In the Media

Summer Refreshment: Modern Dance on Ice

By Anna Kisselgoff
The New York Times
Monday, July 27, 1998

When he began the solo that opened the American Dance Festival’s program here on Friday night, Nathan Birch appeared to be a shadowy figure stepping onto a dark if conventional stage

Yet this was no conventional dancer.  A splash of blue light revealed that the black-clad performer, pausing for a moment of stillness, was wearing skates; the stage was covered with ice.

In its deliberate confusion between floor and ice, between dancer and skater, this initial image implied a fusion of skating and dancing.  It was a perfect introduction to The Next Ice Age, a skating company that Mr. Birch has directed since 1988.

An ice show in the heat of North Carolina is like Christmas in July.  As novel as the idea might sound, it is also easy to understand why Charles and Stephanie Reinhart, directors of the American Dance Festival, invited The Next Ice Age to appear for the first time at a mecca for experimental dance.

Skating as a form of artistic expression is not a new concept and The Next Ice Age, based in Baltimore, is not the only troupe devoted to new choreography on ice.  It is unusual nonetheless for its emphasis on ensemble skating, Mr. Birch’s solo notwithstanding, and the company’s creative potential is obvious.

“Breezeway,” the opening solo, was used by Mr. Birch as a springboard for one of two premieres that the company presented from Wednesday through today at the Reynolds Industries Theater at Duke University, the festival’s summer home.  “Syllabice”, used the same Finnish composer, Jukka Linkola, and was an inventive pure-movement piece that also referred to the basic skating vocabulary.

The second premiere was “Starr-Struck,” set to 1950’s recordings, including “Wheel of Fortune,” by the popular singer Kay Starr, who attended the first performance.  The piece was commissioned by the festival through its Doris Duke Awards for New Work, initiated this year.

“Starr-Struck,” like “Bright Blue Skating”, and “Machines,” two works by Tim Murphy, was a crowd pleaser on the program.  Mr. Murphy, especially polished in his choreography for eight dancers in “Bright Blue Skating,” set that piece to Michael Torke’s music.  Skating elements, the equivalent of standard steps, were recognizable as such in this ensemble piece, predicated on speed, smoothness and changing formations.  But in “Breezeway” and “Syllabice,” Mr. Birch’s choreography goes beyond convention and has a more artistic tinge.  It does not ask skaters to imitate dancers but provides them with novel configurations of body shapes that are similar to movement explorations by modern-dance choreographers.

“Breezeway” (1991) suggests a journey of self-discovery.  Mr. Birch circles the stage with long hair flying behind him or whipping around his face as he abruptly changes directions.  The ice revealed by Jeff Davis’s blue lighting was on a small stage.  The size, 60 feet by 48 feet, was a challenge amazingly well met by all the skaters during the program.  That Mr. Birch could summon so much speed and yet stop short when needed was astonishing.  When he dropped to the ice and reached out, there was a sense of reverie.

Mr. Birch may be too faithful to the mood of his music, and the occasional coyness of Mr. Linkola’s score (for a Finnish film, “The Snow Queen”) led to some cuteness in the choreography for “Syllabice”.  But essentially the ensemble in black tights (Mr. Murphy, Patrick Brault, Jeri Campbell, Chris Conte, Chrisha Gossard, Dawn Latona, Jeff Merica, Cara Morrissey, Nancy Pluta, Gig Siruno and Richard Swenning) had a range of varied movement.  Three skaters zigzagged around one another while moving backward, and six sprang up into a delightful burst of cabrioles.  There were occasional rough edges, but also energy and eye-catching shapes: Miss Latona, nose to ankle in a 180-degree arabesque, and the entire group advancing in a galumph.

As much as one could appreciate the creativity of “Syllabice”, it was clear why the show-business veneer of “Starr-Struck” appealed more to the audience.  Ms. Starr’s rich voice had more than one midle-aged spectator mouthing the lyrics in the recordings, which Mr. Birch either illustrated or treated with a comic twist.  The song “Side by Side” did not have a man and woman in love but two clowns (Mr. Murphy and Mr. Birch) hooked at their insteps as they glided past one another.

The retro images had a cheerful wit.  The first section, “Slow Boat to China,” featured two sailors and thier girls.  Ms. Gossard’s yearning solo, “I Cover the Waterfront,” was at its best when she did not roll on the ice.  But “Night Train,” the Pullman car number for Ms. Latona, her luggage and six bellboys, dazzled with the right jazzy exuberance.  Ms. Latona, lifted horizontally by men moving sideways, excited in her inventively fashioned upper berth.

Ms. Gossard was a knockout in “Goin’ to Chicago.”  Ms. Latona had a lickety-split solo in “Indiana,” exciting for its shifts in speed and dynamics.  “Wheel of Fortune” was a good joke: Six dancers in 1950’s attire circled around Mr. Conte, who spun on his back until his feet pointed to the fortunate party.

There was an engaging fervor about the skaters, and impressive seriousness about the choreographers.  They fit right into the festival, whose origins at Bennington, VT, in 1934 are celebrated in an exhibition at the Perkins Library at Duke.  Among the photographs of modern-dance pioneers, one notices official letters to aspiring dancers.  Paul Taylor is told in 1953 to do his share of the work as a stage-crew apprentice, and Madonna is informed in 1978 that she has received a tuition scholarship.

Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner