"Stars on Ice" returns, showcases the diverse styles of professional skating

April 25, 2023
By Anna Kellar
Photo © Tina Tyan, Debi Oreste

Returning after two years of COVID cancellation, the 2022 "Stars on Ice" tour in the US and Canada felt fresh and exciting. I saw shows in Boston and in Winnepeg, and appreciated the Canadian tour's innovative approach to its cast, including skaters like Satoko Miyahara and Elladj Baldé who are expanding the boundaries of professional skating. Audiences in both countries experienced fantastic shows; the Canadian audience got to see a wider range of what non-competitive figure skating can be.

"Stars on Ice" was founded in 1986 by Scott Hamilton. Its casts are typically built around Olympic and World Team stars, and the tour gives the chance for both athletes to earn some income from their achievements and the fans to see their heroes live. Produced by the same management company, IMG, that represents many top skaters and handles broadcasting rights for the ISU, "Stars on Ice" plays an important role in keeping skating profitable and popular in the US and Canada. Its return to arenas is a reason to celebrate, and performers and the audience were palpably grateful to be sharing the space again.

The group numbers that opened and closed each act were originally designed for the canceled 2020 tour, but most nonetheless felt fresh and vital, especially the finale to an Elton John medley. "We were able to salvage a lot," said choreographer Jeff Buttle. "We were planning to do the Elton John number the first time Nathan Chen had 'Rocket Man' as his long program. We thought it would be a great tie-in to the show, then, of course, COVID happened, so we thought we'd have to abandon the idea, but lo and behold, he won the Olympics with 'Rocket Man' so it just seemed right... It's been a joy skating it every night. We just leave all our energy there on the ice and we just like being able to interact with each other during that number."

The two casts had their own takes on the Elton John theme as each skater brought their own personality into the roles. "We had no rules, it didn't have to match single skater to single skater - as you probably noticed, the role that Jason [Brown] played in 'Saturday' in the group number is what we assigned to Paul Poirier in Canada. It was more about that character's energy and exuberance... It was fun to assess the personalities and mix and match. And Mathieu Caron did such an amazing job with the costumes, there was not a single repeat costume, both casts, the US and Canada, everyone had their own unique Elton John look."

The exception to the strong group programs was the Act I closing number, to a medley from "The Weekend." Compared to the innovative choreography and interesting mixing and matching of skaters in the other numbers, this felt more traditional, and a little tired. This was the program that had the most typical gender roles, with the women performing flirty moves, followed by the men entering in a "look at how fast we can skate" way. The other group numbers felt like they had a clear role in the show - "Thunderstruck" to build excitement and introduce the skaters, "What a Wonderful World" at the start of the second act to make us admire the grace and skating skills and feel grateful for the experience of returning to skating, and the Elton John finale to shout out a message of resilience to the chorus of "I'm Still Standing". The only message I could see from "The Weekend" medley was "skating can be sexy and flirtatious" which made the gender division, and gendered choreography, unimaginative.

The US cast, true to form for "Stars on Ice," consisted almost entirely of the US Olympic team from Beijing, many of whom showed versions of their competitive programs. While those programs were certainly satisfying to see live, Nathan Chen and Vincent Zhou each also had lyrical programs that showed another side of their skating. Vincent's self-choreographed piece to "Lonely" ft. Chandler Leighton by ILLENIUM had a personal and reflective quality that drew me in. It was a tribute to how far he has come as an artistic skater and a person over his senior career and the last difficult Olympic season. Jason Brown has always been a fan favorite, and it was gratifying to see the sold-out audience appreciate the mature style in his "Sinnerman" program as well as his split jumps and infectious enthusiasm.

Another highlight was Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Brandon Frazier. The US Stars on Ice cast has frequently left out the pairs discipline, but the new world champions made a strong impression with their challenging elements and fun programs. Honorable mention must also go to Mirai Nigasu, who despite being the only member of the cast not coming off of a competitive season, skated energetic programs with a full complement of triples. She also had a warm welcome from her home crowd in Boston, where she is now coaching.

The Canadian tour, with its mix of retired and currently competing skaters of different generations, showed the benefit of not limiting ice show casts to the most recent Olympic team members. Most competitive skaters simply don't have the time or experience to put into developing complex and original show programs. This more diverse cast took advantage of the opportunity of a touring show to bring audiences a wider picture of what skating can be.

Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier showed two sides of their skating. The team has a remarkable ability to inhabit whatever characters they chose while remaining themselves. Their first number to Dolly Parton's "9 to 5" was both a little silly and totally heartfelt (if there were an IJS value for chair sliding, Paul would get +5 GOE). In the second act, their "James Bond" routine displayed their powerful skating and Piper's glamorous side.

Also making their "Stars on Ice" debut, Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro showed the spark and confidence that was often missing from their competitive programs during the season. It was wonderful to see them skating with freedom, especially embracing the emotions of their program to "The Wind," with its bittersweet lyrics about changes and goodbyes as they leave their competitive career behind.

