Hong Kong is in for a treat with theatrical ice dance version of The Nutcracker
The Imperial Ice Stars is set to unleash a fun-filled version of The Nutcracker on Hong Kong, writesSue Green
It's a much-loved story: the nutcracker coming to life as a handsome prince, the beautiful girl who falls for him, the dancing sugarplum fairies - all set to Tchaikovsky's magnificent music, so familiar most of us could hum it.
But what happens when you take that perennial favourite, hauled out of mothballs by ballet companies worldwide every Christmas, freeze the stage and perform it as ice dance, replacing trained dancers with world-class ice skaters?
Tony Mercer, founder, producer and artistic director of Moscow-based The Imperial Ice Stars, says the theatrical interpretation coming to the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts in November makes audiences look at
The Nutcracker in a new way. "It is surreal, exciting, a unique form of entertainment, a unique interpretation of an old classic," he says, comparing it to Canadian company Cirque du Soleil's revitalising of the circus, "a genre that was fading away".
Similarly, audiences enjoyed figure skating but they had stopped watching it, he says. Now, champion figure skaters can not only extend their careers - hundreds apply to join his company - but also move beyond the limitations of figure skating while challenging audiences to open their minds.
The Nutcracker Prince, Ukrainian Bogdan Berezenko, for example, joined the company after his longtime figure-skating partner left him for another skater just before they were to compete in the world championships. He needed money and something new, but found, to his surprise, "I loved it".
Kazakhstan-born Vadim Yarkov, who portrays the mysterious Drosselmeyer, has been with Mercer from the get-go: "You have a chance after sport to continue your skating career," he says.
He quickly discovered some unexpected challenges and satisfactions. "After the sport it was not easy because we don't have judges in front of us," he says. "Skaters perform for judges, not for the audience. Here you perform and create for the audience. It was an amazing feeling the first time, I remember, because people sit very close to you and you see faces."
The job can be hard on personal relationships. There are several couples in the company and during this year's Australian tour - which took place during the Russian school holidays - their children joined them, adding to the family atmosphere backstage.
It's also physically challenging: the company - 26 skaters, seven technical staff (they also hire 15 locals), a doctor and the production team - is on the road for up to 40 weeks a year with its two 14-metre trucks of gear. There are even carpet squares, so the skaters can dash about in the wings without removing their skates.
The set alone breaks down into six pallets of airfreight weighing 10 tonnes. And, not surprisingly, the equipment for turning a theatre stage into a minus 15-degree Celsius ice skating rink is the key to success. It all happens astonishingly fast.
Production manager Paul Mansfield says his technicians first build a base and sides of marine plywood, line it with pool liner, then lay 15 kilometres of fine, fragile pipework, precisely spaced, and filled with 2,500 litres of antifreeze.
Then the five tonnes of ice cubes he has ordered are placed on top to give the freezing process a head start. These are then sprayed with hot water, which freezes faster than cold. "Someone then stays here all night spraying - a very boring job," Mansfield says.
Ideally, the pipes are 5cm to 6cm below the surface, but when I take a peek backstage after Melbourne opening night, the ice is not even 4cm deep - and yes, those razor-sharp blades sometimes slash the pipes. "If the blade penetrates we have to stop the show. The liquid is under pressure and if you pierce a hole you get a pink jet, a pool of pink liquid," Mansfield says.
"We repair it - we can do it in six to seven minutes. We make a small hole round it, clamp it as you would an artery," he says, showing the emergency kit, always ready for the crisis which occurs up to three times a year. "We put in a replacement section of tube, put ice back in there and mark the spot with coffee. They know not to skate through that area for the rest of the show; it is very hard for them."
The Nutcracker, which premiered in South Africa earlier this year, is more lighthearted than the company's other adapted classics -
Swan Lake and
Sleeping Beauty. The spectacular skating and fabulous costumes are leavened with humour, magic, fire dancing, acrobatics and aerial work to appeal to all ages.
"It's great fun actually," says Olga Sharutenko, a former world junior champion figure skater who has been with Mercer from the start. "We are literally enjoying every minute on stage."
Sharutenko, usually the leading lady, is this time playing multiple roles. "The show is different, it feels so much fun that by the end of the show it is quite difficult to feel tired," she says. Her energy is impressive: sitting in her dressing room with its array of props on a shelf - the fluffy kitten ears of the white cat, the bobble hat of Drosselmeyer's assistant - she is in full make-up at 10.30am despite a show the previous night, ready for back-to-back matinee and evening shows.
Shattered when she was not selected for the 1998 Olympics, Sharutenko began ice dancing on a one-year contract as a break from sport. "It was only when I joined that I understood it requires something else, it is not just about the figure skating," she says. "If you are not good enough to perform as a character for two hours, just doing your tricks, people would get bored."
Yarkov says he is still learning new things. For example, to master Drosselmeyer's skills as an illusionist he went to Spain to meet an expert who worked with US magician David Copperfield. "For all the productions we try to put something new because it is interesting for us and for the audience."
When the company was set up in 2004, Mercer admits that in Russia, "they just thought I was a crazy English person, everybody thought it would only last for six months".
But between 2006 and 2008 the company had toured five continents and in those two years played to more than 1.5 million people. In May it performed at London's Royal Albert Hall to a standing ovation. And Mercer plans to perform in Moscow's Kremlin theatre in 2014 - a treat for his cast, whose families never see them perform in their home country.
Mercer, whose dream of playing professional football was shattered, along with his leg, began as a theatre rigger, then lighting designer before moving into production.
"I wanted to show ice dance as it could be shown on a theatre stage. It is not ballet on ice. Ballet has its own dynamics, it is a totally different method. It was very difficult to give a name to, but I tend to call it theatrical ice dance."
The Nutcracker on Ice,
Lyric Theatre, Academy for Performing Arts, Wan Chai, Nov 6-18, HK$350-HK$950. HK Ticketing. Inquiries: 3128 8288