Cinders on Ice and on fire

15 Dec 08 - South Wales Echo, UK -

We're doing for ice shows what Cirque Du Soleil did for circus performances asserts bold producer James Cundall of The Imperial Ice Stars' latest production.

"It's a real spectacle ''This production features rain, three types of fire, moving scenery. 3D projection and flying".

But it's not just the technical side of the show that is impressive, there's also the performers' qualifications; between them the 25-strong cast have racked up more than 250 medals as competitive ice skaters.

The group, made up of Russian figure skates and ice dancers, rehearsed nine hours a day, six days a week. for seven weeks to pull the show together. Not content with that, they still rehearse for three hours each day before the show, which comes to Wales Millennium Centre this week.

"They are very hard-working" says Cundall. And very competitive! That's what comes from recruiting professional athletes.

They're used to doing something, practising until they get it exactly right. And then. they still want to Improve it.

"The only problem is that you have to teach them how to act." Cundall has his own experience of learning new skills in theatre though. He started his career in high finance, working in Hong Kong, but was always fascinated by theatre and set up his company Lunchbox Productions to live his dreams.

"Our first production starred (former EastEnder) Paul Nicholls" he recalls.

"And anyway there's not a lot of difference between the world of finance and the world of theatre. It's all about managing a portfolio (of shows), diversifying risk and marketing. Which is exactly the sort of thing that you would be expected to do when you're trading in blue chip stocks."

His formula for success is simple. "I like to offer value for money so that people go home feeling that they have really seen something different."

It's a philosophy that has stood him in good stead. Lunchbox has six other shows playing around the world at the moment, ranging from Barney the Dinosaur in Hong Kong to Abbamania in New Zealand. So where does imperial Ice Stars come in?

The company was set up in 2004, in partnership with artistic director Tony Mercer, who cut his teeth production managing tours for Donne Warwick, Kool and the Gang and The Supremes.

Originally a lighting designer, he moved into the world of theatre on ice in 1993 and since then he has cemented his place in the annals of ice-based entertainment by coming up with the technology that allows the company to move their ice rink from theatre to theatre, paving the way for brand-new choreography never before seen in ice dancing.

"But I also had a strong vision of what we needed to do with the choreography. Even when I was pushing against the received wisdom of the coaches and trainers I knew we had to do something different" said Mercer who splits his lime between houses in Wrexham and Moscow.

In creating the show, Mercer has called on some of skating's leading lights. "Someone I worked with who has coached more world and Olympic figure skating champions than anyone else, when l first met her, some of the things I was suggesting ... well she would look at me as if I was mad. But after we had worked together for a while, she started to see what I was on about.

"Now the skaters even try and outdo each other. If one person pulls off a triple salchow one night, someone will try a quadruple the next."

"A lot of the moves our performers do are dangerous enough as it is on a full-sized rink, but when they're whipping around inside a theatre it's even more challengingly".

Despite the jaw-dropping nature of the spectacle, Mercer insists. it's the story behind the skating-that makes it special.

"People might hear about this show, hear the word Cinderella and think 'Oh. it's not for me'. But I think everyone should come along and see exactly how impressive and technical it really is."

"Cinderalla is a story that makes sense wherever you are in the world."

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