Interview With Douglas Webster
Douglas Webster and Edward Villella. Darial Sneed photo.
In a professional career that has spanned decades, Douglas Webster has traveled the world choreographing for Disney On Ice, Stars On Ice, Holiday On Ice, The Sun Valley Ice Show and working on such productions as Winter Solstice On Ice and ABC's Skating With The Stars. He's performed in shows all around the world and worked closely with many of skating's best as the Artistic Director of the Ice Theatre Of New York. It was my absolute pleasure to have chance to tell the story of Doug's career through this wonderful interview! We talked about his favourite pieces, amateur career, ITNY, Dollywood Christmas On Ice, his favourite skaters, the future of the sport and much, much more:
Douglas teaching class in Sun Valley at the ITNY 2013 residency. Diane Dick photo.
A: As a child, I always like things that flowed. I skied both nordic and and alpine. I grew up in the mountains of New Hampshire and skating was a lake activity. There was a seasonal rink outdoors in front of the train station where I grew up. It was naturally frozen with just awful conditions but whenever I was outside it made me feel so happy. I moved over to skating as recreation pretty much full time as there was music and honestly... The Carpenters, Dan Fogelberg, Saturday Night Fever, Grease, etc... really, as a gay man, what would you choose... freezing on a chair lift or skating to fabulous music? I started competing later than most - around 13. I was too old to be a Juvenile at the time and there was no Open Juvenile, so I didn't compete till I got to Novice. Because of the recession in the 70's/early 80's, my family moved to Fairfax, Virginia where I was lucky enough to be coached by Audrey Weisiger, Ken Class, and Julie McKinstry as well as Nick Perna and a whole wonderful team of awesome information and experience. As I started so late, I had one goal: to make Nationals. I never really thought of making the Olympics as it seemed so unreasonable at the time but I did make the National Championships as a Novice Man when I was 17. I towered over Todd Eldredge! I always felt so strange wearing all that spandex being so much taller than everyone. (#awkwardmoments #tall #spandex #gay #why!) I never was much of a competitor but felt I’d completed my goal when I competed against Mark Mitchell as a Junior man at Easterns (he was Novice when I was in Juvenile, so I felt like I’d really accomplished something….not kidding here) and I got my tests and went off to The College of William and Mary. Two years later, Nathan Birch introduced me to Willy Bietak who had a show at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg. I got cast as the principal guy. I left W and M to go on the road with Willy’s show called Festival On Ice that soon turned into Broadway On Ice. I was made a principal guy and unbelievably was performing with Scott Hamilton, John Curry, Judy Blumberg and Michael Seibert, Tai and Randy, the list goes on and on… it was a dream come true for me! I even skated with my childhood hero, Lynn Holly Johnson from Ice Castles… she was Guinevere and I was Lancelot (thank you Sarah Kawahara)! It was in this show that I met Jamie Isley and Cindy Stuart, two amazing people I’ve been lucky to work with and remain friends with for years. I also met Judy Blumberg, who used to stand in the wings and watch my solo "If Ever I Would Leave You" and give me notes. Yikes! She later became my partner and one of my dearest friends. You never know where life can take you! During this time, I went to do Carmen On Ice in Spain where I met Val Levine. After Carmen, I went back to college, graduated and moved to New York City. Val was from New York and told me to come skate with the Ice Theatre Of New York. I moved to New York City and pursued acting and skating with the Ice Theatre in 1991. In 1996, I choreographed Appalachia Waltz with JoAnna Mendl Shaw and the rest is more than 20 years of history... to becoming Artistic Director! Life is the most interesting crossing of paths.
Q: For 20 years, you have worked with the Ice Theatre Of New York creating and choreographing original skating pieces that have pushed the boundaries of innovation. What choreography pieces stand out to you as your favourite and most daring works?
A: There are several important pieces. Appalachia Waltz signifies an expansive way of ensemble skating that was with three ice dance couples... the intent of this continues on in my work today. It also has a central love duet that both Judy Blumberg and I skated and remains my favourite skating moment ever. Transitions is a piece I made to represent four stages of transitioning through grief. I made this piece in 1998 and it was created in a time when many were still dying from HIV. This piece remains in our repertoire today and I think is my most important work. It is a tribute now to all those we've lost including John Curry, Brian Wright, Robert Wagenhoffer, Patrick Dean, Billy Lawe, Rob McCall and so many more! The light in our world was seriously diminished at this time and we need to remember these amazing artistic skaters with a memorial!
Departures is a piece made of an ascension of one angel originally played by Florentine Houdiniere. It was created right after 9/11 and is a tribute to those lost in the World Trade Center Disaster. It is in honor of Clarin Swartz who was on the original Ice Theatre Of New York board and was lost in the disaster. The piece is a depiction of give angels gently 'taking' another by the wings and allowing one to fly in the face of the fear and anguish of departure. Dare Greatly is a trio made to "Fix You" and arranged by the Vitamin String Quartet. It is in honor of Will Sears and was commissioned by his mother, Margarite Sears. The piece is a trio about the courage to be. When Will passed away sadly at such a young age, he was writing a screenplay called Dare Greatly. This piece is also in our repertoire this year and the ladies skating it (Eve Chalom, Carly Donowick and Natalia Zaitseva) are exceptional. Unforgettable is a piece that I made last year. It is so much cotton candy fun, romance and joy that it makes up for all the sad things mentioned before. It is wonderfully costumed by The Schulz Collection in a Gatsby look and is so thoughtfully acted and danced by the whole company. This piece features Ryan Bradley and Erin Reed and is also being shown this year. It was made with Richard Dwyer (Mr. Debonair) in mind. Reveries will be debuted this year. This collaboration with Edward Villella has been the most rewarding experience of my skating career. Watching Kim Navarro and Brent Bommentre portray the artist seeking his unattainable muse is something that I think about in my off time. The tapestry of movement and interweaving of the ensemble is so beautiful. I feel beyond grateful to have been a part of this gorgeous contribution to the world of figure skating.
