#Unearthed: Skating Inspires Ballet

When you dig through skating history, you never know what you will unearth. In the spirit of cataloguing fascinating tales from skating history, #Unearthed is a once a month 'special occasion' on Skate Guard where fascinating writings by others that are of interest to skating history buffs are excavated, dusted off and shared for your reading pleasure. From forgotten fiction to long lost interviews to tales that have never been shared publicly, each #Unearthed is a fascinating journey through time. Today's gem, reproduced with permission from the good folks at Skate Canada, is a Louise Wright piece called "Skating Inspires Ballet: Putting Skaters On Stage". It comes to you from the December/January 1979 edition of the "Canadian Skater" magazine.


Sara Neil, the first director of the New Zealand School Of Dance, performing in Sadler's Wells Ballet's "Les Patineurs" in 1957

Ballet has always exerted an influence on the skating world. Competitors have long realized the value of dance training increasing gracefulness and musical programs are frequently skated to music arranged for ballet. In the forties, Iceland, located near San Francisco, made entertainment history by combining stage ballet and ice ballet and by actually presenting a true ballet, "Coppelia", on ice.

More recently, the efforts of Toller Cranston and John Curry to present skating as a performing art have strengthened the tie between the two disciplines. Curry commanded the attention of skaters everywhere when, in November 1976, he performed "After All", a piece created especially for him by choreographed Twyla Tharp. Both Kenneth MacMillan, director of the Royal Ballet, and Peter Darrell, director of the National Scottish Ballet, have staged works for Curry's "Theatre Of Skating". Toller Cranston, although he himself disapproves of the comparison, has been dubbed 'Nureyev on ice' because of his interpretive, balletic style.

In view of this newly reawakened enthusiasm for skating's artistic qualities, it is satisfying to note that the influence between dance and sport has not been entirely one-sided. Skating on ice has inspired the creation of two ballets by major choreographers.

"Les Plaisirs de l'Hiver, ou Les Patineurs - The Pleasures Of Winter" or "The Skaters" - was first presented at Her Majesty's Theatre in London in 1849. Choreographed by the theatre's ballet-master, Paul Taglioni, it was performed to a selection of Hungarian melodies arranged by Cesare Puni. A 'ballet-divertissement' rather than a 'ballet d'action', "Les Plaisirs de l'Hiver" is a light, entertaining piece in which plot and characterization is kept at a minimum.

The ballet is comprised of two scenes, the first of which is set in a conservatory filled with flowers, a kind of 'winter garden'. Here, a group of merrymakers is celebrating the wedding of a young couple. After partying throughout the night, they emerge at dawn to continue their festivities in the cold, crisp, winter air.

Scene two opens with the sun rising resplendently over the frozen Danube. Even at this early hour, the river is crowded with skaters, some of whom hurriedly go about their daily business, while others seem concerned only with the pleasures of the sport. Women bundled up in fur-trimmed outfits glide by on horse-drawn sledges: men stand about in small groups, chatting and admiring the Montagne Russe, and vendors peddle a variety of wares.

Soon the wedding party arrives, and a group of young and women, chilled by the cold, attempt to dance themselves warm in the 'pas de frileux'. They rub their hands together, beat on their breasts and dash from bank to bank. Then, two of the principal dancers, dressed in Hungarian costume, engage in the 'pas de la Hussarde'. Their performance is followed by the 'quadrille des patineurs', in which the skaters display their grace and talent until twilight and a light snowfall put an end to their activities, and the ballet comes to a close.

From a figure skater's point of view, one of the most interesting aspects of "Les Plaisirs de l'Hiver" is the fact that Paul Taglioni equipped his dancers with roller skates so that they would be better able to imitate the movements of ice skaters. A critic for "The Times" noted that this was not the first time roller skates had been so  used, but praised the choreographer for "the elaboration of the idea with a 'Pas de Patineurs'." Commenting on the same 'pas', a writer for the "Illustrated London News" enthusiastically remarked: "Here the illusion is complete; the mechanism entirely concealed, the mazes varied, intricate, fantastic and original... find their solution in simple movements that fill the audience with delight and surprise, and keep up constant laughter and applause."

In contrast, the later ballet, "Les Patineurs", first produced at Sadler's Wells Theatre in London in 1937, presented "skating" on stage without mechanical assistance. Said never to have been at an ice rink, choreographer Frederick Ashton skillfully duplicated a variety of skating movements. Good stroking technique, waltz jumps, mazurkas, spirals and one-foot spins - even mistakes, such as rising up on one's toe-picks - are all easily recognizable. Performed to music by Giacomo Meyerbeer, the piece is also a 'divertissement'; but, unlike 'Les Plaisirs de l'Hiver', which contains only as a 'pas des patineurs', it deals in its entirety with skating on ice.

The ballet opens at twilight. Sleigh bells jingle, and a frozen lake, gaily decorated with multicoloured lanterns, gradually fills up as the skaters take the ice. All are bundled up in fur-trimmed jackets; the men sport fur-trimmed caps as well, and the ladies wear bonnets and wide, knee-length skirts. There are both serious and recreational skaters, and three small groups readily distinguish themselves.

First, one notices two young women with the complacent attitudes of accomplished skaters, who proudly hold themselves apart from the others . Their confidence is temporarily shaken when, crossing a rough piece of ice, they stumble and almost fall. Nevertheless, they regain their composure, and later join with their instructor to display their skating skills in a brilliant and exciting 'pas de trois'. Then there are the lovers, wearing dazzling snow-white costumes. Their 'pas de deux' is Ashton's rendition of pair skating, and includes exquisite lifts and delicately beautiful spins.

Two girls with muffs, who evidently have just progressed beyond the beginner's level, contrast with these serious skaters. They move along smoothly and confidently until, somehow, they end up sitting on the ice, with characteristically puzzled expressions on their faces. Frequently, skaters line up and, holding on to one another's waists, glide gleefully by, or pick their way across choppy ice on their toe-picks, forming an amusing procession 'sur les pointes'. But the risk of joining one's fate with that of one's companions becomes apparent when one of the skaters stumbles, and threatens to unbalance the entire group.

 As a light snow begins to fall, the skaters gradually disperse. The only ones remaining are the instructor, his students and the girls with the muffs. As the ladies pirouette off stage, the instructor begins to spin and continues to do so "so perfectly, and with admirable poise," one writer (Beaumont) comments, "that real ice seems to be the only logical explanation for such a dazzling succession of 'pirouettes sautés'.

Always a popular piece, 'Les Patineurs' remained in the Sadler's Wells Ballet repertoire for many years. It is still being revived today, with Canada's two leading dance companies, the National Ballet of Canada and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, both including it in their performance repertoires this winter.

Could today's free skating inspire the creation of another ballet? Probably not - unless one reverted to Taglioni's [experiment] of using roller skates! Although both skating and ballet have become more athletic since Ashton's work premiered, the athleticism in skating has come to depend largely on the ability to exploit the ice surface. It is difficult to imagine any stage ballet that could satisfactory duplicate the speed, multiple revolution jumps and changing position spins of today's free skating programs.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating": https://skateguard1.blogspot.com/p/buy-book.html.