by Jacquelyn Thayer / Photo by Melanie Hoyt

tesscott-for-recapFor the first time in the show’s 21-year history, audiences at three stops on the Canadian leg of the Stars on Ice tour were lucky enough to catch three ice dance teams. Even better—all three of recently finished in the top four at this year’s World Championships. Three-time headliners Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir were joined by Canadian silver medalists Kaitlyn Weaver & Andrew Poje, who earned their new spot on the tour with an outstanding season. And fans in Hamilton, Toronto, and London, Ontario, received a special bonus in guest performers Meryl Davis & Charlie White.

It wasn’t just the line-up, though, that makes this year’s show one for the dancers. Long-time headliner and new choreographer Kurt Browning’s fresh and inventive group choreography places the emphasis on musical movement, complex footwork, and true performance—a real delight for any fan of dancing on ice.

I traveled eastward from Chicago to attend the London show, where, as expected, hometown duo Virtue & Moir were the biggest hits, even when engaged in promotional banter about show sponsor Lindt Chocolate. The couple’s two programs are an exercise in versatility. The first, a sensual, lyrical piece to Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah,” which the team debuted at the tour’s first stop in Halifax, is a return to an inward-focused style in which Virtue & Moir have long excelled. On the other hand, their outgoing Act II number, to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” from Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, offers up some disco-infused choreography and a healthy dose of glitter from Virtue’s sparkly blue dress. Interestingly, the latter number has developed significantly over the course of the tour, with the London outing including several transitions and an additional mid-program lift not seen in the version recorded by fans in Halifax.

Not to be overshadowed by their fellow dancers, Weaver & Poje also made a huge splash with the London audience. Their Act I program, a new number to the Florence + The Machine hit “Shake It Out” demonstrates the team’s power and energy, with Weaver’s shimmering gold-fringed costume only accentuating the movement. For Act II, the team transformed their successful “Je Suis Malade” free dance into an exhibition, and diminished none of the program’s emotional intensity in the process. It was an audience smash in competition, and that certainly carried over here.

Rounding out the dance roster, Davis & White entered in Act II, presenting the first individual number of the second half. Their “Die Fledermaus” free dance has been converted into an exhibition—with Davis now donning the light blue dress worn last season as an alternate for practice sessions—and even at abbreviated length, the dance inspired the crowd to clap along as enthusiastically as it did inany of its competitive performances. Even in rival territory of a sort, the team received a tremendous reception from an audience that knows and loves great skating.

Among the solo skaters, the audience favorite was likely Shawn Sawyer, in his fourth year as a full cast member. The talent for showmanship displayed during his competitive career has flourished in his show work, and both numbers – “We Speak no Americano” and Cirque du Soleil’s “Alegria” – are packed with tricks, backflips, unusual spins, and outstanding displays of flexibility. Browning, while less flashy than Sawyer, also continues to play to a crowd as effectively as ever, with his first number “I’m Into Something Good” contrasting well with the second act’s darker “Feeling Good.”

The other men, in contrast, offered programs in a more serious vein. Jeff Buttle’s pieces were typically lovely; while his Act I performance to Fleetwood Mac’s “Big Love” wasn’t without a jump error or two, Act II’s “Both Sides Now,” based more upon moves in the field, was flawless. Jeremy Abbott began with a particularly musical new piece to Jason Mraz’s “I Won’t Give Up.” Act II brought an energetic, if imperfect, rendition of last season’s swing short program.

The ladies delivered an eclectic set. Joannie Rochette, while much-missed from the competitive scene in Canada, is thriving as a show skater. Her first program, an electronic dance number to “Indestructible,” has been noted particularly for the black catsuit she dons. Her real hit, however, is the radically different “Formidable” of Act II, a flirtatious number in which she vamps against both Browning and a selected audience member. Like Rochette, Ashley Wagner’s first number, “Tightrope,” sets a dance tone, but her second-half performance to “Your Song” showcases a softer, more lyrical style. Finally, Cynthia Phaneuf also went for a dancier route with her Act I program “Let Me Think About It,” turning in Act II to the slower “Je l’aime a Mourir,” a pretty piece marred only by a fall on a jump.

What might be most worth the price of admission at this year’s show, however, is the group work, from full numbers to brief transitions. One of the most discussed numbers from both U.S. and Canadian tours is “Waiting for My Real Life to Begin,” choreographed by Linda Garneau in conjunction with Browning and Buttle. The contemporary, almost balletic piece puts four of the cast’s men—for this tour, Abbott, Buttle, Moir, and Poje—in the literal spotlight, with Moir and Buttle the major standouts. With house lights and follow-spots are all dark, the men are illuminated only by stand lights that they bring out and weave into the choreography. The shadowy casts a spell over every audience, and it is one that must be seen live to experience the full effect.

For the Canadian tour, a new number highlighting the five female cast members was also added. The program itself, to Flo Rida’s “Good Feeling,” is somewhat less successful than the all-male counterpart, but does offer the cast’s best female dancers the opportunity to show off their moves.

Very popular with the audience here and elsewhere has been the Act II opener. “A Life Loved,” set to music from the film UP, tells the story of an elderly widower (played by Browning) reminiscing about his late wife. Both dance teams take center stage here, with Weaver & Poje portraying the couple in their courtship and engagement, and Virtue & Moir depicting their married life, culminating with the revelation of her pregnancy. Rochette plays the wife in her later years, and the number concludes as poignantly as can be expected from the number’s inspiration.

Both Act I and Act II finales were stellar examples of true group choreography—every skater (save for guests Davis & White) was involved, sometimes working in unison and sometimes individually, and at the London show, no one missed a beat. Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” scores the first act finale, providing the cast with some solid hard-hitting movement and the dance teams with a great dramatic entrance in dual lifts that travel the length of the ice. The show wraps with the second Florence + The Machine number of the show, “Dog Days Are Over,” offering up a playful, exuberant piece befitting the show’s theme—as well as including an unexpected opportunity for a pair of dancers in Virtue and Moir to execute axels.  

The weakest group number is likely the show’s opening, “A Suite for Stars,” in which cast members muse on life and love in voiceover. Though the concept is cute, its impact is decidedly lesser than that of the truly skating-centric numbers. A better execution of fluff is the series of comic transitions featuring “The Four Stops,” with Abbott, Buttle, Moir, and hapless fourth man Browning dancing to Motown and providing the occasional unexpected program intro.

In recent years, the Stars on Ice and Canadian Stars on Ice tours have seen their share of choreographic and conceptual ups and downs. This year’s show, however, sticks closely to its titular theme of “Love ‘N’ Life” while also recognizing the importance of balancing contemporary and classic music, offering up a variety of performance styles, and giving multiple cast members a chance to shine. The program is a must-catch for those who can and, with Browning and Buttle behind the scenes, a reason to hope for another great show next year.