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Discover Stars on Ice: Life After the Olympics

Source: Dance Magazine, v72 n3 p86
Date: March 1998
Author: Susan Reiter
Photography: Heinz Kluetmeier

Copyright Dance Magazine, Inc. 1998

Thirteen of the world's finest figure skaters surge across the ice in intersecting lines, moving through increasingly intricate patterns, accompanied by a dynamic, five-minute percussion score by Christopher Rouse. This powerful opening ensemble number from Discover Stars On Ice, the annual ice-skating touring show, now presented by Smucker's, represents a world of figure skating far removed from the jump-and-spin solo programs of amateur competitions.

Currently in its twelfth season, Stars on Ice offers top-level skaters a chance to expand their artistic horizons. Running from December through mid-April (with a three-week February break during the Winter Olympics), it features sophisticated production numbers that offer skaters the opportunities to perform in an ensemble and to shine in individual showpieces. In this month alone, there will be nineteen performances from the Midwest to the East Coast.

Unlike most touring ice shows, Stars On Ice is much more than a random collection of individual specialty numbers arranged to fill an evening. There are thematic concepts behind the overall structure of the evening and transitional elements between numbers, with shorter ones linked in segments to express a specfic theme. The music of Led Zeppelin provides a frame for this year's edition. Rouse's invigorating percussion piece, "Bonham," is a tribute to the rock group's durmmer. It leads directly into five vintage Led Zeppelin songs -- nearly fifteen minutes of continuous skating, with the ensemble folleowed immediately by a series of individual numbers. The program's ambitious finale, nearly six minutes long, is to "Stairway to Heaven."

What makes Stars On Ice so unusual is the lengthy and detailed planning and preparation that go into the show and the high level of design talent on hand that gives the performances a polished, cohesive look. During three intensive weeks of rehearsal, Sandra Bezic, Stars On Ice's coproducer, director, and choreographer, heads a creative team that includes choreographer and codirector Michael Seibert; Britain's celebrated ice dance team of Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean; and associate director and choreographer Lea Anne Miller, a former Olympic competitor in pairs skating and an original member of John Curry's unique, short-lived company.

The talent that they have to work with is considerable. Scott Hamilton, who came up with the idea for the original Stars On Ice in 1986 and who is in many ways its guiding force, is back after successful treatment for the cancer that curtailed his involvement in last year's tour. Ekaterina Gordeeva, who performed in the show for many years with her husband, the late Sergei Grinkov, now brings her elegant classical line and effortless musicality to solo numbers while displaying considerable personality and verve within the ensemble context. Rosalynn Sumners, another charter member, adds her strong, sensual presence to the mix, while Kristi Yamaguchi, in her sixth season with the show, continues to go from strength to strength both technically and artistically. Male singles skaters joining Hamilton include Kurt Browning, Brian Orser, and Paul Wylie. The ice dance duo of Renee Roca and Gorsha Sur, former U.S. gold medalists (see Dance Magazine, February, page 74), and Russian pairs skaters Elena Bechke and Denis Petrov complete the cast.

The addition of choreographers Torvill and Dean last year was a bold, highly successful move. Bezic, Seibert, and Miller had already developed an ongoing collaboration over several years, while Torvill and Dean had been headlining their own shows. The mix proved to be felicitous for everyone. "Jayne and Chris are brilliant, delightful, and terrific, "says Seibert, five-time United States ice dance gold medalist and three-time World bronze medalist with his partner, Judy Blumberg (they performed as part of the original Stars On Ice). "They felt they wanted to do something different," says Seibert. "They're always open to new projects. They had time in their schedules and decided they'd like to be part of our show."

Torvill and Dean's main contribution last year was The Red Hat, a witty, inventive, extended ensemble piece set to Scott Joplin rags. A red bowler hat was deftly tossed and passed among a cast of ten, each of whom was given choreography that expressed a specific personality or character. It proved to be an engaging, upbeat way to close the evening's first half.

This year, in addition to skating two of their own numbers, they have again provided the first-act finale, and have also participated more intensively in the overall creative process. Caught during a brief rehearsal break at the International Skating Center of Connecticut in Simsbury, the cast and crew's base of operations during September rehearsals, Torvill says, "They wanted us to be more involved this year - right from the conceptual stage." Dean adds, "We're excited about contributing to the look of the show rather than just coming and skating our own numbers."