Another highlight was the subtle performance of Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje to "Leave a Light on," where every shape they made in their beautiful lifts was an intentional part of their storytelling. The program expressed an emotional connection that spans distance, a story that hits more intensely given our experiences of COVID isolation.

Kurt Browning proved that he very much deserved the tour's headlining spot. His skating remains astonishing, both in terms of his continuing technical prowess more than 30 years since his last competitive skate - he had multiple triples in both programs - and his unique style of expressive footwork. He engages with the crowd and draws in every eye, even in the most introspective programs. His "Nyah" to close the second act was a masterclass in the power of choreography. Initially, only his arm was visible in the spotlight, as we watched him take on the classical arm movements of the flamenco, and gradually build in intensity until he was flying across the ice.

Two of the best performers in the show were Satoko Miyahara and Elladj Bald├ę, showing the benefits of a cast that isn't limited to Canadian national team members.

Satoko was stunning in both her programs, proving - as if we had any doubt - that she has a bright career ahead of her in professional skating. It was refreshing to see the Canadian tour invite an international skater of her caliber and see the audience embrace her subtle and elegant style.

Satoko Miyahara, who, along with two-time US Champion Alyssa Czisny, was the only non-Canadian in the cast, had been training in Toronto and appreciated seeing more of the country. "I am enjoying being with the other skaters, walking in the cities, and going out to restaurants," she said. "The show is not so much like a figure skating show, but like a musical, rock band show, and the audiences are so big, and I feel their enthusiasm, and it's great to skate in front of them. In Canada, everything is so open, and the nature is so nice. I am really enjoying the sun, and the sky, and the views from the hotel, or I walk around to see the whole town."

Satoko's first number, "Voilá", was choreographed by Jeff Buttle, and her second number, "Stabat Mater" was a collaboration with the Japanese contemporary dancer Kenta Kojiri. "I wanted to create a new program for my new stage and to do something different. Working with Kenta just popped out of my head, and I asked him, and he said 'sure', and we started to work. He gave me the music, and we first worked off the ice and created some movements, and then transferred it to the ice. It became so tight in the middle of the ice rink, and we needed to spread out things, and think about where to jump or spin, but it was a really fun step to work with him."

Satoko shared that she is looking forward to the opportunities that professional skating will bring. "I want to do so many things, so many kinds of music! I don't have a particular thing but to challenge something like flamenco, or a more character thing (later that summer, at "The Ice" in Japan, she debuted a flamenco program choreographed by Stéphane Lambiel - ed). I want to feel free to skate. Even when there are no shows, I would like to skate for fun and find again the enjoyable part of skating. When I was competing, I was kind of a bit too - not stressed, but too concentrated on technique, so I'd like to have fun skating."

In both the US and Canada, each skater was introduced with a montage of photographs from their childhood and skating careers. "Athletes, we mentally work in quadrennials, after such an important season it is only natural to reflect on all the people and places that affected your career and your path and your journey," said Jeff Buttle. "I wanted everyone to depict, on their own terms, the journey of the last four years, or the journey of their life."

For most skaters, the photos made a cute introduction but didn't have any connection to their programs, or to any broader narrative of the show. I didn't fully appreciate the potential of this element until seeing how Jeff incorporated photo memories into his "In My Life" program. "For me personally the song I picked is very retrospective and I wanted to depict that throughout my number, instead of just beforehand. I tried to be very thoughtful in picking the photos and when they would appear based on the lyrics, and there are obviously so many photos that I wanted to get in with the people that have shaped my journey, going through all those photos was very nostalgic."

Elladj Baldé also put this concept to good use, with his family photographs and video clips adding depth to his second act program to "There Will Be Time" by Mumford & Sons and Baaba Maal. In fact, Elladj stole the show. To have a skater with West African heritage (Elladj's father is from Guinea - ed) skating to West African music felt like a revelation, showing there is space for all kinds of stories on the ice. In this program, and his hip-hop-inspired first act program to "Popstar", he swept away preconceptions about what figure skating looks like and showed how it can be a powerful medium for all kinds of voices.

Elladj is, as far as I can know, the first "Stars on Ice" Canada skater to never have been on a World or Olympic team; he amply proved that competitive results need not be a pre-requisite for professional success or popularity. The opportunity to build a following and new fans online through TikTok and Instagram has changed the path to stardom, and I spoke to several audience members who shared that they had come to the show specifically to see Elladj.

After seeing the 2022 Stars on Ice tour, I am more hopeful for the future of skating as a popular art form in North America. Artists like Satoko and Elladj demonstrate that show skating can be more than the victory lap after the competitive season; it can be exciting and innovative in its own right. Hopefully future tours will follow this path, inviting a diverse range of skaters not restricted to national champions.

2023 CSOI tour starts this Friday! For more info and tickets check official site.

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