Richard Watts | ArtsHub | 

What happens when the art form you love is cringe-worthy? You remake it in a contemporary manner.

Image: Jim Lee Photo 

When Australians think of ice skating, what inevitably springs to mind are the sequinned costumes of ice-dancers Torvill and Dean, the violence of ice hockey, or the kiddie commercialism of Disney on Ice.  One rarely thinks of art – a situation which Québécois company Le Patin Libre (‘The Free Skate’) are intent on changing.

Established in 2005, the company make art on ice, as co-founder and co-choreographer Alexandre Hamel explained.

‘I’ve trained as a figure skater all my life; I’ve competed on the international scene, I’ve skated for Disney on Ice, and I wanted to keep skating because it’s my passion – there’s nothing I like more than that – but wanted to escape that cringe-worthy show business that you were talking about. I wanted something that would be more personal, more close to my way of imagining what a performance should be,’ he said.

Fine-tuned over several years, the art form which has resulted from the experiments of Hamel and his colleagues draws on the aesthetics of contemporary dance and traditional ice skating, fusing the two into something thrillingly new.

‘The base of ballet is the movement of the body, right? The base of contemporary ice skating is the trajectory, the speed, those long curves, those long straight lines. So for us our art is uniquely based on the glide. We can move through space without moving our body, which makes what we do something like contemporary dance but I prefer to say it’s contemporary ice skating – it’s its own thing,’ said Hamel.

Jonathan Holloway, Artistic Director of Melbourne Festival – where Le Patin Libre are currently performing – is less certain that the company’s take on skating is a new art form.

‘I think it’s definitely a different context for a dance vocabulary, and I think they are taking from ice dance and ice movement and speed-skating and hockey – a whole bunch of movements which they’re re-working into a dance form,’ he said.

‘It was interesting talking to them about their use of the hockey movement with their arms, which is the fastest way to get up speed on the ice. Apparently people in figure-skating, when they first saw the performance, got very upset about it, So nobody believes that [Le Patin Libre] belong to their culture: the ice hockey community say it’s more like figure skating, the figure skating community are very dismissive of it because it carries hockey connotations, but the whole thing is placed within a festival context so that makes it contemporary dance.’


As with any emergent art form, fine-tuning aesthetics and establishing boundaries takes time and practice. For the members of Le Patin Libre, who are based in Montréal, their city’s love of another contemporary art form – circus – has provided guidance and inspiration, Hamel explained.

‘Contemporary circus was a huge influence on us because we’re from Montréal, which is some kind of a Mecca for it, and part of the emergence of contemporary ice skating and Le Patin Libre is linked to that. Like, I remember seeing those contemporary circus artists doing things that were so cool and relevant and that felt like something from the 21st century, but with technical skills that are not from this century – those technical skills are from a long tradition that dates back centuries,’ he said.

‘And they made me realise that I could do the same thing with the triple axles I like to do – they could be used in a more relevant way.’

Holloway can certainly see the circus influence on Le Patin Libre’s work. ‘I think they’ve approached this work in a very similar way to the way circus companies approach work, which is as a collective rather than as the moving props – as the embodiment of the choreographer’s vision,’ he said.

Currently, Le Patin Libre are occupying a space ‘which no-one else has even attempted to occupy,’ Holloway continued. ‘But what happens when to your favourite band or composers when you have many more people operating in that space? I think yes, they’re at the beginning of something very fresh and young, and it will be really interesting to see what happens.’


Exploring their art form has been a process of trial and error for the members of Le Patin Libre, Hamel said.

‘It was a long process. It was an artistic process, but first a personal process, because my colleagues and I were moulded into everything that figure skating is – either the competitions, where the goal is to win points through standardised abilities; or show business, where the goal is to sell lots of tickets to those huge arenas, so you have to go very, very commercial and sexy.

‘So we had to kind of climb out of the mould, and it was difficult; we had to accept many things – that yes, we were trained in that tradition but now we can go further.’

Hamel freely admits that the company’s early experiments were not especially successful.

‘We tried fire-breathing on the ice and we tried jumping barrels and making parkour-like acrobatics – and it was fun but you know, it was not as good as what we do now. So it took a while to go back to the bare, pure skating, to understand that glide was enough; our ability to fly through that space was enough.’

Vertical Influences, the company’s first major work and a double bill, is currently being performed at the O’Brien Group Arena in Docklands as part of Melbourne Festival. Here, another challenge for contemporary ice skating becomes apparent: ice skating arenas are not designed for artistic performances and their aesthetics and acoustics can be challenging.

‘The usual bleachers in an ice rink are good for hockey games – you see a goal on each side and you’re above so you can see the puck – and all of our life we were trained to perform in that context that is not made for dance or for contemporary performance,’ said Hamel.

Thinking on their feet, the company have found a new way to utilise the arena in Vertical Influences, by bringing their audience down onto the ice for one half of the double bill.

‘We decided that even if it was lots of trouble we would install those seats on the ice for the second part so that people can have a second experience, completely different from what they experience in ice shows, and even hear the sounds of the blades more. They feel the gush of wind as we pass and then because we go around a few times it creates a kind of a whirlwind, so it’s a very special experience, it’s more physical.

‘It’s challenging creating a new art form in buildings that are not made for art but it’s also a blank slate, and we can start afresh – and we’re already working on our next show now and trying new things also, so there’s lots to discover in a new space with a new medium. It’s very exciting.’

Vertical Influences at O’Brien Group Arena, Docklands
15-22 October 2016