"I look out for anybody who's got the potential to fight their way to the top" Meet Oliver HÃ¶ner, the creative half of Art on IceÂ Â Â
By Nadin Vernon
Photos © Art on Ice
Anybody who’s been to see Art on Ice live, will agree that it’s the greatest ice show of all. It goes far beyond the borders of a traditional figure skating show where the audience merely acts as spectators. Here you are taken on a ride of the senses, I call it the Art on Ice experience.
Oliver Höner, 11-time Swiss National Champion and Reto Caviezel founded Art on Ice 15 years ago and turned it into a hugely successful sell-out event that offers an unforgettable spectacle for skating fans as well as premium corporate entertainment on the highest level. Combining breathtaking peformances from World Class skaters and musicians, it attracts large audiences and raving reviews year after year. While the statistics are impressive, it’s not all about the big bucks. Art on Ice is also active supporting young Swiss skaters and offers help with contacts and sponsorship via the Art on Ice talent team zweiplus.
An in-house team of 12 not only covers the Art on Ice shows, but also takes care of Athletes Management and organizes events ranging from the Eisgala Davos to Mercedes CSI via Carré Event AG.
I met up with Oliver Höner in Tallinn to find out more about this interesting mix.
Oliver, after your competitive career and before Art on Ice you did some coaching. How did things move on from there?
Yes, I started coaching in parallel to skating in shows but soon realized that it's actually quite difficult to properly look after skaters that travel to international competitons, while thinking about your own show career. It wasn't easy. So eventually I was skating less and less and spent more time coaching. But being a coach didn't really fulfill me, I was missing something. Even though I was choreographing my skaters' programmes, I couldn't really express my creative side.
So that's when Art on Ice was born?
Yes, I'd been on tour with shows abroad and just thought, why not start my own show. Initially it was all on a very small scale, but we always had quality skaters. And surprisingly the audience responded really quickly and started buying tickets. Then one thing led to another and before we knew it we moved the show to Switzerland's largest multipurpose venue. That's also when we had the idea of using live music.
Would it be fair to say that Reto is the businessman while you're the creative mind when it comes to how your roles divide?
Yes, pretty much. Of course there are certain strategic decisions that we’ll make together, but generally you could say that. There are areas that I'm not really in charge of such as media or sponsoring, but then again if I have a personal contact and something needs sorting, I'll jump in. Predominantly my focus is on production. So basically everything that you can see in the arena from light, technology and sound to the skaters, acrobats and musicians is my responsibility.
How much influence do you have on the programmes? Do skaters come with their own programmes?
Well, they can't really come to us with existing numbers that have been shown elsewhere. The programmes have to be new for Art on Ice. And skaters generally show one number, it's only the World and Olympic champions who skate two numbers. So out of those two programmes, one has to be brand new while the second one can be an existing one which we'll adjust. But sometimes you get numbers that are perfect as they are and you can't really make them any better or skate them to other music, such as for example the Clown number that Kurt Browning had a couple of years ago. That was really unique and I wanted to show it exactly as it was.
Are you involved in the actual choreography then?
I have choreographers who work for me, so I'll either make them available to the skaters or they may want to use their own choreographers, so it depends a bit, but I make sure that the overall concept works.
How do you choose who skates to which music?
An advantage is that I know the skaters quite well and I also have a skating background. So generally I have a feel for who will best interprete a certain piece of music. Obviously we also discuss this with the skaters, so I'll make my suggestions and explain what I have in mind and we then go from there. It can be difficult with pieces that are five minutes long, so I'll ask them to prepare something for 3 1/2 minutes and then we complement the additional time with dancers or other skaters.
Over the years you've built up a portfolio of World Class musicians including Seal, Ronan Keating and the Sugababes to name just a few. I can imagine that it can be quite tricky for a high calibre musician to share their applause with the athletes.
Yes, that's right. That's why there are certain musicians where it wouldn't work at all. Some are so used to being the centre of attention that it wouldn't be an option for them to be a part of our show.
