Ice skating shows, long synonymous with the holiday season, have been gliding off in new directions, and viewers will get a look at some of these hot new acts as the curtain goes up on three live productions and a TV special next week.
Opening are "Christmas Ice Spectacular" Monday to Jan. 2 at Knott's Berry Farm, Dorothy Hamill's "Winter Wonderland" Tuesday and Wednesday at the Hyatt Grand Champions Resort in Indian Wells and "Walt Disney's Magic Kingdom on Ice Starring Pinocchio" at the L.A. Sports Arena next Friday to Jan. 10 (it plays the Anaheim Convention Center today to Wednesday and the Long Beach Arena Jan. 12-15).
A fourth show, "Ice Capades," will be featured on a 2-hour ABC TV special Thursday, taped during the company's recent Los Angeles run.
The live shows represent a departure from the traditional touring arena shows such as "Capades" and "Ice Follies," which have customarily featured former amateur skating stars and a mixed bag of production numbers, comedy and vaudeville-style novelty acts. The Knott's Berry Farm revue is performed in an intimate proscenium theater while Hamill's show aims for a "concert" style despite a tennis stadium venue. The Disney arena show combines acting and skating to tell the story of Pinocchio.
While there have been sporadic attempts through the years to bring a new look to professional figure skating, it has only been in the past 5 years or so that skating's potential as a serious art form has consistently been explored.
The seeds for changes in the professional shows were actually sewn in the amateur competitive world. "Skaters today are better trained, so you can do choreography that takes advantage of their technical ability and often challenge them to their limits," said Willy Bietak, a nine-time Austrian pairs skating champion and 1964-1968 Olympian who is producer-director of "Ice Capades" and "Festival on Ice" and producer of the Knott's "Christmas Ice Spectacular."
"You have show principals who do triple jumps now, just as they did in the (amateur) World Championships. That improvement is a natural part of skating's evolution--certain people brought innovations as amateurs and that accelerated the sport. Peggy Fleming and John Curry brought changes from a dance perspective, and Scott Hamilton from a technical standpoint. Brian Boitano has done both. They don't just jump-skate-jump. They interpret the music."
Once they do turn professional, such skaters gain not only freedom from amateur rules and regulations but the opportunity to develop as performing artists. "I can't tell you how many times I've sat in the audience at 'Stars on Ice' (a touring arena show) and heard people comment: 'I had no idea skating could be like this!' said Dr. Kenneth Forsythe, a sports medicine physician who is Hamill's husband and creator and co-executive producer, with Hamill, of "Winter Wonderland."
The "Winter Wonderland" show features "Stars on Ice" cast members Hamill, Robin Cousins, Rosalynn Sumners, Toller Cranston, dancers Judy Blumberg and Michael Seibert and pairs team Lea Ann Miller and William Fauver, skating on tank ice in a tennis stadium seating 10,000. "We're trying to make it more like a concert," said Indian Wells resident Hamill. "The transitions will be creative, not just skate, bow and get off. There will be lighting effects and a mountain set, and group numbers rather than just solos."
In contrast, Knott's Berry Farm, which in 1976 became the first amusement park to present an ice show, uses the intimate 2,100-seat Good Time Theater. From a production standpoint the show is similar to a traditional theater show, with the added attractions of lasers and a snow-making machine.
The Christmas edition stars Lynn-Holly Johnson, who was 1974 U.S. Novice Ladies freestyle champion and an "Ice Capades" principal before starring in the 1979 film "Ice Castles" and other features. She said she gave up a film option to do the show as well as upcoming engagements of "Festival on Ice" and its companion, "Broadway on Ice."
"This kind of show gives me the chance to express myself," she said. "The last row is so much closer to you than it would be in large arena shows, so you don't have to be so animated--you can be more real. With the small ice size, though, you also have to be much more accurate. If you're just one foot off, that will keep compounding till you end up in the curtain."
A different kind of theater show is "Walt Disney's Magic Kingdom on Ice Starring Pinocchio," which presents a play on ice, though in a standard arena setting. The production follows the "Magic Kingdom" version of "Snow White," which 2 years ago became the first U.S. show to enact an entire story on the ice.
"It seemed only natural to do these stories rather than the variety shows we'd done previously," said the show's skating director-choreographer, Bob Paul, a 1960 Olympic pairs skating champion. "We use the same kind of splashy production values you'd expect in a Broadway musical."