Paris’s Bastille Day fireworks ‘a homage to victims’ of WWI
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Christophe Berthonneau rose to fame with an extraordinary fireworks display at the Eiffel Tower to mark the new millennium. He spoke to FRANCE 24 about “War and Peace”, his Bastille Day show that will mark the centenary of World War I on Monday.
At midnight on January 1, 2000, people all over Paris held their collective breath as they awaited an explosion of fireworks to mark the new millenium. Then, slowly, the iconic Eiffel Tower was illuminated by a triumphant array of light.
That magic moment made Christophe Berthonneau’s name in France, although – as artistic director of the pyrotechnics and theatre company Groupe F – he had already coordinated largescale shows for events such as France’s hosting of the 1998 World Cup.
Since then, Groupe F’s success has continued to skyrocket with other global events, including the inauguration of London’s Millenium Bridge and the opening and closing ceremonies at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Earlier this year, Berthonneau coordinated a show for the 70th anniversary of D-Day before an audience of world leaders.
For Berthonneau, working in Paris is like “coming home”. He spoke to FRANCE 24 about “War and Peace”, his Bastille Day show that will mark the centenary of the start of World War I on July 14.
I heard you’re planning to fire fireworks from the Eiffel Tower itself for the first time in its history.
The Eiffel Tower was made for this kind of thing; it’s already a link between Paris and the sky! But the technical reality of working with such a tourist hotspot means that it will only close four hours before our show. It’s going to be a crazy commando operation getting it ready for the fireworks and the acrobats!
That said, we specialise in doing difficult things. At Groupe F, we have electricians, engineers, gymnasts… it’s this mix of skill sets that makes it possible.
Your proposal won a competition held by the city of Paris for a show marking the centenary of WWI. Tell me about your concept.
It felt wrong to do something patriotic because, collectively, we all look back on World War I as a useless war, a mistake by leaders of the era. This show isn’t a celebration, it’s a homage to the victims.
Each family was traumatised by the war in someway. My great-grandfather returned from the war and banned laughter in his house. I wanted this show to remember that, then transcend it to create something beautiful.
I’m actually really worried about falling flat on my face! It’s easy to impress people with brute strength and magnificence, but it’s hard to pull off a sad, delicate theme.
Are there any magic moments in the upcoming show that you are excited about?
The music makes the show. We’ll play a special version of the national anthem honouring fighters from the former colonies. Colour is also important: 300 projectors will bathe the Eiffel Tower in light the colours of soldier’s uniforms. I’m also playing with the idea of fire, which symbolizes so many things: war, the flame that burns in memorial and also the candle we light before making love.
You know, I try to align the planet to make all these magic moments possible-- but so much depends on the energy of the day. Pyrotechnics is like trying to play piano wearing boxing gloves. We’re getting better at it, but you just never know.