You'll have to forgive me... I'm still over the moon about the announcement that the 2016 Canadian Championships will be here in Halifax. It's huge! Simply put, we don't get to see near enough great live skating in these parts so that wonderful news coupled with Stars On Ice's annual visit to this Maritime city is kind of a big deal. The Metro Centre - sorry, it's called the Scotiabank Centre now (how deliciously corporate!) - never fails to pack right up with skating fans and skaters from all around the Maritimes - and let me tell you, as a people we like to have a good time and show these skaters some love. If you haven't experienced a Halifax crowd before in person, you wait until next year at Nationals. We're a rowdy, fun bunch that may or may not drink a little. There, our secret's out!
Before I delve into a review of the show, I want to look back to the beginning of the Canadian tour as it celebrates twenty five years. This IS primarily a skating history blog, remember? Building on the success of the American tour, Stars On Ice's CANADIAN tour got its start back in 1991 with a much less elaborate effort than we see these days but a stellar cast nonetheless. The cast (who visited fewer than ten cities including Toronto, Montreal, Edmonton and Vancouver) featured Olympic Medallists Scott Hamilton, Brian Orser, Toller Cranston, Rosalynn Sumners and Kitty and Peter Carruthers as well as Lea Ann Miller and Bill Fauver, Kathleen Schmelz and Susie Wynne and Joseph Druar. However, one of the skaters who participated in that very first tour isn't on that list and for good reason. Those skaters came, made their unforgettable impressions on audiences and moved on. Kurt Browning has not. As the show celebrates twenty five years, the four time World and Canadian Champion has remained a fixture and THE face of the tour and you know what? He's twenty five times more fantastic to watch NOW than he was back in 1991. This year, Kurt took on the direction of the tour and rather than building on pieces and ideas from the American tour created an entirely brand new show from scratch celebrating the rich and incredible history of Stars On Ice in Canada.
The show started unusually with Kurt Browning reviving his much loved Rag Gidon clown character on a clean canvas of ice for some - get this - school figures. The piece, "Go Figure", put together by Geoffrey Tyler was a fitting look back into skating history to start the show. "Go Figure" segued into an intricately choreographed and show stopping opening group number to Coldplay's "A Sky Full Of Stars". Similarly to the "Somebody That I Used To Know" opening number from two years ago, there seemed to be a nice balance of "air time" (pardon the pun) for everybody.
Olympic Bronze Medallist and World Champion Jeffrey Buttle followed with an upbeat program to "Uptown Funk" by Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars that was choreographed by by David Wilson and Chucky Klapow. Buttle, as usual, was absolutely on point and looked confident in his jumping passes. One thing I'd like to point out is the fact this is the second year that he pulled out a rather steppy number and as much as I usually swoon over his edges and more subdued programs, as Martha Stewart would say, "it's a good thing."
Three time U.S. Champion Ashley Wagner kept the high energy going with a program set to "Rather Be" by Clean Bandit choreographed by Shawn Sawyer. Opening with a big triple flip, I had a nice chat with Ashley after the show and spoke with her about the CONFIDENCE she's brought to the table this season and how much I just went gaga over her free skate at U.S. Nationals. Although this "Rather Be" program was full of great energy (Shawn's choreography WORKS with her, by the way) the big Ashley Wagner news of the night was (straight from her mouth) she's keeping her fabulous "Moulin Rouge" program for next season. I love it.
Slowing things down with a tribute to Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz choreographed by Shae-Lynn Bourne (how does that work?), two time World Medallists Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje certainly skated on in character, performing those back kicks things that Shae-Lynn and Victor always did. Is there a name? I don't know but if there is let this sister know. Skating a modern interpretation of Romeo and Juliet to Des'ree's "I'm Kissing You", they were just exquisite. I'd have to say this was hands down their finest exhibition piece yet bar done. Inventive lifts, gorgeous choreography and girl, did they ever emote this piece beautifully.
