By Alissa de Carbonnel and Mike Collett-White
SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Russia's Winter Games got off to a shaky start on Friday when one of the five Olympic rings failed, but ballet dancers, stirring music and huge mechanical props tracing the host nation's history propelled the opening ceremony forward.
Only four of the five giant Olympic rings unfurled from snowflake-shaped structures suspended from the roof of the 40,000-capacity Fisht Stadium in Sochi, meaning the famous symbol could not be illuminated with fireworks as planned.
The showboat start to a Games President Vladimir Putin hopes will burnish Russia's image on the world stage went on without further ado, with cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, who has spent more days in space than anyone, hoisting the Russian flag.
Putin official declared the February 7-23 Games open to a burst of fireworks that lit up the clear night sky outside the gleaming new stadium located on the shores of the Black Sea.
Before the symbol hiccup, a young girl in white dress soared into the air, lifted by a harness, and sang as islands representing different parts of Russia with folktale scenes drifted dreamlike across the stadium.
Athletes emerged from beneath the stage up a ramp for the traditional parade as a giant satellite image of each nation taken from space was projected onto the floor.
The Russians, outfitted in white fur-trimmed hats and coats, drew wild cheers from a crowd lit up by boxes on seats in the stands creating a dazzling visual backdrop.
The crowd favorite of the evening was clearly a graceful waltz led by stars of Russian ballet as massive columns pushed up out of the floor to set a scene echoing Leo Tolstoy's masterpiece War and Peace.
The twirling dancers were chased out of the stadium by stark red lights, jarring music and a giant train embodying the upheaval of the 1917 Russian revolution and the importance of the avant-garde art movement at around that time.
Soviet socialist realist symbols - including a massive hammer and sickle - powered the audience forward through decades depicted as a time of industrial progress to the thaw of 1950s to modern day.
The state-of-the-art arena, one of several construction projects that have swelled the budget of the Winter Games to a record $50 billion, holds 40,000 people, and Putin was joined by more than 40 world leaders.
Millions more will watch on television and via the Internet as Russia hosts its first Winter Olympics, an event Putin has staked his reputation on.
The run-up to the Games has been marred by threats from Islamist militants based in nearby Chechnya and neighboring southern Russian regions to launch attacks, and by international criticism of Russia's new "gay propaganda" law.
Organizers have also been under fire for the huge costs involved, unfinished accommodation and amenities, and even the treatment of stray dogs in and around Sochi.
But Putin will hope the opening ceremony signals an end to the griping, as athletes, who have been largely complimentary about the facilities and organization so far, begin to provide the thrills and spills on ice and snow.
Details of the 2-1/2-hour show have been kept a closely guarded secret, but Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, one of the biggest names in international opera, will sing the Olympic anthem.
Putin's role is likely to be limited to declaring the Games open, as is traditional for the host nation's head of state.
Asked if Putin might seek to trump the stunt in 2012 where Queen Elizabeth appeared in a film clip with James Bond actor Daniel Craig before body doubles skydived towards the London stadium, Ernst replied: "You shouldn't hope too much for that."
(additional reporting by Keith Weir)