By Jenn Edwards

When I left competitive figure skating at age 18, I thought I was done with the ice. I wasn’t interested in being a coach or in dressing up as a Disney character on skates. In my mind, it was all or nothing — land all my triple jumps and become an international competitor, or do something else. Sadly, in the fiercely competitive culture of figure skating, most young athletes are conditioned to think this way. So I went to university and turned my focus to contemporary dance, putting a decade of intense training behind me, feeling rather guilty for my parents’ huge financial investment into my skating.

More than 10 years later, when I learned about contemporary skating company Le Patin Libre, I knew immediately that I wanted to be a part of it. As luck would have it, when the troupe came to Vancouver in 2017 to present Vertical Influences, they were also quietly auditioning skaters for a new ensemble show.

Le Patin Libre was formed in 2005 by artistic director Alexandre Hamel. He and a group of high-level ex-figure skaters spent a few years performing on outdoor rinks, ponds and rivers, slowly evolving away from the pastiche-heavy approach to performance on which much figure skating operates. They also started organizing and performing at more rebellious skating nights, complete with fire dancing, DJs and booze. By 2009, they began touring throughout the United Kingdom and France, self-producing shows and often using platforms like the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to show their work. By 2011, their current lineup had assembled: Hamel, Pascale Jodoin, Taylor Dilley, Jasmin Boivin and Samory Ba.

Taylor Dilley and Alexandre Hamel in Le Patin Libre’s Threshold
Photo: Olivier Brajon

These five skating artists became a unit, living a nomadic lifestyle, travelling from residency to residency, and dividing up administrative tasks to produce shows independently. Then, in 2014, their show Vertical Influences, commissioned by Dance Umbrella, premiered in London. The stripped-down double bill (the first part is titled Influences; the second, Vertical) received a five-star review from the Guardian, marking their arrival on the performing-arts world stage. Since then it has been presented more than 130 times.

For their follow-up show, they collaborated with dramaturge Ruth Little to further refine their approach to performance, resulting in an elegant, cohesive and moving piece called Threshold. Lyndsey Winship captures its intrigue in her Guardian review: “Their feet trace intricate patterns on the ice, but often it’s the simplest moments that are the most arresting, as the five skaters very beautifully just slide backwards and forwards, hypnotic as a swinging pocket watch.”

Le Patin Libre is involved in a kind of movement exploration that hasn’t been done before. They invite audiences down to ice level, to see the act of skating with fresh eyes and rediscover the wonder of flying through space with little to no friction under one’s feet. They’re not interested in putting contemporary dance on ice, but in doing with skating what 20th-century modern art movements have done with other mediums, from dance to painting to sculpture. They are stripping away story and representation to leave the medium itself on full display. And when you get right down to it, the only special thing about skating is its potential for locomotion through space (“déplacement” is the apt word in French) without movement in the body. In other words, for glide.

The ability to glide makes so many poetic instances in performance possible. The absence of physical friction also removes friction from the minds of audience members. It removes a barrier to meaning. The images are pure.

For instance, in Threshold there is an abstracted moment of trauma, made visible with a sudden shift in light and sound. The five skaters react in five different ways, but all are suspended in time, spinning effortlessly down on the ice on one hip or gliding slowly on two feet, evoking an awestruck, catatonic physical state.

The setting adds another layer of magic; sitting on carpets directly on the ice, audiences can feel the vast depth of an arena, highlighting the speed, the sound and the stakes of the action in front of them.

After holding auditions in Amsterdam, Paris, Vancouver and Massachusetts in 2016 and 2017, Le Patin Libre gathered its new ensemble, which presently numbers 15, including myself, for the first time in Montreal last April. When they were in residence at St. Louis Arena to premiere Threshold, they had us join them, using the time in between shows and workshops with the public to try out choreographic ideas.

In March 2019, we reassembled for another residency, hosted by the city of Baie-Saint-Paul, Quebec. We stayed at Maison Mère — a converted convent that has short-term residences, a co-working space for artists and other freelance workers, a café and conference rooms — and rehearsed at a municipal rink around the corner.

