Vancouver Stars on Ice 2015

September 6, 2015
By Anna Zeitlin
Photos © Anna Zeitlin

My anticipation of the Stars on Ice show is always great - I know that I should expect a spectacle full of exquisite numbers, clever choreography and some of the world's best skaters. But the anticipation for this particular show was higher than ever, because this was a very special event - Stars on Ice was celebrating 25 years in Canada.

As the informational postcard stated, in 25 years 77 skaters (18 Olympic gold medalists and 36 World champions among them) skated in 266 shows attended by more than two million fans; an impressive feat, to say the least. What's more impressive? Kurt Browning has been in the cast for all of those 25 years (as Jeffrey Buttle joked in his speech at the end of the first act: if the age Kurt told him was accurate, he has been skating with Stars on Ice since he was four years old). And, being a director and choreographer for Stars on Ice Canada, Kurt naturally wanted this year's show to be something special, and to reminisce all the glory of the past quarter century. So, unlike the previous years, when the Canadian show had more or less the same structure and same group numbers as the US run, only with different skaters, this time the Canadian Stars on Ice was "something completely different" and completely wonderful.
But I should start at the beginning, aka Act I.

The show was opened by Kurt Browning himself, skating as the clown Rag-GIDON (with Kurt's previous appearances as this character shown on the big screens) to the sounds of "Go Figure" by Geoffrey Tyler. The name of the piece matched the action very nicely, as what Kurt did was something akin to the compulsory figures of the past. The clown seemed fascinated by the fact that his skates leave traces on the ice, so he started doing little flourishes and quick hops at different parts of the ice, stopping and watching what his skates were producing. In the end he proudly presented his work to the audience and left the ice. This was a very cute show opener which set me in the mood for the show commemorating 25 years of its existence.

Following Kurt's leave, the entire cast came out and lined up on the ice. Then they were joined by Kurt and the first cast number of the show, to the sounds of "A Sky Full of Stars" by Coldplay. It was an interesting number - first everybody skated in unison, then half the group did something (like jumps) and the other half did something else (like step sequences). After that all the skaters were announced, with the indication of how long each skater (or couple) had been with the Canadian Stars on Ice. At the announcement Kurt Browning was approaching the skater(s) and hugging them, or doing some short steps with them, dancing or waving. In the case of Shawn Sawyer, who was doing a headstand, Kurt approached him and then did a headstand too, facing the other way! That was hilarious. He finished the skaters' greetings by doing a handshake with Jeffrey Buttle, the most "senior" Canadian Stars on Ice skater after Kurt (in his 11th year) as Jeffrey came out on the ice dressed in bright pink jacket for his solo number, "Uptown Funk" by Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars.

Jeffrey is an excellent skater and I always enjoy his programs, but this time I think he has outdone himself. The program is very energetic, fast and rhythmic and Jeffrey moved with every beat of the music. His arm and hand movements were especially impressive - fast and intricate, his changes between sharp and short motions and elegant, effortless gliding on the ice were smooth and his jumps (3T and 2A) were weaved into the routine and neatly performed. Jeffrey exuded so much radiant positive energy that I thought my heart was going to explode. He was sexy, funny and playful, all at the same time; a stunning number - one that leaves you with a taste for more and as such, a perfect solo opener for the show.

Unlike Jeffrey's number, which started immediately after the opening cast number ended, each one of the following performers had a short video introduction with the skater(s) talking about their experience with Stars on Ice and their inspirations from the past generations. Ashley Wagner, who skated next, talked about Stars on Ice being an opportunity to shed the stress of competition and just enjoy her performances. Skating to "Rather Be" by Clean Bandit, she seemed to do exactly that - enjoy her performance, and the audience clearly enjoyed it as well. It's a lively and lovely number, with playful choreography (done by Shawn Sawyer, by the way), a lot of nice hand movements and good steps. Ashley also did a couple of double jumps (one of them an Axel) and a triple, on which she stumbled a bit, but this didn't take away anything from the fun of her performance.

