Le Patin Libre (“the Free Skate”) is a group of five high-level ice skaters eschewing the sparkles, and creating something akin to contemporary dance on ice. Their double bill “Vertical Influences” was brought to Toronto as part of this year’s Luminato arts festival, directed by Josephine Ridge who discovered the troupe in the south of France. “It was a pinch-me moment,” Ridge writes for Luminato, “Here is young group of surprising, exceptionally talented and entirely original artists.”
Based in Montreal, the collective was founded in 2005 by former Olympic hopeful Alexandre Hamel, who hails from “a perfect little suburb” in Québec. Hamel was a child figure skating champion, who went on to competition circuits, ultimately being hired by Disney for ice shows. In the post-performance discussion, Hamel describes his relationship with ice-skating as a “trauma”—something many a bunhead burnout might empathise with—and it is these experiences that inform “Influences,” the first half of the bill.
The other members of the group, Pascale Jodoin, Samory Ba, and Taylor Dilley, share similar backgrounds—prodigiously talented skaters turned off by the limitations of traditional competitive skating. They describe themselves as free spirits, and connected to one another via the underground skate scene, with ice-rinks being turned into speakeasies where the ice was set on fire. DJ-ing at the “secret ice burning parties” was the only non-skater of the group, Jasmin Boivin, a classical cellist who composes and creates the score for the performance. Not content to sit on the sidelines, he learned to skate while watching the others, and now dons hockey skates and joins le Patin Libre on the ice.
On the evening I attended, due to technical difficulties, the show was performed without the lighting. I could only imagine how they might glide out of the darkness, but as it was, the show had a rehearsal feel to it. It fit, in a way: Le Patin Libre wear practice gear, and stylish, casual clothes—their aim is to deprive skating of its ‘tacky’ elements and let the essence of skating come to the fore. Which is what, exactly? What defines skating? Le Patin Libre propose that it is the glide: “a movement without movement.” Hamel says, “it’s what is left when you take all the sparkles, all the other things away. Dancers can’t to this,” he says, standing on the blades and gently drifting towards the audience, seemingly without moving a muscle.
Both pieces on the bill explore and expose the theory of the glide in a multitude of choreographic ways, taking the inner and outer edge of the skate to extremes, weaving and cutting through the group in a single, satisfying swoosh. They do it through a decided lack of airborne elements, but when they do execute a flying spin, it’s fluid, loose and marvellous. The performance does have the feeling of an amplified contemporary dance; you don’t see position so much as you see momentum, inertia, the freedom of the glide. They invoke the quality of ice, too; the substance and the sound of it, clashing and picking their skates rhythmically into it.
“Influences” taps their story as renegade skaters, people with different ideas running up against the institution of traditional skating. The pieces were launched via the Jerwood Project creative programme and a residency at Sadler’s Wells, London, and with the aid of dramaturg Ruth Little, found their current expression. The second half, “Vertical,” is more a joyful exegesis of where they have come to as a collective, and where they want to go. Which is to make a serious contribution to choreography, not only on ice, and to push the form into new artistic modes.
Hamel says he understands when they encounter resistance from the contemporary art world to accept their new form; ice skating has become “gimmicky” in recent years, he says. But le Patin Libre is far from a gimmick; it’s an expansion, and a departure from the superficial reason to skate. To dancers, skaters and contemporary art lovers, le Patin Libre is offering something truly original. After the performance the troupe hosted a free DJ skate party inviting all to join them on the ice. Now that’s cool.