In the early sunshine of a chilly February morning, Alexandra Palace is gleaming over north London from its hilltop perch. It is cold and sparkly on the inside too: “Ally Pally”, as the Victorian building is affectionately known, houses a popular skating rink, and already assorted enthusiasts – their numbers no doubt boosted by the recent Winter Olympics – are variously gliding, swerving and (it must be said) stumbling over the ice.
I am far more familiar with the dance stage than the skating arena, but I don’t feel like an outsider here, because skating is so clearly so close to dancing. Watch the skaters as they circle anticlockwise around the oval rink and you’re inescapably reminded of a ballroom, its couples all rotating in the same direction. Picture the participants in the glitz and gauze of their competition costumes, moving to the music of their 4-minute tunes, and the resemblance is even closer. You sense the pervasive presence of ballet too. It’s not just that each forward step a skater makes elongates the trailing leg behind, so that you’re constantly aware of the arabesque line, so iconic in ballet. It’s also that skating and ballet combine preternatural skill with an otherworldly allure. It’s as plain as a pirouette to see that skaters need technical training just to move with ease over the ice, let alone to dazzle with their spins and jumps. Less tangibly – and again, like ballet – skating has an ethereal quality. Its poise and glide seem to lift skaters into a state of grace, as if they inhabited a different plane from we ordinary, earthbound beings.
skating and ballet combine preternatural skill with an otherworldly allure
If skating shares some of the poetics of dance, it also shares plenty of its pragmatics, as I find out when I meet skating coaches Karen Quinn and David Carter. Quinn first puts me in the picture about the three main types of figure skating: free skaters perform individual programmes; pair skaters are mixed-sex couples who work in close synchrony and typically perform gymnastic lifts and throws; and ice dancers are mixed-sexed couples who must keep closely connected to each other and to the musical rhythm, with more choreographic than gymnastic routines. “All figure skaters,” states Quinn categorically, “need a base in ballet.” Not all have it, but she thinks it is invaluable because “it really helps to understand the technical side of what we do on ice, from the point of view of alignment, control and isolation.”
“Ice dancers,” she continues, “also need ballroom, because of the rhythms and partnering that come into the compulsory dances. And dance training in general emphasises the importance of line, timing and co-ordination, which we use in all figure skating.”
Carter and Quinn are more practical than purist about ballet and ballroom for skaters, happily acknowledging the usefulness of other kinds of off-ice training: gymnastics for strength, co-ordination and flexibility for example; or various swing dance styles for the thrown lifts found in pair skating. In any case, they also recognise that all off-ice training needs to be adapted for movement on ice. “When trained dancers first get on the ice,” says Carter, “they are often too stiff in the knees, with the weight too far back. Ballet dancers instinctively tend to step and rise, which is only half right for us. We mimic the dancers’ lift from the waist up, but below the waist we take the weight forward. It’s a very different dynamic.”
Ice is a very different surface from flooring, which does indeed make for a very different dynamic. “If a ballet dancer stays in the same position, they can stay still,” says Quinn, somewhat mystifyingly. She elaborates: “If we hold the same position, we start travelling on a curve. And when you’re on a curve, it’s very easy for the position to start twisting – and then you get a whole range of movements that you don’t need, or can throw you off.”
Compared to the friction of feet against floor, the slip of skates over ice means that any action – intentional or otherwise – becomes amplified. One small movement can shoot you off or out. That’s where off-ice training really helps. “It’s much easier to learn how to isolate movement when you’re on a floor,” says Carter, “because you don’t have the added momentum you automatically get on ice. Once you can understand and isolate the control you need, then you can transfer it onto the ice.” That attention to small detail means that Quinn and Carter are more focused on the fundamentals of ballet technique – particularly as learnt through conditioning exercises or floor-barre training – than on ballet dancing as such. The first transfers more easily onto the ice than the second.
Like dancers, skaters are fixated on their footwear. Quinn shows me the engineering that goes into hers. The boot is rock-solid, holding the ankle in a vice-like grip so that any bend in the knees can be transferred directly to the foot without instability at the ankle joint. Serrated toe picks at the front of the blade are used for stops and jumps. The blade itself is less than 4mm wide, with a hollow running along its length; shift your centre of gravity from one edge to the other and you start curving in the opposite direction. The depth of the hollow affects the speed and grip of the skate: a shallower groove is faster, but affords less purchase. The blade also has an almost imperceptible front-to-back curvature; shift your weight forward or back along this curve and you alter the angle of your path.
