Skating on the (B)rink

By Philip Szporer
  • Alexandre Hamel, Pascale Jodoin, Samory Ba, Taylor Dilley and Jasmin Boivin of Le Patin Libre / Photo by Alice Clarke for Dance Umbrella
  • Alexandre Hamel, Pascale Jodoin, Samory Ba, Taylor Dilley and Jasmin Boivin of Le Patin Libre / Photo by Zoé Anne
  • Photo courtesy of Le Patin Libre

It’s a cold winter’s day as I head to Montréal’s east end Plateau quarter and to an even colder local ice arena. Le Patin Libre (LPL) is performing their acclaimed piece Vertical Influences for busloads of school kids today. The contemporary ice-skating collective is fresh from receiving a UK National Dance Award nomination for Best Modern Choreography, given by the UK’s Critics’ Circle in January, only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the kind of recognition this renegade group is receiving internationally. (Another Canadian, Crystal Pite, won the prize.)

I’m excited about the showing but skeptical about how the rambunctious crowd is going to enjoy or even sit still for the performance. As the Montréal-based quintet – Alexandre Hamel, Pascale Jodoin, Samory Ba, Taylor Dilley, Jasmin Boivin – carves the ice, blending technical skill and style, moving in pack formation, the rink falls utterly silent. A spell is cast and the grade schoolers are in awe, enthusiastically clapping for the occasional spin, arabesque or a bit of intricate synchronized Salchows, but it’s the grace and flourishes of dazzling, danger-tinged moments of speed during the gliding that grabs people. The four men and one woman are dressed in baggy sweaters, warm-up pants, tuques; one with full beard, another with a head of dreads; not a sequin or tight-fitting spandex outfit in sight. During the break, the audience shifts seats and perspectives, finding seats on the ice (folding chairs had been lined up). Live ice-skating is viewed on high, in the stands. Seeing things on the vertical axis plays with the depth of the stage, and the effect of having direct eye contact with the skaters, as well as sensing their kinetic charge on the ice, is thrilling.

About a year earlier I caught another free demonstration by the group in a lovely little park with meandering streams and a lagoon in nearby Outremont. I’d seen handbills posted on lampposts throughout the neighbourhood, and on that gloriously sunny yet biting cold Sunday, the place was packed. The crowd sipped cocoa while watching LPL do their moves, and afterwards everyone was invited to join the ice dancers on the frozen pond for a skate with them. I remember thinking that LPL were genius, certainly in terms of getting people in a joyous state, but I wondered why LPL was self-producing on the sidelines in Montréal or elsewhere in the rest of the province. At this writing, the situation hasn’t changed, though I understand there was interest from local presenters after the kids’ matinee in the arena.

In 2014, the group scored a hit at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, performing at the Murrayfield Ice Rink. They returned the next year garnering the Total Theatre & The Place Award for Dance 2015. In early January of this year, LPL returned from a successful limited run at London’s famed Somerset House seasonal outdoor ice rink, presented by Dance Umbrella, UK’s international dance festival.

Over a decade ago, LPL founder Hamel had ended his figure skating career, skated for Disney on Ice, earned a degree in film production from Concordia University and realized he was craving more creative opportunities in skating. He called up a few ice-skating friends, but none were involved in contemporary performance. The initial group was often labelled as “rebels,” and Hamel says he started “a rock band of skaters,” touring the winter carnival circuit. They fashioned fun-filled shows, riffing on urban dance battles. They really enjoyed those outings. Then someone in the group suggested they go back to classical lines of figure skating, taking out the jumps to just glide. Leaving aside “the usual pastiche approach” was “freeing,” says Hamel, and the group gave its first show on the canal of the Richelieu River at the Festival des Mitaines in the city of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu in January 2006. LPL officially formed as a company devoted to contemporary creation in 2011 with its current lineup. Hamel, Dilley, Ba and Jodoin all started out as traditional competitive skaters. Boivin originally started out as a technician for the group but shifted to become a skater after showing them his self-taught moves.

Hamel made the necessary calls to the arts councils, federally and provincially, about funding and was met with resistance. Not only was LPL not seen as, according to Hamel, “mature,” he was told in no uncertain terms that arts councils don’t accept sport in their criteria. “Go to the Canadian Figure Skating Federation,” was the advice given. But the Canadian Figure Skating Federation wasn’t any more welcoming because LPL was not involved in competition. Today, years later, Hamel says the group garners modest funding for projects and touring from the multidisciplinary section of the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec and the interdisciplinary arm of the Canada Council for the Arts. In addition, LPL recently signed with Montréal’s Diagramme gestion culturelle for administrative support.

Financial solvency for the group comes through their well-attended, self-presented shows, due in no small measure to the group’s own marketing and community outreach. LPL’s “homemade” approach extends to the music composition created by one of the members, while another looks after the group’s technical needs. Nonetheless, Hamel expresses frustration that, to date, this fast-growing, active company can’t get core funding. Montréal-based funders, presenters, festivals, agents and service organizations encouraged Hamel to bring a well-known contemporary choreographer into the mix for legitimacy, and while he admits the idea is interesting, he says, “We want to develop something specific to our skating virtuosity and a choreographer could not have done this.”

