The Sydney Morning Herald, Australia
By Elicia Murray
Tony Mercer admits he’s a terrible ice-skater, but insists that’s an advantage when it comes to choreographing complex ice dances. “Because I can’t skate, I don’t know what they can’t do,” says the man who directs championship skaters the Imperial Ice Stars. The company, which toured Australia two years ago with Sleeping Beauty on Ice, is back with a frosty twist on Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.Mercer’s determination to push his dancers was apparent during rehearsals, as Vadim Yarkov, the Russian skater who plays the role of Prince Siegfried, discovered. As the choreographer attempted to refine a sequence, he asked the skater if he could lift two women simultaneously. Smiling, Yarkov replied: “Why don’t we try three?” Audiences will be able to judge the results themselves when the former member of the Russian national ice skating team attempts to lift three ice dancers during performances in Sydney this week.
This competitive spirit distinguishes theatrical ice skating from the knockabout humour of Disney ice arena spectaculars, according to English-born Mercer, who lives in Moscow. The company of 40 people - including 26 performers - have about 200 medals among them, including Olympic, world, European and national championship honours. Audiences may marvel at the apparently seamless performances; gasp as lavishly dressed skaters perform breathtaking double axels, triple flips, death spirals and high-speed lifts. But the fiercely competitive skaters are constantly analysing their own and each other’s every performance.
“I could sell tickets to what happens offstage,” says Mercer, who is also the show’s artistic director. One of the prime attractions might be the queue outside the tour doctor’s room. He has had to attend to one ripped groin muscle, two broken ribs and more than 100 cuts requiring stitches. “And this is just the rehearsal period.”
The dreamlike sets were designed and built by an Australian team led by Eamon D’Arcy, who took instructions from Mercer in Moscow. D’Arcy is no stranger to unconventional stage surfaces; one of his last projects was the musical Saturday Night Fever, which featured a floor of flashing disco lights. For Swan Lake on Ice, the Sydney-based set designer faced the logistical challenge of an ice rink floor made of 14 tonnes of ice, with 15 kilometres of pipe keeping the temperature below 15 degrees. The set also includes a fountain on stage during the courtyard scene, while elaborate chandeliers lend sparkle to the ballroom scene. D’Arcy agrees the performers’ competitive mentality keeps the show fresh.
Each skater is out to score a “perfect six” each night, if only in their own minds. The intimate theatre environment, he says, exposes audiences to an intensity and focus lacking in the draughty expanses of huge arena extravaganzas. He cites as an example the tactic one Sleeping Beauty on Ice skater used when he sensed audience members might be nodding off. “When he came down the front at this incredible speed, he would flick his skate and it would spray the front two rows [with ice]. It was like a little wake-up call. It was fantastic.”
The Swan Lake on Ice creative team is reluctant to draw comparisons between ice-dancing and classical ballet, preferring to highlight the skills required for each genre. According to Mercer, whose dream of becoming a professional footballer ended with a broken leg at age 18, comparing ice skating with ballet is like comparing football with Aussie Rules. When it comes to Swan Lake, what the two styles of dance share is the music of Tchaikovsky to bring the fairytale to life. “The music is beautiful and it’s an absolutely wonderful story, and both those things lend themselves to ice.”