Whenever dance aficionados hear that ice dancing has become more like theatrical dance, they shudder. All too often, the evidence is a ghastly catalogue of skating routines reflecting the most laughable cliches in international choreography.
Between appearances by the French duo of Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay, ice dancing at the Calgary Winter Olympics offered plenty of examples. Whatever their excellence as skaters, as athletes, the champion Russians, Natalia Bestemianova and Andrei Bukin, offered an unintentional parody of Bolshoi excesses. Dancing to Borodin--with Bestemianova's bandy-legged attacks accentuated by a tutu--they summarized all the problems of crimped line and mechanical unisons, of crude musicality and flamboyant emotional values larded onto movement that can't support them, that makes world-class ice dancing seem a world away from the greatest contemporary ballet.
The mindless Italians (Lia Trovati and Roberto Pelizzola) with their cutesy-poo folk routine, like something out of a bad opera-ballet--or a pizza commercial--were also a hoot, and there were corny show-biz pastiches aplenty. These were "like dancing" all right, just as that white powder in your coffee is "like cream." But even the best of them reminded you that fine dancing matters every second while champion skating seldom does; that a lyrical pas de deux isn't merely a wash of pretty motion over flowing music but a series of meticulously integrated and modulated physical events that draw dancers and audiences alike into something greater than themselves.
The 1984 Olympic champions, the British team of Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, were the exceptions that proved the rule. Partly because their skating style was so technically pristine, they somehow subverted the constrictions of ice dancing as competitive sport and developed as artists while collecting gold medals. The footage of their "Bolero," replayed during one ABC telecast from Calgary this week, showed them at their purest, exploring a style that makes reference to dance but is primarily rooted in the skating vocabulary and which finds its expressive ideas within the physical accomplishments and relationships unique to skating.
On that telecast, Dean spoke of how ice dancing had become more conservative since he and Torvill retired from the amateur ranks, observing that, "I'd like to see the rules and regulations relaxed a little bit to allow the freedom of the movement that you can achieve . . . on the ice, because it's a unique medium." He also attributed the controversy surrounding the Duchesnays (Canadian siblings who compete for France) to the judges' problem with "something different and original (introduced to ice dancing) over a very short period of time."
The Duchesnays are indeed a phenomenon, ice dancers totally invested in their movement, lost in it and pulling the audience into their private vision. Their unprecedented feral style may have been out of place in the sedate Kilian competition, but it endowed their Tango with a deep authenticity eons away from the bland athleticism and hokey spitfire pretensions of their colleagues.
In the finals they came in eighth with a daring routine (choreographed by Dean) full of a sense of impending threat. Skating low to the ground (no pretense to balletic line or conventional exhibition-skating manners), they dodged behind and around each other as if avoiding some unseen menace. The passages of technical display came as raw, short-fuse explosions, the physical equivalents of a warning shout, and as they clung together defensively, protectively, you never knew what they might do next. They annihilated all sense of limits, of precedent, like the greatest of dancers can do, and put over even the weakest moments in their choreography (the semaphoric emphases toward the end, for example) with a sensual power that even Torvill and Dean never had.
What will happen to them? Their innovations probably earned them penalties from the Calgary judges and, though the rink audience gave them a standing ovation, no ice shows exist that accommodate their brooding vision. Do we really want to see them, tamed and leashed, garnishing some sort of Snoopy or Snow White extravaganza? Can ice dancing find room for real dancers?
The future of Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay is anything but secure. But for now, at least, they are wonders of the dancing world. Ice dancers who are not merely like dancers, but are perhaps the greatest brother-and-sister dance act since Fred and Adele Astaire.