Hamel speaks quite passionately about what’s wrong with contemporary dance in Québec, but he’s careful to point out that he doesn’t want to sound like he’s bashing the form. “Especially since I think we are a form of contemporary dance!” he says. For instance, he’s opposed to marketing that stresses contemporary dance as “an upper-class, serious, intelligentsia thing.” Hamel says his contemporary ice-skating collective bridges what he calls “the new deux solitudes, artsy Le Devoir readers versus sporty Journal-de-Montréal readers. Both could learn a lot from the other and would be happier united.”

His philosophy to “pester people to see my stuff,” has clicked. LPL tours France every year, ever since French-born Ba, the sole non-Canadian in the group, joined the group in 2010 after he completed a contract skating onboard a cruise ship. They stage events on public rinks and in the process generate ideas for contemporary performance. “Seasonal ice rinks hire us expecting traditional figure skating. People never watch YouTube videos!” says Hamel, chuckling. “What they get is something very different. We see it as a form of cultural education. And, they always love it!”

Events like those in France are also lucrative. In 2012, the group took their earnings and crossed the Channel, renting London’s Alexandra Palace and sold out three 500-seat shows. LPL’s success there was pure DIY: flyers in the tube, squatting in Pimlico, living on next to nothing and using The Beehive pub in Islington as their offsite office.

That’s when Dance Umbrella’s Emma Gladstone, then artistic programmer and producer at Sadler’s Wells, offered the Canadian group a residency, through a well-funded research program called Jerwood Studio. As a programmer, Gladstone is “interested in how we look at choreography and different ways we can invite audiences in to reflect upon it and the power of the body in motion.” Upon meeting LPL, she was amazed that no one had done what they were doing before. The Jerwood Studio residency paid for ice time, lodging, studio time and for dramaturge Ruth Little and lighting designer Lucy Cash to come in to try out ideas “without the pressure of a show immediately on top of them,” says Gladstone. Little and Cash continued working with LPL after the research phase. Little was interested in LPL’s story of rebellion and helped the team to structure their ideas and to research material deeper. She says she has “great respect for LPL and for the ethos behind their work and the openness of their process.” LPL also made a short film of the process that was subsequently useful for both fundraising and marketing.

In 2013, a BBC News report called LPL, “Canada’s best kept secret.” It should have added “in Canada.” Validation and support from abroad has changed everything.

Gladstone asserts, “[LPL] have been struggling to be taken seriously for so long in the skating world, and somewhat ignored by the world of culture, that I feel people saw them more as sports folk or commercial fare.” She got the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris and Ottawa’s National Arts Centre (NAC) on board to co-produce Vertical Influences. Cathy Levy, executive producer of dance at the NAC, booked them a year ago at Ottawa’s Minto Skating Club as part of the arts centre’s dance series. Like Gladstone, Levy understands the importance of research and investing money in people and is in a position to say, “Go!” She keenly recognizes what groups like LPL desperately need is the space and time to explore ideas and was the first Canadian programmer to give LPL a professional artistic presentation opportunity. Both women see potential in LPL’s work to reach people beyond the aesthetics of traditional ice dance. “They’ve pushed it much further,” says Gladstone, “on all fronts – music, costume, group work, partnerships, abstract choreographic ideas.” What hooks Levy is “LPL’s curiosity, drive and hunger. We can still see their skill as skaters, but their option is to choreograph from a contemporary place.”

Gladstone firmly believes what LPL creates “speaks to people – it has a powerful and joyous poetry within it.”

In April, LPL will break into the US market. The Yard, on Martha’s Vineyard, has invited them for two off-site performances of Vertical Influences. David White, the dance centre’s artistic director and producer, says, “It’s just plain weird that no one has done this in skating.” He first saw LPL perform an “off” show in Montréal. He says they reminded him of the nascent, influential American modern dance companies, like Cunningham, “with ‘dance wagons’ going all over North America, working together, closely knit, with a collective spirit.” He says he sees that kind of revolutionary approach to performance in LPL. “They are doing the same thing to the institution of skating.

For the occasion at The Yard, as is LPL’s wont, they’ll rent the local ice-hockey rink, come with their truck of lights and seats and sound equipment, and turn the frozen gymnasium into a pop-up theatre. It’s the beginning of a three-year partnership. “A bunch of American presenters will come see us while we’re there,” says Hamel, excitedly. During the preceding week, they’ll offer a cultural mediation event, a playful workshop to local school groups. This is the start of a three-year commitment from The Yard, and White adds he’s commissioning a new piece from LPL in 2018. It comes as gratifying recognition for a group that works so hard at making its mark. And it mirrors Hamel’s fundamental belief that people of any age, in almost any culture, accept new ideas.

With their daring innovations and flair, and an undeniably egalitarian mode of presentation, LPL is gliding its way onto the world stage, continually igniting and spurring on new support and interest for the work and the group’s ambitions. This determined band of outsiders is reaching people, and it’s only a matter of time before LPL initiates Canadians-at-large to their potent, unconventional and urgent contemporary performance skills at the cutting edge of ice-skating.

Learn more >> lepatinlibre.com

Vertical Influences
March 12-20, 2016: Aréna St-Louis, Mile End – Montréal, self-presentation
April 9, 2016: Ice Arena – Martha’s VIneyard, Massachusetts
June 6-11, 2016: Les Nuits de Fourvières – Lyon, France
June 14-17, 2016: Théâtre de la Ville – Paris, France
June 23-27, 2016: Festival Montpellier Danse – Montpellier, France

Glide (new work)
May 6-9, 2016: Macao Arts Festival – Macao, China


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