Looking back and looking forward:
Art on Ice tour in Helsinki

September 13, 2014
By Ia Remmel (Pia)
Photos © Ia Remmel

“Art on Ice” is one of the most exciting skating shows there is, standing out for its quality and richness of ideas. The show is very successful in Switzerland, with shows in ZĂĽrich, Lausanne and Davos sold out year after year. In addition, the show is also constantly expanding and discovering new locations. Some years ago they began performing in China and Japan, and now they have come for a second year to Finland and Sweden.

“Art on Ice” features a mix of styles and genres. This time, the musicians included classical pianist Khatia Buniatishvili, British synthpop band Hurts, and Eurovision winner Loreen. Khatia Buniatishvili is a wonderful young diva, with an expressive playing style and extravagant dresses. Hurts is an introverted and intellectual band with a deep minimalist style, and, Loreen is an explosive and powerful artist.

I loved all of Khatia Buniatishvili’s collaborations with the skaters – Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto with Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov, Grieg’s Piano Concerto with StĂ©phane Lambiel, and Händel’s Minuet G Minor with Nathalie PĂ©chalat and Fabian Bourzat.

Tatiana and Maxim’s take on Rachmaninoff had a majestic beauty, purity of lines and was highly emotive. Nathalie and Fabian’s number to Händel’s Minuet was a real gem in every way – the music, the performance, costumes and masks, dancers and lighting.

And of course there was StĂ©phane’s beautiful Grieg, with his performance resembling that of a ballet dancer and his moves perfectly matching the themes of the music. He included one of his latest inspirations, a special figure that was a component of figure skating in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This involved tracing patterns on the ice with the blade of one ice skate and requires significant balance and control while skating on one foot.

The music of Hurts also stood out and allowed for a close bond between musicians and skaters. Good examples of this were Joannie Rochette’s skating performance to “Evelyn”, Aljona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy with “Stay” and StĂ©phane Lambiel with “Water”.

On Lambiel's Russian fan community, one impression was so poetic that I would like to share it here, too: “I loved his underwater journey, the way stream picked him up and held on its waves, him watching the shoal of fish floating past, him being entangled with seaweed, looking up to check if there is sun shining or if there’s storm over the ocean, him gravitating to the bottom. At the end of the program it’s as if the water dragged him at the ocean bed as a driftwood. He got into the whirlpool and began to sink – so he pressed arms to his body and emerged from it. Then water released him and gave him to the shore, let him out on the sand. And he stretched out his hand towards it as amphibian man Ichthyander who lost his natural environment, exhausted yet incapable to imagine his life without the water. ”

There were some wonderful performances to other music, too. Kurt Browning in his “Singing in the Rain” brought the magic of Gene Kelly to the ice. I liked Florent Amodio this year even more than last year; this time, he was sexy and shirtless as always, but also did a particularly sensual and well-acted performance with a female dancer.

Sarah Meier is always so lovely. For me, she is the perfect example of what ladies’ skating should be. This reflects in everything she does: how she moves, how she looks and how she dresses. Joannie Rochette looked like a mermaid with her loose hair and sparkling bodysuit, and her jumps were absolutely amazing.

Laura Lepistö was also among the performers in Helsinki, with the same elegance and refinement that she always brings to the ice. Unfortunately she doesn’t do as many jumps as she used to, but her collaboration with the Finnish singing star Jenni Vartiainen worked very well. The synchronized skaters group Team Unique added variety – their type of skating is very popular in Finland. The show also featured a fabulous and enjoyable fire show with artists Dan Miethke and Stephanie Hoeggerl.

There was a lot of interest in the show in Helsinki, with a press conference that included StĂ©phane, Laura, Tatiana and Maxim and Team Unique’s captain, Minttu Palsola.