In their introduction video, Kaitlyn Weaver & Andrew Poje talked about what an inspiration Shae-Lynn Bourne was for them, and how happy they were to have her on their team. Kaitlyn and Andrew's number to "I'm Kissing You" by Des'ree (choreographed by Shae-Lynn, of course) depicted the couple as Romeo and Juliet and these characters were a perfect match for them. I always admire Kaitlyn and Andrew's ability to show true passion and profound emotions without being overdramatic, and this performance was the epitome of their skill - beautifully choreographed and skated (those lifts and those transitions!), deeply moving, with an instantly recognizable iconic storyline and climactic ending. I had shivers throughout this number.

Shawn Sawyer talked in his intro about meeting Toller Cranston as a child (the video showing that encounter) and what Toller has taught him. The program, to "Take Me to Church" by Hozier (which Shawn choreographed himself) is beautiful, with a lot of signature Sawyer moves, like his cantilever, stunning split and Biellmann spins, a few double jumps and two really nice back-flips. I like Shawn's agility on the ice and he connects with the audience very well, which makes him a great performer I'm always very eager to see.

Meagan Duhamel & Eric Radford's video showed moves from some of Canada's iconic pair teams and Eric's voice said that they wanted to incorporate some of famous moves from these pairs into their program. The program, to "One" by Mary J. Blige and U2, was indeed full of great moves, especially lifts - some looking really scary, but all executed effortlessly and gracefully. I really enjoyed this program and was very happy to see Meagan and Eric perform live - it was the first time for me.

Kurt Browning came on the ice next. He skated around a little bit, while in the video his voice talked about one of Scott Hamilton's programs, to which he wanted to pay tribute. The original program, to "One for My Baby" by Frank Sinatra and Kenny G, was choreographed by Sandra Bezic who helped Kurt to recreate it. It's a charming, beautiful program, with great footwork, very nice jumps and an absolutely and utterly awesome back-flip!

Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir's number, to "How Will I Know" by Sam Smith was a tribute to Marie-France Dubreuil & Patrice Lauzon, as Tessa and Scott said in their introduction video. It was a beautiful program, full of quiet yet fierce passion. I'm always amazed at how tuned to the music Tessa and Scott are, how their every step, every turn of their heads is done in unison with the song - simply stunning. The end, where Scott skates away from Tessa and is left without any lights on him while Tessa is lit up for a few moments until everything drowns in darkness, left me with a feeling of longing for something... probably for their number to never end.

Patrick Chan's first solo number of the evening was different from the two he performed in American Stars on Ice - this one was to "Mess is Mine" by Vance Joy. In his introduction Patrick talked about seeing Elvis Stojko in the cast of Stars on Ice. But his program did not resemble Elvis's - it was very laid-back, relaxed, and performed with great ease and skill. Patrick's performance included some nice jumps - a double Axel and a couple of triples, and I really liked the step sequence and the spins at the end.

Joannie Rochette's video talked about the inspiration she draws from the great Canadian female skaters of the past, like Jennifer Robinson. She skated the same programs she did in Stars on Ice this year, and the first one was to "La Vie en Rose" by Ute Lemper. I loved this number in Seattle and I equally loved it in Vancouver. Beautiful music, very good choreography by Marie-France Dubreuil, and performed fabulously by Joannie. Her jumps are always strong and she did two beautiful triples and a double Axel, and her interpretation of the music was top notch - a very classy performance indeed.

The first act was completed by a group number by all the guys in the cast to "Brick House" by The Commodores (Orin Isaacs remix). This performance was a tribute to Kurt Browning's famous number to the same song, and started with Kurt alone on the ice, wearing shiny blue pants and a white shirt, doing the first moves of his original routine. He was shortly joined by all the other men in similar shiny pants and white shirts. Kaitlyn Weaver came out wearing a shiny blue skirt with white blouse and strode to Kurt, ripping off his shirt and walking away with it (Kurt had another shirt underneath, the same style as the other men were wearing). The guys then proceeded to skate together, partially recreating the signature moves from Kurt's original program and partially doing new choreography - swaying, slapping their own bottoms, jumping and generally having a lot of fun. This number wasn't done in perfect unison, but it was absolutely hilarious and a great way to end the first act of the show.

