It’s almost like a scene from Ratatouille. Take a bite of ballet. Now ice skating. Now try them together. Swan Lake on Ice, produced by The Imperial Ice Stars, combines the two art forms in an award-winning masterpiece.
“One of the best parts is when you believe in an idea, make the idea come to life by yourself and the performers and then you put it in front of the audience, and at the end of it you get a standing ovation,” Tony Mercer, the show’s artistic director told Young Post by phone.
The idea started to form after Mercer watched an ice show around 25 years ago. “After enjoying what I could see, the problem was what I couldn’t see,” Mercer comments. “The lighting wasn’t great, and I couldn’t see what was happening on the rink.” He wondered if an ice show could be performed with the audience placed much nearer the stage.
To produce such shows, he formed the Imperial Ice Stars in 2004 with fellow producer James Cundall, and businessman and former speed skater Vladislav Olenin. The troupe has performed several shows, which most people think of as ballets. The decision as to what shows to stage is based largely on music he loves.
“I absolutely adore Tchaikovsky’s work,” he says. “As a choreographer, you draw inspiration from the music. Everything is about how you feel about the music, and that is why we’ve done Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, all of which are composed by Tchaikovsky.”
But he makes it clear that the current show isn’t an adaptation of the famous ballet. “I didn’t adapt the ballet. The story of Swan Lake was initially created by the composer Tchaikovsky, and when I was asked to take this story on make some increases to Tchaikovsky’s original music and storyline. It’s Tchaikovsky’s story I put on, with my personal views and feelings in it and how I feel how it should be interpreted,” says Mercer, “The ballet is the ballet. It would be wrong of me to try to adapt it. This isn’t a ballet on ice; this is the story of Swan Lake on Ice.”
The Imperial Ice Stars stage their shows on ice rinks, and it can get very cold and uncomfortable, as Mercer describes. “If you stay there all day, you get chills to the bone, but it’s part of my job,” he says. “Still, strangely enough, in the theatre, even though there’s this huge piece of ice there, the surface temperature is around minus seven to minus eight degrees, but you don’t really feel it when you’re performing,” he says.
When the Imperial Ice Stars first came together, it took 12 weeks for Mercer to stage a performance, including the time spent to teach the performers how to bring the characters to life. Over the years, the performers have become used to Mercer’s style and techniques, it comes down to only eight weeks of staging.
Yet, despite the challenges, Mercer still remains passionate about what he does. “The best part of it is you having an idea and putting it together. The current version of Swan Lake on Ice is brand new and re-choreographed, and we staged it together with the performers,” he says.
“As a director and as a choreographer, I spend a lot of the time working on the theatre stage with them when I’m staging the show, because when you’re doing ice-skating or ice dance, it’s about the choreographic work,” he explains, “but at the same time, you have to bring the characters to life. The performers have to believe in the characters they’re playing.”
If you’re wondering about how the ice is made:
It takes about 34 hours to turn a theatre stage into an ice rink, and work usually begins on Monday, 7.00a.m., for a Tuesday evening opening night. All the equipment needed (along with costumes and props) is stored in two large 45 feet trucks.
A “baking tray” like structure is created, made from reinforced plywood and waterproof timber, and pool liner. Then, approximately 15 kilometers of pipe work is placed across the “tray”. Exact spacing is required for the rink to freeze over completely.
Following that, the pipes are connected to external chiller units (turned to a temperature of -15 degrees!). When the pipes frost over, crushed ice is spread above it. Every 15 minutes throughout the night and into the next day, the rink is sprayed with hot water (it freezes faster!) until the ice is about three inches thick. Altogether, three elephants worth of ice is created!
Swan Lake on Ice will be performed at the Grand Theatre, HK Cultural Centre from April 27 to May 8.