Ice Theatre of New York features Villella on ice

Considering the many limitations of ice dancing as a discipline in terms of venue, structure, and movement, an evening-length concert of ice dancing routines runs the risk of becoming repetitive. Stylistically speaking, ice dancing almost always looks fluid and graceful, but this is necessarily the case when you consider the execution of this movement depends on the movers’ ability to keep their balance on a nearly frictionless surface. Competitive ice dancing – which most audiences are familiar with from the Olympics – is performed in pairs with a typical program (or routine) lasting about 3-5 minutes, and unlike figure skaters, ice dancers are not expected to perform jumps. Professional exhibition ice dancing, on the other hand, has more structural flexibility (in that programs tend to be longer and include more plot development), can occur in any size groups, and, most importantly, has a particular emphasis on developing artistry to compliment athleticism. This weekend, Ice Theatre of New York used this flexibility to their advantage in the production of their 2013 Fall Season at the Sky Rink at Chelsea Piers.

With ten relatively short pieces on the bill, the concert tended to feel like a high school dance recital, but this isn’t a bad thing. Thanks to the shorter length of the pieces, plots and concepts were more straightforward and less reliant on symbolism – compared to some cryptic post-modern dance works, it was nice to know immediately the “point” of these pieces. Some were arguably stronger than others. The opening number “Roots” by ITNY Artistic Director Douglas Webster used a mix of pop-folk songs (including two by folk band of the moment Mumford and Sons) to create a modern “Appalachian Style Revival” on the ice, full of moments of beautiful synchrony, a few impressive lifts, and even a backflip.

After putting their best out at the beginning, the show lacked luster until the mid-way through when “Reveries,” a new piece by former New York City Ballet dancer extraordinaire Edward Villella, took to the ice. After leaving the Artistic Directorship of Miami City Ballet in 2012, Villella returned to New York, and at the prodding of Dick Button (and probably from his Olympic figure skater wife, Linda (Carbonetto) Villella) collaborated with Douglas Webster on “Reveries.” Arguably the best piece on the program and definitely the big draw for many audience members, “Reveries” read very much like a ballet – the symmetrical groupings of skaters, the poet-seeking-muse storyline, even the arm positions, hinted at a Balanchinian sensibility. Coincidentally, the other most exciting piece on the program, “Doodlin’,” was by hip-hop choreographer Chucky Kaplow (who I’m now realizing I took a hip-hop workshop with when I was about 16, oddly enough), and saw the skaters take on the personas of glitzed up Chicago gangsters.

Approaching its 20th anniversary, Ice Theatre of New York is becoming a professional ice dancing institution, and as their recognition grows, the plans for bigger, better productions grow too. Though there are definitely improvements to be made (including telling the uniformed hockey players from the other rink to please wait until the end of a piece before loudly ambling past the audience to get to the lobby), ITNY delivers something worthwhile and definitely unique to a city already laden with performing arts.

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