Le Patin Libre founder Alexandre Hamel tells the Straight over the phone from Montreal that his contemporary skating company rose out of what he can only describe as his “love-hate relationship” with the art form he’s practised since he was three years old.
“It’s the thing I love to do myself, but it’s not the kind of thing I like to watch. It’s what my mom loves to watch,” he says with a laugh. “But I love the movement, the vocabulary, the intensity of it.”
Hamel has spent the better part of his life on ice, immersed in elite figure skating and national competitions between eight and 22, and then working for a series of glitzy professional shows like Disney on Ice. But by the early 2000s, he admits, he was starting to rebel against all that sparkle and show biz. To the dismay of his mother, always his biggest fan, he even quit skating for a couple of years. Then, in 2005, he launched Le Patin Libre with friends.
The group started small, earning its first gigs on the outdoor rinks of Quebec’s winter festivals. Gone were the sequins and satin of Holiday on Ice shows and skating TV specials; instead, his young artists performed in street clothes, drawing attitude and inspiration from street dance.
“Many people make the mistake of saying we’re urban dance on ice,” Hamel clarifies, stressing that he and his crew are fans, but not practitioners, of hip-hop and breaking. “Maybe sometimes you can see a little bit of the same energy or bravado. What makes us what we are now is that we realized at some point it’s better to take out things than add things. We even had acrobatics and fireworks early on. But now it’s a less-is-more thing. As we took out things and just kept skating, it helped us to develop our choreographic technique of what we call glide.
“I can just stand there and achieve high speed through space, and this is impossible for dancers and acrobats,” the affable artist adds. “A human is not supposed to go fast like that—there’s something between joy and fear about doing that. So now we make ice-skating itself shine; we’re going back to the identity of the medium. I feel that skating was never approached with a full artistic dedication before. It fell into commercial ice shows and TV shows.”
Le Patin Libre has clearly “glided” into something big. Its latest show, Vertical Influences, has travelled the world, garnering the attention of such prestigious presenters as Paris’s Théâtre de la Ville and London’s Dance Umbrella Festival. London’s Guardian raved that its performance is “a pure body rush”.
But perhaps the most fascinating thing about Le Patin Libre is how it has been able to reach remote communities where contemporary dance might never be able to go. At first, Hamel admits, skating clubs were skeptical about these new outsiders invading their rinks. But now, those clubs are often bringing him and his troupe to town. In Vancouver the Cultch is presenting, but the troupe will perform at Britannia Ice Rink and will host master classes and auditions there.
How accessible is this brand of contemporary art? Just try to think of a small Canadian town that doesn’t have a local rink. As Hamel puts it: “There are more ice rinks in Canada than theatres!
“I think we are a bridge between two worlds,” he adds. “Sometimes I criticize the world of contemporary dance as having an elitist urban atmosphere. But figure skating reaches everybody. We meet everybody at the door and we see lots that are seeing contemporary performance for the first time. And then I say to them, ‘If you like our show, maybe you should see that lady—have you heard of her?—Crystal Pite.’ ”
Bridging contemporary dance, sport, and the circus arts, Le Patin Libre is gaining a strong following. But we have to ask: what does Hamel’s mom think about his company today?
“I think every male figure skater should go to a psychologist and talk about his mom,” Hamel says jokingly. “But my mom made figure skating happen for me—and that glide thing is an addiction.
“She loved Vertical Influences so much that she saw it three or four times. I think that’s because, visually and abstractly, it expresses this complete joy of skating.”
The Cultch presents Vertical Influences at Britannia Ice Rink from Tuesday (April 18) to April 30.