The Next Ice Age at the Kennedy Center

May, 1997

I made a trip to Washington DC on Friday to see The Next Ice Age performing at the Kennedy Center Opera House. I'd never been to this venue before and wasn't quite sure what to expect. My seat turned out to be dead center in the front row of the first tier, and I found that it gave a good perspective of the entire ice surface although it was farther away from the stage than I would have liked. The orchestra-level seats were closer but I'm not sure if the people sitting down there had much of a view of the skaters' feet.

Also adding somewhat to the distance from the stage was the fact that they had a live orchestra in the pit -- the first time I'd ever been to an ice show with live music. There were a lot of children sitting down in the lower-level seats and I got the impression that this was the first time a lot of them had seen a live orchestra at all, as they were all gawking over the rail as the musicians were warming up before the show!

This is the second theatre-style ice show I'd seen in the past month The stage at the Kennedy Center is deeper than at the Foxwoods Casino, where I'd seen Gershwin on Ice, so the ice surface was more square than rectangular. I noticed that they were using it in different patterns, as well: while the skaters in the Gershwin show did a lot of figure-8 and circular patterns, here they were doing a lot of patterns where they would skate forwards towards the audience and then backwards again, in straight lines, mixed with horizontal motions across the stage and occasional circular patterns. Another thing that seemed to be typical of the choregraphy was that there was a lot of skating diagonally up to the front corners of the stage, doing a kind of half hockey stop, then skating backwards upstage again.

Unlike the Gershwin show, this event featured a real program with a complete cast list and production credits. But it was too dark in the theatre for me to take any notes during the performances, plus I was too busy watching, so my comments on the specific pieces on the program are going to be a little sketchy.

Anyway, here's the cast: Dorothy Hamill, Patrick Brault, Jeri Campbell, Chris Conte, Catherine Foulkes, Crisha Gossard, Dawn Latona, Jeff Merica, David Nickel, Nancy Pluta, Gig Siruno, Richard Swenning, Kristen Vanick-Jamison, and Kristan Lowery Waggoner.

The first piece on the program was "Moving On", choreographed by Nathan Birch and set to music by Mendelssohn. This was a long piece in four sections, plus an orchestral prelude leading into a rather ghostly opening. The first section was slow and moody with an ensemble in simple blue and green costumes, featuring various pointing and searching gestures. (What were they supposed to be looking at? The program notes give no clue....) The second part was more sprightly, and the third featured a solo by Nancy Pluta leading into a pas de trois with Gig Siruno and Jeff Merica. The fourth part was another ensemble featuring the whole group of skaters. Some of the guys did triple toes, which got a lot of ooohs and aaahs from the audience. (Generally, any time the skaters started doing anything where they got up some speed, people started ooohing and aaahing.)

After an intermission to resurface the ice, the next piece was "The Blue Danube", skated by a group of four men in strange multi-hued blue costumes with different colored legs. This was a revival of a piece originally choreographed by John Curry. The four skaters sometimes worked as a kind of clump, sometimes as four soloists, sometimes as four shadow skaters, and sometimes as two pairs shadow skating. I think I've just heard this music too many times because I found it to be the least interesting piece on the program.

Next was the only solo piece of the evening, Dorothy Hamill skating to Josef Suk, choreographed by Tim Murphy (who is her regular choreographer for her show programs, BTW). In terms of the technical content, in this program she did a layback, double salchow, axel, and fast scratch spin. Choreographically, it was interesting to see the variation in speed throughout the program; there were sections with long, gliding movements mixed with sections showing more power skating.

The last piece in the middle section of the program was one I had personally been looking forward to seeing -- "Bright Blue Skating", set to music by contemporary composer Michael Torke. This is bright, happy music, and the choreography (again by Tim Murphy) certainly captured that. But in some ways it was a disappointment: I thought the ensemble work was sloppy and that there was too much emphasis on non-skating movements, like skipping and running across the ice. On the other hand, the music has a certain spiky quality to it and I think it must be hard to choreography or skate to. I'd still like to see what could be done with some of Torke's less spiky pieces.

After another intermission to resurface the ice, the closing piece on the program was another lengthy work set to Tchaikovsky's 6th symphony, "Sisyphean Victory". The choreography, by Nathan Birch, was complex and layered. At times there were multiple groups of skaters on the stage at the same time, doing completely different things, with lighting effects used to distinguish them. Dorothy Hamill was featured in this piece; she had a solo section as well as joining in some of the ensemble sections. There was also a section where the skaters came out in groups of three doing pull-through shoot-the-ducks, a section where one of the women skaters seemed to be portraying a clock, and a couple of sections where the entire group formed a large tableau which moved or rotated as a unit, with some of the skaters breaking away and then rejoining. For this piece, the men were in plain beige pants and shirts while the women were in peach-colored harem pants. Dorothy got to wear a dress, though.

All in all, I enjoyed this show a great deal. I wish that more of this kind of skating -- the emphasis on ensemble work and longer pieces with complex choreography -- would make it into the more commercial ice shows and TV productions. It seems to me to be such a waste that so many of the commercial shows are just oriented around an endless series of solo "cold spots" using lightweight movie music or the inevitable ballads sung by female singers, when there's so much more you can do when you have a dozen skaters and 30 minutes to develop a single theme. If the professional skating boom is going to continue, it seems like there ought to be a place for larger-scale works like this that go beyond the competitive skating format.

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