“IT’S NOT just a great ice show, but it’s a great ice dance,” says Tony Mercer, artistic director of The Nutcracker on Ice, which opens at Artscape tomorrow. “What catches people by surprise is the speed and grace – you can have the two together. We have snow in there, we have rain and some lovely flying effects and aerial acrobatics.”
Mercer formed The Imperial Ice Stars in 2004 so he could create something new. He said in the past the style was to pick a ballet and simply move it on to the ice.
“But I created the company so that I could do my own style.”
The company went on to stage The Sleeping Beauty on Ice and the award-winning Swan Lake on Ice. “It was the first time an ice show had won theatrical awards,” he said.
When he and Pieter Toerien began talking about staging another show, The Nutcracker was the obvious choice, since it is the most performed production in the world. And as a bonus, South Africa has the world premiere.
If you’ve seen The Nutcracker before, you shouldn’t shy away from this version as Mercer and his team have added a fresh spin to it.
“Tchaikovsky didn’t want to write it like Marius Petipa wanted him to. What eventually came to the stage was not what was planned and Tchaikovsky wasn’t happy. So we’ve just tried to follow his version and that’s how we ended up with this production. You can identify with it easier. We’ve given it a start and an end. It makes it easier to follow the story.”
So, while the story still meanders off into Snowflake Land and the Land of Sweets, it has a human feel which audiences can identify with, something Mercer considers to be vital.
He adds that the production values are high. “It’s our costliest and biggest production to date. But when Pieter asks for something you don’t say no,” he laughs.
This staging of The Nutcracker has a somewhat international history. Part of the show was produced in Australia, the sets were built in the UK and Australia, the costumes were made in Moscow, some of the rehearsals were in Moscow and the music was recorded in Manchester. “It’s been great fun bringing it all together in South Africa,” he said.
There was a 10-year period before Mercer formed The Imperial Ice Stars when he was learning to choreograph for ice, and he decided to move to Moscow so he could immerse himself in it. Before long he found that people wanted to join this “new style” and help him develop it.
“I gave them theatrical training, character presentation and a little bit of method. Teaching them how to perform as a theatrical being,” he said.
“It was a new challenge they accepted really well. We’ve been on a journey. It’s like having children.
“They take that information and process it, and if you’re a good parent they’ll teach you something back and you then have to adapt to that. As they’ve grown I’ve grown with them.”
An important part of what they do as a team is find ways to improve the final product they offer audiences. “We have to sit back and say: ‘We were great last time, but how do we learn to do better?’ even if the show was sold out and received ovations. You still look and see which parts you can do better. You’re working non-stop at it.”
He said audiences were changing and so were their expectations, and the company had learnt to keep pushing.
With this being the production’s global premiere, promoters from around the world are coming to see it in Joburg and Cape Town to decide if they want to invite them to perform in their countries.
“An ice show is judged differently to a musical. Everyone wants to see how good it’ll be first,” Mercer explained.
So far the production is already scheduled to travel to the Canary Islands, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Asia and Spain.
And while more destinations may still be added as promoters fly in to see the show, Mercer is already planning a busy 2013 as he will be reworking the first production he staged – Sleeping Beauty.
“It was the first and you always tend to be safe. But I know there’s another story Tchaikovsky had in mind,” he said, adding that when Swan Lake was first written Odette and Odile were meant to be separate characters.
“Tchaikovsky always had his own thoughts and that’s what I love looking at. We’ll be giving Sleeping Beauty a more ‘today’ feel, that’s what I love doing.”