What sort of reaction do you get when you first contact the musicians? I assume it's a completely new concept for most of them.
The reaction has changed quite a bit over the years, because we are now fairly well known in the music industry. The music industry is obviously a lot bigger than the figure skating world, but it is pretty much run by about ten larger management companies globally. I've worked together with most of them at some point, which makes things a lot easier, since artists are very much influenced by their management. So they will listen to their management's recommendations. And once they're interested it just depends on what they've got on, if they're available or on tour.
Do they get to watch a show on tape beforehand?
Yes, they do. I spoke to Anastacia recently and she's very well informed. But then again sometimes you get artists who think they are well informed and then they come to the arena and are quite surprised.
Generally the great thing about live music is that it leaves room for improvisation. When you've got someone skating in front of you who's choreographed a programme to the recorded version, that's not really an option though, is it?
It's true, they have to pretty much stick to the original but it works really well. And while live bands enjoy improvisation, they're amazingly precise when it comes to playing a particular version of a song. The differences are minimal, and the skaters don't even notice.
How many run-throughs do the skaters get with the live music?
Probably around three, so not that many. Each number has to be really well prepared and that's the secret. Every detail from the choreography to the props is well prepared, so we only really do the fine tuning on location and ensure that everything works well together. When we have the first show on Thursday, usually the first band practice is on Tuesday and then we have practices all day Wednesday.
Over the years you've really expanded the show beyond the borders of a traditional ice show. Your peformers cover a variety of athletes including acrobats. How do you feel about the mix as it is?
Generally I'm really happy with the show now, we have 24 numbers and a good mix. It's not my plan to take away from the skating at all, and interestingly that's also what the audience expects to see, even though many of our spectators don't necessarily follow figure skating or are even that interested in it. I guess I just like to show the versatility that a show like ours can offer and in order to express that I include other elements.
How do you manage to attract over 55,000 people to your shows, the majority of which aren't even figure skating fans?
It's true, the majority doesn't consist of figure skating fans. We know how to entertain our audience. They know that we actually offer them something for their money. There are so many impressions: skaters on the ice, acrobats dangling from the ceiling, live music on stage. And of course it's always amazing to experience the skaters' performances live and close-up. People are surprised how dynamic the show is when they come to see it live.
You also do a show on the frozen lake in St. Moritz. How does this compare to the shows in Zürich and Lausanne?
It's completely different. For a start the clientele differs very much from the broader audiences we get in Zürich and Lausanne. In St. Moritz you mostly get people who are quite happy to stay indoors and sip their champagne. But they actually come outside and freeze for an hour and have a great time. They clap and create a great atmosphere. Of course the whole thing is very much built on the unbelievable ambience that comes to life when it gets dark. The skaters love it, but they suffer. So the skaters suffer and the audience suffers, but it's a unique experience.
In 2007 and 2008 you did some shows in Sheffield with plans to move to London, but then the London shows got cancelled last year. What happened?
Unfortunately our promoter fell ill and it was a real shame because he was the perfect promoter for us. We really hope to come back to England because we could feel how we drew in bigger audiences and that's not something you can achieve in a year. You always have to think long term and start by investing but unfortunately many promoters don't understand that.
Can you imagine to tour with Art on Ice?
A tour would probably not be feasable just because of the technical side of things, we have too much material. But what I'd like to do is create another three or four centres for Art on Ice and expand in that way. I can imagine that Stockholm would be good for example. We're doing another show there, Worlds Best on Ice, but I could see us bringing Art on Ice over there in say two or three years' time. And then we could maybe have a presence in two or three German cities, possibly Berlin and Duesseldorf. And London is still on the list, too. I also find Japan very exciting and we've had many enquiries from the Middle East. It's not easy to find the right location and with the Middle East it gets a bit complicated because so many people have to give their blessings. Unfortunately it hasn't worked out so far, but we've been really close.
Worlds Best on Ice is a more traditional show without the live music. Is it actually your show?
