Murrayfield Ice Rink, Edinburgh Fringe Festival; 9th August 2014
Chipping away at the reflecting colours of the floodlit surface at Murrayfield Ice Rink, world champions flip, twist, fall and dance in a remarkable departure from convention: This Is Contemporary Ice Skating.
The world’s first contemporary ice skating troupe, Le Patin Libre (which translates as ‘the free skate’), are making their UK debut with a ‘best of’ show at Edinburgh Fringe, before making their way to London for a specially commissioned performance at the Alexandra Palace later this year.
Far away from the sparkles and sweetness expected of ice dancers, this troupe uses contemporary dramaturgy, urban dance moves, and a thorough engagement with their medium of ice, bodies and blades, to break past the limitations placed upon them by the formal figure-skating world. It comes as no surprise to me that they sprang from the contemporary circus mecca of Montréal.
I’ve taken a view with this year’s Fringe that I’m not just going to look at shows with techniques traditionally associated with circus, but any which use skilled interactions with objects (and those objects can be human bodies) to push the conventional expectations of physical laws in an entertainment/performance capacity. To me circus is about variety, novelty. An acknowledgment of the heritage from the development of circus activity over the centuries.
This Is Contemporary Ice Skating is devised and performed by Samory Ba, Jasmin Boivin, Taylor Dilley, Alexandre Hamel and Pascale Jodoin, who variously bring expertise from the fields of circus, martial arts, theatre, music, and urban dance to their superb ice-skating prowess and exciting spirit of experimentation.
The first section we see is titled Piano, from the research towards the Ally Pally show Vertical Influences, and it introduces each member of the company and their unique styles, painting curves into the pristine ice. Boivin gives us intricate footwork, Ba is expansive and sweeping, Hamel makes a strong connection with us, and Dilley is more graceful than his long-haired rocker looks would suggest… until the lyrical mood is broken with a laugh and a fall that’s stylishly caught at the last minute.
These performers aren’t afraid to use their bodies as buffers to connect with their frozen stage, using the full potential it offers to help tell their stories – which often seem to swell from their own experiences of rebellion against conformity in the ice dance world. As Hamel laughingly tells me later as I stumble across the ice, ‘Falling is part of the game’.
We see Dilley and Ba straining against each other and the ice via a long red rope, opening up the whole space of the rink. Skates are dragged backwards against their usual function; ways to deal with imbalances and trips are built into the work, and they spin from the rope like ninjas in training, at the mercy of centrifugal force. Dug in blades and unconventional tensions are a revelation into how much can ice offer as a medium.
Hamel appears next, the clown of the troupe even before he dons his bow and hat, building up an amplified tap-dance routine. It’s hard to know where the real impact stops and the pre-recorded sound, created by musical director Boivin, begins. The five members of the troupe work all their own technical cues so unobtrusively that I had assumed they had a separate technician with them until well into the performance.
They have some troubles with the acoustic of the space and its PA systems when making announcements into the microphone and, through the echo and the accents, I often miss much of what is said. When it’s time to play a music quiz that brings in fun, easily relatable pop-cultural references, it’s a good idea that hostess Jodoin joins us in the stands.
The ensemble Circus piece draws on classical ringland ideas in costuming and music, but becomes something more, in a dance of determination from Hamel that speaks again of that desire to escape from the strictures of traditional expectations.
Jodoin and Ba present a charming duet where innocent flirtation develops into friendship, but ends on an abrupt note; Boivin tries to complete his hiphop moves against the stern obstructions of his colleagues in another development towards Vertical Influences, where disapproving looks and threatening behaviour attempt to stifle his creativity; a comic and impressive display from Ba, Dilley and Hamel in open-backed hospital gowns confers a sense of the ridiculous on the classic form, and I applaud their bravery at attempting this notoriously abrasive art in next to nothing. According to Hamel, it’s very liberating, and I can well believe him.
After the performance, the audience are invited to bring their own skates onto the ice and dance with the troupe. What at first seems like a clever ploy, to remind us how much skill their seeming ease takes, is actually a much more open introduction that goes further to break down the elite walls that can spring up around contemporary movement forms.
It’s been a while since I’ve been on the ice, but the children around me certainly seem to be more experimental than the usual circling I’ve seen in the past. Each of Le Patin Libre engages with members of the public, from tiny children to elderly adventurers, helping them along, giving tips, and encouraging a dance sensibility. ‘It’s about listening to the beat’, reminds Ba, as he gathers interested parties into a circle to share some basic moves. Like a breakers ring, he soon has us clapping along and taking turns in the centre to show how we can move.
With innovation like this, it’s clear that the Canadian dreamers should go down in history as the originators of a whole new genre of skills based performance, as their new fans follow them in their explorations of how human beings and ice can mix.