While in Baie-Saint-Paul, I asked Hamel what the company had looked for when auditioning new skaters. “First, skating virtuosity — people who have extreme ease with any style of skating,” he said. “And, then, intelligence. We wanted people who seem clever and creative, because lots of the show is not authoritarian. It’s not a choreographer saying exactly what must be done. Each individual has to figure out what they have to do within a frame.”

When asked if it was intentional for the cast to be from all over the world, he replied, “You guys are rare. People who have this figure skating virtuosity tend to organize their lives in a way that is not compatible with world touring and investment in creation projects. Luckily, we tour a lot and were able to audition everywhere.”

The new cast hails from both ends of Canada, and from the United States, Czech Republic, Sweden, the U.K., Poland, France and Belgium. Some of us competed as figure skaters and then became contemporary dancers. There are four freestylers, who perform breakdance-like moves on hockey skates, having taught themselves to skate during public sessions in Europe. Between us we have studied literature, law, business, physics, chemistry, languages and art history. Some are also figure skating coaches, choreographers, performers in traditional ice shows, and instructors of dance, yoga and even downhill skiing in the Pyrenees. Despite differences in origin and language, we feel a strong connection as a group because our lives are organized around values we all share: movement, freedom and creativity.

Speaking on the importance of embarking upon a large-scale work, Hamel explains, “Having a larger group dissolves the differences between each person. When you are just five, the audience still sees individuals. The more people you have, the easier it becomes to see the group as one thing moving through space.”

The new show will explore flocking, as with the way birds and fish congregate and move together. “Humans on a small scale are incapable of doing that, because their movement in space is incremental, one step after the other,” says Hamel. While humans can achieve the illusion of flocking in massive events like Olympic opening ceremonies or North Korean military displays, the contexts of these performances tend to be at odds with the art world. “But us, we can do it because our déplacement is not incremental, so the flocking actually works at a smaller scale. It’s a unique contribution, and I feel it’s our job to dig deeper there.”

Samory Ba, Alexandre Hamel and Pascale Jodoin in Le Patin Libre’s Threshold
Photo: Olivier Brajon

The show will include a substantial amount of improvisation within a framework. During our second residency, we spent hours upon hours flocking and jamming together, implementing structures and then deconstructing them, adding on rules and then taking them away. After rehearsals, we would discuss the fine line we were discovering; if you add too much structure you kill the energy of a jam, but once you remove the rules, the jam has become richer for the experience of limitations. It’s really about putting in hours on the ice together, getting to know each other’s patterns, in a wide variety of movement scenarios, on a deep subconscious level so we don’t collide. Or when we inevitably do collide, how do we work with that, and turn the connection into something that can live inside of the dance? Ultimately we are striving for the level of connection that exists between the core five skaters, but on a greater scale and in a much shorter timeframe.

Hamel, along with Jodoin and Ba who are also choreographers on the project, is not interested in choreographing perfection, in knowing what every single moment of the show will be. Instead, he is prioritizing a collective complexity of movement that cannot be replicated in exactly the same way for every performance. The choreography builds movement in the same way a flock of birds does, operating on a set of principles that are understood by each individual to create movement on a larger scale.

Because of the desired complexity, the choreographic information needed is huge. Hamel explains, “There is much less choreographic information in a parade of 10,000 soldiers, because the goal is a square, geometric formation. A parade needs only one brain,” he says, “whereas our work, to function properly, needs those 15 brains.”

They are also interested in bringing in external collaborators for this new work, although no decisions on this front have been finalized yet. “Our most successful projects have been the ones where we had an external eye helping to organize the experience for the spectators,” says Hamel. While the majority of choreographic authorship will lie with Hamel, Jodoin and Ba, they are open to bringing in contemporary and urban dance artists, dramaturges or directors to help craft the arc of the new show.

With two research residencies complete, and substantial funding secured from Ottawa’s National Arts Centre, Le Patin Libre is on track to premiere the new work, with a cast of 15 skaters, in 2020. The core five continue to tour both Threshold and Vertical Influences, while the rest of us have re-entered our own lives for now, eagerly awaiting our next chance to skate together.

DI FALL 2019