Death-defying thrills on ice

18 Jan 16 - Cape Times - Sheila Chisholm

FIONA Kirk, whose roles are Queen and Hungarian Princess, may have been South Africa’s National Dance (skating) champion, but to our average citizen, board or roller skating are sports with which they are more familiar. Yet, ice skating is a sport/ice-dance art that fascinates all. So when Pieter Toerien presents The Imperial Ice Stars in one of Tony Mercer’s Tchaikovsky ice-theatre spectacles, no one should miss out watching 25 Olympic/European/World champion skaters in action... they are a marvellously co-ordinated team.

Ice skating’s history goes back to 3000BC – even before the Giza pyramids. That’s the date archaeologists put on primitive animal bone ice skates discovered in Scandinavia and Russia. But, according to research, “the earliest written mention of ice skating is found in writings by William Fitzstephen, a 12th century Canterbury monk. Therein he describes “if the moors in Finsbury and Moorfield freeze over, children attach bones to their ankles, and carry sticks for propulsion. They fly across the ice like birds, or well-fired arrows.” It took another couple of centuries before the Dutch added sharpened steel edges. Simultaneously an inventive Dutch apprentice experimented with “metal blades height to width ratio,” making self-propulsion possible – “hey presto” the modern blade was born.” Refinements continue. But essentially the blade remains a toe plate, a heel plate and the runner working part developed back then.

Over the years techniques have moved well beyond gliding, spinning and little jumps to a large and intricate step vocabulary. Some have balletic influence such as presages, port de bras, attitudes and arabesques. Chassés performed as a simple chasse, a crossed chasse or a slide chasse and petit tours (little turns). Some skating steps are named after people who invented them like the Axel jump. Named after Norwegian figure skater Axel Paulsen, “an Axel jump starts from skating forward, has an extra half-rotation before the skater lands gliding backwards in arabesque.”

Then there is the Biellmann spin. Named after Denise Biellmann. This is a spin “where the free leg is pulled above the head from behind.” Some steps are named after animals, such as a camel spin “where the skater spins with the free leg in arabesque”; shoot-the-duck is an amusing term for a position “where the skater curls up, putting the head on the knee of the extended free leg either to glide or spin.”

The alphabet also forms part of skating step glossary. An “I” position sees the skater holding the free leg straight up to their head and Y spin is a vertical split toward the side of the body. Lunges, split jumps, pivots are common. A daring step is the death spiral. Here the “woman skates in a circle around the man on a “deep edge” with her body close to the ice while the man holds her by one arm.” So look out for these and many more dramatic and, as yet unnamed, awesome moves and death-defying thrills.

Tony Mercer insists Swan Lake on Ice is ice theatre, not a reworked version of Petipa and Ivanov’s famous 1895 ballet. As such it must be viewed. So too must Tim A.

Duncan arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s well-loved score be heard to match Mercer’s reworked story-line. Musically it often doesn’t coincide with familiar ballet episodes and using the lament for Kirk and Volodymyr Khodakivskyy’s nail-biting aerial scene seemed inappropriate. But the mazurka finale proved a brainwave to end Swan Lake on Ice on a high.

Mercer’s research unearthed Tchaikovsky’s original intention to use two different people perform Odette and Odile. In this performance Olga Sharutenko performed Odette. Maria Mukhortova performed Odile. Presented over four acts, Mercer’s scenario makes sense. It ties up why Siegfried so switched affections from Odette to Odile. Mercer’s time-frame is Russia’s Tsar Nicolas 11 – an overlap between Tchaikovsky and the Tsar’s lifetimes. In the palace courtyard and ballroom scenes, Albina Gabueva’s costumes, touched by hints of Russian national dress, reflect this period. Gabueva put men in top hats, frock coats and trousers. Women wore hats, elegant mid-calf flowing dresses and jackets. Or, set against an alcove, balcony and chandeliers women wore ball dresses and men formal tails.

The lakeside swans, in exquisite white feathered headdresses, jagged hemmed fluid costumes with tapering sleeves, echo graceful swans. Expressing Odette’s purity, her sequined white-swan costume contrasted sharply with Odile’s glittering, seductive black and red. Gabueva’s design linked Odile to her evil sorcerer father, Baron von Rothbart (Yahor Maistrou).

And so, through a cast of 25 outstanding skaters, this enchanting tale unfolds. A fine musical recording began with Richard Clegg, oboist with Manchester Symphony Orchestra under Tim A Duncan, playing the first plaintive bars of Tchaikovsky’s swan motif. As the music developed, the curtain lifted on Berezenko and Benno (Alexandr Kazakov) standing in a spotlight. After introductions they start skating. Their first moves immediately heralded here are two remarkably talented skaters. Berezenko, with aristocratic bearing, has a strong stage presence. Kazakov is not only a technical craftsman he’s a witty mimic. His remarkable skills and impish humour steal the show.

When palace servants burst onto the ice, fall onto their knees, turn, at high speed, then sprung upright to nonchalantly skate off everyone gasped and applauded. As they did when one held a maid aloft, with one hand, in a sideways “V.”

Against a background of the palace garden waterfall, six couples, skate holding walking sticks and twirling umbrellas. There are breathtaking “throw, catch and spin” sequences. Another sees a man skating with a woman on his shoulders then picking up second. Timing is all important. A judgement error could be disastrous.

Supported by Kazakov, Berezenko’s mother, informs him he has to marry. Depressed, he goes hunting swans at the lakeside. Atmospheric lighting on an outsize moon and lake backcloth added evening mood to Mercer’s choreographically inventive swan scenes. Berezenko and Sharutenko make a romantic couple. Both are musical, trust each other and their port de bras form attractive lines and shapes. Note how sensitively Berezenko uses his hands and fingers.

Although not quite so energised as in previous appearances, Sharutenko’s technical lyricism still make her a remarkable performer. Her surprise “take-off” flying above the swan corps, and their “swimming” in an arabesque chain create enchanting images. Watch too for the immaculately rehearsed pas de quatre’s dextrous foot work.

Given limited space Mercer’s choreography is apt to repeat, yet for each protagonist he creates individual qualities. Sharp movements underline Mukhortova’s evil sensuousness. Backed by attendants, Maistrou’s gestures personified half-human state... a ideal for countless spins, pyrotechniscs.

Apart from Kirk and Khodakivskyy’s the nail-biting, breath-holding aerial antics, act three’s Divertissement tended towards the uninspiring. Never-the-less Swan Lake on Ice is thoroughly entertaining offering a rare opportunity to see champion ice-skaters in a magical production.

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