Act II started with Kurt taking the microphone and announced that Victor Kraatz was sitting in the audience. Victor stood up to greet everyone - he was sitting one row across from me! It was nice to see him and tied back nicely to the first act of the show, which was all about remembering the past of figure skating in general and Stars on Ice specifically. It was only natural that the second act was supposed to be about the future of Canadian Stars on Ice.

While Kurt was talking about Victor, the rest of the cast were coming out on the ice, dressed in 1950's attire and bringing a couple of chalkboards with them. This, of course, was a preparation to the opening of the second act - a cast number called "Besic/Seibert Ice Dance System", performed to "Hip Hip Chin Chin" by Club des Belugas. Kurt and Tessa were playing the roles of dance teachers, drawing curves on the boards and explaining things to the girls and guys groups of "students" respectively. Then they demonstrated a few moves with one of their students each and sent out the whole crowd to mingle and practice. The resulting pairs were mostly new, like Kaitlyn and Patrick or Joannie and Jeffrey. The new pairs danced, while Kurt and Tessa glided among them, checking and correcting their students.

Meanwhile, something strange was happening on the ice - an unrecognizable dark-haired lady in green dress was very enthusiastically chasing after Scott, who was trying to escape. The lady was trying to climb on Scott when her wig fell off, revealing Shawn underneath it. Tessa separated them and started her own passionate dance with Scott, while Kurt danced with flirting Shawn. After that Shawn chased Scott some more, while Kurt and Tessa the instructors reconvened with their students at the desks. The number ended with most students leaving the ice, Tessa and Scott standing at the back in an embrace and Shawn putting his wig on Kurt's head and leaving backstage, pulling Kurt along and leaving Tessa and Scott gazing passionately at each other.
The whole number was absolutely hilarious, very fun to watch, and at times I couldn't decide where I wanted to look more, as so much was going on at the same time with different skaters at different parts of the rink. Excellent, very amusing piece of choreography, and very well played by the skaters.

As the number ended, Tessa and Scott were still standing at the entrance to the ice. Tessa waved at Scott and disappeared, while Scott was impatiently looking at his watch. After just a few moments Tessa reemerged, changed from the 50s strict teacher outfit into a sexy shiny red top and black pants. She went to the center of the ice and started dancing, pulling the crowd's attention off Scott, who also went backstage for a change of costume, reappeared wearing black and joined Tessa on the ice to perform their number to "Good Kisser" by Usher. It was very energetic and passionate, with a lot of modern dance moves and great lifts. This performance was something different from Tessa and Scott, but, as per usual, oh so good.

When I read Canadian Stars on Ice's music list before the show, I was very glad to see that Patrick would be skating to "Dear Prudence/Blackbird" by the Beatles in the second act, as I really liked this number, splendidly choreographed by Pasquale Camerlengo, when Patrick has skated it in Seattle's Stars on Ice earlier this year. The Vancouver version was even better in my opinion, and Patrick was exquisite in it - the way he glides on the ice, his edges, footwork, flowing hand movements - everything summed up to sheer perfection. I'm a huge fan of the Beatles and as such always very skeptical when skaters take their music, especially "Blackbird", which is my absolute favourite. But I had goosebumps when Patrick was skating to it, and couldn't tell which ones were from the music alone and which are from the way that music was expressed on the ice.