A small part of me knew Canadian Silver Medallist Shawn Sawyer would pay homage to Toller Cranston in this year's show. An even smaller, more hopeful part of me hoped he'd pull out Toller's sickening The Firebird/Magic Bird Of Fire program. Instead, Shawn went in a different direction with a very soulful self-choreographed program to Hozier's "Take Me To Church". I was hoping it would mash into Annie Lennox's "I Put A Spell On You" a la Grammy's, but a girl can dream. All of the tricks we come to expect from Shawn - Cantilever, inventive spins and two - count 'em - two backflips but the jumps weren't all perfect. In the words of Dick Button, "WHO CARES!" I've said it before and I'll say it again. Shawn makes this tour in my opinion. Unlike many 'trick oriented' skaters or adagio skaters for that matter who kind of zoom from trick to trick, Shawn's musical interpretation is fierce and the fact he only did one solo didn't sit well with me.
"Love is a temple. Love is the higher law. You ask of me to enter but then you made me crawl and I can't be holding on to what you got when all you got is hurt..." Mary J. Blige's passionate duet with U2 to "One" is one of those pieces of music that gives you goosebumps and 2015 World Champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford used it masterfully to both put on a show and tell a story. Putting a new spin on a program they first debuted in December in Germany, the present of Canadian pairs skating paid homage to the past: Barbara Underhill and Paul Martini, Isabelle Brasseur and Lloyd Eisler and Jamie Sale and David Pelletier... This program had all of the power that we are accustomed to from this pair but really managed to draw the audience in and take them on a journey through pairs skating's past as well. What a clever concept. They nailed it.
Kurt Browning's first solo program was a recreation of 1984 Olympic Gold Medallist Scott Hamilton's "One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)" with music by Kenny G and Frank Sinatra. Hamilton skated the program, choreographed by Sandra Bezic, in the mid nineties when he competed against Kurt at the 1995 Canadian Professional Championships in Hamilton. In PJ Kwong's March 15 podcast interview with Kurt and Geoffrey Tyler on Open Kwong Dore, Kurt talked about the process of revisiting a Scott classic: "There was a program that he skated a long time ago that really touched me. I thought when I'm older and I've been in the sport long enough and I hope I deserve it, I want a program like that... I gave up and said I want to do THAT program. So I got Sandra Bezic who choreographed it... we're doing it step for step. It's to the point where I'm actually learning triple toe from an inside three turn." No joke. In addition to that triple toe, Kurt brought back the backflip, an element we haven't seen in one of his program in eons. Let me tell you, this program was a MOMENT and a masterpiece; the craft of skating at its best... and not just a nod to Scott and Sandra, but a nod to the tour's past as Scott actually performed this very program in the 1995/1996 U.S. tour. He wasn't perfect but you know what? He was fabulous.
Kurt Browning's a tough act to follow but if anyone was up for the challenge it was Olympic Gold Medallists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. Skating to a Sam Smith cover of "How Will I Know?" Tessa and Scott were spellbinding as usual. The program, choreographed by Jeffrey Buttle, was lyrical and just so well suited to their strengths as skaters and the one thing that I have to say just resonated in my mind watching them this year is how much I enjoy their performances outside of competition. There was something fresh about this program that just screamed "no, don't come back, you're too good for something someone made up and called a twizzle."
Skating to Vance Joy's "Mess Is Mine", Olympic Silver Medallist Patrick Chan looked at ease and probably more relaxed than I've ever seen him. I'm sure that will all change when he gets back to hardcore training, but there was a sense of comfort like a warm cup of hot chocolate that resonated with this piece choreographed by David Wilson.
Next was Joannie Rochette's "La Vie En Rose" program choreographed by Marie-France Dubreuil. I have to say that this was easily one of the highlights of the show. Two triples and a double axel I think? I don't take notes (made that mistake years ago) and try to really focus on enjoying the skating when I go to shows. Joannie's skating just shined in this year's tour more than usual if that's possible and getting to see this gem live was a treat.
Closing out the first set was a FABULOUS treat - a reworked group number based around Kurt Browning's "Brick House" program featuring of course Kurt, Jeffrey, Patrick, Scott, Andrew, Eric and Shawn. So in other words, my favourite - men! This was just something to behold. Like Z snap, you best put down your drink and pay attention sweetie 'cause something mesmerizing is going down.
