The Sunday Express, UK
by Andrea Hubert
Long dismissed as deeply uncool, theatrical ice shows are undergoing a renaissance - thanks to a spectacular new production of Swan Lake. Andrea Hubert wonders whether this is the beginning of a new ice age…As theatre goes, ice shows have never flirted with the cutting edge of cool. In fact, the concept is more likely to conjure up images of Mickey Mouse twirling a baton round a giant rink while audiences shiver into their ski jackets, than a night of quality entertainment.But all that is about to change with the world tour of Swan Lake On Ice, the latest and most ambitious theatrical ice show from veteran British producers Tony Mercer and James Cundall. Riding on the success of ITV’s Dancing On Ice, which scored ratings of almost 11 million viewers earlier this year, the show will be filling the world’s finest performance spaces and looks set to take the UK by storm.
The idea of switching the ballet from the stage to the ice seems so obvious - what other surface would lend itself better to gliding lines of graceful cygnets - that you wonder why Swan Lake On Ice isn’t performed perennially. But when you look into the logistics, it’s not surprising that this well-loved story has stayed on terra firma - until now.
Swan Lake has taken two years from “page to stage”, as Mercer puts it, and the massive undertaking would be enough to halt a lesser producer in his tracks. The sheer scale of the preparation is mind boggling. Almost 14 tonnes of ice are used -that’s 14,000 litres of water, enough to fill more than 150 baths. And with 2,500 litres of antifreeze, huge ice machines generating enough electricity to run 45 radiators and a rink that takes 140 hours to build, it’s not surprising that many producers prefer to take their chance with the traditional ballet instead.
Indeed, Swan Lake On Ice will be Britain’s first theatrical skating show since 1942, when a production was staged but then abandoned because of an antiquated ice system. But fast forward sixty-four years and the genre is finally making a comeback - thanks to the drive and passion of Mercer and Cundall.
It was after seeing Torvill and Dean’s inspirational Face The Music tour in 1991 that Mercer decided to relocate to Russia to set up the Russian Imperial Ice Stars, a troupe of the world’s best professional skaters, with Cundall, his friend and co-producer. “When I saw Torvill and Dean perform, that’s when it hit me.” says Mercer. `I could see that the audience wished they could be more up close and personal to the skaters.” The pair went on to put on a production of Sleeping Beauty On Ice. It was supposed to run for nine months - but two years and 500,000 tickets later, audiences couldn’t get enough. “I realised then that we were on to something,” Mercer says. “Not just the fantastic reviews, but the sheer demand. It was time to move ice shows from their traditional, rather naff arena of the big sport rink. That’s simply not theatre. You can’t develop a genre overnight, but I really think now is the time for the ice theatre to come into its own.”
Olga Sharutenko, who will play the starring role. Odette, agrees: “It’s time ice skating theatre performances got the recognition they deserve. Swan Lake On Ice brings something unique to the story. The beauty of skating is the ability to simply glide across the stage in the graceful way one imagines the swan doing - it is like flying. Sometimes ice can tell the parts of a story that ballet can’t reach. It’s the best of both worlds.”
Having graced the ice since the age of three, the 28-year-old champion skater - who British audiences will recognise from our own Dancing On Ice. where she performed with actor John Barrowman - is at the cutting edge of her profession and the rest of the cast of Swan Lake On Ice is no less impressive.
Such is the reputation of Mercer and Cundall that they have attracted the cream of the crop to join the Russian Imperial Ice Stars. Between them, the performers have won an impressive 200 medals and are choreographed by the world’s top Olympic coaches. And it’s a testament to their skill and precision that many of the moves - usually not even attempted on a 60m x 60m rink - are seamlessly executed on the comparatively tiny 15m x 15m stage.
But those who are expecting a faithful reproduction of the ballet will be disappointed. “Ice dancing is a totally different medium to ballet,” explains Mercer. “Other producers want to transfer the stage show of Swan Lake directly to the ice and it doesn’t work. While ballet and skating are similar in terms of grace and beauty, the skills used are very different and skating deserves its own specific choreography.”
Surprisingly little was written down during the creation of the music and choreography of the original Swan Lake and the lack of stage directions left Mercer free to interpret the show as he saw it. The classic story has also been modernised. The love triangle between the hapless Prince, Princess Odile and the beautiful swan Odette has been given a dramatic and much more human twist, of which Mercer feels Tchaikovsky would have approved wholeheartedly. Clearly the audiences are lapping it up in any case.
Cundall was surprised at the reaction from some of the younger faces in the crowd. “I always talk to the audience - it’s the only way to really see if they are enjoying themselves,” he says. “These days. I see the Riverdance types, the ice skating types, the ballet snobs, the musical lovers and the twentysomething girls who drag along their boyfriends. And when you look at the boyfriends’ faces, you can see that despite themselves. they’re loving every minute.”
And what’s not to love. From the incredible, graceful moves of the breathtakingly skilled dancers to the emotive acting from the leads, the audience is saturated with larger-than-life extravagance from the start. Intricate period costumes sparkle, elaborate sets harking back to springtime in St Petersburg charm the eye and the lake itself, laden with layer upon layer of floaty, magical scenery that seems to stretch back forever, is surrounded by a shimmering haze of mist that has to be seen to be believed.
This is a brilliant example of a spectacle in the true sense of the word and Mercer is hopeful that the production will inspire a new following of ice-show fans: “We want this show to make people in the UK pick up where Torvill and Dean left off. My dream is that people who love Swan Lake the ballet will come to see our show and it will change their perception of ice theatre. We want to do for the ice show what Cirque Du Soled has done for the circus genre.”
No small ambition then - but if the feverish applause after the world premiere in Auckland is anything to go by, it looks like Swan Lake On Ice is set to carve out a niche for this cool new genre.