The next number changed the mood from lyrical to much more upbeat and bouncy, when Meagan Duhamel, Eric Radford, Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje skated together to "Hello" by Martin Solveig & Dragonette. This was a fun number, where the couples danced solo side by side and in pairs, switched partners and did a lot of pairs elements in unison - overhead lifts, throws (well, "sort of a throw" in case of Kaitlyn and Andrew, but nevertheless), death spirals and even head-bangers! The performance culminated in both couples doing a death spiral together - a double death spiral! It was a high-energy, entertaining number, and kudos to Kaitlyn and Andrew for performing so many cool pair elements they are not used to!

Joannie Rochette skated to "Addicted to You" by Avicii, and was energetic and upbeat as ever in this number. She was very fast on the ice, and moved sharply, packing in some strong technical content too - she did a couple of triples (one of them with a hand down) and a strong 2A. While I like Joannie and I like this number, I would have preferred seeing something else, as I've already seen this program just a month before in Seattle.

Jeffrey Buttle transformed the mood of the last two performances of energetic fun into something much more thoughtful and introspective, skating to "Here's to Life" by Shirley Horn. It's a beautiful, if not very rhythmic, song, and this music helped Jeffrey showcase his amazing talent for expressing music through skillful footwork, beautiful edges, excellent spins and great arm and body movements; a very charming performance.

Jeffrey's was the last solo number of the second act. Unlike previous years, where all (or most) of the cast members skated two numbers, one in each act, this year the solos were cut short in order to make room for something far more grandiose - an 18-minute long musical "A Super Tramp's Tale" to the songs of Supertramp, the band. Kurt's introduction video before the musical told us that the first concert he ever attended was Supertramp's, and that he spent 20 years wondering what a number to their music would look like. So Kurt co-wrote the story with Geoffrey Tyler and got help with the choreography from his wife, the ballerina Sonia Rodriguez, because, as he said in an interview, she knows how to tell a story without words. Some of the props, due to the lack of funding, Kurt made himself in his garage. So it was a very ambitious project and very interesting to watch.

I must confess that while I was watching this production (the word "number" doesn't seem to fully represent what was happening on the ice) I couldn't grasp all of it and make sense of all the parts. Only after looking through my photos and reading accounts of some other people about the musical, I understood more or less what was going on there.

At the beginning Kurt came out onto the ice wearing a brown coat and a cap, trying to fly a small blue paper airplane. Then Ashley, Patrick, Kaitlyn, Andrew, Meagan and Eric showed up, all dressed in brown hues, with boots, jackets (for men) and head-cloths (for ladies), representing draftsmen and women. They all looked not fully awake while they yawned and stretched. Suddenly a trolley appeared - Jeffrey in a peaky cap, with a handrail attached to his back. Kurt "hopped on" the trolley, which approached the workers, all of which "on-boarded", except Andrew, whom Kurt pushed off. But then Kurt left and Andrew got back on. After that Scott, wearing a pilot's brown leather uniform, squeezed in, and the trolley brought everyone to a factory, which the screens announced to be called "Automated Aviation Automatic" (with banners saying AAA, aka 3A). There draftsmen and women broke into pairs, working on some blueprints, under a watchful eye of a foreman - Shawn Sawyer at a podium, wearing stilts and a top hat, giving instructions to the workers, while his assistant Joannie helped him and checked on the work progress. The draftsmen start to present their blueprints to the foreman. First to go are Meagan and Eric, and while Shawn examines their work (a helicopter), they skate a bit and do a nice lift. Foreman is discontent with their work and throws the blueprint back into their faces. Next up are Kaitlyn and Andrew: they present a blueprint of an airplane and also perform a nice lift, but the outcome is the same - their blueprint is rejected. Last ones are Ashley and Patrick presenting a rocket, but Scott persuades them to let him "sell" their work, and persuades the foreman to accept the last blueprint. Then he starts skating with the blueprint a bit and meets flight attendant Tessa, who apparently is in love with him. They do a great lift, skate a bit more, waving the blueprint like a flag. Meanwhile, there is a commotion around the foreman. Kurt appears, throwing his paper airplanes again. Scott gestures the draftsmen to go back to work, but Patrick is unhappy with Scott taking credit for his work, so the two of them start fighting and rip the winning blueprint in half. This causes Scott to slap Patrick with a glove and challenge him. Patrick slaps him back, and then the foreman comes and suggests them to race in order to determine a winner. They wear pilot goggles and race around the rink, with everyone cheering. At the end Scott falls to the ground and apparently loses, which makes him angry, so he pushes away Tessa, who came to comfort him. Everybody leaves except Tessa, who is sad. Kurt comes along and tries to persuade her to join him on the trolley, but she leaves.

