By Sharon Smullen
If ice dancing leaves you cold, Jacob’s Pillow knows how to make it sizzle.
Instead of watching sparkly Olympic skaters waltz to bland music, on Friday, Feb. 16 the Pillow will present “Vertical Influences”
by Alexandre Hamel’s Montreal-based dance company Le Patin Libre
(Free Skate) at the Boys and Girls Club ice rink in Pittsfield, Mass.
You won’t find Disney princesses or points-driven postures in this skating show. Hamel replaces competitive and commercial constraints with cutting-edge choreography that turns fancy frozen footwork on its head.
He mines contemporary dance for inspiration, in particular urban dance forms like hip-hop and b-boy, creating new vocabulary rooted in the unique potential of ice-driven movement, with the “glide” at the heart of the experience.
“We can stand there but keep the momentum going and move through space,” Hamel explained. "Reversely, we can make a movement typical to human locomotion but stay on the spot because of the absence of friction.”
Hamel spoke from Holland during a multi-country engagement — they tour European dance and arts festivals several times a year. A competitive figure skater in hockey-crazed Canada, Hamel didn’t encounter the arts until university. “I didn’t even know contemporary dance existed,” he said. “I was flabbergasted.”
Photos by Alicia Clark, courtesy of Jacob's Pillow
He created Le Patin Libre in 2005 during a time of “teenage rebellion.” After clumsy early attempts to combine dance with ice skating — they were considered “skating punks” — through hard work and “years of reflection and rethinking of our medium” his efforts paid off. Now the company of four Canadians and one Parisian has earned its place in the contemporary dance world.
While festival appearances reach arts-savvy audiences, general performances attract wider interest.
“Skating is popular and fun, with an aura of glamour and excitement,” Hamel said. “We open a door to art for a new audience, people who wouldn’t necessarily see a dance show.”
Audiences often include strange bedfellows: figure skaters and hockey players. The former, Hamel explained, “will go see anything on ice skates because they love the medium.” As hockey players can’t skate that night because of the show, Hamel, a big fan, provides tickets.
“Vertical Influences” is viewed first from bleachers, then from chairs on ice mats to feel the chill and moving air. Performers wear street clothes and dance to music composed by cellist, electronic DJ and company skater Jasmin Boivin, his silences accentuating the swish of blades.
Europeans and Canadians embraced Le Patin Libre years ago, but Americans are just discovering them.
“I was astonished by how great they were,” said Pillow director Pamela Tatge. “What impressed me was the caliber of the choreography set in a contemporary dance tradition.” The dancers have the athleticism and ability for tour de force moves, she noted, but “it’s not about virtuosity, it’s about taking people on a journey. Intensive exposure to another artist can sometimes change your creative trajectory,” she said.
The presentation is part of Pittsfield’s annual 10x10 Upstreet Arts Festival
of art, words and music and more running from Feb. 15 to 25. New this year are Berkshire Historical Society’s time-traveling photo exhibit “Turning Points” and Ted Rosenthal Trio’s Gershwin tribute “10, By George.” Returning favorites include Barrington Stage’s 10 short plays, and short films at Beacon Cinema.
Pillow Pop-Up: Le Patin Libre
Friday, Feb. 16 at 8 p.m.
Tickets: $25; youth tickets: $10, available here
Pittsfield Boys & Girls Club
16 Melville St., Pittsfield, MA
Following the performance, the audience is invited to a cast party at nearby Methuselah Bar & Lounge.