The Next Ice Age at the Columbia Festival of the Arts

June, 2000

On June 17, I went to see The Next Ice Age performing at the Columbia (MD) Festival of the Arts. The performance was held at the Columbia Ice Rink, which was set up as a theatre for the show. They they were basically only using the part of the ice surface between the blue lines, with "wings" curtained off on either side, plus there were 3 rows of seats on the ice and a backdrop at the rear of their "stage".

I was initially kind of horrified at seeing how small the ice surface was, because I normally think that a small ice surface puts too much restriction on the dynamic movement that is an essential part of skating, but to tell the truth I didn't really notice that the skaters looked cramped once the performance began. Perhaps that was because I was preoccupied with taking photos through much of the show, though. I am still trying to learn how to juggle both a camera and notebook at the same time I am watching the skating, so my notes on the show are a bit sketchy and I'm writing this up as much from memory as from my written notes.

Someone asked me recently how The Next Ice Age compares to The Ice Theatre of New York, and about the best answer I could come up with is that The Next Ice Age tends to perform more ambitious, larger-scale works that are more firmly rooted in the classical dance tradition. That was true of this performance, which had only two pieces on the program: "Turn", set to Jean Sibelius's 5th symphony, and "Book of Proverbs", with music by contemporary composer Michael Torke. Each of the two pieces was in several sections, some sections for soloists, some for the entire cast, and some for smaller ensembles.

The Sibelius piece was choreographed by Tim Murphy and opened with gloomy lighting and music, and a woman in a long dress with a veil and train that made rustly noises as she sculled slowly across the ice. She reappeared in this outfit at various points later on, whenever the ominous theme reappeared in the music. The other skaters were dressed in outfits that were bright yellow gold in front and blue-gray on the back.

The first movement, "Turn Around", featured a solo part for Gig Siruno in counterpoint with the rest of the ensemble, a pivot line section where the skaters swinging around at the end of the line made cool shapes with spirals and ina bauers that changed each time the line rotated, a section for a trio of women followed by a trio of men, two women and a guy playing tug-of-war with a scarf, and the entire group together at the end. Somewhere in this movement there was also a section where the whole cast was spinning around doing chainee turns, that reminded me of the piece called "Burn" that Laura Dean choreographed for the Curry company years ago.

The second movement, "Turnstyle", had Dawn Latona as featured soloist with an ensemble of four men. They did a group lift, and then there was a section where the men were in a line and Dawn was trying to push through them and they would push her back, and then another section where she was trapped in a circle by the men and similarly trying to break out and being pushed back. After this there was another pivot line formation with Dawn spiraling around in a circle, and finally the men marched offstage.

After this there was a section of mime with no music. Chris Conte appeared as soloist with the woman in the long dress, who pointed at him and left, while he continued standing rigidly at center ice. Another one of the women came out and peered at him and tried to tug on him to get him to move, but he wouldn't budge. Then another one of the women came out and tried to flirt with him, but that wouldn't work either, and they were both trying to tug at him while he remained rigidly in place. Finally a small child (identified in the program as Ian Lorello) came out, shooed the two women away, and gave Chris a push, and he came to life for the third movement, "Turn On".

With the music, Chris did some solo fancy footwork, followed by a group section, a duet with Chrisha Gossard and Jeff Merica, and a section where Chris skated in opposition to the group. The woman in the long dress reappeared, and then the ensemble skated in a circle formation and formed into a pinwheel. This section of choreography seemed to borrow a lot from synchronized skating. At the end, there were some rather over-done lighting effects to match the staccato notes at the conclusion of the music.

The piece in the second act of the show was very different in character: "Book of Proverbs", a work composed in 1996 by Michael Torke for orchestra, chorus, and soprano and baritone soloists, with lyrics based on biblical texts. The choreography for this piece was by Nathan Birch. I had been particularly interested in seeing this work because I'm probably as big of a fan of Michael Torke as I am of skating. He writes joyous, uplifting music with strong rhythms and complex use of counterpoint that doesn't fit well with any label, although you might pick out influences from minimalism and jazz as well as a neo-Baroque style in the treatment of the text in this work.