Two people wearing black suits and white masks get on the trolley. Kurt tries to show the trolley that there are better things to do in life, detaching him from the handrail, lighting a lamp on his chest and showing him some dance moves, which Jeffrey the trolley follows happily for a while and even does his own moves. But then his chest lamp turns off and he sadly returns back to be a simple lifeless trolley. Kurt tries to bring him back, waving his hands in front of Jeffrey's face, but the trolley is unresponsive. This was a sad and beautiful piece. The trolley resumes its work and another masked man joins in, along with Tessa. They all ride for a while, get off and Tessa skates with each one of the masked men one after the other, trying to get compassion from them, but everyone rejects her. Kurt reappears and dances around Tessa, cheering her up and presenting her with one of his paper airplanes. She brightens up and catches a trolley to the factory where draftsmen are busy working. Scott tries to talk to her but she throws a glass of water on his face and inspires the draftsmen to revolt against the rule of the foreman. Everyone is agitated, jumping on the drawing boards, disassembling everything and starting to build an airplane. Shawn and Joannie approach the rebels, who throw paper airplanes at them, while Kurt sits on the foreman's podium and cheers. The workers bring the foreman down and take his stilts off. They celebrate victory and then, joined by the reformed foreman and his secretary, build an airplane from available parts (desks, banners, blueprints etc.) and leave the ice together.

Wow, it takes a lot of words to write a libretto of an 18-minutes long number! But that's because there was so much going on and there really was a story to tell. I very much liked the fact that this "group number" was not just a demonstration of the cast's skating skills, but relied a lot on their ability to express emotions and tell a story, while figure skating elements like lifts were incorporated into the overall scenario and didn't seem out of place. My absolutely favourite character was Jeffrey the trolley - it was spot on, from Jeffrey's costume and the handrail to his facial expression and the profound "awakening" piece. I also really enjoyed Kurt's appearances here and there in key points in the story, to push it in the right direction. All in all, this musical number was probably somewhat chaotic and sometimes not clear, but it was something very different to the regular Stars on Ice numbers which was a very fitting thing to do for such a special show as the celebration of Canadian Stars on Ice 25th anniversary.

The show concluded with the last cast number, in more traditional Stars on Ice-style. Kurt came out and skated solo to "Let Me Entertain You" by Robbie Williams for a while, doing some jumps and showing great footwork, being true to the song's title and entertaining the audience. After a minute or two the rest of the cast joined in, following Kurt's moves, and then each doing some solo signature move. The music then changed to The Beatles' "The End" and the cast lined up and bowed. After that Kurt went out to the center again and did a back-flip! The whole cast cheered and hugged him.

This was the end of all the numbers, but not the end of the show yet, as Scott took the microphone and thanked Kurt, as without him none of them would be here. Then a big cake was rolled out and Kurt delivered a speech, thanking everyone and mentioning that he didn't do the back-flip in 20 years (and then he did it twice during one evening - how crazy and amazing is that!).

And that was the end of it, so I had (reluctantly) to get up and head out, thinking about how unbelievably lucky I was to witness such a wonderful show. I haven't seen too many figure skating shows in my life, but this one was hands down the best one for me. And if the swarm of emotions I usually feel after a figure skating show can probably be called "being a bit tipsy from the experience", with my head spinning and heart pumping, then leaving this particular one I was probably not just tipsy, but plainly drunk from excitement, awe and gratitude. And I didn't want to get sober.



 







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