More than meets the ice

28 Jun 08 - Herald, NZ - Cathrin Schaer

The Russians are coming - to ice-skate their way through the Cinderella story in a world premiere season. Cathrin Schaer sat in on rehearsals in Moscow.

The man in the skin-tight, golden jumpsuit arrives on the rink looking very shiny indeed. And just a tad embarrassed.

All the other ice skaters - there are over twenty men and women currently rehearsing in this state-of-the-art Moscow ice facility - turn to look at him and they all start laughing.
It's the first time the skaters of Cinderella On Ice, which has its world premiere in Auckland next month, have been able to try on their costumes.

The reason for the Russian ice skating champ's embarrassment is that he's dressed as a piece of a golden clock - the one that will chime when Cinderella has to flee the ball. While ice skaters might be used to skintight pantsuits, this particular outfit is perhaps, well, just a little snug in certain areas.

But really, displaying a little too much anatomical information is the least of the dangers this group of top Russian ice skaters face.

We are in one of the most modern ice skating rinks in Russia, a country where ice skating is as much a national obsession as rugby is in New Zealand; there are something like 40 ice rinks in the city and last winter the stores sold out of new ice skates. This particular stadium, built only recently, costs the Imperial Ice Stars $280 per hour to rent - its state-of-the-art technology means the air temperature is comfortable while the ice remains frozen.

The skating rink itself is the size of a soccer field - but after a few gentle laps of the rink, the skaters begin to work within a far smaller area that has been marked off by cones. They spin, leap and lift within the confined space which represents the size of the theatres - like Auckland's Aotea Centre - they will be touring. As they go through their routines - which include a spot of can-can and some Cossack dancing - occasionally one of them wipes out. At one stage, one of the tiny, athletic women being hoisted aloft by two male skaters is almost dropped on her small but perfectly formed head. Like any team of hardcore athletes, the crew will travel with their own doctor.

All the while the rehearsal director, a burly man in a red and white Cossack hat with fur ear flaps, gruffly admonishes the dancers about what they are doing wrong.

Well, that's what it sounds like. Tony Mercer, the Imperial Ice Stars' creative director, kindly translates: "they're getting a bit of a bollocking now," he says cheerfully.

Some of the skaters look genuinely perturbed by their coach and you worry they're going to be caught by the flashing blades of the female skaters slicing the air as the women are lifted overhead and spun like dolls - albeit dolls in tracksuits with rock hard butts.

This looks like tough work, not the kitsch, sickly sweet image many have of ice extravaganzas.
Says Mercer: "There have always been ice shows - they have been around for years. But mainly they just took what was a competition formula and put a costume on top. I think that's where the kitsch aspect comes from. They didn't adapt it, they didn't put in any elements of dance or any sort of choreography."

Which is where the Imperial Ice Stars are different. After being disappointed at a performance given by British ice dancing champions, Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean during the 1980s - "I couldn't see what was happening at the other end of the rink and it was cold!" - Mancunian-now-Moscow resident Mercer saw the potential in a combination of theatre and ice skating, where it wouldn't be cold and you would be able to see everything.

With a background in theatre, including stints as a lighting designer and a production manager, he began working with ice skating productions for another British company. Then in 2004, having evolved his own personal vision of how he thought ice skating theatre could work, he formed his own: The Imperial Ice Stars.

He flew around Russia to interview potential ice skating stars and medalists; he also met and married a Russian champion ice skater, Maria Orlova - Orlova works on the shows with Mercer and the couple now have a son together, whose first language is Russian.

Mercer's Imperial Ice Stars have gone on to become one of the Russian Federation's most successful theatrical exports. Mercer is proud that his two skating companies tour harder and further than the famed Russian ballet companies, the Kirov and the Bolshoi.

He's also proud his shows are about more than ice skating or theatre. Even though they're often based on stories already adapted by classical ballet - in the past, the Imperial Ice Stars have performed their versions of Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty - his shows are a carefully choreographed mix of skating daring, icy stunts, acting, specially composed music, and flamboyant costuming.

Mercer works his own mojo on each show - for instance, this version of Cinderella is actually set in a Siberian town. Cinderella's evil stepmother is the local ballet teacher, the ugly sisters (who aren't that ugly) are competitive ballet dancers, the fairy godmother is a mysterious fortune teller and Cinderella's potential hubby is the son of the local mayor.

Cinderella's father is a clockmaker, obsessed with time - a clock-heavy set was designed by an Australian, Eamon D'Arcy, who also created the staging for the opening ceremony for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. Various metaphors about the importance of time in our lives are worked out through choreography representing the whirring, ticking and inner workings of clocks.
It's taken about 18 months to get from Mercer's first storyboarded ideas for Cinderella On Ice to this point and although the routines have been learned, they still need finessing.
Really the hardest thing is bringing acting skills into it, Mercer notes. "To give them [the skaters] the character, to explain how to bring the character to life.

"Because although some of them started skating when they were four or five years old, none of them have been theatrically trained."

Six days of rehearsals per week, from 10 in the morning until 6.30 at night, is to get the skating moves into the athletes' "muscle memory", Mercer says - that is, it becomes automatic. At that stage they can then start working on the all-important characterisations.

And after watching several rehearsals of different numbers - complete with jokes about how Cinderella's step-sisters are called Paris and Hilton and her stepmother, Versace - you can see Mercer's methods start to work. The skaters perform as though they actually are the wicked stepmother, the fortune teller, the bewildered boyfriend. Mercer doesn't need to explain what's going on, it becomes clear. At the end of the day, as the exhausted skaters leave the rink, Mercer smiles when he's told this.

"You should be able to look at it, without the music or the costumes, and still be able to tell the story," he concludes happily. "Basically we try to combine ice skating with theatre, we want every element to mean something - that's why we are so unusual."

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