This weekend I attended the Ice Theatre of New York’s annual show at Chelsea Piers on Manhattan’s west side. The best word I can use to describe this experience is: refreshing. In this era of stringent IJS requirements in which programs have become as jam-packed as tiny clown cars and the skaters look to be rushing from element to element like actors in an old, sped-up, silent film, it’s nice to see a skater hold an edge, slowly move her arm while doing so, and gaze up at her hand as if she’s really seeing it for the first time.
This is not to say that Ice Theatre of New York is stripped-down or breaking skating into its simplest parts. On the contrary, the seven pieces in this show were multi-layered, infused with meaning, and forced me to think rather than merely observe. This is ice dance, but not “ice dance” as we know it in the competitive realm. And this is theatre, but not Broadway-musical schmaltz of the jazz-hands variety. It is, most accurately, modern dance on ice: the rink is a stage, white spotlights expertly track the skaters, and the boards are tastefully covered with black curtains so that you can almost imagine you’re in a small, off-beat theatre a little bit further downtown.
Ice Theatre of New York was founded by Moira North over 20 years ago and she now co-directs with David Liu, three-time Olympian representing Taiwan. Over the years, they’ve worked with a number of talented choreographers, both with and without skating backgrounds. They’ve received grants from both national and local arts organizations and they host an annual benefit gala. So it basically functions like a dance company…with blades.
When I was in graduate school at Sarah Lawrence College, my roommate was pursuing her Masters in modern dance under the late Viola Farber, a woman who had danced with the legendary Merce Cunningham Company. As a skater, it was fascinating to attend these student shows and not just because of the agility of the dancers. I was struck by the inventiveness of the choreography, the combination of structure and freedom, and the evident thought that went into each piece’s construction. It was also fascinating to watch my roommate do her homework. I remember her once choreographing a piece based on the mathematics represented in a line painting by Agnes Martin. Suffice it to say, this isn’t exactly how my brother and I had gone about choreographing our own show numbers to the songs of Grease or the Jackson 5.
In later years, I would come to admire the creativity of Torvill and Dean, and the Duchesnays, and was fortunate to work with choreographer Jill Cosgrove in Delaware who created, for us, several unique programs. So my window into choreography was just big enough to amply appreciate the different kinds of movement and composition I was seeing in those modern dance performances. Likewise, I appreciate what Ice Theatre of New York is doing.
You won’t see many jumps at an Ice Theatre performance. (Although, when a Double Salchow sneaks its way into a piece, the crowd erupts with applause, ready to fulfill its usual role.) And you won’t see many current stars from the world of skating. (Though they do occasionally feature guests: when I attended a few years ago, Oksana Baiul phoned in a lackluster performance, which only served to make the pieces before and after her seem more sophisticated and sure-footed.) What you will see is people skating in a way you have probably never seen.
For example, you might see skaters down on the ice, and not because they have fallen. And they may even stay there for a while. I learned from my grad school roommate that “floor-work” was a standard and difficult part of modern dance training. Ice Theatre of New York’s Alyssa Stith has deftly translated this floor-work to the ice, twisting and writhing across it, and transitioning from up to down and back up again seamlessly. At one point, in a piece called “Once Again,” choreographed by Heather Harrington, she used her toe picks to pivot around on her (bare!) stomach so that she was a virtual human turntable.
You might also see a few props. In one of my favorite parts of the show, a piece entitled “2:1,” choreographed by David Liu, Stith skated with a chair in a way that made me wonder if it was her partner, or her long-lost partner, or the partner she yearned to find…then again, maybe the chair just represented her solitude…or her imagination, and that’s all she needed? These questions were posed abstractly to the dramatic notes of J.S. Bach, and mirrored nicely against a couple (Tyrrell Gene and Elisa Angeli), who skated sometimes alongside her and other times orbiting on the same circle, yet across from her. At the end, they all stood alone on opposite sides of the universe…I mean, rink.
“Mi Andalucia,” a flamenco dance choreographed by Peter DiFalco, was one of the more traditional parts of the show, as it included the kind of movement most familiar to skating eyes. First, David Lui conjured the image of a bullfighter then the female ensemble seduced us with their hands, wrists, eyes, and lilting skirts. In the piece’s third section, Elisa Angeli and Jiri Prochazka got a lot of mileage out of a fuschia cape. One minute, it seemed like a cloak, then a blanket, then a flag, then it seemed to represent the flames of their fiery romance. And, yes, it was pretty hot.
The highlight, and the most-anticipated moment of the evening, was David Liu’s performance of “After All,” a piece originally choreographed for John Curry by dance icon, Twyla Tharp, in 1976. Legend has it that she closely observed Curry skating for several hours straight as he slowly progressed from figures, to spins, to jumps. Indeed, this did seem to be how the piece itself built, starting with Liu tracing out meticulous circles, even taking time to carve a flower out of serpentine loops, and eventually culminating, toward the end, in a tight-circled, Axel/Double Loop/Double Axel surprise. All of this was intermixed with a mesmerizing number of turns and well-sculpted extensions.
The weakest link was, unfortunately, the opener, entitled, “Heart,” choreographed by Joanna Mendl Shaw. Set to a pulsating beat and composed of geometrical repetitions, the clever angular movements and partnering work seemed to call for a synchronicity and precision that the performers didn’t quite pull off that night. Conversely, the foursome in “Meditation,” choreographed by Douglass Webster, created an ethereal, whirling effect by executing Three-turns and Twizzles in a traveling “box formation” to the sounds of Phillip Glass. When they were meant to be in unison, they were, and when turning “in a round,” or sequentially, the result was a kind of dizzying effervescence. My own trance-like state was only interrupted at this point by a hockey player trudging past the stands carrying his stick and wearing full equipment. Wrong rink, buddy!
Anyway, it was an entertaining and inspiring night, topped off perfectly at a cozy French bistro on 9th Avenue, at table comprised mostly of past competitors. If you are in the New York area and you haven’t done so already, I recommend that you put this show on your calendar for next year, or check out some of the performances they have lined-up yet this season at Rockefeller Center or Bryant Park. And it’s not a bad idea to encourage skaters to attend, too. They already know this a sport, but it’s a nice way to remind them that it’s an art form, as well.
To visit the Ice Theatre of New York’s website: http://www.icetheatre.org/
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