Yes, it's our show but we sell it so to speak. So we're responsible for the production but all the promotion happens outside of Switzerland. It's really not possible for us to do that from Zürich, so ultimately we don't really have any influence on how the show is promoted.
The shows in Germany have been postponed, I guess it's not enough to just put up a couple of posters and expect to fill arenas like that.
Yes, that's the big issue because you really have to turn the show into a talking point and get people interested. It's not something that's just going to happen over night.
You've obviously got a lot of experience that other promoters could learn from. You have an in-house event management agency, CarréEvent AG, that covers many events outside of skating.
Yes, we have a team that's solely responsible for that side of things and it works really well. I think it's one of our strength, but we can only really do it within Switzerland.
I’d like to talk to you a little bit about the Art on Ice talent team zweiplus which supports upcoming skaters in Switzerland. How did that come about?
Basically we were aware that Denise Biellmann was nearing the end of her show career and we knew we had to find new stars for Switzerland. So we found a bank that was willing to financially support the team and we made it our goal to not only support the team financially, but also offer support in the form of contacts and networking. We started with the talent team in 2000/2001 and had three skaters in the first group, two of which have made it: Sarah and Stéphane. So that obviously was a very promising start. Of course that was partly down to luck but since then we’ve been really active with it. The second generation wasn’t as successful other than Anaïs and Antoine who came out of it and they’re moving in the right direction. Now we’re working on the next generation, we have around six/seven skaters so we’ll have to wait and see how they’ll develop.
What’s your selection criteria for the team?
Actually it’s all about potential. It’s not that I take say the top three from Swiss Nationals, instead I look out for anybody who’s got the potential to fight their way to the top. That’s all I care about.
Is there a minimum age?
No, not really. Currently our skaters are between 12 and 17.
How involved are you on a day to day basis, do you also have regular contact with the parents?
Yes, we do. Marc (Lindegger) takes care of that and we also have Steffi. I deal with the general stuff, for example Romy BÃ¼hler wants to go to Canada to train with Brian Orser, so I’ll pick up the phone and organize that. Marc and Steffi are more involved in the day to day contact, so they would call the teachers and speak to them about time off for competitions, etc.
And how long do you keep skaters in the team?
After a while skaters will leave the team, but that mainly depends on how successful they become. So for example Sarah and Stéphane aren’t in the team anymore. They managed to break on international level and that’s when the situation and the contracts change. We still work with them but move to supporting them via sponsors. So the talent team is only until you’ve made it.
What do you think about Euros here so far?
(My chat with Oliver was towards the beginning of the competition)
I think it’s an exciting competition because the top skaters are very close together. I watched the Men’s short programme and there weren’t that many surprises in terms of the programme choices. I think Stéphane made a great choice with his music, unfortunately it didn’t go so well. But he interpreted it really well. Plushenko wasn’t a big surprise either in terms of the programme because it was very similar to what he did four years ago, but he showed a perfect performance. So we’ll see how it goes.
I thought the pairs were on a very high level, especially the top three or four, they really showed some great performances. And then it’s just down to tiny details when it comes to who’s going to win.
What do you think about the ISU’s decision to lower the number of skaters that qualify for the free?
I think it’s a bit of a quick fix. They’ve obviously got problems and there’s pressure coming from all sides also with regards to the judging system, so they just thought ok let’s just try this. I’m missing an overall concept there and a long term plan.
Oliver, thanks so much for taking time out to talk to me and best of luck with the upcoming shows.
This year’s Art on Ice shows take place between the 4th and 9th March while the show in St. Moritz is on the 12th February with a different cast. Tickets had sold out well before Christmas, but some additional seating has now been added. Stéphane Lambiel, Evgeni Plushenko, Sarah Meier and Aljona Savchenko & Robin Szolkowy are just some of the skaters who will be performing to live music from Anastacia and David Garrett amongst others. For full details and more information on the talent team, please check out www.artonice.com.