by Gina Capellazzi

Last fall, Karina Manta & Joe Johnson were preparing to make their senior ISU Grand Prix debut at Skate America in Everett, Washington.

A few months after a memorable “Sweet Dreams” free dance at the 2019 U.S. Championships, which brought the crowd to its feet inside Little Caesar Arena in Detroit, the team announced it was stepping away from competition. The duo was embarking on a new adventure as cast members of Cirque du Soleil’s second ice show, AXEL.

The show kicked off its 2019-2020 tour in Cornwell, Ontario Canada Oct. 4.

“We were debating after Nationals last year what we were going to do,” Manta explained to before their Oct. 12 show in Syracuse, N.Y. “We talked about maybe stopping or doing another season and then we got the call from Cirque while we were in this debating position.

We were like, ‘Wow, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be apart of something so cool and special and it is something we have never done before.”

Manta and Johnson’s best finish at the senior U.S. Championships was 7th place (2016 and 2019), which meant they were not eligible to receive the highest level of funding from U.S. Figure Skating. Johnson divulged that the cost to continue training at the elite level was a major component to their decision.

“We were fresh out of money,” Johnson, 25, said.

“Competing is so expensive and sustaining a career at our level without a ton of funding was hard to continue,” Manta, 23, added. “So it was a matter of ‘We have this opportunity, we are tight on funding, let’s go with it and see what happens.’”

The team was forthcoming that they had some doubts at first, but that their lives were indicating to them that they should pursue this opportunity. Manta had graduated from college only weeks before the Cirque contract began and both Manta’s and Johnson’s apartment leases were ending in June.

“I loved competing. I honestly did like that environment and loved training for competition, so it was hard to back away from it at first,” Manta admitted. “But there were a lot of signs (to pursue this).”

So the duo agreed to sign a two-year contract. In June, they moved from Colorado Springs to Montreal to begin working on Cirque du Soleil’s unnamed project. Johnson said when they were presented the contracts, they didn’t even know what the show was going to be or what the music was in it.

One thing they were apprised of was that Sam Chouinard, choreographer at the renowned Ice Academy of Montreal, would be doing the choreography for the show, along with Olympic silver medalist Ben Agosto and noted choreographer Katherine Hill.

During the show creation, Manta and Johnson said they spent 12 hours a day in the rink, learning two hours worth of choreography. The two said they found the schedule quite challenging since previously on average they trained four hours a day on ice, with some off-ice training.

“We thought we trained a lot before,” Manta laughed.

“I think that is the one thing that has been a lot different for us is the amount we skate,” Johnson added.

AXEL, which follows the success of Cirque du Soleil’s first-ever show on-ice, Crystal, combines skating, with acrobatics, live music and colorful graphics. In the show, Manta and Johnson play members of the corporation, who are lead by the show’s villain “Vi”, played by Canadian skater Jeremy Ten.

The team has numerous costumes throughout the 2-hour show. Johnson told that their costumes vary from a hammer-style pant and bomber jacket costume to tailored suits and dresses for a scene called “Gala.” Each costume is tailored specially for each skater. Unlike the competitive realm where an ice dancer only wears two costumes, one each for their rhythm and free dances that occur on separate days, the skaters are changing costumes frequently during the two-hour AXEL show.

“The zipper comes from the base of the ankle, all the way up to the hip so you don’t have to take your skates off (to change costumes),” Johnson explained. “So we never have to take our skates off in either of the acts.” So it is real easy to get (costumes) on and off, but it is still really quick.”

Also unlike competitive skating where they skated as a sole unit, Manta and Johnson are a part of a larger ensemble that features skaters, aerobats and musicians from 22 countries. While the team has adjusted to performing with others, Manta and Johnson have found being with a diverse cast is an opportunity to learn some new tricks.

Both have learned how to juggle, but laughingly noted that they won’t be shedding their skates to become professional jugglers anytime soon. Johnson said he also learned flexibility tips from the contortionists and aerialists in the cast.

“Everybody is so willing to share their talents,” Johnson remarked.

Manta and Johnson also have an aerial number in the show where the pair skaters fly in a harness.

While Manta and Johnson are embarking on this next chapter, they are fully aware that a new competitive season has begun without them. Manta confessed that she is watching skating more now than when she competed.

“It is fun just to enjoy it now,” Manta exclaimed. “I can be a spectator and cheer on my friends.”

Yet, when asked if they miss competing, Manta and Johnson both acknowledged that they are satisfied with their decision to join Cirque du Soleil.

“There are aspects that I miss, but I definitely don’t regret the decision that we made because this is such a different way to enjoy what we do every day,” Johnson said.

“I will say I wish the rhythm was Broadway last year because we would have loved to do Broadway,” Manta laughed.

About that spellbinding free dance from the 2019 U.S. Championships in Detroit—will they ever skate it again?

“It was a magical program. Who knows?” Manta chuckled.