atlanta debut through the end of that decade, and my boss and mentor managed the local team for "Dralion." Jolly good show.

We missed a 2002-03 tour on a technicality: Edelman acquired The Headline Group, so with THG showing up as "closed" our agency missed the option to pursue the Cirque du Soleil project the one time it was in suburban Cobb County (we also represented a competing entertainment property, so timing did not work).

But the sun did not set for our team as we renewed contact in time for 2005 when "Corteo" arrived at Atlantic Station and our team at Edelman landed this entertainment project. It was great fun working on this dream-inspired tour, and we later enjoyed collaboration for "KOOZA" and "OVO" before "Dralion" returned on an arena tour just a couple of years ago. C'est magnifique!

On my own dime, I experienced the magnificent water-themed "O" in Las Vegas, the arena tour for "Alegria" in Oklahoma City, and Cirque du Soleil's racier "Zumanity" (also in Sin City) in recent years. Each show brings to mind special memories -- though there are similar themes from one tour to another, they are all unique in as many ways. "O" remains the one to beat in my personal scorekeeping for Cirque du Soleil thrills.

It was my good fortune to work on the "Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour" earlier this year as a freelance P.R. partner for Cirque du Soleil, and it was bittersweet to learn their selection of another communications counselor for the new big top tour -- "TOTEM" -- now at Atlantic Station through December 30. But the "sweet" part meant that, as in 1999, I could again experience an Atlanta big top stop as a spectator.

"TOTEM" delivers the goods.

In Cirque du Soleil's words from the official program (a beautiful publication), the new tour "traces humankind's incredible journey -- from our original amphibian state to our ultimate quest for flight."

The journey begins with "Crystal Man" (an artist beautifully covered head to toe by thousands of tiny mirrors) descending from the heavens, unveiling turtle shell-inspired staging around which colorful amphibians gaze upon the audience. As these sequin-clad reptiles warm up the crowd, they reveal the carapace as their playground for gymnastic leaps and trampoline bounds. Welcome to Cirque du Soleil!

I loved that the first act quickly moved to a First Nations feature (that's Canadian for Native American). The Hoop Dancer -- U.S. born Eric Hernandez -- delivered an elaborate performance showcasing many skills with five rings (the closest "TOTEM" gets to the Olympics -- though there are Olympians who are part of Cirque du Soleil's other tours, none are part of this tour). Beautiful. And the live band and musicians' many talents really started to shine in support of Hernandez.

The rest of the first act included a blur of amazing: more gymnastics via the Ring Trio (two males and one female dangling from way, way up); five Chinese-born performers who earned a standing ovation for their brass bowl and teapot tossing -- and catching -- on elongated unicycles; and two "Crystal Ladies" (a duo of Belarus beauties with the same surname, Tsodikova) who seemed to arrive from the future to showcase fine foot juggling skills (I made note of their costumes' similarity to outfits donned by Zhora at Taffeys Bar in "Blade Runner" and now feel I have an answer to what Harrison Ford watched in the film's fictional night club scene).

Cirque du Soleil also brought in the clowns -- this time in the form of Italy's answer to Elvis (with horse jockey physique) and a playful introvert with the morose eyes of The Cure's Robert Smith. They each take center stage several times throughout the show, twice in boats which "float" atop a well-executed stage configuration that blends video projection to create water.

A scene in which the evolution of man from monkey to modern office worker played out nicely and with good cheer.

"TOTEM" also included a few scenes that left me, and more than a few fellow audience members, scratching our heads.

I was not sure what to make of the Robert Goulet lookalike and his teammates in the "Perches" performance (their act includes plenty of daring feats, mind you, but it was the least connected scene for the evolution theme). A character named "The Tracker" also was a non-sequitur, as was the Spanish dancer and the Darwin-like "character" who worked to electrify the audience from within a giant beaker. Each of these fell flat, at least for this blogger.

But "TOTEM" included a lovely couple on the Fixed Duo Trapeze (breathtaking and beautiful -- I now have a crush du soleil on the Canadian performer Sarah Tessier) and a welcomed return of the Hoop Dancer with his female partner. And at this point in the second act, when the woman behind me exclaimed, "roller skates!?!" I must admit to some initial apprehension about wheel-clad Native Americans setting up for a spinning dance on an enormous drum -- but they brought down the house (it was spectacular; something I'll tell to my grand kids at a future Cirque du Soleil show).

It was during this latter pair of First Nations performances when I realized the "turtle shell" staging resembled an enormous Dream Catcher aloft in the big top. A lot of good dreams captured in "TOTEM."

I won't write much here about the final act, Russian Bars, which brought the evening's second "from the future" (???) moments. Were they supposed to be amphibians from outer space? Or going to outer space? Still not sure. But then, part of the beauty of Cirque du Soleil is the wiggle room for audience interpretation.

And with that in mind, my take was that this Russkiye act (with the help of Kym Barrett, costume designer extraordinaire) gave us a mini-preview of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic "Look of the Games," if only by coincidence (their costumes are similar to the upcoming winter Olympic outerwear and advertising, with an array of vivid colors and complexity). They are bright, glow in the dark, and they are strong.

Is "TOTEM" a great entertainment experience? Absolutely! Is it worthy of the $43.50 to $153.50 ticket price? Well ... I'll leave that to readers to decide (suggestion: though there is not a bad seat in the house, this show may be better experienced in the price level one or premium seating).

For a second take on "TOTEM" check out the AJC review by Wendell Brock, which provides more than a few apt notes on this tour experience (his colleague Howard Pousner also wrote some great reports about the tour, starting with the January 2012 advance story my team secured via P.R. circles last December).

Looking forward to the next Cirque du Soleil and to "TOTEM" talk with friends. Enjoy the show!

Photos via Cirque du Soleil by OSA Images

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