Finding Nemo for Disney commercial shoot. Heinz Klutemeyer photo.
Q: As a judge for Young Artists Showcase, you've seen just how impressive the new, younger wave of choreographers are in the sport. Why do you think YAS and G2C Seminars have been so successful and how can more skaters get into the world of choreography?
A: I think YAS and Grassroots To Champions are so successful because they provide opportunity to create and to learn in a very unique way. YAS, in particular, is wonderful as it provides a platform to create. For some reason, people often need a “reason” to create. People like to be rewarded for what they aspire to. When I asked Brian Wright how to become a choreographer, he said, “just show up.” That’s what these young choreographers are doing, they are showing up to an opportunity that gives them visibility and and a foundation to make art. Everyone can get into the world of choreography. What’s most important is that one does it because it is a passion and a love. One can’t be attached to the outcome of what one creates... just make art and love what you do. The importance is to create at all costs.
Q:You have a background in acting. What skills did you learn from theatre that helped you most in the skating world?
A: I studied the Meiser technique with the wonderful Barbara Marchant in New York City. I learned: 1. have an objective, 2. Play your actions, 3. understand who you are and what you want, 4. be clear about the emotional life, 5. be specific with your choices and make them bold and clear. I also learned from being a storyteller… studying literature and art and understanding music, theory, dance, etc. I would take classes at William and Mary like Ethnomusicology….I was very lucky!
Q: Who is the most fascinating person you have worked with over the years?
A: Definitely Edward Villella! His stories about being a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet and working with Balanchine and then going on to start his own company (Miami City Ballet) are a gift to me on every level. I am blown away by this experience!
Chuky Klapow, Douglas and Cindy Stuart working on High School Musical
Q: You've worked with Stars On Ice, Disney On Ice, Holiday On Ice and the Sun Valley Ice Show, as well as working for ABC's Skating With The Stars. In all of your years working with skaters, what have been your funniest - and most interesting - experiences?
A: Each show brings its own joys and funny experiences. Making a production is like having a child. There is so much that goes into each one creatively, technically; there are so many people involved. I think the one thing that people think about choreography is how creative one can be, but the career is more about how you get along with people and how you teach the work as well as the business of the work; the meetings and negotiations. Choreography is about 10% of a big job! My favourite experiences have been playing the Reverend in Footloose, skating in the opening of the 2002 Olympics, working on High School Musical with Cindy and Chucky, choreographing my first reality show for Holiday On Ice (Sterren Dansen op Het Ijs) and making The Wizard of Oz for the Autostadt in Germany. Each job is so special to me, but the production team and the cast are what I’ll remember the most.
Q: You did a show called Dollywood Christmas On Ice at the Dollywood Theme Park in Tennessee. Are you a big Dolly Parton fan and what can you share about this show?
A: I love Dolly! This was an awesome show that Ice Theatre Of New York co-produced with Dollywood Entertainment. I was the director of the show as well so enjoyed being involved in all aspects of this including the arrangements, the video projections, the choreography, the costumes. There are two versions (2012 and 2011). It is a very joyful show and I feel proud of the work.
aQ: Who are your three favourite skaters of all time and why?
A: Well, there are so many! I feel bad not including Janet Lynn, Dorothy Hamill, Judy and Michael, Tai and Randy (I mean their Meco Wiz of Oz… awesome!), Robin Cousins, and all the current skaters I admire so much, but my top three are Sonja Henie (because of her beauty and her ability to take show biz of skating to new heights!), Dick Button (because he was so groundbreaking and has become such an historian and still remains part of the growth of our sport) and John Curry (because he changed the way people see figure skating…and created the two off-shoots: The Next Ice Age and the Ice Theatre of New York. And because he was a courageous soul who I wish I could talk to today).
Q: What's one thing about you most people don't know?
A: I like being quiet and alone in Maine.
Q: With the current judging system and the changes in technology over the last few years, skating isn't reaching audiences on television in the same way it did before. How do you think that figure skating can get more bodies in those seats at live events?
A: I think skating needs to become an objectified jumping sport. Put the laser gun on people and measure height, distance, rotation, etc. This would be awesome... double axel... Slam! You’re out. There is no way skating will become a viable sport in any way if it remains subjectively judged. The whole thing is absurd. As far as shows, people need to be reinvigorated to the emotion, to production, to lighting, to sets, to costumes. I think it’s time to bring glamour, showgirls, great skating and fabulous everything back to skating and entertainment… and I have a show to do it called 'The New Yorker'. People need to be immersed in an experience. The star skating vehicles are no longer interesting to mass audiences—people need some production! I think Ice Theatre Of New York has created a great foundation to see skating in a new way this year! I hope people turn up to see this awesome company of skaters. The work is accessible and the talent is strong!
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