It’s not just in technique that dance and skating intersect; their histories do too. Ballet began as a courtly dance, related to but distinct from folk and social dancing. It emphasised decorum, comportment and elaborate floor patterns (“figures”). As it developed into a professional art, technical innovations in movement and in footwear allowed dancers to show off more spectacular skills; costumes were cut to enable more extensive movement and to please the eyes of the audience; the drama intensified. In short, in the move from aristocratic court to public theatre, ballet became a spectator art.
The once posh pastime developed into a spectator sport.
Something similar happened in figure skating, though on a different timescale. Skating in special enclaves began as an aristocratic amusement, popular with European royalty (Queen Victoria once rescued Prince Albert, a keen skater, when he broke the ice at Buckingham Palace). Skating technique was initially formalised through the execution of “figures” – elaborate pathways across the ice, performed with a restrained, upright stance. But in the late nineteenth century, ballet-trained American Jackson Haines, “the father of figure skating”, changed the courtly style irrevocably by bringing a new emphasis on dance and theatricality. He set routines to music, invented show-off moves such as the sit-spin, and altered boot design, creating the toe pick to facilitate feats of jumping. Old-school skaters were appalled but Haines went down a storm with the public, and figure skating has never looked back. The once posh pastime developed into a spectator sport.
Since then, many people have crossed between skating and dancing. Charlotte Oelschlägel, the 20th century’s first celebrity show skater, performed alongside Anna Pavlova, who called her “the greatest ballet dancer on ice”. Sonja Henie, the skating (and Hollywood) superstar who dominated the field between the world wars, was herself dubbed the “Pavlova of the ice”. Coached by Ballets Russes dancer Tamara Karsavina, she proclaimed that she wanted “more than anything else to make my free-skating programme a blend of dancing and figure skating”. John Curry had the same ambition in the 1970s, telling Time magazine that “I believe that the word ‘skater’ has the same value as the word ‘dancer’”; he brought a refined balletic style to competitive skating before going on to form his own Theatre of Skating, commissioning choreographers including Kenneth MacMillan, Peter Martins and Twyla Tharp. One of Curry’s skating protégées, Katherine Healey, went on to become a precocious principal dancer with London Festival (now English National) Ballet, later with the Monte Carlo and Vienna State Opera Ballets. In 1996, English National Ballet commissioned a piece from Christopher Dean (of Torvill and Dean). Ice Theatre of New York, founded in 1984, have presented works by both classical and modern choreographers; most recently, they staged – or should that be “rinked”? – a new work by Edward Villella, the former director of Miami City Ballet and a star of New York City Ballet during his dancing days.
Looking at that list – and it’s just the tip of the iceberg – you might think that dance and skating go hand in hand as harmoniously as a couple in a pair skating programme. You’d be wrong. The proximity between dance and skating is not a simple convergence; it’s a balancing act, a compromise, even a conflict. Though skating and dance are indeed extremely close – as close as the inside and outside edges of a skater’s blade – they curve towards opposite directions, with sport on one side, art on the other. To see the faultline – the crack in the ice, if you like – you need only look at one area: the rules.
Sport is based on rules. Rules set the goals, define the terms, measure the outcomes. They enable points to be scored, competitions to be won or lost, competitors to be ranked. In principle, they establish a level field – a set of standards to which participants agree to adhere – so that impartial judgements can be made. Art, on the other hand, encourages responses that are partial, subjective, aesthetic and emotional. Rather than rules to follow, it has conventions to be interpreted – or stretched, or flouted. Or made up.
The current rules of figure skating date back to 2004, when they were substantially revised following a score-fixing scandal at the 2002 Winter Olympics. In essence, there are three different scores. One team of judges determines the “base level” of technical difficulty for each required move. A second team rates how well those moves have been executed, and also grades performance quality, choreography and interpretation (the “components”). The base, execution and component scores are then combined using some mind-boggling calculus that leaves me – and many spectators – frankly baffled. What I do understand is Carter’s point that “the aim is to eliminate the personal or stylistic preferences of the judges to produce a system that is fair and equal.”
Carter admits, though, that “there’s really no easy answer to judging, because we are somewhere between an art and a sport.” Quinn is less equivocal. “There used to be more room to be creative,” she says. “The rules are more constraining now. Now, we have to slot the elements into the music and fit the routine around them. A skater might try out a really cool move or a great idea – but if it’s not going to score points, we take it out.”
