Next Ice Age dancers carve out haunting moves

An eyewitness preview of ice dancing set to Tchaikovsky.

Looking for something really cool to do this Halloween weekend? Check out The Next Ice Age (NIA), an amazing ice dancing troupe that will provide both tricks and treats. The company performs its latest work-in-progress, set to the 4th Movement of Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony, online Thursday, October 29, 2020, from 1:00 to 2:00 p.m. The new “dance,” as director/choreographer Nathan Birch describes his works, will be available for one week following the livestream.

For the past three decades I have been following Birch (who created one of my favorite ballets, based on Nijinsky’s Faun) and NIA’s co-founding director Tim Murphy, a coach to Dorothy Hamill and other celebrities. The two Massachusetts natives (who got to know each other when they competed at New England regionals as kids) have produced a skating ensemble that continues to thrive despite so many obstacles.

Nathan Birch (at right) rehearsing the Next Ice Age ensemble.

Birch, an award-winning skater who turned to balletic choreography, has left his mark on ice dances since forming the professional company in 1988. I love the way his performers effortlessly move across the ice, changing directions on a dime, and never ending up where you would expect. Other critics have raved about the choreography created by Birch, Murphy, and the late John Curry, the Olympian who changed the way we look at skating. As one writer put it, “If dancing is the way angels walk, then skating is the way angels dance.”

In 1984, this writer had the privilege of reviewing The John Curry Skating Company (with Dorothy Hamill, Birch, and Murphy) on the stage of the Kennedy Center — yes, ice magically formed on top of the floor to allow smooth and beautiful skating. A few years later, I also caught a more intimate performance of “On the Beautiful Blue Danube” for NIA company members Shaun McGill, Murphy, Birch and Curry, himself, at the Columbia Ice Rink.

The breezy ensemble piece reminds one of George Balanchine’s abstract dances for his fleet-footed New York City Ballet. With broad and billowy arm movements, the skaters glide through intricate patterns in and out of the wings (on the ice it’s more difficult to determine stage directions).

These were my thoughts as I watched last Thursday’s rehearsal/class in a Baltimore ice rink with Birch at the helm. Even virtually, the skaters continue to learn through these classes, much like ballet dancers pick up tips from their online sessions. When Birch skated to the center of the rink to explain a gesture or two, everyone turned to their leader much like a ballerina would focus on her master teacher.

Audiences accustomed to the pyrotechnic jumps and spins of competitive skating or the sequins and glitz of entertainment of ice shows may be disappointed to find that none of the above appear in this program. Instead you will see a celebration of dance, drama, and skating to classical music, best described as “fluid motion on ice.”

Dressed in black sweats and wearing masks, of course, the ensemble gathered in a circle, from which a breakaway soloist floated in an arabesque, his hands parallel to the ice. The section of his dance was filled with passion and music visualization. I imagined a ghost from the past joining angels from the future, though it might have been the proximity to Halloween.

The Next Ice Age ensemble in rehearsal.

When Birch takes off from his directing duties to teach his proteges (or remind them of a proper classical ballet movement), he skates with an ease of a more mature artist. With each turn he breathes into the movement, a show of confidence and enjoyment.

Watch the creation of a brand new dance by Nathan Birch for his Next Ice Age in a live presentation Thursday, October 29, 2020, at 1:00 p.m. For a small donation, you can access the live-streamed events. Go to thenexticeage.org.

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Carolyn Kelemen is an award-winning arts critic and feature writer for the Baltimore Sun, Howard County Times, and Columbia Flier - 45 years and counting. The Columbia resident earned her Masters Degree in Dance at Mills College in California and has taught college and graduate courses at Goucher College, Loyola, the College of Notre Dame and Howard Community College. A professional dancer throughout the East Coast in the late 50s and early 60s, she was trained in classical ballet, modern dance, jazz and tap. Her TV/film career includes MPT’s “ weeknight Alive” and years of local productions in the Maryland/DC area. Carolyn is a longtime member of the Dance Critics of America, the American Theatre Critics Association. She has proudly produced the “A Labor of Love” AIDS benefits since 1988.

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