Though the “Art on Ice” extravaganza that takes place in Switzerland every year is not well-known in North America, the dazzling spectacular is the not-to-be-missed event of the season for Europeans.
Every year, tens of thousands of people flock to the sold-out shows, which are a blend of live performances on stage with singers, dancers and acrobats while figure skaters twirl on the ice.
The 2011 tour, which kicked off with six shows in Zurich, was headlined by Swiss stars Stéphane Lambiel and Sarah Meier.
They were joined by an all-star cast composed of Shizuka Arakawa, Evgeni Plushenko, Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao, Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, Joannie Rochette, Jeffrey Buttle, Sinead Kerr and John Kerr, Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder, Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov and adagio pair Fiona Zaldua and Dmitri Sukhanov.
The arena in Zurich was turned into a rocking disco hall by the iconic American diva Donna Summer, who noted it was the first time she had ever been to Switzerland. Welsh mezzo-soprano Katherine Jenkins, Coco Gfeller and Rhonda Dorsey rounded out the onstage stars.
Savchenko and Szolkowy had the opportunity to try something new in Zurich — skating to sound effects produced by a live choir.
Conductor Steve Sidwell was intrigued from the moment the idea was put to him by “Art on Ice” producer Oliver Höner.
“Oliver had seen some of my work and thought it might be a good idea to try a skating effects choir piece,” said Sidwell, a native of Great Britain who has worked on “Dancing on Ice” with Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean.
“I have done sound effects pieces for things like the Oscars, but I did not know anything about skating. It was all new to me. I had to learn several things but I found the sound of skates cutting through the ice to be very rhythmic.”
The final product, a short video entitled “A Day in the Life of Aliona and Robin,” was accompanied by live sound effects. The duo’s individual movements were tracked from the moment of waking until they were about to take to the ice at Europeans.
As the video showed them ready to step onto the ice in Bern for their short program, Savchenko and Szolkowy skated onto the ice in Zurich. “I thought it was interesting, having them emerge from fantasy time on film to real time as they stepped onto the ice to perform live,” Sidwell said. “It was a challenge to match the sounds with what was taking place in the video.”
Szolkowy described the experience as amazing. “Performing to the sound effects choir was so much fun,” he said. “I think the Russian type of short program we have worked well. When everyone onstage was having a party at the end of our program, I felt like I was somewhere in Russia at a great party.”
When Höner produced the first “Art on Ice” spectacular 16 years ago, ice shows were not popular in Switzerland. “I wanted to go with my ice show in a big arena, so I came up with the idea to put together one that was not just a figure skating show,” he explained.
“I did wonder if people who like figure skating would not want to see the musicians — or the people who liked the musicians would not like the figure skating — but it was totally the opposite. The reaction to the first show was surprisingly good.”
Höner believes people come to the show every season because it is unique. “It is very important to change the look of the show every year even though the concept remains the same,” he said. “The music and what we produce on the stage is always different. We have a lot of people who come to the shows every year because they know that they either see it now or they will never see it.”
Höner said the VIP packages are an added draw. “These are very important. We started off with one and now we have four,” he explained. “Some of the packages include dinner in the arena and the show, but the top one includes a cocktail party, dinner, transportation to and from the arena, show tickets, intermission refreshments and the after-show parties, which are very popular.”
The after-show parties in Zurich were as spectacular as the shows themselves. Aside from the live music and the endless dessert buffets every night, there was an added attraction.
Lambiel is a superstar in his homeland, but he has another talent that closely rivals his on-ice performances. He brought the house down when he joined the band onstage and sang some solid rock ’n roll tunes.
Three days after the whirlwind of winning the European title, Meier was happy to escape the media attention and focus on the “Art on Ice” shows.
“Every year there is something different and of course the huge crowds. To skate in front of 10,000 people every night is really amazing,” she said. “The show is sold out every night, and that so many people are watching gives me a special feeling.
“I really like to perform and the crowds are so supportive of all the skaters. The standing ovations make me feel all the hard work paid off, and they also give me some energy back.”
Rochette, who was skating in the shows for the first time, initially felt slightly overwhelmed by all the activity taking place onstage, but said that after the first show she thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
German coach Ingo Steuer has been involved with the show since its inception. “Mandy (Wötzel) and I were in the first show. It was very small then, but now it is one of the biggest ice shows in the world,” he said.
“I have been to a lot of big shows in the world, but I think this is one of the best. It is successful because they do something new every year. The people who come are like, ‘I have to go to this show every year.’ The six shows in Zurich were almost sold out this year, as they usually are every other year. It is incredible.”
Plushenko has been performing in “Art on Ice” for more years than he can remember and enjoys a strong following in Switzerland. “I think it is one of the best shows in the world; it has everything,” he said. “It is not just figure skating but musicians, acrobats, ballet dancers — and in Zurich it is such a great stadium. Everything is so professional. I really enjoy it.”
Working on the show turned Sidwell into a figure skating convert. “I told my family that we have to go to a live event because you don’t appreciate the speed until you see it in person,” he said. “When you see it live you can take in the whole experience, which you can’t when you watch it on television. The grace, the beauty and the speed ... it was awe-inspiring.”
Originally published in June 2011