After the perfunctory World Vision speech (sorry, but I'm not a huge fan of the values of this particular organization) and a quick smoke break where I met a lovely former skater and coach at the Bluenose Skating Club and drank as much wine as one can during a twenty minute intermission, it was back to business.
The second set opened with a very cleverly choreographed ensemble piece called "Bezic/Seibert Ice Dance System" set to "Hip Hip Chin Chin" by Club des Belugas. A lot of interesting things going on in this one and it was a great way to draw the audience back in.
Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir were back skating to "Good Kisser" by Usher choreographed by Sam Chouinard and Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon. Again, a good fit and definitely something out of these two's comfort zone. Taking risks isn't always easy but this program choice was something that paid off. And for the record, I'm no Usher fan so that's saying something,
Anyone who skates to The Beatles wins my heart but Patrick Chan already had it! Skating to "Dear Prudence" and "Blackbird" Patrick wasn't perfect in this piece choreographed by Pasquale Camerlengo but again looked at such ease out there flying around. Not to be rude to other skaters because there are so many great, great men out there, but I think they had better look out next season. Call it a hunch, but I think Patrick's going to kick ass and take names.
Cleverly pairing pairs and ice dancing in the piece "Hello" by Martin Solveig and Dragonette, Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford and Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje were fantastic in this piece. Lots of clever choreography with switching partners and juxtaposing pairs elements with dance moves and just a lot of fun!
Joannie Rochette skated her second number to Avicii's "Addicted To You" choreographed by David Wilson and it was quite a contrast obviously to her "La Vie En Rose" piece. She kept the high energy going from the previous number and absolutely sold it. The elements? On the money.
Next up was World Champion Jeffrey Buttle skating to "Here's To Life" by Shirley Horn choreographed by David Wilson. You know, this was the same beautiful craftmanship we come to expect from a Jeffrey Buttle/David Wilson combination, however I have to be real here and say that the music didn't do it for me. But again, like in Tessa and Scott's Usher number, the quality of the SKATING won me over.
The closing number to the show was a twenty minute fifties fancy set to a medley of music by Supertramp. The concept "A Super Tramp's Tale" was conceived by Kurt Browning and Geoffrey Tyler on (of all places) a plane to South Korea. The skaters all played the various roles of workers in a flying machine factory. In his interview earlier this week with Andrea Nemetz in The Chronicle Herald, Eric Radford explained the creation process of the theatrical piece which almost had an otherworldly vibe as "like free verse, with us all bouncing ideas off each other that take shape slowly" adding that "it's so much fun to add a character dimension rather than being all about showmanship and steps. It’s really nice to think about how my face looks instead of how my edges are." You know, it's funny, my interest in the ensemble pieces on the tour waxes and wanes over the years depending on the concept and choreography - I'm definitely a solo kind of guy - but I really wanted to like this and just couldn't wrap my head around it. I'm all for abstract - trust me - but this almost reminded me of one of those early nineties free dances where you needed a brochure to explain what was going on. There were some parts that worked, Shawn Sawyer as the foreman on huge stilt skates and the final section to "Give A Little Bit" for instance but the more I look back on this piece, the more I was befuddled by it. I thought I got it, then I didn't, then I needed another drink (which I got).
A revival of a piece of music Todd Eldredge used on the 2005 Canadian tour, Former Take That star Robbie Williams' "Let Me Entertain You" served as the musical backdrop for four time World Champion Kurt Browning's second solo and the finale of the night. It offered a wonderful contrast to his soft and stunning "One For My Baby" program in the first act and a much needed happy ending after that Supertramp business, including a SECOND backflip from the man himself. I could watch him all day and I hope that someday that's an option.
And now... for a fitting end to one hell of a skating season! Thanks Ashley!
A HUGE thank you to Stars On Ice, IMG, Rob Bailey, Skate Canada and all of the skaters! If this Stars On Ice review was right up your alley, you're going to love the rest of the blogs. Like on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard and read up at http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca for tons of great skating history as well as interviews, commentary and special features! You can also follow me on the Twitter at http://twitter.com/SkateGuardBlog for skating tweets and whatever else I've got on the go. It would be rude not to!