Le Patin Libre’s show seems to have shrunk.
The Canadian dance/skate group (whose name means ‘free skate’) has returned to London with just the Vertical half of the Vertical Influences show performed at Alexandra Palace in 2014. Maybe it was decided audiences could only handle 35 minutes watching at an outside rink.
But Vertical has been undermined in other ways by its new setting, for all the grandeur of the Somerset House courtyard. Now the audience sits on a standard bank of raked seating, rather than on benches on the ice as at Ally Pally. Part of the rush of Vertical, as I understood it, was having these five former championship ice-skaters hurtling across the ice at you and stopping just short of crashing into you. Now those dramatic, swooping stops are completed behind a plexiglass barrier some safe distance from us all. The lighting design also suffers – a key segment relies on the effect of alternate floodlights flicking on and off, plunging us into almost darkness, then illuminating individuals’ movements or the group bearing down upon us. Somehow, here, all that happens is you get dazzled by a sudden brightness that often seems to be out of synch with the moment it was supposed to capture.
Moaning over. There’s still much to marvel at in the Montreal troupe’s inventive splicing of contemporary dance and ice skating – not least the insouciance that lets them wear just long-sleeved T-shirts in biting winds. This is the diametric opposite of the gaudy, sequinned ice-skating shows we’re used to. Le Patin Libre reveal their virtuosity on the ice through the least flamboyant of moves, such as serene, silent glides across the whole space, maintaining the same pose; or one dancer holding a Besti squat as they slide past us, then stopping with nothing more than a casual flick of the foot and heading back in the other direction without any obvious reverse propulsion. This is not about competition-style theatrics, although there are a smattering of wow-factor moves thrown in – rather, it’s about four men and one woman exploring the rich dynamics of bodies on blades on ice. Sometimes they circle and swoop round each other in a precision-tooled melee, always looking as though they’re on the point of collision. Sometimes they fall casually into mirror skating; placid circles, maybe; or a backwards shuffle; at one point a brief stamp and clap routine.
There’s often a cocky street attitude infused into their performance, a sense that these five are cheerfully throwing down a challenge, hip hop style – beat that. Their solos are daring and intoxicating bursts of individual bravura – Jasmin Boivin skates to an eerie soundtrack (of her own devising) of shattering glass; Samory Ba takes himself off on something of a jazz riff, cutting and slashing the ice as he twirls on the tips of his blades, then holding his hand flat to the ice and describing a graceful circle. It’s a world away from triple axel, Lutz and toe loop point-scoring – and all the better for it.