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Cheap tricks on ice: The skating's great, but enough with the vaudeville schtick

Source: Ottawa Citizen
Date: May 1, 1998
Author: Shannon Rupp

Copyright 1998 Southam Inc.

it just donned skates and Spandex and moved to the nearest arena.

The tour of 13 name skaters led by Kurt Browning offered slapstick comedy, broad parody, and plenty of dancing girls (and boys) showing off their taut torsos at the Corel Centre Wednesday night.

But while this mix of kitsch and flash has its moments, it relies too heavily on a style that might be called Fosse a la fromage -- a kind of cheesy take on the work of jazz dance master Bob Fosse. Perhaps it's the natural limitations of skating that drive choreographers down the road trod by Chippendales dancers, but you've got to wonder why anyone would take such spectacular athletes and turn them into a spectacle.

The problem with taking skating out of its natural environment -- competition -- is that it lacks the tension necessary to hold our attention. With no prize at stake, it's difficult for a display of tricks to sustain our interest for two hours.

So this crew compensates with some old-fashioned showmanship -- make'em laugh, make'em cry, and give'em a cheap thrill.

Sentimentalists would have loved Ekaterina Gordeeva gliding across the ice to Nana Mouskouri's saccharine version of Smile. No doubt this skating savvy crowd of 13,800 was reminded of the sad story of the former pairs skater whose husband and partner died of a heart attack during practice.

Ice dancers Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz reprised their medal-losing Riverdance, which prompted the Corel Centre audience to leap to its feet, stomp and cheer as if to compensate for the judging fix that denied these two their place on the Olympic podium.

But whose idea was it to court aging baby boomers nostalgia for stadium rock with Get the Led Out, a little homage to the heavy metal classics of Led Zeppelin?

According to the program, we can blame choreographer Sandra Bezic, who is famous for crafting Olympic-winning programs.

What was she thinking with this para-miltary misfire that has the skaters clad in black leather trousers (the women are in shorts), and red T-shirts, and punching the air in an open-palmed salute that suggests they might want to add brown shirts to their wardrobe.

Choreographer Julie Marcotte is also on thin ice when she has Isabelle Brasseur -- a pairs skater who regularly defies death -- doing some frantic hip waggling that would pop the pelvis of a lesser athlete.

And it's not as if we need gimmicks to persuade us to watch. Brasseur can have us clinging to the edge of our seats as her partner Lloyd Eisler tosses her, split-legged, over his head, or twirls her in a somersault. All the while, her tiny, shiny blades are glinting in the spotlight, reminding us she's wearing lethal weapons that are just inches away from his skull.

But British skater Steven Cousins was the one most often cast in the Chippendales role. Performing his own choreography to the Living Colour song Love Rears Its Ugly Head, Cousins engages in the pelvic isolations and spastic moves of the worst kind of jazz dancing before sliding across the ice in the splits. (You could almost hear the sizzle and see the steam.)

The audience roared for Fun & Games, in which the skaters satirize their own, poking fun at skating mothers (Jayne Torvill in a fright wig), unethical judges and ice dancing. The audience loved the in-jokes delivered by Brian Orser in the role of Swifty, a sports writer straight out of The Front Page.

They even take a few swipes at some notorious skaters -- one pleads to the judges over her broken laces. (Which isn't quite fair: without the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan brouhaha, skating might not have attracted the kind of mass audience that packed the Corel Centre.)

These athletes are at their best when they just skate. If Kurt Browning were a dancer, the way he suspends his jumps mid-air would be called ballon. Browning is an engaging performer with some of the charming ham quality that distinguishes Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Skating to Elvis Presley's Are You Lonesome Tonight, his movements are all exquisitely defined, and there's a clarity to his footwork that many a dancer would envy. He seems to carve the space as sharply as his blades carve the ice.

And few dancers -- on blades or not -- can match the subtlety of Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean. More than a decade after they took the gold medal and changed the face of ice dancing, these two still tango with a control that makes it hard to believe they do it on ice.

They have always been known for their intricate choreography, but this flirtatious duet adds a charming sense of whimsy as Torvill tries to catch the attention of Dean.

He eludes her, elegantly, and is so preoccupied reading the paper that he trips over a large trunk, and somersaults back onto his blades with breathtaking precision.