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The family behind the scenes

Source: Chatelaine, v69 n3 p94(2).
Date: March 1996
Abstract: The Chrysler Stars On Ice family is gearing up for the Canadian run of its show in Lake Placid in Oct. 1996. With 'family' as one of the major themes of the show, the group has solicited the help of long-time cast and crew who have grown with the group to manage costumes, choreography and lighting.

Full Text COPYRIGHT Maclean Hunter Ltd. (Canada) 1996

The first time you see Chrysler Stars On Ice, one thing strikes you immediately: this is no ordinary ice show. Chrysler Stars On Ice is very different from the ice shows you may have gone to as a kid - all those production numbers strung together with the odd solo by the guest star skater. It's not an enactment of a favorite children's fairy tale, nor is it a line-up of champion skaters simply performing their solos like you might see after a skating competition. Chrysler Stars On Ice is a combination of all the things that make going to an ice show a special experience...your favorite skating stars performing their very best numbers alone, in pairs, in groups and all together, with an entertaining thematic twist that tells the audience a story.

The Chrysler Stars On Ice Family

It's what goes on behind the scenes, though, that really makes Chrysler Stars On Ice unique. There's a strong sense of family between the cast members and the crew. Each one of them says that the show is like their second family, and that special feeling is clearly evident in the way they skate together and work together. In fact, this year "family" is one of the main themes of Chrysler Stars On Ice.

At the head of the Stars On Ice family is Sandra Bezic, a former Canadian pairs champion who is most famous for her choreographic talents in the championship performances of such skaters as Kristi Yamaguchi, Kurt Browning, Katarina Witt, Brian Boitano and the Canadian team of Barbara Underhill and Paul Martini. Cast and crew members credit her creativity and insight for the huge popularity and success of Chrysler Stars On Ice. "Her talent is very powerful and very rare," explains associate director Michael Seibert. "She can instill confidence in skaters and really help them develop their talent. She also has a unique ability to help skaters find a new direction, to stretch their potential and grow."

Likewise, Bezic herself has grown. Her role with Chrysler Stars On Ice is director and co-producer, which ultimately has her in charge of the creative side of the show. Bezic keeps a close eye on every detail, comparing it to "trying to put together a giant jigsaw puzzle." She is constantly changing gears, from production details to choreography, to costuming, to lighting to music. While she loves this intense involvement, she realizes that it's also the hardest part of her job. "I love to wear all the different hats, but switching in mid-stream constantly, day after day, is difficult," she admits.

To take some of the pressure off, and to achieve the level of performance that Stars On Ice audiences have come to expect, Bezic has pulled together people who are the best in their fields from all over North America. She feels that her close ties to these "unsung heroes of the show" are what makes things really come together. Most of the creative talent has been with the show for several years, so close professional and personal relationships have developed along with Chrysler Stars On Ice.

Creating Moods and Moves

Associate director and choreographer Michael Seibert is back and forth from his home in New York to Bezic's home in Toronto throughout the year, developing the next show, and working with individual skaters on their latest numbers. Along with the help of dance choreographers who help them bring the latest dance moves to the ice, Bezic and Seibert have choreographed some of the most interesting, challenging and creative routines in skating today. While some skaters do bring their own routines with them ("I encourage that; I find it interesting to see what other people have done," says Bezic), Bezic and Seibert, along with assistant Lea Ann Miller, choreograph almost every move in the show.

The creative team of Bezic and Seibert has been together since Bezic choreographed for Seibert in 1984. After Seibert left amateur skating, Bezic hired him to assist in the development of the Brian Boitano/Katarina Witt tour, and later for Chrysler Stars On Ice. "I think we compliment each other with the different ideas we bring to the table. But we're also very compatible. We often start with two different ideas, we work through them, and ultimately we will always strongly agree on the final direction," explains Seibert.

Dressing It Up

Creating the costumes takes months of intensive work, and this responsibility belongs to Jef Billings, a Los Angeles-based costume designer. Billings has been popular among championship skaters for quite some time, but it was only last year that he added Chrysler Stars On Ice to his roster. For this year's production, Billings has designed almost all the costumes for the ensemble as well as the solo numbers, so "it will be more cohesive. By designing all the individual costumes with the Chrysler Stars On Ice themes in mind, we will create a more polished look than ever before."

Once the production numbers' (the opening number and the finale) costumes are designed, Billings "shops the fabrics and starts to build the costumes." Finishing touches are put on them during fittings at rehearsals in Lake Placid in the late fall.

The Spin On Music

The music for Chrysler Stars On Ice is a combination of popular music and original scores. At the centre of it all is music director Marvin Dolgay, a Toronto-based composer. He met Bezic and Seibert in 1988, and five minutes after they left his studio they called to offer him the position as music director for the Boitano/Witt tour. They've been together ever since.

Dolgay's main responsibility is to help choose music for the skaters, then edit the music to fit the routine. Last year, a medley of Rolling Stones tunes was edited together for the finale; this year, the finale will be skated to a Beatles medley. "I also add sound effects, and write new introductions, transitions and endings to edit into the music," explains Dolgay. Although Chrysler Stars On Ice has traditionally preferred to use "identifiable" music, last year Dolgay and his associate Glenn Morley wrote an original score for the opening number. This year, they have again composed a jazz suite for the opening of the show.

As his relationship with the Chrysler Stars On Ice family has evolved, he understands more about finding the right music for each skater. He must be mindful of the fact that skaters have to vary their style from year to year, but still consider each skater's unique tastes. "It took me a while to understand when hearing music that 'That's a Kristi,' or 'That's a Kurt.' Sandra and Michael's feet are always skating when they're listening to music. And now, I also understand the music at that level," says Dolgay.

Lights, Action!

Lighting is one of the final stages, and one of the most important aspects of the show. "Lighting is critical, because there are no props to help create the mood," explains Ken Billington, the Chrysler Stars On Ice lighting designer. "The colors the lights create on the ice must compliment the skaters, the costumes, as well as the mood of the piece."

It can take up to ten hours to program the lighting for one number into the main lighting computer, because each of the 140 "moving" lights must be programmed separately for placement and colour. "And that doesn't include the ten spotlights," adds Billington, who comes up from New York to join Bezic and the other crew and cast members in Lake Placid every fall.

Reunion In Lake Placid

When the cast and crew meet in Lake Placid in October, most of them haven't seen each other since the tour ended the previous spring, so it's a reunion of sorts. But while it's a chance to renew acquaintances, it's also five weeks of intense work.

The solo numbers are complete before the skaters arrive in Lake Placid, but the ensemble numbers must still be choreographed and taught to the skaters. The lighting is programmed, costumes are fitted, and the show prepares to go on the road. David Hoffis, who has for several years traveled with Chrysler Stars On Ice as production manager, looks after details like loading and unloading equipment, setting up the lighting rigs, communicating with arena staff in each city - the day-to-day details. As opening night approaches, the finishing touches are put on the show.

RELATED ARTICLE: On With The Show!

The tour kicks off in the U.S. after Christmas, and doesn't get to Canada until early spring. Cast changes mean the show requires a bit of re-working before the Canadian leg of the tour begins.

While Chrysler Stars On Ice tours Canada next month, Bezic and her team will be already thinking of ideas for next year. But for this year, the theme is family - appropriate for a group of skaters and crew members who have, in many cases, grown up together. As one of the crew aptly put it, "We're all part of this big Chrysler Stars On Ice family. For the skaters, their strength as individuals has been enhanced by their close ties to their Chrysler Stars On Ice family."