DanceView Times, Washington, D.C. edition
Reunion on Ice
For those with faith in figure skating as art, not just sport, these are lean years. It seems just yesterday that every ice skater wanted to become an "ice dancer"—the term favored by John Curry, who set the example. Today, there's not enough of an audience for what Curry envisioned—substantial companies presenting serious choreography performed by balletically trained skaters. His own company lasted only a few seasons. Afterwards, on occasion, he appeared with The Next Ice Age, a small but elegant group established 15 years ago in Baltimore by two of his former ice dancers—Nathan Birch and Tim Murphy.
During its early years, Next Ice Age performed not infrequently, presenting repertory that included Birch's visionary ballets to 19th Century symphonic music, Murphy's smart entertainments and two gems by Curry—a waltz duo, Rosenkavalier, for Katherine Healy and himself, and On the Beautiful Blue Danube for the principal men of the company: Shaun McGill, Birch, Murphy and himself. This year, 2003, although Next Ice Age is involved in doing demonstrations rather than regular performances, Birch and Murphy wanted to celebrate anyway. Invitations went out to company members, students, fans—everyone on their mailing lists, past and present.
The celebration began with the Diamond Ensemble of the Chesapeake Skating School where Murphy teaches. Ten young women dressed in white skating dresses with sparkle did smooth ensemble work. Ensemble skating is fairly popular these days. Cara Morrissey's whirlwind turns punctuated the group effort. Because of slick musical accompaniment (Love is in the Air; Theme from "Valley of the Dolls"), the glitter, and the mind set, this program opener added up to pop fare. It was tolerable pop and the skaters showed potential for substantial work, but this wasn't why this fan had trecked to Baltimore. That came next.
The heart of celebration was a master class, an hour and a quarter long and led into by a trio of solo entrances. First out on the ice was Nathan Birch, extending and bending his body as if permeated by the melodic line of the music he was contemplating, a "slow and serious" passage by Ravel. To focus on Birch as he moved into the arena's width and along its length changed my awareness of the world. Time transformed into a substance of rich consistency, continuous yet diverse in its durations. When the dancer tilted like a glider or turned his torso upward to one side like a baroque column beginning to coil, the motion was simple, yet simply perfect. Isn't that what a danseur noble is supposed to do, clarify and set the measure? In ballet terms, Birch is a danseur noble of lyrical bent.
Tim Murphy, the second entrant, was and still can be a tightly wound wire spring. Even standing in place, he always seemed about to be triggered and, when sprung, his compact form exploded into space. That's Murphy, the danseur caractere. Something additional, though, shows in his current form. Perhaps it is new, perhaps it was there all along but not as apparent. It is the ability to retain movement, to not explode but keep power within the body. This aspect gives him authority, and a classical option. His entrance had dignity, like a hero returning home after victory.
The third entrant was a lovely woman. Small, not slight but as she stepped lightly on the ice, her dancing was velvety, assured in a subtle way, inviting. I'm ashamed to say I didn't recognize Dorothy Hamill. Later, when videos of past performances were shown at the reception, I spotted Hamill right away because of her concentrated power and steady drive. This time, though, not just the hairstyle had changed but she kept her technique like a hand in a glove. After Hamill's solo came the group class which began with everyone in a large circle holding hands while facing in.
Suddenly the circle contracted so that all met at the center. Three groups formed that followed each other in glides—glide upon glide led by the teacher, Birch. Like all good classes, this one had an ordained aspect, it was the celebration of a rite. The combinations, to classical music, weren't wildly varied but gradually emphasized different balances and shifts of balance. Each passage required a distinct degree of effort. Knees were bent or straight, backs upright or arched, s-curves were launched forward or done with backstepping. Murphy took over as leader and toward the end of the class he introduced small jumps and even single beats.
The afternoon was an oasis in these lean years. A possible repertory tour for Next Ice Age is on the horizon.
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