Choreographer of 2002 Olympic ceremonies shares behind-the-scenes memories
FARMINGTON, Utah — A Utah woman is reminiscing about her unique role in the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Games as she celebrates the 20th anniversary of helping choreograph the opening and closing ceremonies.
Like many other Utahns, Julie Webb Townsend still has her gear from the 2002 Games. All her pins are on display in a shadow box on the wall, next to framed posters and memorabilia.
Townsend kept her badges, wrist bands, newspaper clippings and several binders and booklets filled with materials related to the logistics of the two ceremonies surrounding the Games.
Her memories of the 2002 Olympics go back a full year before the Games even began.
“We auditioned 15,000 people for 5,000 parts. The cast of 5,000,” Townsend explained.
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Serving as first assistant field choreographer for the opening and closing ceremonies, Townsend spent much of 2001 focused on recruiting, auditioning, casting and teaching choreography.
Townsend held up a poster she’s kept all these years, calling for auditions. She described how they visited ice rinks and dance studios. The poster asks for dancers, ice skaters, gymnasts, folk and cultural groups, vocal ensembles, comedians, cheer teams and more to come audition.
“Please come, everybody in Utah, we need you!” Townsend said, looking at the poster.
She said they were worried they wouldn’t get enough people trying out. But the outreach led to an overwhelming response of Utahns happily volunteering to perform.
Townsend explained they were able to incorporate a wide range of groups into the ceremonies, from the BYU cheer team to a clogging dance troupe and a group of drywall workers who walked on stilts.
“We had a 92-year-old grandma that tap danced. We chose her,” Townsend said, with a laugh. “And, oh we just had so much fun with the auditioning.”
After selecting the 5,000 performers, which included choosing 698 kids for “children of light” roles, Townsend remembered how they had to schedule who came to rehearsal and when.
It was extremely organized, she indicated.
Rehearsals took place around three times a week, Townsend explained, and each lasted several hours. Townsend talked about regularly pulling 12-hour days as assistant field choreographer. The mornings were focused on learning and strategizing choreography from Director Kenny Ortega. The afternoons and evenings were spent teaching that choreography to cast members.
Townsend held up a booklet she used for the choreography. She said every single cast member was assigned a number that they wore to rehearsals, so the choreographers could keep track of everyone.
The booklet’s pages are filled with configurations and highlighted circles, charting every single person’s movement in the arena.
Like any performance, it wasn’t perfect behind the scenes.
Townsend recalled how the head of a large bison prop fell off during rehearsal and had to be reattached. Huge balloons they used in the show popped in the wind, and more had to be rushed in last minute from California.
“We had a skater that … had fire that came out of her skate, but it went off in the dressing room,” Townsend remembered with a chuckle. “So, the fire department had to come and put that out.”
But when she watches the opening and closing ceremonies today, Townsend remembers how the story they told — the story of Utah’s beginning and of its people — came together flawlessly.
She still remembers the choreography from her portion of the show, which featured dancers dressed as Latter-day Saint pioneers acting out their arrival in Utah.
“Ah! So exciting,” Townsend said, watching the ceremony back on a laptop. “And knowing what each of these performers did. They gave up their time, they had to come to costume fittings.”
Townsend will never forget how the thousands of volunteers devoted months of planning and rehearsals for that moment.
And she expressed pride in how Utah took the stage and wowed the world.
“The world came to us you know, and… and it was really special. Oh my goodness,” Townsend said, pausing as tears welled in her eyes. “It was that passion, (it was) that important, that magnificent.”
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