From a humble beginning on frozen ponds in Montreal Canada, choreographer Alexandre Hamel grew tired of the rhinestones, bright lights and score cards of the figure skating industry. Searching for more, he risked it all to break the ice and founded Le Patin Libre - the world’s first and only contemporary ice skating company.
“I started ice skating when I was three-years-old. Kids generally learn to skate normally the first winter after they learn to walk,” Hamel says. “Figure skating was huge in Canada in the late ‘80s and ‘90s. Everybody wanted to do it. When I was nine-years-old I started lessons. I was quickly spotted and brought into an intense, pre-Olympic curriculum to turn me into an elite athlete. However, I was not happy in the figure skating establishment. It’s a very superficial show business. They were very tough years for me.”
It was this realisation that sparked Hamel’s interest in breaking free from the constraints of figure skating to explore a more contemporary style of movement and performance.
“When we started to break away from figure skating, which is extremely conservative, we actually got barred from ice rinks,” says Hamel. “We started to go to parks with frozen ponds and skated as we pleased, and thanks to these places we were able to further our little rebellion. When I walked out of the rink and started skating for myself, this joy of skating came back even greater than before. Since then, it’s become my life - it’s about playing with that magic and turning it into a dance.”
The group of high-level figure skaters are now facing their next challenge with the performance of their double-bill, Vertical Influences, as part of Melbourne Festival. Hamel says the extensive preparation for the athletically challenging performance has ranged from a demanding training schedule, to the curation of lighting and atmosphere.
“All five of us are professional skaters, which took many years of practice and discipline,” Hamel says. “Then there was this ten-year process where we had to unlearn this very formalised style of skating and develop our more contemporary style.
“The challenge now is to transform the gymnasium we are performing at into a theatre. That’s what we have been doing, bringing in lighting kits and speakers to create a good ambience. We work a lot to ensure people don’t feel like they are in an ice hockey rink, but rather, like they are walking into a theatre.”
An undeniably personal performance, the soundtrack of Vertical Influences was composed by group member Jasmin Boivin, who alongside skating, is a classical cellist and electronic DJ.
“In Influences, you see a little military group that appear forced to be together. They learn how to interact with one another, how to live together and how to meet a more profound harmony. It explores many ideas surrounding being an individual in a group,” says Hamel.
“It’s the same group that comes back in Vertical, but now, you witness how they reach harmony. They are liberated, truly happy, and because they all work so well together they turn to the audience to challenge and impress them, almost like the fourth wall is broken. It’s a really in your face, daring performance. Each part really means something to us. It’s often difficult to express it in words, because it was made to be expressed with movement.” Premiering in London in 2014, Vertical Influences will now interact and unfold to an audience not only familiar with theatre and dance, but as Hamel explains, from a cross discipline of traditional ice sports like figure skating and ice hockey.
“I think that because we are integrated in a really respected artistic festival, a lot of the audience will be used to performances inside a theatre,” says Hamel. “We have also discovered the arena has created a strong skating culture in Melbourne, so we hope people who are from ice-related disciplines will also give us a chance.
“These audiences come from different worlds, and this is a rare opportunity for them to be together and share the joint experience of dance and performance, and I find that very beautiful.”
By Julia Sansone
Vertical Influences will transform O’Brien Group Arena, Docklands from Saturday October 15 to Saturday October 22 (excluding Monday October 17) with shows at 6pm and 8pm (Saturday 15 & Sunday 16 at 7.30pm) as part of Melbourne Festival.