The Next Ice Age at the Kennedy Center

September, 2001

I went to Washington, DC this weekend to see The Next Ice Age performing at the Kennedy Center. This is the second time I've seen them at this venue, except that this time they were in the smaller Eisenhower Theatre instead of the Opera House -- I had the impression that the ice surface on the stage was smaller, as well as there being fewer seats. Another difference compared to last time is that they used recorded music instead of a live orchestra for this show.

This year, the show was preceded by an open rehearsal and on Saturday afternoon. This opened with a warm-up of fairly basic edge skills, and then the choreographers Nathan Birch and Tim Murphy worked with the skaters on a few short sections where they had been having problems with getting everybody in the right place at the right time, or having unison problems.

For instance, one of the sections they were having trouble with involved the skaters "unravelling" from a clump into a spiral-shaped formation and then into a line across the back of the stage before turning to skate towards the audience while doing some footwork and small jumps in unison. The skaters near the beginning of the line were going too fast and the ones near the end of the line were having trouble getting into place fast enough to begin their jump and footwork. The way they tried to fix this was by having the lead skater (Chrisha Gossard) skate even faster and in a tighter circle in the transition into this section, so that she would be in position to begin the "unravelling" sooner, and everybody else would have more time to complete it. It worked in the practice, but in the performance it looked like massive confusion to me, with a fall and some near-collisions at the end of the line and then very ragged unison as they came upstage in the footwork.

The skating part lasted about an hour, and this was followed by a question-and-answer session with the choreographers. I didn't take notes on this, but one thing I do remember is that they said that they had been practicing 40 hours a week for 7 weeks in order to do 3 performances, and that was it for their season. Compare this to something like SOI where they might have 3 weeks of rehearsal, a week of tech time, and then go on a 60-city tour playing big arenas instead of small theatres, and you can see that the economics just don't add up.

I also wonder about the wisdom of trying to put on an ice show in a theatre. They said that they lost 48 hours of their tech set-up time in the theatre just making the ice, and everything else was rushed as a result. There is also the problem of sight lines -- I was seated about halfway back in the orchestra level, and while I could see the skaters' feet there, I would have preferred to be up higher to get a better view of the whole ice surface. Closer to the stage, you couldn't see the skaters' feet at all. And then there's the small ice surface, which means that in the group sections the skaters often don't have room to do much more than dance around in place.

Someone in the audience asked about Jamie Silverstein and whether she had turned pro or given up on competitive ice dancing. I can't remember if it was Birch or Murphy who addressed this, but the answer is that this is just temporary while she is "between partners". I thought she did OK with this kind of work, although there were places where she seemed to be skating a bit tentatively compared to the old pros like Crisha Gossard. And, since many people are undoubtedly morbidly curious about this, she is no longer as excessively thin as she was a couple of years ago; she looked to be proportioned more or less the same as the other women in the company now. Other familiar faces in the cast included Derrick Delmore and Damon Allen. (It must have been a particular challenge for Derrick to fit in that 7 weeks of rehearsal while he was preparing to compete at Nebelhorn as well.)

Anyway, on to the actual performance.

The first piece on the program was "Joy", choreographed by Nathan Birch to Schumann's Symphony #2. The problem with doing a skating program to a complete symphony instead of to the more typical bits and pieces of music that are cut together, is that symphonies are not written on purpose to be danced or skated to, and some parts are bound to be less "skatable" than others. It can also be difficult to sustain choreographic interest through such a long work. In this respect, I think this piece suffered in comparison to Birch's previous treatment of the Tchaikovsky 6th symphony, which I saw in their 1997 Kennedy Center show, or Murphy's choreography for the Sibelius 5th which they did last year.

Costumes for the Schumann piece were fairly simple white outfits. The guys wore white pants and loose white shirts with long sleeves. Some of the women wore white dresses with spaghetti straps and longer skirts tinged with blue at the hem, others wore shorter dresses with short sleeves. Dorothy Hamill had a much fancier sparkly white dress designed by Jef Billings. (Costumes for everybody else were credited to Maria Buonoccorsi.)

The first movement had an introductory section with various skaters -- Birch, and then Hamill, and then a group carrying a long piece of white fabric -- skating around behind a transparent curtain. The "meat" of this section began when the curtain was lifted, and featured Damon Allen partnering Crisha Gossard and Derrick Delmore with Melissa Andersen, who were later joined by David Liu and Gig Siruno. The group of four did some interesting gliding poses together, into a series of solo leaps and a section where they made fist-pounding motions in rhythm with the timpani. A section where they skated in unison in a block formation, followed by more group posing and a section where they did some intertwining three turns, then all four of the men did some variety of jump.

The second movement was a scherzo and featured Caitlin Coale, Anna Campos, and Cara Morrissey working in a 2-against-1 counterpoint, switching roles every so often so that each of them was featured as the soloist. The recurring choreographic theme from this section was an exaggerated hip-wiggling movement in time with the music and often emphasized with the arms, as well. Jamie Silverstein joined them for a while and then I think the trio finished by themselves. For skating elements, I noted that they were doing a bunch of one-foot turns like the bracket-three-bracket MITF pattern, and some back cross rolls into leaps.

The third movement was an adagio. It began with a dark stage and a faceless man (perhaps representing fear or death?) restraining Jamie, who was doing various kinds of crouching and twisting angst-type movements. Then there was a section for 6 men (Jeff Nolt, Damon Allen, David Liu, Derrick Delmore, Gig Siruno, Tim Murphy) with Dorothy Hamill. I thought this was the weakest section of the whole piece -- there was a lot of very slow gliding around and it all seemed rather boring and pointless. I noted that Dorothy skated a double three figure while the men were doing "arm stuff" in the background. Jamie came back, and then Dorothy had a solo section where she did a forward spiral, a layback, some of her usual edge stuff, back spirals, a double flip, and a "Hamill camel", and then Jamie and the men came back at the end. I think maybe Dorothy was supposed to be portraying something like hope or happiness which Jamie was trying to reach.