At the press conference, StĂ©phane pointed out that show CEOs Oliver Höner and Reto Caviezel tried to introduce many new aspects to the show this year. He gladly welcomed Laura and Team Unique, saying that they would “add some Finnish spice to the Swiss production!” Maxim and Tatiana shared a bit of their Olympic experience and Maxim confessed that it was the hardest competition of his life due to the enormous pressure. In the previous Olympics in Vancouver, the Russian pairs finished off the podium for the first time, and they were expected to win this time. Maxim and Tatiana said they are feeling a bit empty at the moment, and must find new motivation. Also, Maxim had shoulder injury, so they enjoyed the opportunity to do some shows, relax and try later to find a new wind.   

When asked what kind of StĂ©phane we would see at “Art on Ice”this year – classic or crazy – he answered laughing: “Well, crazy! Always crazy.” He also addressed the frequently raised question about whether he might have wished to come back to competitive skating after watching the Olympics: “I already knew that in 2010 it will be my last competition. I love figure skating, it is in my blood and competitions were a great experience, but after when I was done, I was really done.” Laura talked a little bit about her doings and said that she’s not doing many shows any more as she is studying economics and marketing in Helsinki University and works a lot for the sport in Finland (Laura has since finished her degree). She had just been elected to the Finnish Olympic Youth Committee. When asked if she missed competitions she answered: “Not really. Like StĂ©phane said – when you are clear in your mind about what you want, you don’t miss it. I think in figure skating it’s quite natural to move from competitions to shows and then do other things.” She added that she’s happy to work as a commentator for Finnish TV, so she remains in touch with skating.

The skaters were also asked about the difference between show programs and competitive programs. StĂ©phane’s answer was that in shows you get freedom, in competitions you always have some kind of constraints. “In shows you are free, like you have a sheet of white paper in front of you and can start drawing all from zero. Even though we always want to express something, to skate with emotions, to create an atmosphere – in the end there is not so much the question about WHAT you do but HOW you do it and how much you put yourself into it.” Maxim said that in shows, it is possible to create even more beautiful programs, lifts can look more beautiful and elements nicer than in competition. Finally, journalists were also interested about which musicians they would like to collaborate with in future “Art on Ice” shows. Maxim said that he and Tatiana very much enjoyed performing with Katherine Jenkins and would like to do it again. StĂ©phane’s wish was to perform his Olympic program “Four Season’s” live with Nigel Kennedy; he added that he would also love to skate with Italian singer Paolo Nutini. Laura appreciated her collaboration with Jenni Vartiainen and said she worked with her also at the project “Dancing on Ice”. Team Unique’s captain’s pick was “one big diva!”

I caught up with one of the press conference’s organizers, former figure skater and Finnish Figure Skating Association’s communication manager Mila Kajas-Virtanen, who kindly agreed to answer some questions.

What does it mean for Finland to host a big show like “Art on Ice” for the second year?
It has a very big meaning for us, as we seldom get to see Olympic level skaters. Of course we see them on TV, but it is not the same; you get a different feeling when it is live. It’s very enjoyable to see so many different skating disciplines, like synchronized skating, pairs, ice dance, single skaters of course, live music – everything in the same package, and I’m really happy that the Finnish audience gets to see it. I really hope that lots of people will be coming to watch the show, because that will ensure that we will get to see it again next year. 

I remember you having your own ice show as well some years ago.
Yes, we had the “Plan Ice Gala” for a couple of years. Plan is a charity organization that helps children. The show combined live music and our best skaters and was a really nice. Laura and Kiira (Korpi) always took part of it. But this year it didn’t continue.

Your Finlandia Trophy is getting bigger and better every year and gains popularity amongst the skaters and viewers. Have you thought about adding pair skating there as well?
As long as we don’t have our own pair skaters, I’m not quite sure about it. At the moment, we aren’t planning that. But what we are planning is to have the Finlandia Trophy become a Grand Prix competition one day, that’s our goal and dream. Countries that already have Grand Prix events are of course not interested in giving them up, but our hope is that maybe an extra Grand Prix event will be added. Then we would be ready to take it. (The Finlandia Trophy has since been selected as one of the competitions in the new ISU Challenger Series).

