In the midnight hour, watch how Expo 2020’s magical dome comes alive

An exclusive nocturnal look behind the scenes at the world's fair

When the clock strikes 12 and the last visitor has been shepherded out, the heart of Expo keeps beating.

With less than a month to go before the world’s largest projection dome's last act for the Expo, creative and technical teams are working through the night to rehearse performances that will build up to a final curtain call.

Organisers told The National how the six-month World Expo has uncovered only a portion of the potential of Al Wasl dome.

The huge, 360-degree projection dome has been splashed with colour and kept time to the music of some of the world’s best-known musicians since the event opened in October last year.

Engineers and animators pull back the covers on the intense preparation to deliver stunning visual effects over the 67-metre-tall steel trellis.

Quote
People will cry for sure because of the emotions the music creates
Amna Abulhoul, creative director of Expo ceremonies

By day, it serves as a majestic backdrop for powerful speeches by world leaders who visit Dubai.

Later in the afternoon, people stretch out on cool white seats carved into the sunken garden and listen to music under the giant sunshade.

At night, the towering sand-coloured canvas of Al Wasl has reverberated to the music of Coldplay, Alicia Keyes, Black Eyed Peas, Kadim Al Saher, Nancy Ajram and Ragheb Alama as thousands of visitors crammed in to listen to their favourite bands.

It will remain centre stage when the World Expo ends and the surrounding area gets a makeover as a cultural and technology-driven neighbourhood.

Expo 2020 is also working to deliver an emotional closing ceremony on March 31 that the team promises will make “people cry for sure”.

Dome that never sleeps

In a darkened control room, technical engineers and programmers have a commanding view of Al Wasl Dome, which is tall enough to cover the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

When the Expo empties at night, they carry out light checks, test 252 projectors and monitor the surround sound that booms across the dome.

As the crew quickly changes the lighting from blue to red, about 30,000 light clusters in the garden give the impression of pulsating to the rhythm of the music.

William Ainley, vice president technical for Expo events and entertainment, says at night it is as if Al Wasl takes on another persona and the team dives into setting up the stage for the next day.

“Al Wasl comes alive at night. It’s those nighttime hours, those dark hours, that are the most precious to us because it’s only then that we are running our shows, rehearsals, maintenance, when the park is closed,” he said.

“We are always changing the programming and that does not stop when the park closes.

“We move into our preparation work that we have to do overnight.”

Sought-after venue

Visitors catch immersive shows at Al  Wasl Dome before the site shuts for the night. Pawan Singh / The National

Technical and safety teams have worked together to explore what the gigantic steel trellis is capable of delivering.

Performers swoop in as if flying through the air on wires camouflaged into the high roof.

The revolving stage that pops up in the centre of the translucent dome has fast become a much sought-after venue.

“Al Wasl never sleeps, it’s always alive and just goes through different phases,” Mr Ainley said.

“During the day it’s more ethereal, a very calm, shaded space.

“The energy of the programming and events starts to pick up through the afternoon and then in the evening the technology really kicks in to show off another side of Al Wasl.”

Two years before the Expo opened, Mr Ainley was part of the team that installed the immersive projectors and audio system that make up the dome.

When the Expo ends, the space will continue to stand out among new Dubai landmarks in District 2020. Encircling Al Wasl, the development will open up later this year as the country’s first 15-minute city where people can walk or cycle to office, shops and entertainment spots.

“Al Wasl is unique. The legacy plan is to keep it functioning as it is now and to continue on through,” he said.

“There is absolutely no doubt with the future developments in this space, it has so many opportunities and so much potential.

“The scale is unique. It’s one of its kind in the world and that in itself will always drive a crowd.”

Creative dream

Coldplay perform at Al Wasl, Expo 2020 Dubai in February. Photo: Expo 2020 Dubai

Months before the technical team synchronises the production, a team of storytellers, animators and graphic designers weaves together the content beamed across the dome.

As creative director of Expo ceremonies, Amna Abulhoul has built in the artistic elements that breathe life into the performance space.

She held meetings with the creative team from Coldplay, in October last year when the Expo opened, to explain what the dome was capable of.

This was followed by several visits by the crew of several top music groups to test the arena – Al Wasl usually left a lasting impression.

“The first thing, they would take two steps back, because they didn’t expect such a majestic structure,” Ms Abulhoul said.

“When the team of Coldplay came here, they were more excited than us to see their amazing projection coming to life."

When Coldplay performed on stage last month, the screen lit up with butterflies, rainbows and oversized holograms of BTS, the biggest band in K-Pop.

Alicia Keys sang as she walked around the garden filled with sparkling lights that changed colour in synch with the music.

“It was really interesting when the artistes came in to Al Wasl because their ideas pop when they are in there,” Ms Abulhoul said.

“Alicia Keys would say, ‘I’ll put my piano here because it’s beautiful to walk here’, and she moved around as if she was walking in her own garden.

“The artistes adapt to the stage as if it’s their home and this is what makes the concerts here unique.”

For Black Eyed Peas, the circular designs within the dome took on a life of their own as interactive images were beamed across.

“It was as if the dome was the content for Black Eyed Peas. It spoke to the music and pulsed like drums. This gave it a tempo that was amazing to watch where every circle and every shape in the dome had life and colour.”

Teleport visitors

The production crew readies for musical shows and rehearses through the night at Al Wasl Dome at the Expo site in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National

The strategy to inject theatrical components into musical and dance performances began years ago, with the aim of teleporting the audience to a different dimension.

The magical opening ceremony seen by millions around the world skilfully balanced props with augmented reality renderings.

The audience, at home and watching on television, were captivated by gushing waterfalls, swirling trees, darting butterflies and a rotating globe.

“Everything has a story and that is the way we created the whole programming of Al Wasl,” she said.

“The most challenging part was how we could turn this structural space into an opening ceremony venue – this process started four years ago.

“Our thought was – what do we need to make it breathable with the technology we have and how can we deliver a message through dance and performance.”

The assurance is that the closing ceremony will be even more mesmerising.

The whirlwind journey of visitors through the six months of the Expo will feature in the grand finale, Ms Abulhoul said, without revealing too many details.

“In the opening, we wanted to tackle the story of Expo, of us coming together from all over the world,” she said.

“For the closing ceremony, we leave you with a question for your future, but what is different is something that no one will expect to see.

“People will cry for sure because of the emotions the music creates.

“The choreographed dance and music takes you in. It’s like – before you close your eyes the last time when your life flashes before you – that is what the closing ceremony is about.

“It’s also about gratitude, pride about everything.”

Updated: March 07, 2022, 5:27 AM