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New Skating Format Energizes Babilonia, Gardner, Cousins

December 23, 1987|LIBBY SLATE

For figure skaters, one of the perks of turning professional is forsaking the predawn practice sessions which typify amateur training. But to prepare for their Saturday opening of "Festival on Ice" at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, stars Tai Babilonia, Randy Gardner and Robin Cousins recently found themselves rehearsing from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.--the only time, with the pre-Olympic competition season in full swing, that any ice rink was available.

"I've never learned a show from 2 to 5 a.m. before," said Cousins, the 1980 Olympic Men's Champion from Bristol, England. "I'm teaching skating now, and when I first joined the show in October, there was a competition going on in Culver City. At one point I worked from 8 o'clock one morning to 2 o'clock the afternoon of the following day."

Despite the schedule, all three agree that "Festival on Ice," which takes figure skating out of huge arenas and brings it to proscenium theaters and hotel showrooms, is one of the highlights of their professional careers.

"It's a more sophisticated way of presenting skating, in a more intimate setting," said Babilonia, 28, who with longtime partner Gardner, 30, won the 1979 World Pair Skating Championship. "The audience can see every facial expression, every bead of sweat."

"People are used to watching only skaters' feet and bodies," said Cousins, 30. "Now, as with any theater production, their attention is directed to the faces and eyes. You have a rapport with the audience even in the last row of the balcony. You may not be able to see them, but you can certainly feel their energy."

The Music Center engagement is particularly exciting for Babilonia and Gardner, who grew up locally--she now lives in Hollywood, he in Marina del Rey--and have often attended performances there. "It's the same kind of special feeling as when we played Kennedy Center, knowing all the great performers who've been on that stage," Gardner said.

"And we finally get to play at home, where our friends can see us, instead of always being on the road," his partner said.

Indeed, all three have logged their share of travel since turning professional almost eight years ago. Babilonia and Gardner, who gained worldwide sympathy after Gardner's groin injury forced them to withdraw from the 1980 Winter Olympics, spent several years as "Ice Capades" headliners and have been with "Festival" since its inception three years ago. In the past seven weeks alone, they have traveled to Sweden for a Crystal Gayle Christmas TV special, New York for the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting ceremony, Calgary, Canada, to film a Nestle's Crunch commercial, and are now winding up a starring run in a Caesars Palace Christmas-theme ice show in Las Vegas.

They also work on behalf of the Special Olympics, have a "How to Ice Skate" video on the market and will be seen in an upcoming episode of NBC-TV's "St. Elsewhere."

World Professional Champions in 1985, the duo earlier this year received the newly inaugurated Olympic Spirit Award, for exhibition of Olympic ideals. "That brought back memories of 1980, of course," Gardner said. "But all the disappointment has long since gone. We're not the 'Heartbreak Kids' any more, as people used to call us."

No stranger to accolades himself, Cousins was awarded Britain's MBE (Member of the British Empire) by Queen Elizabeth II, and last week captured his fourth World Professional title. He created and starred in two of the first proscenium-style shows, "Electric Ice" and "Ice Majesty," which toured Britain, Australia and Malaysia and prompted one newspaper to call him "the Gene Kelly of ice" for his efforts to expand the sport's horizons.

He returned to Britain to tape "Sleeping Beauty on Ice," which KCET-TV aired earlier this month, and has done other star turns on television, with "Holiday on Ice" and "Ice Capades," and at Radio City Music Hall. He also choreographs and designs costumes for other skaters.

Teaching has become his first priority, though, he said. He is vice president, head coach and director of the Ice Castle International Training Center in Blue Jay, near Lake Arrowhead, where he lives.

All three skaters feel they have found their performing niche with the "Festival" format, as their own personal maturation, they said, helps bring out the artistic aspects of skating, which are emphasized in this type of show.

"I went through some major emotional changes this past year, realized a lot of things about myself," Babilonia said. "It shows in my skating. I really feel each piece of music much more now."

Babilonia, who designs butterfly jewelry and hair ornaments and hopes one day to publish a book of poetry, said that she may eventually give up skating. Gardner and Cousins, though, said they will always be involved in some way.

After "Festival's" Los Angeles run, the three will perform at the new Bob Hope Cultural Center in Palm Desert, Jan. 5 and 6. Babilonia and Gardner will then tour with the show through April and guest at the amateur U.S. National Figure Skating Championships closing exhibition in Denver. Cousins will teach, perform sporadically with "Festival," appear in the Winter Olympics closing ceremonies and skate a Royal Command Performance in Sweden.

"We all launched our international careers together, back in 1972, at a French competition," Cousins said. "And yet this is the first professional show we've performed in together. It's been great fun."

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