From figure eights on frozen lakes to big budget, flashy, televised ice shows, the world of figure skating has made some pretty big steps toward being almost more theatrical than athletic in nature. The figure skating world is no longer all about ballet costumes and classical music, they are now hip, fashionable, and just as full of drama as any other aspect of the entertainment industry. In some countries even, figure skating stars are more well known and pursued than their movie stars. Kim Yu-Na, for example, this year’s gold medalist from South Korea, might have more endorsement deals and more fans than Miley Cyrus.
People come to a performance to be entertained, to be moved, to forget about their own lives for a little while and to allow themselves to be wrapped up in someone else’s story. On the ice, this is just as true as in the theater. The audience for a skating performance, whether it’s a competition or a show, has an emotional involvement in the performers they are watching. Knowing that Michelle Kwan is skating flawlessly, with tears streaming down her cheeks, after, once again, missing out on Olympic gold or seeing Ekaterina Gordieva take the ice for her first solo performance after her husband and pairs skating partner had died, the audience is engaged by their real life stories.
And, on the ice, it’s the story a program may tell that keeps us enthralled. From dueling Carmens during the 1988 Olympics to seeing Midori Ito be the first woman to land a triple axel in competition to Kurt Browning land the first quad in competition: these are all a part of the on ice drama. The breathtaking suspense that audiences experience while watching these feats of athleticism is what keeps them coming back for more.
Because in both theater and figure skating, weeks, months, even years, of preparation lead up to a single performance, a single defining moment in a performer’s career. It could be an Olympic performance or it could be your first one man show—either way, the tension and expectation are more than most people can bare. Most audiences cannot fathom being the one person that everyone is looking at, they cannot comprehend how someone is capable of jumping that high, spinning that fast, learning all those lines, or crying on cue. And, when they do what they do at as high a caliber as Scott Hamilton or Emma Thompson—well, fans may be speechless, in awe of the talent before them.
Balancing between stage and ice
I have been involved in figure skating and theater for as long as I can remember, from performing with my cousins in my grandparents’ basement to competing as a skater on a national level. Currently, I teach ice skating to basic skills skaters (including MinnesotaPlaylist contributor and local actor John Middleton) and competitive figure skaters while also working at Gopher Stage Lighting, designing lights for the random show about town, and being a Minnesota Fringe Festival venue technician. Both skating and theater are huge forces in my life, and, as hard as I try, I cannot shake either one of them.
And I've noticed that skaters these days are expected, if not required, to achieve a certain level of showmanship. The days of simply performing a required element are over. Even at the basic skills level of testing, a skater’s posture and presentation are part of the equation. What many beginning skaters and skating fans don’t know is that extension and posture are more than just things that makes the skater look prettier. A skater’s posture greatly influences their ability to perform a required task. So many skating maneuvers are about body alignment and balance, and these are things that cannot be accomplished without some level of presentation.
Theater is essential to figure skating
In fact, more and more I see the way that the theatricality of figure skating is becoming more integral to the sport. Now, skaters perform in programs where they are showing the judges their best Charlie Chaplin or Snoopy impression, events where their main focus is their entertainment ability, not their required elements. There is even a type of competition now which is aptly called “Theater on Ice” where teams of 8 to thirty skaters are judged on their ability to convey a story.
Many figure skaters are so theatrical that they have made the crossover to acting: Sonja Henie as early as 1936, and Tara Lipinski. Even local figure skater Kirsten Olson was cast in Disney’s Ice Princess along side Michelle Trachtenberg. It's not really as far to jump as it might first appear. Your coach is your director. Choreography is blocking. The ice rink is a stage. Judges are critics, and the required technical elements in a presentation are like the requirements of a script.
The only main difference I see at this point is that if an actor is up at 4 in the morning, they're probably leaving a cast party. When a figure skater is up at 4 o’clock in the morning, they have to be at the rink in an hour.