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Steeled for Action; This Year's Stars on Ice Show Trades Big Numbers for Tougher Artistic Challenges

Source: Los Angeles Times
Date: January 13, 2000
Author: Libby Slate

Copyright 2000 Times Mirror Company

Last year's edition of Stars on Ice welcomed five new cast members to its roster of figure skating champions, including current Olympic gold medalists Tara Lipinski and Ilia Kulik. The changes to this year's production, which plays San Diego, Anaheim and Los Angeles this weekend, involve what is being performed, not who is doing the performing.

It's part of the show's continuing artistic evolution, according to Scott Hamilton, the 1984 Olympic skating champion. Hamilton co-created the show in 1986 to present professional skaters in sophisticated ensemble and solo numbers; he is one of its producers as well as one of its stars.

"We have no more rope lights bordering the ice. We have marker lights that are around but off the ice," Hamilton, 41, says by phone from a tour stop in Baltimore. "So it looks a lot different. And we have less cold, cold spots individual skater star turns --a lot of the solos come out of the group numbers."

This year's theme is "What a Wonderful World," reflecting not only the cast members' international heritages but also the world of emotions, says Stars on Ice producer, director and lead choreographer Sandra Bezic.

Rather than large production numbers, Bezic notes, there are small ensembles and what she terms "interesting combinations": Kristi Yamaguchi and Ekaterina Gordeeva share the ice in one number, while Lipinski and Kurt Browning become a duo in another. And Gordeeva, who had been skating solo since husband and pair partner Sergei Grinkov died in 1995, does a pair turn with Kulik, whom she is dating.

"And," Bezic says from her Toronto home base, "this is probably the most choreographically ambitious show we've done. I think the work is really, really detailed and strong. It's a difficult show."

Kurt Browning, back this season after skipping the U.S. portion of last year's tour because of family commitments in Canada, agrees with Bezic's assessment.

"I'm in total fear of getting my steps wrong," Browning, 33, says of his part in the "Old Friends" number, set to the Simon and Garfunkel song. "It's a subtle, soft program. It touches your heartstrings a little bit. But if you screw it up, you screw up the moment."

Then there is the clown number he first performed in last year's Canadian Stars on Ice, whose ending Bezic recently changed because audiences couldn't tell when it ended. "The clown piece was a risk that worked," Browning says. "The music is so sparse--the whole thing is counting time to music that doesn't exist."

Skaters Can Stretch in New Directions

Indeed, skaters say they enjoy doing the show because it allows them to take such risks, to stretch in ways they could not as Olympic-eligible competitors. Hamilton, for one, never known as a classical performer, dons ballet garb for a satirical sendup of "Don Quixote."

Lipinski's two solo numbers, performed to "Genie in a Bottle" by Christine Aguilera and "American Woman" by Lenny Kravitz, were choreographed in part by Aguilera's own choreographer, Darrin Henson, with pop dance moves that the 17-year-old describes as "cool."

Teaming with Browning to "La Valse Moderne/Dada Je Suis" by L'Orchestre Moderne is, Lipinski says, "fun, different, having someone else on the ice with you. It's kind of reassuring. We do a few tricks, like side-by-side jumps." Skating the ensemble numbers, she adds, "gives a good depth to your solo numbers."

Three-time U.S. pair champions and 1998 world pair silver medalists Jenni Meno and Todd Sand perform to Ricky Martin's "Casi Un Bolero"--with two-time U.S. ice dance champions Renee Roca and Gorsha Sur.

"It's kind of our ice dancing debut," Meno, 29, says with a laugh. "It's nice to be doing something totally different. Ice dancers never take crossovers to go into a move--they always do intricate moves. And we always do lifts in the same direction , but they do them in both, so now we are too."

Meno and Sand, who were married four years ago and live in Aliso Viejo in Orange County, are looking forward to performing on their home turf.

"It's a little stressful," says Sand, 36. "But it's fun. You're showing off what you've worked on all year, what you've been doing in the rest of the country. You get your energy up every night, but you get a little more energy from your parents, your family and friends, everyone you grew up skating with."

Founding father Hamilton envisions more artistic risk-taking in the years ahead. "We're trying to keep the show fresh and new and unpredictable," he says. "That way, people will keep welcoming us back."