Full of soaring lifts and ardent embraces, one of the most sweepingly elegant dance performances in memory transpired not on the concert stage but on the ice. The legendary Torvill and Dean gold medal-winning free dance to Ravel’s “Bolero” in the 1984 Olympics brought a new level of artistic expression to ice dance and arguably became the most well-known single program in the history of the sport.
Ice Dance International (IDI), which performs at the Skating Club of Boston Feb. 29 as part of a six-week US tour, is committed to elevating ice dance as an art form as well. Since 2014, the Maine-based company has increased accessibility to ice dancing across the country through performances, residencies, two television specials in rotation on PBS stations, and a wide range of community outreach, from discussion panels to skating clinics. Last summer, the company became the first ice skating company to perform at Jacob’s Pillow — and not on ice, but rather atop a synthetic surface of interlocking panels designed to mimic the properties of ice.
It’s all part of the mission to bring the artistry of ice dance more into the public eye. “The opportunity to tour is helping us build a bridge from sport to art,” says IDI founding artistic director Douglas Webster. “I just want people to see and feel the beauty of skating. It’s about getting it to audiences everywhere.”
Webster says the show’s title reflects the cohesiveness of the ensemble, as in the way birds flock in flight. He explains, “When we move together, it’s like birds in the sky, and that is an exquisite thing to see, a power and energy that is expansive.”
Unlike the large-scale themed extravaganzas, such as “Disney on Ice,” IDI’s shows feature a cast of only 10, all former competitive skaters. Instead of lavishly costumed characters and catchy story lines, productions are sparely designed, with an emotional arc created to conjure a kind of theatrical journey. The 90-minute “In Flight: Live” showcases a variety of movement styles, with music ranging from Bach to Brubeck, Moby to Penguin Café Orchestra. Choreographers include Webster, former ballet superstar Edward Villella, French figure-skating choreographer and former competitive ice dancer Benoît Richaud, and renowned contemporary ballet choreographer Trey McIntyre.
Webster credits Villella, one of IDI’s founders, with giving the company an opportunity to dive into the masterful balletic style of George Balanchine, with classical movement transformed by the flow, speed, and breadth of the ice. But the company is also committed to innovation, commissioning new ballets that push way beyond what Villella calls the tricks and strictures of the sport of ice dancing. Without the repetitive compulsory elements and restrictions of competitive skating, choreographers can explore high overhead lifts, unusual footwork, and novel jumps. “No judges, no rules,” Webster says, quoting IDI board member and two-time Olympian JoJo Starbuck. “It’s all about creating an extraordinary choreographic experience [through] the beauty of skating — without Mickey Mouse or massive productions — and kids are enraptured by this … [Our] work utilizes the whole ice, with power, push, and partnering.”
Webster’s dream is to have a sustainable company with year-round programming that not only builds new audiences, but also provides artistic opportunities for skaters coming out of the competitive world. For lead skater Rohene Ward, who just joined the company following work with “Holiday on Ice,” IDI offers a crucible for his choreographic talent. His new duet set to Des’ree’s “I’m Kissing You” will be featured. Performing in a smaller, more dance-oriented environment allows “a way of expressing and communicating with the public that is more personal,” Ward says. He adds, “I am still growing as an artist, and that’s the glory of being in a company like this, how it is stretching us and pushing our boundaries and expanding what we can do on the ice.”
IDI is not the first artistically focused ice dance company. Webster builds off a wide-ranging background that includes 25 years of experience with Ice Theater of New York, the first not-for-profit professional ice dance company in the United States. But IDI’s mission to tour sets it apart, offering not just performances but community engagement. (The upcoming Boston performance is complemented by a company edge class and a reception with the artists after the show.)
“People love ice skating, but it gets stuck in the role of family entertainment or athletic sport,” Webster says. “But the artistry has grown and taken on a physical vocabulary that is exquisite and three dimensional ... . When we rehearse outdoors in Sun Valley, Idaho, people are always walking by and are instantly emotional and connect. It moves people, that feeling of flight and flow and that expansive state that skaters have in their glide. ”
ICE DANCE INTERNATIONAL’S “IN FLIGHT: LIFE”
At: Skating Club of Boston, Feb. 29
Tickets $20, www.icedanceinternational.org
Karen Campbell can be reached at email@example.com.