21st Century: A New Millennium On Ice

The ice show is celebrating its 100th birthday but the candles on the cake are not glowing very brightly. The worldwide economic crisis is taking its toll and has dimmed many aspects of our lives. The recent tremendous boom in popularity for figure skating makes its current depletion all the more disappointing. It’s doubtful that we will soon see anything like the thrilling galaxy of great international ice artists of the late 20th century. Or such an abundance of televised specials and events or touring shows and exhibitions that showcased their exciting performances. We know that life is all about cycles and I’m ready for the upswing. This website includes accounts of many of the past century’s theatrcal skating highlights. Here are two remarkable organizations whose visionary leaders have successfully brought them into the new century.

Ice Theatre of New York: Modern Dance Troupe With Icy Spin

Moira North is the heart and soul of Ice Theatre of New York, the founder, president, and driving force of a unique not-for-profit company that has survived twenty five tumultuous years of victories and vicissitudes in the city that never sleeps. As the great philosopher Liza Minnelli says, “If she can make it there, she’ll make it anywhere.”

Moira is a Canadian who learned to skate as a child, became interested in dance, majored in theatre at the University of British Columbia, and planned to study law. But the opportunity to skate in “Ice Follies” and “Holiday on Ice” on international tours took her on a different path. Those several years in show business made it clear that her personal dreams for skating were not being fulfilled. Settling in New York City she discovered the Sky Rink on the top floor of a mid-town office building and was hired as a teacher. It was there in 1984 that she and a small group of like-minded visionaries formed the first company devoted to combining purely artistic figure skating with dance—The Ice Theatre of New York—a fledgling dance company on ice.

With little money but big dreams the company rehearsed in the wee hours between midnight and 5 A.M. when ice time was free. Not an easy schedule for a dedicated group who supported themselves (and their aspirations) with day jobs. Early fund-raising performances were presented on Halloween and, as the group’s reputation and importance grew, they became annual celebratory events. A 1988 Sky Rink presentation underscored the company’s focus on original and creative skating by including unorthodox guest artist Gary Beacom and the ultra-classic ice artistry of Olympic champion John Curry. Soon the famous Rockefeller Center Ice Rink teamed with Ice Theatre of New York to present several regularly scheduled concert performances there each season which introduced the company to a wide audience. Later, when a temporary ice rink began to be installed in Bryant Park each winter, Ice Theatre skaters have often performed there as well.

Little by little acknowledgment and encouragement came to ITNY in the very important form of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. In addition to building and performing works of artistic merit, ITNY also has reached out to the next generation of skaters and audiences through its education, community outreach and training programs.

The repertory of Ice Theatre of New York’s own choreographers, including Ms. North, Doug Webster and David Liu, has been augmented by dance choreographers such as Laura Dean and Lar Lubovich. Performances have taken place in hockey rinks, and on elegant theatre stages, as well as overseas. ITNY produces a popular annual fundraising Gala to honor iconic theatrical skating figures. Recipients have included Belita, the Protopopovs, Dick Button, Barbara Ann Scott, Scott Hamilton, Sonya & Peter Dunfield, Vera Wang, Aja Zanonva, Jo Jo Starbuck & Ken Shelley, Sarah Kawahara, Nancy Kerrigan, Paul Wylie, and Dorothy Hamill.

To have succeded against today’s countless odds Ice Theatre of New York, Moira North, her staff, volunteers, apprentices, students, and sponsors should take a well deserved bow. Here’s to the next twenty five years!

Bietak Productions: A New Wave

Willy Bietak is a nine-time Austrian pairs champion and twice an Olympian. He skated with Peggy Fleming in her 1972 TV special “To Europe With Love” and her guest-star engagements with “Ice Follies” in the U.S. He and partner Cathy Steele later performed in Ms. Fleming’s German and U.S. tours of “A Concert On Ice.” In 1976 they were co-starred with Hans-Jurgen Baumler in a German tour of the ice operetta “Die Csardas Furstin” (The Gypsy Baron).

Like Tom Collins and Scott Hamilton, Willy was a performer who also discovered a love of, and a knack for, the business of show business. Beginning in the 1980s he began co-producing such shows as “Festival On Ice” and “Fantasy On Ice,” for theatres and showrooms like Harrah’s Lake Tahoe. Right from the start he hired top stars Fleming, Scott Hamilton, Dorothy Hamill, Tai Babalonia & Randy Gardner, John Curry, and Charlie Tickner. From 1988 to 1992 Bietak co-produced and directed “Ice Capades” with Tom Scallen including the gala 1990 50th edition, and in Europe he created the 2000 and 2001 “Holiday On Ice” productions Colours of Dance and In Concert.

In the 1980s Bietak, a thoughtful and decisive showman, created ice productions for U.S. theme parks and sent his shows to Canada, Mexico, and Japan. His long-running “Broadway On Ice” show, choreographed for proscenium stages by Sarah Kawahara, has been presented in numerous theatres with a succession of elite skaters including Nancy Kerrigan, Rudy Galindo, Tara Lipinski, Tai & Randy, Dorothy Hamill, and Brian Boitano.

Bietak Productions is also in the business of providing portable rinks for projects like Downtown On Ice in Los Angeles, Disney’s TV taping of “Mulan,” competitions as far away as Tokyo, and the highly complex free-form ice surface for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Eager to snag the young crowd for his “Hot Ice” show at California’s Magic Mountain theme park, in 2004 Bietak won high praise fore his excellent youthful cast, surprisingly contemporary music, and the latest high tech electronics.

Willy Bietak has created the latest new wave in theatrical skating that in some way echoes the pioneering hotel and theatre shows of the early 20th century. Each year since 2000, Royal Caribbean Cruise Ship Lines has inaugurated the world’s newest and largest floating hotel (thirteen as of this writing)—cruise ships with beautiful state-of-the-art ice theatres. Bietak’s creative teams have fashioned a unique ice production for each theatre. Delighted passengers give sky high marks to the marvelously diverse ice entertainments which are often choreographed by Cathy Bietak, Willy’s wife and former skating partner. Royal Caribbean has recently also offered Mediterranean cruises that are longer than those in the Caribbean, requiring Bietak Productions to create two different productions for each of those ships.

The exceedingly happy news of these successful ice shows that are employing many skating artists is counter balanced by the unhappy fact that popularity for skating has cooled. The old rule is in effect—what goes up must come down. The avid skating fans who sent television ratings skyrocketing and packed giant arenas for exciting skating performances have turned their attention to other diversions and activities. But skating is much too special and thrilling and beautiful to fade away. Somewhere down the line a special talent will ignite a spark—a new Shipstad or Johnson or Chalfen will emerge, another Charlotte, another one-in-a-milllion Sonja Henie, or John Curry will break the mold and fan the flame. The 20th century saw several truly golden ice ages—great intimate ice cabarets, lavish skating films, ice theatre productions, touring ice spectacles and exhibition performances, all featuring a galaxy of creative skating artists. I believe it’s inevitable that the 21st century will experience its own flowering of theatrical skating. Perhaps it will be a Cirque du Soliel-like rethinking of our icy art form that will conjure up unimaginable performances that will raise the curtain on a great new ice age. When the cycle is set on its upward trajectory I definitely want to be around to see it—and cheer it on.