For this piece, the skaters were wearing pseudo-classical costumes in styles that might have been some combination of Egyptian, Roman, and Greek, and none of which were quite the same. The men's outfits all featured brown shorts and shirts that were either brown, dark red, or olive green, with gold lame' trim. (I thought these costumes might be an appropriate model for the glut of "Gladiator" programs we are going to see in the next competitive season.) The women were wearing cream-colored dresses with pastel-colored sections and more gold lame', and most of the skaters of both sexes were wearing some sort of headband.

The work opened with an orchestral overture, with no skating. The first part with skating was "The door turns (the sluggard, on his bed!)", with Scott O'Neill as the soloist. He was definitely no sluggard, doing perhaps the most beautiful camel spins I have ever seen, with the free leg held in a lovely arched position, and in both directions, too.

The next section was "Better a dry crust with peace, than a house full of feasting with strife". This section of the music was sung by the female voices, and appropriately skated by the four women of the company. Throughout the entire piece, Birch matched the skating to the singers, so that, for instance, the entire ensemble skated during the choral sections, a male soloist skated the parts sung by the baritone solo, and so on.

This was followed by a section for four men, "The whip for the horse". They did some fancy footwork in unison, and made some interesting shapes as a group (my attempts at photography didn't turn out particularly well, unfortunately). During this section, there were splashes of water coming out from the wings on the percussive highlights of the music.

"The way of the eagle" featured Chrisha Gossard and Scott O'Neill, with quite a bit of stuff going on in the background with the ensemble, that I'm sure was supposed to be symbolic of something or another, although I'm not sure what it had to do with the lyrics of this section. There were three small column props at the rear of the stage, and the women came out carrying large urns filled with glowing ice and put them on the columns. Then the men of the company skated around the urns as if they were worshipping them. The soloists had a section where they were unfurling a big red scarf, and then the ice buckets and pedestals were removed, the soloists skated offstage, and the section ended with the rest of the group in semi-darkness.

The next section, "Drink our fill of love", had Gig Siruno as the soloist. We saw Gig spin, and do some nifty split loop jumps. The person I attended the show with commented that it was painful to think of the way most eligible men skate, after seeing the way that Gig carried himself and used his arms as an extension of his center. I'm really glad he has found a place in skating where he can be appreciated for the things he does especially well.

After this, the group skated "Like the man who seizes (a passing dog by the ears)". The urns made a reappearance, this time filled with water in what seemed to be a ritual baptism scene performed by the men of the company. Again, if there was a connection to the lyrics, I didn't get it.

The final section, "Boast not of tomorrow (for you know not what any day may bring forth)" was also skated by the entire group. It started out with the skaters in lines of threes, doing some splicing and shuffling patterns again reminiscent of synchronized skating before joining into a block and splitting back into lines again. There were also some circle formations, and a section where the skaters individually ran back and forth across the stage from the wings. At the end, another large glowing urn was carried out on the ice, out of which the skaters pulled -- flashlights!

All things considered, it was a excellent show, and I would have liked to have been able to catch a second performance so that I could appreciate more of the nuances of the choreography. It's too bad that ice theatre performances of this type aren't being televised or at least made available on video so that a larger audience can see them. I was trying to decide after the show whether the people who were in attendance were skating fans or just local people who were there because the event was part of the arts festival, and I was guessing that it was primarily the latter. The audience did seem appreciative of the kind of skating they were seeing, and, as another good sign, the show was sold out.

Photos

Just a word of warning before you download these: my camera is not really up to taking action photos under theatrical lighting, so these photos are not of particularly good quality. But they might give you some hints as to what the costuming, staging, and choreography were like.

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