The pioneers of contemporary ice skating – an interview with Le Patin Libre’s Alexandre Hamel

Le Patin Libre at Alexandra Palace, part of Dance Umbrella 2014.
Pictured front left: Alexandre Hamel in ‘Vertical Influences’, photograph by Alicia Clarke for Dance Umbrella – taken at the London world premiere in October 2014

After contemporary ice skating company Le Patin Libre’s incredible performance of ‘Vertical Influences’, founder Alexandre Hamel kindly talked to me about the group’s story, their work and ambitions, and the challenges they face…

Like most people in Canada, Alexandre began ice-skating at a very young age – unusually for a boy, it was figure skating, not ice hockey, he got into. After 17 years of competitions and rigorous training, Alexandre decided to rebel…

“It was a revolt against traditional figure skating: not only against the sequins, the reglementory movement and the point system, but also against all the commercialism. I didn’t like it, and I didn’t want to do it ever again, but I loved skating – so it was about reappropriating that skill to make it mine.”

He founded a group with his training companions, mostly men, and they started doing small performances at winter carnivals in Quebec. They would perform acrobatic figure skating to rock music and post videos on YouTube (which was just beginning at the time).

“Suddenly all the figure skating rebels converged and were interested. I was asking everybody: ‘Are you ready to quit everything and do only this? It’s not paid, and you have to pay for your own plane tickets.’ We all took an incredible risk, but we believed in it and wanted to make it a career! It’s very difficult to make it in dance, so imagine in a form that doesn’t exist! I believe it worked.” Slowly, the group evolved into what Le Patin Libre is today. “People started to call it ‘contemporary ice skating’ and that is now what we call it ourselves.”

Le Patin Libre at Alexandra Palace, part of Dance Umbrella 2014.
Photograph: Le Patin Libre in ‘Vertical Infuences’ by Alicia Clarke

Alexandre tells me how difficult creating a new style can be: “If you call a theatre and tell them you have a contemporary ice skating show, they don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The other problem is ice rinks, which in Canada tend to be run purely as sports facilities. “I think there’s a line somewhere”, says the ex-figure skater, “and sports and arts people are not on the same side. When we want to perform on the sports people’s ice rink, they have to build a partnership that they are not used to, and often don’t want to. We are trying to bridge that divide, to say: ‘Yes, it will be different tonight at the rink, and other people will enjoy it – and some of the usual people will enjoy it too! Maybe the sports people will like arts and the arts people will like sports – and then we can all be together.”

But isn’t figure skating considered a sport? Alexandre is banned from most figure-skating clubs in Canada for saying publicly that he doesn’t, in fact, consider figure skating a sport. His reasoning behind this is that figure skating “is appreciated subjectively: beauty is involved, and you can like the style of the skater even if he’s not very good”. He explains: “For me, sport is an objective athletic competition, like running where you count the number of seconds, or football the number of goals. Figure skating is subjective: there’s a show, costumes, music, choreography…”.

It must therefore be an art …? “It can’t be an art either,” he says, “because there are rules, for example, certain moves are worth more points, and if you do them a lot you are going to win.”

If it’s not an art, and it’s not a sport, what is it? “Figure skating is a reality TV show! It is actually our main reality TV in Canada, ice skaters are on the covers of gossip magazines … If you ask a little girl what she wants, she dreams not of winning, not of beauty, she dreams of being on TV. And this is what I rebelled against.”

Le Patin Libre at Alexandra Palace, part of Dance Umbrella 2014.
Photograph by Alicia Clarke for Dance Umbrella – taken at the London world premiere in October 2014

I wondered where Alexandre was hoping to take Le Patin Libre next. The company’s five skaters are currently working on their new show ‘Threshold’, which will premiere in April 2018 in Montreal, and come to Europe in June. After that, they’re preparing a new project, but this time with more performers to achieve choreographic effects that can only be done with big ensembles. “We have found a few very talented and well-trained figure skaters who like what we do, and we are very thankful to them! They’re joining in April to start the project with us.”

I ask whether he thinks a “contemporary ice skating wave” is kicking off, to which he answers: “More figure skaters are now starting to be interested in what we do, which is why we’re able to do a big ensemble show next, so I have big hopes about that. There are some amateur skaters who are copying our style, which is the first step. Eventually maybe they will discover that copying our style is not that interesting and they will find their own style of contemporary ice skating!”

Choreographically, the company’s five dancers work as a collective: “We all have different styles, different approaches and different ways to participate. We really work together with all the difficulties it brings, but it also makes the show rich and diverse and I think people like that.”

