Speed Skating—and Some Nice Surprises
I've come to expect the breathless pace—one brief piece following another with hardly a pause in between—of Ice Theatre of New York's annual performances, But given the degree of contrast among the dozen works on this program, I could have used a few more moments to readjust before the next work arrived on the ice. Intriguingly and ambitiously conceived ensemble works alternated with solos, which themselves ranged from standard showpieces during which the audience happily applauded each jump (just why this is always necessary continues to elude me) to several truly riveting, expectation-defying performances.
David Liu's two solos certainly fit into the latter category and were the program's highlights. Mr. Liu, who trained at the School of American Ballet, represented his native Taiwan twice at the Olympics, and now choreographs for both dance companies and skaters, has honed and refined his artistry to the point where he is totally mesmerizing to watch. Lean, with effortlessly elegant line, he skates from within, creating shapes and phrases that feel propelled by an intense urgency.
Watching him perform "El Duende," which the late Carlos Orta choreographed for him in 2003, I felt that the artistic legacy of John Curry was alive and well. This was an eloquent, seamless meeting of dance and skating. Inspired the Lorca poems and, according to the program note, drawing on the poet's conception of Duende as "a Dionysian inspiration related to anguish, mystery and death," it presented Mr. Liu and a powerfully focused figure in black, whose movement unfurled with intensity and inevitability. On this first viewing, it was the deeply restrained yet emotional impact of the complex yet un-showy choreography that remained with me, rather than specific moves. An opportunity for a second look at this unique solo cannot come too soon.
Mr. Liu also performed his own "Sarabande," set to Bach. This time he wore a gleaming white loose shirt and pants, and did not cover much territory, limiting himself to a focused area. He conveyed an undercurrent of inner turmoil within a deceptively lyrical flow, clutching his head during a long, smooth series of spins, and spiraling down to the ice.
"2:1," a new trio by Mr. Liu, was also set to Bach and dressed all in white, and proved to be a brave, quite successful attempt to create a probing psychological study on ice. Alyssa Stith, one of Ice Theatre's most impressive performers in recent years and a particularly strong presence in this concert, was the central figure, who envisions—or conjures—a couple who somehow represent aspects of herself. We first see all three, moving in silence within individual areas of blue light, before Ms. Stith takes the central focus. As Line Haddad and Tyrell Gene lurk in the upstage darkness, she removes her outer top layer, letting it fall to the ice. They take it up, stretch it between them, and skate together, moving into a tender duet.
Meanwhile, Ms. Stith is lurking on the sidelines, propelling herself across the ice on a folding chair and turning it into a partner of sorts. Her own interaction with the chair holds its own interest, and is marked by the smoothness and lack of abrupt transitions that mark Mr. Liu's work, but you also sense her involvement with what is transpiring between the couple. They eventually conclude their action by again holding the sweater stretched between them and letting it fall back where they found it. As they skate off, going their separate ways, Ms. Stith returns to reclaim it, draping it across her shoulders. At times, Mr Liu's choice of having the skaters lying or rolling on the ice (usually a dicey choice, leaving the viewer to shudder with sympathy at how cold and dam; it must feel) felt out of place, given the organic flow that marks his choreography, But it is fascinating to watch his choreography progress on its own distinctive path, and particularly rewarding to see him transfer to other skaters the intelligent, un-showy approach that marks his own performing.
"The Lottery" was a new work by Heather Harrington, who has an active career as dancer and choreographer in addition to having performed and choreographed for ITNY. From the moment the five women began to rise from behind the plexiglass panels that surround the rink, looming into view to confront the audience with deadpan expressions, and then gliding backward out onto the ice, it was clear that Ms. Harrington was trying out some interesting new approaches. Ms. Stith was very central to her work as well, as the figure who initially seemed to be the one the others were shunning. Given the title, one feared they were preparing to force her into some unpleasant fate, and their conspiratorial gatherings into pairs and pointing at her, along with the eerie and ominous undertones of Quentin Chiappetta's score, reinforced those expectations. Ms. Harrington has the women arch their bodies and tilt at odd angles, often clasping their hands behind their hips, adding to the aura of uneasiness.
Ultimately, though, there was no victim chosen. Ms. Stith brought out a small chest and suddenly she seemed to be the one in control—perhaps the one who would make a selection. But she passes it on to one of the others, who stands frozen with it, finally opening it as they all point in the audience's direction, towards some unidentified chosen one.
David Parsons is the latest well-known modern-dance choreographer whom North has tapped to extend his horizons with ice choreography. He produced "Twist," a sensuous, high-energy duet for a couple in black set to pulsating music by Chemical Brothers. Line Haddad and David Tankersley stayed close to each other, if not actually connected, throughout, and managed sleek moves like an upside down lift in a split position within the ongoing flow of the work. Parsons mainly kept them moving up and down the length of the rink somewhat predictably, but his instincts for entertaining an audience clearly transferred to the ice.
Katherine Healy, whose combination of ballet and skating credits are well known, continues to enhance ITNY's performances with her presence as both performer and choreographer. While in her teens, she was chosen as Juliet in the London Festival ballet's 1985 revival of Ashton's "Romeo and Juliet," and she has now ripened into a mature, engaging performer who emphasizes clarity and musicality on the ice. Her new "Cracked Ice," a large company work that opened the program, depended on a lengthy program note to make clear exactly what was taking place. While this attempt at creating a behind-the-scenes milieu remained a bit fuzzy, the clean lines and unforced grace of the ensemble passages—particularly the "company class" which is clearly an homage to the way Curry had trained and prepared his skaters—were a pleasure to behold.
Ms. Healy's "In the Mood," a robust solo to 1940s music, and Ms. North's charmingly old-fashioned "Skater's Waltz" for company apprentice Suzanne MacDonald, reveled in the pleasure of elegant ice moves without straining for glitzy effects. Closing the program was Doug Webster's affectionately nostalgic "Enchanted Evening," which evoked nightclubs and dance floors and a generally feel-good atmosphere. The women looked delightful in their colorful array of pouffy and sleek cocktail dresses, and the Michael Buble recordings of three swinging standards carried the action along wonderfully. However, Mr. Webster's decision to have one of the men constantly miming the actions of a singer was puzzling and distracting. The highlight was a deliriously romantic central duet, as one couple separated from the crowd to the mellow strains of "That's All."
ITNY recently marked its twentieth anniversary, and one has to admire the perseverance and dedication of Ms. North, the founder and artistic director, as well as the steadily advancing level of artistry in the troupe's performances. A public skating venue like Sky Rink is far from an ideal performance space and presents plenty of challenges, but with the aid of Chenault Spence's atmospheric lighting, ITNY manages to make it work on its own terms.
3, No. 1