"Vertical Integration" cuts shines @ Britannia

Frictionless, edgy urban dance on an NHL-rink scale 

Le Patin Libre: how cool can you get? Photo: Rolline Laporte

Strip away the pompoms and sequins and tutus. Dispense, also, with the lavish stadia, elaborate sets, cast of thousands and all the promotional donner und blitzen of your traditional Holiday-on-Ice-style extravaganza.

What do you then have left? Just the sheer, unadorned, frictionless joy of five topnotch dancer-athletes – Alexandre Hamel, Pascale Jodoin, Samory Ba, Taylor Dilley and Jasmin Boivin of Montréal’s Patin Libre skating troupe – gliding in gloriously unsynchronized harmony over a glassy, featureless plain.

They started out as refugees from the lockstep conformity of conventional figure skating, in which they were all rigorously trained. For years they had no performance engagements, nor even a rehearsal space – they just practiced and improvised their repertoire on frozen ponds.

Gradually they built up enough of a reputation to garner some state-sponsored residencies and now they’re on a cross-Canada circuit of public ice rinks. Their touring production, “Vertical Integration,” presents dernier cri choreography, but on the massive scale of a full-sized 200’ x 80’ hockey court.

Catch them in Vancouver’s Britannia Rink through the end of this month. It’s well worth pulling your woollies out of mothballs one last time before the decisive onset of spring.  

Les Patineurs loom out of a vanishing point at the far end of the court and hurtle straight at us. They cover the distance in a matter of nanoseconds, only to judder to a snowplough stop mere inches from the audience. Front-row groundlings – mostly children perched on cushions right on the ice – squeal and burble their concessionaire cocoa as they’re showered with a spray of fine crystals.

The five glacially cool skaters strike fleetingly triumphant poses to stare us down with unabashed eye contact. Then, with an audible swish of their glinting blades, they careen away backwards in a frantic, braided, miraculously collision-free do-si-do.

That kind of risk-taking is the hallmark company’s consummately hip alt-Icecapade. Les patineurs fling themselves about the with wild abandon On opening night, they generated enough centrifugal force in one “crack-the-whip” manoeuvre to inadvertently slam Mlle. Jodoin right into the rink wall. (The show went on without missing a beat and, after a gasping pause, she managed to re-join the phalanx).

But it’s not just physical derring-do that distinguishes Le Patin Libre. Unlike your typical ice show, these performers refuse to turn themselves into faceless monads in a frozen dessert confection of merely kaleidoscopic symmetries. Instead, they’re unafraid to engage the audience and each other face-to-face. Each one of them emerges with a distinct choreographic personality.

Hamel, the troupe’s founder, foregoes figure skates altogether in favour of zippy hockey blades, the better to cut his high-speed shines. Despite his express disavowal, eight years ago, of figure skating’s “girly” antecedents, Hamel has recruited Jodoin as the company’s sole woman; she’s the most sensuously feminine figure on ice since the belly dance edition of the Snow Queen (although Jodoin is considerably more kinetic and better bundled up).

Boivin, the troupe’s resident composer, sets the show to an electronica score; lots of popping percussion, sketchy chittering and long, brooding resonances. Plenty of silence, too, where the only sound is the seethe of the blades and the “chuck” of toe cleats. Boivin makes intermittent personal turns in the rink for venturesome forays into such non-standard ice show genres as tap dance and even kazotsky.

For edgy, urban street cred, the troupe has recruited wiry low-rider Travis Dilley from Edmonton, the only non-Francophone in the bunch. He keeps his centre of gravity close to the ice and inveigles his teammates into breakdance-style combats, instigating many of the aforementioned “crack-the-whip” ice chains.

All his fellow-patineurs rise to the challenge until he comes to Samory Ba. A French import, Ba cuts gangly Gumby of a figure, towering over his Canadian compeers like a giant Maypole topped with a spray of dreadlocks. Not for him, any hip hop cockfights; rather he goes for a string of tour de force solos, climaxing in a show-stealing seguidilla-style flamenco riff.

Which segues neatly into a swirling whirlgig of a finale that leaves the five performers once again face-to-face with the audience – visibly panting, sweating and broadly smiling as we clamber to our benumbed feet on the ice, stamping the circulation back into them and beating our gloved hands in a sustained and well-earned ovation.

 

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