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Where the Ice Takes Her

Joanna Ng was in high school when she had to choose between an Olympic dream and an ice show.

March 27, 1997|JOHN ROOS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Some of us spend our entire lives chasing a dream. As the star of "Walt Disney's World on Ice--The Spirit of Pocahontas," Joanna Ng has already caught up to one of hers--and she's only 18.

Last April, when Ng skated onto the ice at the Culver City Ice Arena to audition for the coveted role of Pocahontas in the $8-million production, she was nearing her high school graduation. She won the part, obviously, but then the dream got complicated.

Because the 386-performance, worldwide tour required a five-year commitment, Ng had to weigh her plans of attending college, as well as gaining a possible spot on the 1998 U.S. Olympic figure skating team, against playing the role of a lifetime.

It was no contest, really.

"Sometimes you just have to make sacrifices. Playing Pocahontas has been so exciting, it really has been a dream come true for me," said Ng by phone on a recent rare day off from the eight-month U.S. leg of the tour. Local stops include shows through Sunday at the Pond in Anaheim and Wednesday through April 6 at the Los Angeles Sports Arena.

"I'm actually accomplishing one of my life's goals--to skate in Disney on Ice in a leading role," adds Ng, who grew up in Woodland Hills admiring Olympians Katarina Witt and Tiffany Chin. "It's so different from competitive skating. I get to express my artistic creativity, act and skate at the same time . . . plus play the part of a respected heroine."

Ng had earned medals throughout the early '90s at amateur national and international figure skating competitions in Taiwan, Canada, Italy and the U.S. Then, while attending high school in Lake Arrowhead, she realized she was better suited for a less competitive means of self-expression. Her focus turned to performing in professional ice skating productions; "The Spirit of Pocahontas" marks her debut as a pro.

The story line of "The Spirit of Pocahontas" closely follows that of the 1995 Disney animated feature film. Set in 1607, its tale of cultural conflict, adventure, romance and nobility centers on the Powhatan princess, a brave and compassionate figure who must ultimately choose between tradition and blazing her own path.

In its transformation to the ice, the story has gained a new level of sensory stimulation and audience participation. The two-act, nearly two-hour program features elaborate sets, costumes, choreography and lighting along with the Oscar-winning music of Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz.

As the story unfolds, the ice surface becomes a shimmering river while Pocahontas, surrounded by adorable animals, makes her entrance paddling a canoe. Later, lush forests and cascading waterfalls emerge and swirls of multicolored leaves envelop the arena.

During a raging sea storm, those seated in the first few rows may wish they had brought umbrellas as high-pressure cannons freely spray water over the barriers surrounding the ice, as far out as 15 to 20 feet. And Governor Ratcliffe's bumbling sidekick Wiggins may wind up in your lap when the colonists and Native Americans fight during the intense "Savages" number.

The show's interactive edge was intentional, according to performance director Heidi Broback Rowntree, a 16-year World on Ice veteran.

"There are many things we're able to do better [than the movie] because we're live," she said. "It's a very theatrical show, where the setting, music, colors and dramatic story elements translate extremely well to the ice. And the audience is clearly part of the show, whether it's giving instantaneous, emotional feedback or getting blasted by cannons and immersed in rolling clouds and fog.

"The world-class skaters doing back flips and double axles is tremendously exciting, but there are also subtler moments of beauty, like during the 'Colors of the Wind' song. It's visually stunning to see [Elena Leonora and Andrei Khvalko] lead nearly 30 skaters, all in hand-painted and embroidered leotards of turquoise and pastel blue, carrying a gossamer wind stream across the ice."

While the production values are bound to impress, Ng says she hopes that Pocahontas' character and the story's morality are as memorable as all of the sights and sounds. She's particularly pleased that the female lead isn't the typical Disney damsel in distress.

"It's a challenge for me to do justice to what Pocahontas stands for," Ng said. "I respect her courage, curiosity, independence and loving nature. The way she carried herself and fought for what she believed in . . . it's so important to capture that essential part of her."

BE THERE

"Walt Disney's World on Ice--The Spirit of Pocahontas" continues its Southland run through Sunday at the Pond, 2695 Katella Ave., Anaheim. 7:30 tonight; noon and 7:30 p.m. Friday; 11:30 a.m., 3:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 1:30 and 5:30 p.m. Sunday. $9.50-$17.50. (714) 704-2500. Also April 2-6 at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, 3939 S. Figueroa St., Los Angeles. $9.50-$17.50. Call (213) 748-6136 for a complete list of show times.

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