Vertical Influences hits its thrilling glide when audience joins it at ice level

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      A Patin Libre production, presented by the Cultch. At Britannia Ice Rink on Tuesday, April 18. Continues until April 30

      Britannia Ice Rink is normally a place to see bleary-eyed hockey parents cursing their existence as they shiver in the stands at 6 a.m. practices. But a place to see art? Apparently, yes.

      Montreal’s Le Patin Libre has invaded the peewee-banner-lined East Van rink, turning it into a dramatically lit stage for a defiantly different kind of skating show. Gone are the furry animal costumes, sparkling Lycra, and razzmatazz of traditional ice extravaganzas. Instead, in Vertical Influences, we get five young dancers on skates, wearing ponytails, dreads, and baggy street clothes, virtuosically reinventing the form and playfully using it to upend notions of time, space, and physics. With equal amounts of sass and technique, they tear up the sheet of ice. Pity Britannia’s Zamboni driver.

      In the second act, when this show really finds its stride, there’s a recurring image of the five dancers standing straight and still, but gliding at full-speed toward the audience that—after spending the first 40 minutes in the stands—is now seated on the ice at one end of the rink. To the thrill of the kids on cushions in front, they come to a stop just in the nick of time, with a barely perceptible turning-in of their toes. It’s this mix of danger and magic, the kind that can only be accomplished on two sharpened blades of steel, that these Montreal upstarts manage to harness and showcase. And it’s bizarre that no one’s ever really thought to experiment in this way before; perhaps you can chalk it up to the past conservatism of traditional figure skating.

      Le Patin Libre is at its best inventing witty tricks on the eye. At one point, dancer Alexandre Hamel bends down and works his arms like a speed skater, but instead of racing forward, he moves backward. At another moment, four performers circle and swirl around in a slow-motion line while the other dances at full speed. The show is about these kinds of visual paradoxes, not how many salchows and camel spins they can do.

      The troupe has appeared at contemporary-dance festivals around Europe, and you can see why: the performers excel at carving out space on their frozen white canvas, playing with geometric forms. There’s still a lot of unexplored potential here to aim for more ambitious ideas and meaning, but, hey: this is a pretty exhilarating start.

      Rolline Laporte

      Each skater brings a wild individuality to the proceedings, giving the show a bit of competitive B-boy and -girl thrill. Lanky Parisian Samory Ba (apparently an escapee from cruise-ship ice shows) bends, downward-dog-style, and seems to pull himself at full speed across the ice with just his galloping fingers. At another point, he staccatos the ice into submission, throwing a blizzard of ice shavings at the audience. And Jasmin Boivin—in hockey skates!—appears to have triple-jointed ankles and knees, working a street-dance attitude as he carves elaborate Cs into the ice.

      Le Patin Libre got its start in street (or at least outdoor-ice) busking, and it still has a rawness amid its sophisticated patterning. The show is a bit uneven. The opening half has some dramatic moments when the dancers appear in and out of stage fog, and it broaches some bigger ideas about belonging and alienation. (It also featured a painful-looking fall on opening night, a gasp-inducing slide into the boards that reminded us of the unearthly speed these folks are hurtling around at.) But because the audience is separated from the action by Plexiglas, it doesn’t have the immediacy of the second half. The brilliance in the final part is the seating on the ice, where the audience isn’t as removed from the speed, sweat, and flying frost. Anyone who’s ever struggled through a skating class will appreciate a front-row seat to these feats.

      It does mean you should bring a warm toque, snow jacket, mitts, and a blanket. But then, every bleary-eyed hockey parent already knows that.

      Alicia Clarke