Columbia Figure Skating Club & Guests
Columbia Ice Rink, Maryland
March 25, 2017 at 6 PM
by George Jackson
copyright © 2017 by George Jackson
To see ice skaters as young as 3 years old had not been my reason for going to this “Sing into Spring” show. It hadn’t occurred to me that such tots could even stand up straight in skates without their ankles buckling as soon as they began to move. The lure was a new “Faun”, to the familiar Debussy music but for professional balletic ice dancers of The Next Ice Age troupe. Yet the opening number, Pat Muth’s “Moana” (based on Walt Disney’s South Pacific islands movie) showed the small fry adept at doing a marching step, short glides forward and keeping in formation. There were some among the somewhat older student skaters who broached leaps and twirls, despite an occasional spill. What surprised me most was the predominance of female students. In the show’s cast of some 75 skaters, only a handful were male. As with ballet, tomorrow’s men for figure skating will be in short supply!
Both photos: Ian Lorello in the title role of Nathan Birch’s “Faun”. Photo by Kim Zaruba.
Flat and angular placement, abrupt actions and sudden stillness, deep crouching and also turned-in stances were characteristic of Vaclav Nijinsky’s 1912 choreography for “L’Apres-midi d’un faune”. So were dreamy sensualities and a clinically clear depiction of sexuality. The “Prelude” music by Debussy, based on Mallarme’s poem, is complex and lasts about 10 minutes. Undoubtedly, choreographer Nathan Birch must have become fascinated by this material from the past. How suitable, though, is any of it for an ice ballet? Not very, at first glance. Motion on ice has continuity and is difficult to stop. Not entirely impossible yet hardly easy is diminishing a skater’s body volume. Dealing graphically with lust is taboo for ice skating which draws family audiences regardless of whether it is for sports, pop entertainment or artistic programming. Apparently, though, Birch couldn’t forget the “Faun” notion, so he transformed it.
Nathan Birch’s “Faun” is a trio for a male skater - the Faun – plus two female skaters. The pair of women are not Nijinsky’s nervous nymphs. They are more like the handmaidens to the Olympian gods in George Balanchine’s “Apollo”. Perhaps they are even a little like Apollo’s muses. Birch has called them “avatars”. They are the Faun’s helpmates, removing his jacket and so exposing him to what? It could be to all the influences of the universe. Birch forms this trio of skaters into a linked chain that knots itself and unties to wind about in arcs and under its own bridging arms – like in some older Balanchine ballets. For the Faun, Birch has devised angled, somewhat flattened squats. He glides both backward and forward in these compressions but then straightens up and stretches out. It is a taut, transformed Faun who ultimately moves across the ice.
The transformation happens musically. The dynamics Birch gives Ian Lorello’s Faun are very attentive to Debussy’s surges of speeding and slowing. Lorello asserts himself and relaxes his streamlined figure ever so sensually, lyrically. Daring is the use of the hands touching the ice to slow and then stop motion. I don’t think I’ve seen such a gentle cessation of skating before. Is it Birch’s intent that this Faun attains enlightenment?
The handmaidens, Julia Choi and Alicia Jackson, moved generously, nobly. Jackson also designed the trio’s costumes that subtlely evoked the earthy growth from which the Faun had emerged and the avatars’ blue skies. The ballet training of the three skaters gave their motions – even the crouching, flattening and twisting - a seamless continuity.
Part 3 of the spring show, “The Name of the Game”, was directed and choreographed to the music of ABBA by The Next Ice Age’s Tim Murphy. Lots of entrances and exits for Columbia Figure Skating Club’s more senior level skaters, plus an appearance by professional guests Allison Timlen and Justin Highgate-Brutman. The guests were more acrobatic than balletic, and not all of the club skaters projected a dance pulse. All together there were four performances of the spring show this past weekend, so ice skating seems to be thriving despite its gender slant and mix of training styles.