Laura Lepistö is now retired and Kiira Korpi has been struggling with injury for the whole season. Who are your future stars and how is Kiira doing?
One of our hopes is Jenni Saarinen, and there are similar talented girls who are coming up, around the age of fourteen. And Kiira is coming back. It took a long time for her, but she has excellent doctors helping her. I really believe that she will be coming back stronger than ever. She is really motivated.

I always wanted to get a glance to this great show’s backstage and get to know how the show is created. This time, I had a chance to ask “Art on Ice” Marketing and Communications Chief Marc Lindegger about this after the Helsinki and Stockholm shows.

This year, “Art on Ice” looked a little bit different and StĂ©phane mentioned at the press conference in Helsinki that there are some new people working with the show.
Yes, we got a new choreographer this year, Sean Cheesman. Sean is Canadian and a well known name in his field, and has worked with big stars like Michael Jackson, Prince and Britney Spears. He was a skater when he was a teenager and knows quite a lot about figure skating – that helped a lot. He brought a new stage dance team to our show, that’s a different approach for us, too. We also have new “Art on Ice” dancers, and not just Swiss skaters who were available, as we had in previous years. We chose skaters we know from abroad, who have skated in other shows and who have special abilities.
We also made changes to the costumes. In the past, we did not have costumes for the entire cast. This year, we had same style costumes for everyone: for the stars on ice, group skaters and stage dancers. We also made some changes to the stage setup, and that changes the whole picture of the show. We aim for unity and not just, skaters here, dancers there, and the stage over there.

Watching the show in Helsinki I felt it! Transitions between parts are smoother and it creates a bigger feel of unity.
Yes! That’s very important. We don’t want dancers here – ice over there! We want one big scene, the ice and the stage together.

What are your thoughts about the show’s host? This year you didn’t have a host for “Art on Ice”.
We have some text clips between the parts and we gave up the host. Some people like them, some did not. It was a good decision, I think.

“Art on Ice” have has had year after year of very imaginative and colorful costumes but this year they are both simpler and more complex.
This year they are made more for a classic show. That was a bit of the philosophy with “Art on Ice” this year.

How do you move with all your stuff, it’s huge - by trucks?
Trucks came from Switzerland to TravemĂĽnde in Germany and took the ferry to Helsinki, and later they went by ferry to Stockholm. Technical staff worked last night to be ready for the show.

How do you choose skaters for “Art on Ice”? You have regular cast members like StĂ©phane, Sarah, Tania and Maxim, Aljona and Robin...
We are also management for some skaters, booking agency, for Stéphane, Sarah, Maxim and Tania, now Florent. (At the moment also Aljona and her new partner Bruno Massot were added to the management, as are young French ice dancers Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron). These are skaters who will probably be with us next year, too.
It would be easier to find skaters for next year, because the Olympic year is always quite difficult. Skaters have to do the European Championships, Olympics and then go to Worlds. After the Olympics, there are always skaters who quit their competitive career – we will certainly have new skaters next year who competed through Sochi and will be free to do the shows next year. It will be an interesting cast to put together.

When the show is over, when do you start with the preparations for a new show? How much time do you need for preparations?
We start right away! We need lots of time for planning. When the show ends, we rest for 2–3 days and then we have lots of ideas already for the next year. We also had an in-depth debrief to check what was good and what was not so good, and we got lots of feedback from many people. So we have to put that all together and think about the new show. Next year’s show will more special, because we will have our 20th anniversary.

What kind of feedback did you get from the debriefing?
The feedback we had, especially from Swiss people, was very-very positive. Most of people liked show as it was this year. It has to be understood that we can’t do a “better” and “better” show year after  year. This is not possible. It can’t be formulated like that. What we have to do is have a DIFFERENT show. We have to surprise people. They see the show and when they go home they say: wow, it was completely different from last year. That’s the reaction we need, otherwise they say: I was here last year and it’s a little bit like the same, just different skaters and band. That’s not enough, the whole show must be different: different music style, different skaters, different scene. People must not be shocked but they must be surprised by “Art on Ice” every year!