Calculating achievement against risk forms a big part of choreographing for figure skating. “The skaters will sit down with the coach and work out a strategy for maximising points,” says Carter. “We identify the elements, set a target, and construct a programme that will get us to qualify or to place at the level we’re competing. It can,” he admits, “create an almost tickbox culture.”
Quinn agrees. “Take lifts, for example. There are short lifts and long lifts. Short lifts are for 6 seconds. Long lifts are 12 seconds. Within a lift you can hold a position. If it’s a short lift, you hold it for 3 seconds.” She throws her hands up. “So as a coach, you find yourself with two stopwatches making sure both partners establish the same position for the right number of seconds. Otherwise they’ll lose a mark.”
the system devised to measure the best skating doesn’t actually seem to produce the best skating
Ironically, the system devised to measure the best skating doesn’t actually seem to produce the best skating – even from the best skaters. “I think a lot of skaters do their best work in the couple of years after leaving the competitive world,” says Quinn. “They still have the technique and the skill, but they’ve got the freedom. What Robin Cousins did when he was Olympic champion was brilliant, but what he did right after was amazing. His skating changed, it became so refined. What Torvill and Dean did after they came out from the Olympics – amazing too. In some of the exhibition tours by top skaters, that’s where you can see skating evolved to another level.”
I find Carter and Quinn’s experience echoed elsewhere. In his recent book on skating (Push Dick’s Button, 2014), commentator and former Olympic champion Dick Button writes that while Torvill and Dean’s 1984 Bolero routine was certainly an iconic, game-changing moment in ice dance, if they had performed it four years later they “would not have lasted five seconds – so changed, so controlling, so constipated had the rules become”. More recently, dance critic Ismene Brown decried the post-2004 rules as a “ruthless suppression of individuality” (Telegraph, 4/02/06). New York Times dance critic Gia Kourlas, a trained figure skater herself, considers that “in recent years the judging process has contributed greatly to impeding artistic development” (NYT, 27/02/10), with the result that “in most programmes, you can tell that the word ‘compete’ has replaced ‘perform’, and the effect is devastating as you endure – if you’re a die-hard – rounds of skaters gritting their teeth as they pop from one element to the next” (NYT, 29/02/14). Today’s competitors, she writes, “have all but abandoned what makes skating transformative: gliding, rapturous transitions. The ice is no longer a canvas primed for an original etching, but a surface for a game with mystifying rules…” (NYT, 31/01/14).
“What makes skating transformative”… the very phrase that make you think, inescapably, of art; and indeed Laura Jacobs, yet another dance critic writing about skating, nails its poetic appeal when writing of Sonja Henie that she “pulled figure skating into the realm of metaphor – and where there is metaphor, there can also be art” (Vanity Fair, 02/14). Yet even as artistic elements within competitive figure skating are regulated away, artistic opportunities outside it are few and far between. Many ice dance performances tend more towards showbiz than theatre, Robin Cousins’ recent ICE joining a list that includes Holiday on Ice, Disney on Ice and Art on Ice (see www.icestagearchive.com for an excellent history of ice shows). Ice Theatre of New York is one of the few companies with specifically artistic aspirations, and certainly the longest standing.
Their repertory that balances choreographic commissions from the likes of Laura Dean, David Parsons and Lar Lubovitch with more commercial fare and gala programmes. Younger and more experimental is Le Patin Libre, a Montreal-based company who have begun to tour more widely, and will appear at Dance Umbrella 2014 at Alexandra Palance. Founded in 2005, Le Patin Libre have been influenced by contemporary choreography and circus. Rather than inviting choreographers to create works for them, the collective devise their own performances to explore the compositional possibilities of performance on ice, and the unique movement qualities of skating such as “the glide”, which they see as “the possibility to imprint movement on immobile bodies”. But beyond these marginal pockets in which skating is seen as art or performance, figure skating depends heavily upon its status as an Olympic sport, without which, as Carter says plainly, “we wouldn’t be able to generate the revenues and the sponsorship”.
And yet, when I ask Carter and Quinn who their favourite skaters are – the list includes Gary Beacom, Katia Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov, Susanna Rahkamo and Petri Kokko – the reasons they give for loving them are all artistic ones: they were beautiful skaters, or inventive skaters, or skaters who bent the rules. For figure skating is a form of poetic movement, and in this sense it is a kind of dance. But it has a more slippery identity to manage, constantly chasing a balance between the outside edge of art and the inside edge of sport; between performance and competition; between love, and money.