It was almost four years to the day since I had first encountered Le Patin Libre, also under the aegis of the ever-enlightening Dance Umbrella, and in the same venue. Their free-flowing marathon of glide was indeed an eye-opener, carving out this new territory of free skating (the literal translation of the company’s name), a very long way from competitive ice dance and figure skating, and even further down the road from the sequined world of Disney on Ice. As if to confirm that distinction, the famous ice rink at Ally Pally was festooned with posters advertising the forthcoming attraction of Aladdin on Ice: one thing for sure is that I don’t imagine any of these five skaters – fabulous though they are – will be sporting sequins, any time soon.
Vertical Influences – that earlier show, from 2014 – achieved the unique distinction of becoming the first (and so far, only) performance on ice to be nominated for a National Dance Award; a mean feat all the more remarkable given that so few dance critics (the voting constituency of said awards) then ventured to London’s far northern netherlands of N22. The popularity and originality of Vertical Influences ensured a repeat performance, a year or two later, at the more central location in the courtyard of Somerset House on The Strand.
Elegance, speed, coordination and vitality lay behind the acclaim for Vertical Influences but it is also true that only so much can be done by bodies propelled on 4-millimetre-thick blades and so I arrived at Alexandra Palace wondering if Threshold would be more of the same, just differently ordered! Recollections of the distinctive individual skills and characteristics of the performers – Alexandre Hamel’s virtuoso jumping; Taylor Dilley’s flowing hair and elegant arcs; Pascale Jodoin’s ferocious spinning; Samory Ba’s impressive toe-pick solo (like a ballet dancer en pointe) – emphasised that expectation of sameness; happily, proven to be entirely false.
Previously, half the show had been seen from the tiered spectator seating before the audience was ushered onto two sections of carpeted ice at either end of the rink. This latter experience provided far more memorable content – there is something of the Fast and Furious about five ice skaters hurtling directly towards you only to swerve, scattering shards of ice, just inches away from your seat! Threshold maximises that effect by having the audience and performers sharing the ice rink over both “acts” – the best part of half-an-hour, each. What is lost by curtailing their space is more than compensated by the intimate thrill of being up-close-and-personal with these extraordinary performers.
Whereas Vertical Influences showcased the specialist skills of each skater, this show concentrates far more on the group dynamic. The engagement of the dramaturge, Ruth Little – best-known for her work with Akram Khan – has brought a narrative arc to their work, creating a poetry out of the collective glide. It isn’t narrative in any linear sense but I caught a Khan-like sense of tribe; of belonging; of finding one’s way home. Enveloped within the continual blur of movement was a story of discovery, change, loss and recovery, wrapped up in a memorable ending where one skater (Dilley) is separated from the pack and refound, or reborn in some significant sense. This – and many other – striking images were profoundly enhanced by the imaginative lighting designs of Lucy Carter (well known for her work with Wayne McGregor) and Sean Gleason.
If there is a major difference between Le Patin Libre of 2014 and now, then surely it lies in this merger of these skaters’ extreme skills with the same elite capability in their artistic collaborators. One important creative contribution was, however, homegrown since Jasmin Boivin (the fifth skater, not mentioned earlier) composed the electronic soundtrack, Usually, those two words fill me with dread and I imagine a booming, deafening noise; but Boivin’s soundscape matched the movement’s mood spread of vitality and tranquillity to perfection, with sound that incorporated the swishing of blades scything through ice as if they were an additional musical instrument. Incidentally, Boivin’s story is a remarkable journey. He joined Le Patin Libre as a technician, having never been a figure skater, and learned to skate by observing the others. Given the expertise required to skate collectively at this elite level that is some accomplishment!
It is impossible not to be in awe of a company of five skaters who can move so swiftly, as if merging speed skating with ice dance, and with such co-ordination over almost an hour of continual movement. In one isolated moment, I felt that two skaters might collide, travelling towards each other but facing in different directions, but with some inbuild radar and split-second timing, Jodoin diverted her arc to avoid a spill. She is anything but the archetypal ice princess – the only sequin appearing to be in her pierced navel, occasionally revealed by a billowing white shirt. It is tempting to regard her as Le Patin Libre’s Anybodys (the wannabe “tomboy” Jet from West Side Story) only she seems to be much more aligned to leading the gang (a female Riff, the leader of the Jets to complete the analogy – or maybe it should be midriff, in honour of that piercing)!
Another noteworthy feature of this Montreal-based collective is that they are the same five dancers who performed back in 2014 and there is a palpable mutual confidence born of this experience in working together for so long (it’s hard to imagine any small dance company retaining the exact same performers over a similar period). One assumes that they are such a tight-knit group that they almost think as one on the ice. They’re also a friendly bunch. No sooner have they stepped – no doubt, exhausted – off the ice, after an energetic show-stopping finale (doubling as a “curtain call” including Hamel’s somersault-at-speed and some mighty leaps) than they are standing in line waiting to say personal farewells to their audience. One hopes that they will stick together for a long while to come (maybe they will find another technician to train). They have found a unique metier and I’m certain that none of them will ever turn up as Aladdin on ice!