"From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life,
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife"
- William Shakespeare, "Romeo And Juliet"
For decades, skaters around the world have been exploring the themes presented in William Shakespeare's iconic tragic romance "Romeo And Juliet". From Olympic Gold Medallists Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat to Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko and Natalia Bestemianova and Andrei Bukin to many far less known or remembered interpretations, musical scores from Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Mancini and even the 1996 Baz Luhrmann film have become standard fare in skating circles. However, "Romeo And Juliet On Ice", a made for television gem from the early eighties, remains a largely forgotten treasure.
Directed by Robert Iscove, "Romeo And Juliet On Ice" was filmed in a tiny CFTO studio in Toronto, Ontario and starred Olympic Gold Medallist Dorothy Hamill and World Bronze Medallist Brian Pockar in the roles of Romeo and Juliet. Olympic Bronze Medallist Toller Cranston added, of course, his usual flair to the production in the role of Tybalt, Juliet's cousin (a Capulet who is stabbed by Romeo). The choreography for the production was done jointly by Iscove and Sandra Bezic and the production was first broadcast for American audiences as part of 'the CBS Festival of Lively Arts for Young People' in November 1983 and later packaged for Canadian television just prior to Christmas 1983 on CTV.
In a December 17, 1983 article in The Globe And Mail, the late Pockar recalled the dreaded kissing scene, which took an hour and a half to film: "After the rings were exchanged and it came time to kiss, my upper lip started to quiver. I worried that Dorothy would notice and start to laugh or worry about my worrying about it." According to Hamill's then-manager, not only did Hamill notice the twitch in Pockar's lip, she convulsed in laughter for fifteen minutes: He said, "When Dorothy gets tired, she gets the giggles. She gets beyond tired: she's all adrenaline. I told her, 'Think of your grandmother's funeral.'"
Dorothy Hamill. Photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library.
It wasn't all laughs though; the filming of the production was a challenge for choreographers and skaters alike. Bezic had less than two weeks to turn Hamill and Pockar, two accomplished singles skaters, into a cohesive pair team and Pockar and Cranston both had to adapt double axels and triple jumps to a very small ice surface. When Hamill wasn't going over her lines - she served as the narrator of the production - or fitting for costumes, she was on the ice for twelve hour days and watching Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 film adaptation of the play in the evenings when she left the studio before grabbing less than eight hours sleep and doing it all over again. Many might dismissively look back on the production as made for television shtick in hindsight, but these skaters took the authenticity of the production very seriously.
The Sergei Prokofiev score, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, was used as a musical backdrop and costumes were developed to complement the lavish set by British designer Zandra Rhodes. In the November 25, 1983 edition of The Lakeland Ledger, Judy Flander praised the production thusly: "Romeo And Juliet will charm anyone acquainted with the tragic pair. Others will be attracted by the ice ballet with its sword fights, its romantic balcony scene and the sad finale in the (literally) 'ice cold tomb.' The sets are just magnificent and I think the skating is the best filmed and edited I've ever seen." The production was generally well received by television audiences and critics alike and despite their hesitant on screen kiss, Hamill and Pockar later revived one of their pairs performances from "Romeo And Juliet On Ice" in the 1985 production "Festival On Ice" at the Wolf Trap Filene Center amptitheater in Washington, D.C. in the summer of 1985.
In a climate today where many televised skating specials revolve around professional skaters creating one-off programs accompanied by musical artists often along the ilk of an Aaron Carter, it's always a real treat to look back at these high production, wonderfully creative efforts from the eighties and nineties. Skating has absolutely not lost its art but I think it's absolutely fair to yearn for more of it. Ice show, ice show, wherefore art thou, ice show? Stay tuned for part two of this series, where we'll learn the shocking story of skating's real life Romeo and Juliet.
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