“How did you create ‘Vertical Influences’? What were your intentions?” I ask. Alexandre explains that Le Patin Libre was doing a series of performances of their previous show in London when they were spotted by someone from Sadler’s Wells Theatre. The company was offered a residency to carry out research, including five days of ice time. They met with Ruth Little, a dance and theatre dramaturg based in London, who helped them to mould their experiences into their choreography. For example, some of the men in the company had been bullied at ice rinks for being male figure skaters, so they wanted to incorporate the theme of the group versus the individual. ‘Influences’ is very much about groups and individuals and how they influence each other; bullying and peer pressure are featured, but so is unity.

“‘Vertical’ is a choreographical essay about the pure joy of speed and gliding”, says Alexandre, “and also about the relations between the crowd and the stage. Normally, stages are long and not very deep – when we place the audience on the ice the stage becomes extremely deep and we play with that a lot.”

Le Patin Libre at Alexandra Palace, part of Dance Umbrella 2014.
Photograph by Alicia Clarke at Alexandra Palace, London

For Le Patin Libre, the relationship between the performers and the audience is key. “In ‘Influences’, the audience surfs with us in this story which is abstract but still very powerful. I think in Vertical it’s a much more organic response.” Alexandre tells me there is a part of the brain made specifically to detect objects coming right at you, and the group exploit that to great effect – the audience certainly gasped every time the dancers soared to front of the stage. “Also”, he continues, “it isn’t normal to see someone standing but moving fast – in fact it’s absolutely weird! Because normally a moving human has to take steps – the fact that the steps aren’t there impresses people and creeps them out.”

“How is your form of skating different from dance?” I ask.

“That’s a big question!” he replies. “We have the same intention as dancers and choreographers: we create beauty with movement, which is what we did with ‘Vertical Influences’. Our next show, ‘Threshold’, is even more sophisticated – it’s one step beyond and it’s starting to make the difference between skating and dance more obvious.” He describes beautifully how dance is based on the movement of the body, how each limb moves in relation to your centre, or in relation to the ground you’re standing on. “For us, skating is not about that. What we do is about travelling through the space; your whole body moves through the space. It does look like dance, but I think the more contemporary ice skating evolves, the more it will differ from dance. The more research we’re doing, the more we’re finding our own thing. We are slowly creating our own style, our own medium, our own form.”

Lucy Carter, who has done a lot of work with Wayne MacGregor as well as on many other operas and ballets, is the show’s lighting designer. Alexandre tells me: “I love her lighting because it’s very subtle. We’re working with her again for ‘Threshold’, and she really is a big part of the show.” He adds that it’s the same with the composer Jasmin Boivin – they give him a free rein on the musical composition.

 

As well as performing, Le Patin Libre organise various activities. “We started in winter carnivals, so as popular entertainment – figure skating is also popular entertainment, and the strength and the beauty of popular entertainment is how it gathers everyone together.” The company has realised that the people able to come and see shows represent a very small percentage of the population – “We just want to invite everybody!”. In December they tour ice rink inaugurations and organise Christmas parties: “We perform excerpts from our show, and sometimes from our oldest pieces which are a bit acrobatic and crazy (there’s even one with fire-breathing in it!), and often Santa Claus is on after us. It’s a lot of fun. I see us as a kind of bridge between the worlds of elitist arts and sports and the community.”

Alexandre explains that finding places to train can be tough, but they do have some partnerships with ice rinks. Their first partner, in France, offered to let them use the ice rink when it was empty, and in exchange the company would do things for the clients and for kids. “We were able to demonstrate that model to public ice rinks in Canada, which are only used by the sports club members. We organised a Christmas party to which 1,500 citizens could come, and bought 250 pairs of ice skates, so families who didn’t have skates could borrow ours. We realised that the families in the neighbourhood didn’t actually know there was a rink, because it was only used by the club members. The town’s politicians weren’t aware of that and got really excited, saying ‘Wow, you’re bringing in thousands of people and suddenly they know that we’re financing a rink for them’. The frequentation of the rink went up, more people came to the activities, and the politicians backed us – the mayor told us we could have the rink when we wanted and then that started to happen everywhere. So now we use ice rinks during the day when they are empty, and in exchange we do ice-skating initiations and parties and community things and we bring in our skates – that way, everybody’s a winner.”

To find out more about Le Patin Libre, click here. To read my review of their show ‘Vertical Influences’, click here.

You can watch Le Patin Libre’s daring new film here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZaKYSUrHSfs

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