The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion has played host to symphony orchestras, opera and ballet, stage musicals and the Academy Awards. But the opening of "Festival on Ice" on Saturday will mark the first time in its 23-year history that an ice show has been presented there or at any Music Center theater.
Starring 1979 World Pair Champions Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner and 1980 Olympic Men's Champion Robin Cousins, a 16-member corps, 16-year-old Liberace piano protege Eric Hamelin and the International Peace choir, all accompanied by the Los Angeles Pops Orchestra, "Festival on Ice" represents a new era in figure skating that has been gaining momentum over the past several years.
The show is designed specifically for proscenium Broadway-type houses rather than vast sports arenas, combining theater production techniques with the movements and flow unique to skating.
"This is a show tailored to audiences who go to the theater," producer-director Willy Bietak said at his Hollywood "Ice Capades" office, where he fulfills similar functions. "It's a little more classy, a little less pop-oriented than an arena show. That's why we have a pianist, for instance, though there's still a wide range of music for many tastes.
"With a show like 'Ice Capades,' you have the capability of putting up big sets, having masses of people skating patterns to be seen by the audience from a bird's eye view. With this show, there's more personal contact between skaters and audience, and the personalities of the chorus skaters are emphasized more."
Added Sarah Kawahara, choreographer for both "Festival on Ice" and "Ice Capades," "For 'Festival,' you can have small, subtle nuances. Even a little thing with a finger or hip can be detected from the back row; the movements are more intricate. And this is not a mix-and-match series of acts. We start with 'Land of Make Believe' by Chuck Mangione, and keep that fantasy theme throughout, whether it's a jazz number or a children's choir singing Christmas carols."
Bietak, a nine-time Austrian pair skating champion who competed in the 1964 and 1968 Winter Olympics, first conceived the idea of a touring theater ice show in the early 1970s, when he and television producer Bob Banner staged a Peggy Fleming show that played a few proscenium houses. In 1981, he created "An Evening on Ice" at Harrah's Lake Tahoe, again starring Fleming. That show became the forerunner of "Festival on Ice," which launches its fourth season with the Pavilion four-day run. (An earlier edition, then named "Fantasy on Ice" and starring Dorothy Hamill, Babilonia and Gardner, played the Universal Amphitheatre in April, 1985.)
The show's production numbers and solo performances are skated on a 40x60-foot ice surface; arena ice typically measures 64 feet by 140 feet. At the Pavilion, the ice will be installed via a 12-hour process, utilizing $250,000 worth of custom designed equipment, that will begin Christmas night.
A sheet of heavy plastic is first laid down to protect the stage, followed by 44 interlocking aluminum panels, each weighing 200 pounds, to create a foundation. Brine coolant is then piped to the panels through hoses from a refrigeration unit stationed outside the building. Once the panels are chilled, water is sprayed, freezing on contact; engineers walk continually in circles for several hours, spraying layer upon layer until the ice is 1 1/2 inches thick and can then be maintained. A warning system and 24-hour security prevent meltdown; at the end of the run, four crewmen break up the ice with metal baseball bats.
The small surface took some getting used to the skaters acknowledge. "I have to be careful not to fall off the stage doing my back flip," said Cousins. "I give myself about a foot of leeway in landing: all it takes is one extra burst of energy."
"Every movement counts," Gardner said. "You can't lead up to something for 15 seconds here--in that time, you've already done three moves."
From a design standpoint, "Festival" is much like any theater show, said production designer Robert W. Rang, whose other credits include "Ice Capades," Las Vegas hotel shows and the Lido in Paris. "The lighting, entrances and exits from the wings, certain amount of magic of scenic changes before the audience, the special effects are all stage oriented."
Said Jef Billings, whose lavish costumes rival any of Bob Mackie's creations, "Just as with dancers' costumes, you have to be concerned with ease of movement. But what's different is that instead of a pretty pump, there are these big clumps (the ice skates) at the end of their feet. All the female skaters wear fishnet hose over nude colored boots to smooth the line and make those clumps disappear as much as possible."
The show as a whole has developed artistically with each new season, according to Kawahara. It has become somewhat like a repertory company, with numbers periodically rotated. She and Bietak hope that skating's evolution to performing art will someday create a market for two year-round concurrent editions, one modern, the other classical.
"I met with a lot of resistance when I first tried to do this show," Bietak said. "But our tours have been very successful. Some theaters have even invited us back for the third time."