Where do you get ideas for new and different shows?
That’s a result of the team work of our production department. Final decisions are made by our CEO, Oliver Höner. At times some ideas are too expensive to realize. Lots of ideas are his own as well. Many thoughts come from our scene engineer. We work with some light designers and sound designers, so there is a lot of teamwork, we have many people providing input and finally the whole is like a puzzle put together from different pieces.

To put it all together and create the overall image of show, from so many different components and styles, must be very complicated mix.
Of course it’s not easy. If it was easy everybody could do it! It’s just our team and our CEO that knows how to do it.

Do you collaborate with other shows, “Opera on Ice” for instance?
For “Opera on Ice” we bring our skaters to Verona. We do nothing with marketing or ticketing, we just bring the skaters.

How in your opinion is the show market working in Finland and Sweden?
It doesn’t still work so well outside of Switzerland, to be honest. We sell 60 000 tickets per show in ZĂĽrich only, six times that. And ZĂĽrich is a smaller city than Helsinki or Stockholm. After all these years, “Art on Ice” has become a really well-known brand. However, in Switzerland “Art on Ice” is not recognized as a figure skating show. It’s an entertainment package. Many people who do not really like figure skating go to “Art on Ice” because of music. Here in Finland and Sweden, it’s still known as a figure skating show, so I think needs more time to adapt. We needed time to do it in ZĂĽrich and people then thought too – it’s just a figure skating show. But now in Switzerland, not only in ZĂĽrich but also in Lausanne and Davos, people know that it’s something different. You can be entertained even if you are not a real figure skating fan. And that’s not happened here yet.

But you have Hurts and Loreen - big names!
That’s true, but still it’s not so easy to find the right music for all the countries. Hurts works in Switzerland, Loreen or Khatia Buniatishvili do not necessarily work in Finland. Loreen is a star in Sweden but maybe many people have seen her already on the stage or in television so she isn’t someone really new for the Swedish audience. But I still think that our music choice was okay. The problem in Finland and Sweden is the figure skating part. Some years ago, figure skating was really big in Finland, they had Laura Lepistö, Kiira Korpi and some other talents. Today it’s not so popular any more, Laura is retired, Kiira is injured. Sweden has Viktoria Helgesson and Alexander Majorov, but it’s still difficult in their country because they are not as big stars in their homeland as for instance

StĂ©phane and Sarah are in Switzerland. StĂ©phane is huge in Switzerland and Sarah is very popular in ZĂĽrich, her hometown. These two skaters are very, very important for “Art on Ice” in Switzerland.
“Art on Ice” is an expensive production and we can’t sell tickets for 30 or 50 Euros. We have to sell them around 100 Euros. That’s a lot of money for many people. Then we had little problems with tour planning, because we couldn’t place shows here during the weekend. One show was on Tuesday in Helsinki and the other on Thursday in Stockholm. It would be more successful if we had them during the weekend. But we can’t be in Davos on Friday and Saturday and then wait another week. Every day costs.

But still, it’s great that you came to Scandinavian countries, so maybe, maybe it will work...
Yes, maybe, maybe... We have to be patient and change some things and see what will happen. We have other plans as well, next year we will probably go back to Japan. And we have some plans for other countries, there are ongoing discussions with local promoters, with some other countries in Asia, even thoughts about Russia. But it needs time because we are really a big production.

So far there is info about the 2015 ZĂĽrich, Lausanne and Davos tours on the “Art on Ice”
website www.artonice.com but none about the Helsinki or Stockholm shows. I hope “Art on Ice” fans can soon know more about the 2015 anniversary show, which will surely bring new and unexpected surprises from the “Art on Ice” team.

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