DanceView Times, New York edition
Theatre of New York
Usually it is a premiere that attracts primary critical interest, but on the occasion of Ice Theatre of New York's 2003 Home Season, it was a 25-year-old work that was the most notable, successful and newsworthy item on the briskly-paced hour-and-a-half program.
Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux created Ice Moves for John Curry's 1978 "Ice Dancing" program, a forerunner of the John Curry Skating Company, the full flowering of his vision that existed for two brief, magical years, 1984-85. Ice Theatre of New York was founded by Moira North in the same year as Curry's troupe, with a shared aim of extending the artistic possibilities of figure skating.
Like the Baltimore-based Next Ice Age, North's troupe has valiantly tried to further Curry's goals. She has commissioned a varied collection of choreographers from the worlds of ballet and modern dance to create skating pieces, qualifying for New York State Council on the Arts funding in the same way a dance company would. Her forward-looking investigations have included bringing in choreographers with Martha Graham and Nikolais associations, as well as "downtown" figures such as Ann Carlson and David Dorfman.
It was an inspired idea for Ice Theatre to look backward on this occasion, resurrecting a gracious, sophisticated example of what Curry was aiming for and able to accomplish. Bonnefoux's work, set to Berlioz's Roman Carnival Overture and choreographed while he was still a New York City principal dancer and just starting to spread his choreographic wings, is a musically vibrant melding of ballet and skating techniques. It does not look like a ballet transposed to ice, nor does it look like skating with a few ballet moves superimposed over the ice technique.
Its classical elegance is joined with a fluid momentum. Bonnefoux (who restaged the work assisted by Katherine Healy) instilled a nobility of manner and a musical sensitivity in his cast of eight. The central pair, Healy and David Tankersley, open the work with a gently romantic duet, in which the curve and circle around each other in beautifully simple but satisfying ways. A few quiet lifts are included, but there is nothing showy about this duet. It maintains a reflective tone, emphasizing sustained movements and seemingly resisting the sharpness and swiftness to which skating lends itself.
As Healy and Tankersley glide off and the music shifts to a more robust, vigorous section, three trios (each two women and a man) enter from opposite sides and glide through intersecting lines. Healy returns to skate a whirlwind solo passage as the ensemble expands into a circle around her, and then Tankersley, whose modest elegance befits the inheritor of a Curry role, glides and jumps through a vigorous circular passage, as the ensemble occupies the central space. In a delightfully simple but satisfying moment, they are in a line, arms linked, wheeling on their own axis as Tankersley whirls at the perimeter of the circle they describe.
Coming at the end of the program, Ice Moves demonstrated the answers to some questions I had formed while watching the evening's succession of pieces ranging from flashy solo and pair numbers to thoughtful interpretations of intriguing musical choices: Does each piece have to begin with its full cast already in place on the ice, and is it necessary for everyone to remain on the ice once they enter? That seemed to be the general organizing principal of most of them. In Bonnefoux's piece, the entrance of the two trios and the newly charged musical energy created a lovely frisson as the piece shifted in size and impact.
Healy positively glowed with an ease and openness that she had not shown in Ave Maria, a touching but overly earnest solo she had choreographed that came earlier in the evening. She has, by the way, taken the skating trend of wearing flesh-colored boots and matching tights to emphasize a continuous line of the leg, so a new level. Her pale tights and skates were somehow arranged so that the top of the boot was not discernible. It looked somewhat odd, but did create the illusion of line that she presumably was aiming for.
Several other ensemble works on the program were notable distinctive and successful. Doug Webster's On the Town (from last year) weaves three sailors through encounters with five women and a cop that capture the amiable sass and exuberance of Leonard Bernstein's music. At times, when the sailors have linked up with three more classy ladies, the other two (who projected the air of working girls) were left to linger and wait "upstage." Webster made particularly good use of the vast area of the ice, creating patterns that brimmed with energy and unpredictability.
Webster's new work, Purple Haze (it would be helpful if the program copy indicated that this was a premiere, and also gave the premiere dates of the other pieces), set four couples in jeans, headbands and other '60s getups in motion to the Kronos Quartet's recording to the Jimi Hendrix classic. The emphasis was more on flailing arm gestures than on footwork, and the skaters gamely sprawled on the ice several times. Spatially, the piece emphasized the circular formations that dominated many of the evening's works.
In a more traditional vein, Webster created Departures, a moving, deceptively simple female sextet about loss set to a Mahler adagio. Early on, one member of this gentle, angelic sisterhood in white falls to the ice in a manner reminiscent of Serenade. She rejoins them as they glide and swoop through unison passages, but is somehow marked and not fully among them. At one point, she sinks to her knees as the others encircle her, and in the end they vanish one by one until she is left alone. Webster makes astute use of unison here, and sustains a haunting melancholy.
Also notable was David Liu's Do Da Day, an intensely rhythmic piece. It is also for six women, but these are no angels. They're swift and giddy and at times gawky, playfully engaging with the delightful, quirky music (by Adiemus and Karl Jenkins). Liu, whose background includes baler as well as skating and who is himself a riveting skater who pushes the traditional boundaries, has created something rich and fascinating here. I sensed there was more going on than I was able to grasp during its brief duration, and look forward to (hopefully) having another occasion to absorb it.
Guest appearances by Sylvia Fontana, an earthy, sensual showgirl of a skater, and the very accomplished Russian pair team Elena Leonova and Andrei Khvalko, who create and execute one-armed lifts that defy description and belief, rounded out the evening. They were entertaining and offered the audience the more traditional aspects of skating to cheer.
But Ice Theatre's presentations are mainly about ensemble, and the caliber of its members has clearly been improving in recent years, gaining in technical polish, articulation and poise. In addition to North, who carries on despite the usual nonprofit struggles and the costliness of ice time in new York, credit should also go to Judy Blumberg, the troupe's Ensemble Director.
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