Fun & Games, their choreographic contribution this year, is a parody of all the excesses and cliches of amateur skating competitions. "Who else can parody us, other than ourselves?" quips Dean. "It's like a minibook musical. We used music from a mixture of Broadway musicals. Scott is the emcee-narrator; he's there as a sportswriter, telling us what happens at the world championships." Sports Illustrated writer E.M. Swift contributed the script. Any veteran skating watcher will recognize specific targets of the spoofs (Torvill and dean are most merciless when it comes to their own speciality, ice dance), but even the uninitiated can appreciate Sumner's appearance as an aggressive, egocentric skating mother; Browning's dead-on portrayal of a top male competitor's sweaty, will-I-nail-all-my-jumps das through his program; and Gordeeva and Yamaguchi doing their best to destroy each other during the precompetition warm-up.

Trying out new possibilities for ensemble skating has become a Stars On Ice mandate. The choreographers and other members of the creative team (including costume designer Jef Billings) begin brainstorming well before rehearsals begin. Bezic, as she takes a break in the middle of a long workday, says, "We start talking about the cast as early as we can, so we can work on getting the balance we want. Our whole summer is spent selecting the music, getting it to a place where it's ready for rehearsal." She breaks off to glance over at her three-year-old son, Dean (already quite at ease on skates).

Some individual numbers are created especially for the show; others are created by the skaters as competition pieces. During their brainstorming sessions, the choreographers come up with ways to link the numbers or to combine several into a continuous segment. One example this year is the suite of Elvis Presley songs. "The idea is to treat Elvis in more modern terms," notes Seibert. "It started with Katia [Gordeeva], then grew to include Kurt and Kristi, because we thought Elvis would be a good vehicle for all three, and that they would look great together." Adds Bezic, "It opens with 'Fever,' and the whole suite is about having the fever. You can take that any way you want. It works as a suite, but we're trying also to make the solos stand on their own, so that the skaters could use them competitively. In addition to trying to build the show, we're also trying to satisfy their careers."

It's an ongoing balancing act - satisfying the needs of top individual performers and using them as an ensemble as well. "The group's diversity is our strength," remakrs Bezic. "We have to find a through-line for the show, but we also have to be able to veer off to showcase the individual talent. I think that because the skaters have done so much performing on their own, it's much more interesting for them to get on the ice together and share the stage, to be able to interact."

"You don't start thinking as though it's a ballet company," Seibert points out. "Ice skaters are not reared with the same mentality as dancers. From the earliest age, a skater is taught one-on-one. You're never put in a group class." Dean echoes the thought: "In the dance world, the concept is that you're a part of the corps, and then you break out and become a soloist. When you're a skater, you're always a soloist."

"During our competitive careers, we work so hard on our own, " observes Yamaguchi, as much an individual star as anyone on the cast. "It's fun to finally be able to share the ice with others. I like the big production numbers -- you have so much more interaction. The rehearsal process for the ensemble work is always time-consuming, but the end result is always satisfying. You have thirteen people out there skating together, and it's a great feeling. The philosophy is to kee the show changing and evolving into something current and new."

No one knows more about the evolution of Stars On Ice than Lea Anne Miller, who was present at the creation, performed during the first six years, became performance dierctor, and now shares choreographic duties. "It started strictly as an exhibition," she recalls. "Scott said, 'Let's all meet in Denver,' and everyone had two solos that they had already prepared, and their own costumes. There wasn't any continuity in the show. It grew from there. They brought in other choreographers and it began to have a lot of success. When we started, we went to only five cities. Now there are about seventy. We're trying to develop a team apporach to choreography, and this year it's worked really well."

A major turning point came in 1992, when Bezic and Seibert came on board. Both give considerable credit to IMG, the major sports agency that produces Stars On Ice. They were willing to make that giant leap and invest in production, in me and Michael and [lighting designer] Ken Billington and three weeks of rehearsal," says Bezic, wo at that point had already choreographed a series of successful Brian Boitano-Katarina Witt touring shows. "They were touring, but not in major markets. I felt that if they were willing to take the big step and hit the major markets, it needed to be a produced show. This was a risk for them, but they let us do it. It was really great that they took that chance. They've given us every freedom to pursue our ideas."

Each year the show takes on its own distinctive tone, and this year, Bezic notes, it reflects and reacts to recent developments within the their ensemble. "Last year was an introspective show," she says. "There was more classical music. This year, it's more dynamic and in-your-face. After Sergei and Scott, we just didn't feel like getting introspective anymore. There's a lot more energy and happiness. It's the kind of energy you get when you've had to question things.

"What's really important to me is the fact that we're becoming more and more of a company. We don't have to go in anymore worrying about egos when we choreograph, which is really nice. There's a real company attitude. The whole opening number reflects that. We're a unit out there, as opposed to a collection of stars. Everyone knows that they get their individual moments, but their energy together is the greatest force."