The fourth movement opened with the three women from the scherzo coming back, two of them carrying urns of water which they splashed around. Hmmmm, Birch had similar water-spashing in the "Book of Proverbs" piece he did for last year's show. Basically, this movement brought back a bunch of elements from the previous sections -- the hip wiggling, the large piece of white fabric, the boys and girls in pairs, the leaping men, Dorothy doing her usual stuff etc. The "unravelling" section they worked on in the rehearsal came near the end of this movement, and they ended by all hopping on their toe picks while waving their arms around over their heads.

After the intermission, the second half of the program was "The Steely Dances", choreographed by Tim Murphy to a set of songs by Steely Dan. For this piece, most of the skaters wore flashy costumes in bright neon colors -- all different, with a lot of stripes and such like. Dorothy Hamill wore a red halter dress that looked more formal than funky, and David Young wore a navy blue jumpsuit.

The first piece, "The Razor Boy", opened with David Young sitting in chair sharpening skates with some sort of hand-held sharpener that emits sparks and a whirring sound. (I've never seen such a device in "real life", to tell the truth.) There was a bit of mime as Damon Allen, in street shoes, tries to get his skates sharpened, but the skate sharpener guy motions that he has to take a number and wait in line. So Damon takes number 19 and sits on the edge of the stage to wait his turn, while three little kids come out being marshalled by Jeff Nolt with a hockey stick. One by one Jeff hands them a number tag and they go over to get their skates sharpened with this pseudo-device, which seems to cause them to break out into funky skating. Damon is clearly worried and escapes with his skates when it's his turn.

"Reelin' In the Years" started with a trio section featuring Derrick Delmore, who did a nifty spin, and then another trio with Crisha Gossard, who did another spin. Derrick and Crisha skated as a pair for a bit, and Dorothy did a flying camel, before they were joined by a group of other skaters and all went around in a large circle. They all did funky steps, kind of turning their feet in and out in rhythm with the music.

Damon Allen returned with his skates on for "Rikki Don't Lose That Number". Instead of the small number tag he was given by the skate sharpener dude, he now has a large number 19 stuck on his back. By the end of this section, all of the women had number 19s stuck on their backs, too. In this section Damon did some dance partnering with Jamie and I think some of the other women as well, and I noted that he did a double lutz, double axel, and flying camel. Wow. Damon is in fine shape and I think he really stole the show. When he was a competitive skater, I always like to watch Damon practice but his programs and choreography were so bland and ordinary that he never really fully drew me in to his skating. It's nice to see that, given the opportunity, he can act, he can skate in a variety of styles, he can do partner work, etc.

"Hey Nineteen" was Dorothy's solo. She did an axel, a layback, and a fast forward scratch spin. The one non-standard bit of choreography she did that I noticed was skidding on the heels of her skates at a couple points. Towards the end of this piece, she was joined by several other skaters. David Liu did a spin, Derrick Delmore did a double axel, Gig Siruno did a split leap. Then there was a section where the skaters were in a serpentine formation doing steps in sequence rather than unison, and then they formed a circle while Dorothy did another spin in the middle.

Next was "Third World Man", and I will be honest and say that I don't understand what this piece means or how it was supposed to connect with the rest of the songs or choreography, which was all upbeat and light-hearted. The stage lighting was very dark except for some harsh spotlights in the wings. The skaters were Tim Murphy and David Young (the skate sharpener dude). Tim did a lot of crawling around on the ice. David used a large mirror to reflect the spotlights in his face. There were some sections where David was physically supporting or manipulating Tim. Very weird.

"Chain Lightning" was for Crisha Gossard skating with Damon Allen, Jeff Nolt, and Gig Siruno, later joined by the rest of the company. I didn't note anything in particular about the choreography of this section except "whole group in line".

"Dr. Wu" was skated by the trio of old-timers, Dorothy, Nathan, and Tim. The choreography featured a lot of jazzy, relaxed upper-body movement, and I found myself watching the two men and realizing that they were both still extraordinarily good skaters. I thought they seemed more comfortable with this style of dance than Dorothy did.

"Do It Again" was a group number. It started out with the three kids joining the three old-timers. I can't quite remember how the transition worked out, but Nathan did a solo spiral and then a group spiral formation with three of the women. Then Crisha did a solo spiral, a spiral with Damon, and then another group-of-four spiral. There was a repeated movement on the "back, Jack" lyric, where two skaters would catch a third on their clasped hands and bounce him back the way he came. Gig Siruno and David Liu had a duet section. The entire group did a big pinwheel formation, then the skate sharpener dude came chasing after Damon, and Tim vanquished him by wielding the big mirror.

"Bodhisattva" started with a solo bit by Derrick where he did a death drop. Chrisha and Gig did axels. More skaters came out and at one point the whole group was doing a series of twizzles in both directions. Dorothy, Tim, and Nathan came back, while the rest of the skaters did chainee turns with frantic armwaving. Finally the skate sharpener dude got his number 19 back at the very end, and raised his spark-making gizmo in a pose like the Statue of Liberty.

All in all, I enjoyed the show, but not as much as I did last year's. I think a lot of this is just due to the music -- I'm a much bigger fan of Sibelius and Torke than of Schumann and Steely Dan. But, like I said, I thought the choreography for the Schumann was not as strong as the other symphonic pieces I've seen The Next Ice Age do. And, while "The Steely Dances" was fun, much of the fun seemed to derive from the skate-sharpener dude skit instead of from the actual skating choreography.

By the way, I took no photos this time because the Kennedy Center policy doesn't allow it.

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