In New York, 2000

‘The Next Ice Age’: Torke in the Rink

By Chloe Veltman
The Wall Street Journal
Thursday, January 27, 2000

The surface of New York’s Rockefeller Plaza ice rink is scarred with the balletic endeavors of a thousand blades. But no sooner has the regular crowd of ear-muff-clad skaters clambered to the side-lines, wheezing for hot cocoa, than an elegant flock of ice-dancers swoops down on the glassy plane, limbering up without a thought for the freeze. The swirling cluster of six noiselessly divides into two groups of three as eht members of the Baltimore-based ice ensemble The Next Ice Age follow their artistic director, Nathan Birch, in a port-de-bras on ice. “These movements are the building blocks for the performance,” explains champion figure skater and commentator Alicia (JoJo) Starbuck from her rink-side vista.

The session comes to a halt; the skaters form a circle and obediently await their cue.  Soon, the sound of blazoning brass, trumpets from a nearby PA.  The skaters recoil like bullets, bursting into the opening movement of Mr. Birch’s latest work: “The Book of Proverbs,” set to composer Michael Torke’s panoramic 1996 score for soprano and baritone soloists, chorus and orchestra.

Zigzagging in their plain black tunics against the backdrop of gaudy holiday lights, the skaters ricochet across the ice like pinball machine ball bearings, executing Mr. Birch’s lightening steps.  Sometimes moving precisely in time with Mr. Torke’s energetic rhythms, and sometimes pulling against them, the ice-dancers seem to climb inside the music, stretching and contracting its fabric through the combination of broad, sweeping leaps and precise, abrupt gestures.

“I always start with the music,” says Nathan Birch over a post-performance drink.  “When a piece of music moves me, I listen to it over and over again until I reach the saturation point.  When I feel numb to it, I’m ready to dance to it.”  When Mr. Birch, 37, and The Next Ice Age co-director Tim Murphy, 40, first heard Mr. Torke’s score just over two years ago, they felt an instant emotional connection to the piece’s eight short movements, each based on quotations from the Bible’s Book of Proverbs.

The Next Ice Age’s “The Book of Proverbs” will have its official opening at Maryland’s Columbia Arts Festival in June, but the relationship between Mr. Torke and the troupe began in 1997, when Mr. Murphy choreographed a piece for The Next Ice Age using Mre. Torke’s 1985 composition “Bright Blue Music.”

Mr. Torke has long been a popular choice among choreographers whose dancers don’t wear skates.  Ulysses Dove, James Kudelka, Jiri Killian, Glen Tetley and Peter Martins have all choreographed works to Mr. Torke’s scores.

For Mr. Birch, the appeal of “The Book of Proverbs” stems from teh way in which the composer “brings elements together, deconstructs them, and puts them back together again.”  In musical terms, Mr. Torke plays with the words from the biblical text, coupling each syllable with one defined part of the melody.  This way, the words of the text switch into different sequences when the composer manipulates the notes.  When the notes eventually fall back into the correct sequence, so do the words.  Though he says he can’t read music, Mr Birch  admits to having his “own way of deciphering musical structure.”  The extensive use of sequences in the choreography (where the skaters copy a single movement, one after another), and the moments where the skaters move together in a tight form only to disperse into individual “freestyle” passages, express in dance what Mr. Birch hears in the music.

Messrs. Birch and Murphy formed The Next Ice Age in 1988, with the support of their mentor, John Curry – 1976 Olympic gold medallist and founding father of the “Art Skating” movement.  After turning professional, Curry, who died in 1994, set about developing his ideas for a new ice skating genre, one that would turn what was commonly perceived as a sport into high art.  Popularly described as a “Nureyev of the Ice,” Curry created ice-ensemble pieces for his company, Theatre of Skating, with music ranging from works by Schumann, Liszt and Debussy, to Sullivan and modern Jazz.

 “John Curry was misunderstood.  He would have hated to have been labeled as a ballet dancer,” comments Mr. Birch.  Drawing a distinction between his genre of ice-skating and classical dance, he emphatically insists, “there’s no point in trying to recreate ‘Swan Lake’ on ice.”  After prolific amateur careers as competition skaters (and an unsatisfying stint for Mr. Murphy in the Ice Follies as a bright yellow chicken on Old MacDonald’s Farm), the duo joined Curry’s short-lived but highly acclaimed Theater of skating, performing during the early ’80s in such world-class venues as the Metropolitan Opera and Royal Albert Hall.  During those years, Curry enlisted the talents of some of contemporary dance’s most respected choreographers, such as Twyla Tharp and Elliot Feld.  “I learned so much from watching these people work,” Mr. Birch recalls.  The recipient of three National Endowment for the Arts choreography fellowships, Mr Birch especially admires the work of choreographer Mark Morris: “Mark Morris’s work is about flow and speed – it’s the closest thing to watching skating.”

Despite interest from agents and producers following their 1997 performance at The Kennedy Center, and appearances at such venues as 1998’s American Dance Festival in Durham, NC, the company has skated into obstacles.  Reputation aside, the cost of laying ice on stage may still be high enough to deter even the most broad-minded producer.  But the company may have come up with a solution: Building theatrical seating onto a traditional ice-rink.  Ice ensembles need a lot of space, and even half a rink would offer them more room than any conventional dance venue.  With an average single performance costing about $20,000 to mount, Mr. Birch reckons this staging model (which will be used at the Columbia Arts Festival) would lower production costs by $8,000.

From Mr. Birch’s “Starr-Struck,” a series of dances set to the songs of pop singer Kay Starr, to “Murphy’s Machines,” in which the skaters, in gunmetal-gray costumes, enact machine parts against a red-lit stage, The Next Ice Age’s art pushes skating into new realms.  And “The Book fo Proverbs,” with its exhilarating leaps balanced against moments of unexpected stillness, is as unpredictable as any of the company’s work.

“When I started out, I just wanted things to look pretty,” admits Mr. Birch.  These days, going against the grain of the music is as much a feature of the company’s style as going with it.  And while most people would count speed and smoothness as the primary advantages of skating over dancing, few would acknowledge the key element of tilt: “What truly separates us from conventional dancers is our ability to lean at a 45 degree angle,” says Mr. Birch.  Watching the members of The Next Ice Age twist precariously away from the sides of the Rockefeller Center rink, their noses almost skimming the ice, it’s clear this is something Mr. Birch is keen to take to its limits.

Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner