by Anne Calder | Photos by Daphne Backman
Douglas Webster created Ice Dance International in 2014 and is the Executive Artistic Director. IDI showcases and promotes ice dancing as an internationally recognized performing art untethered by the technical rules of competitive ice dance.
Douglas Webster has choreographed for many major skating companies including Disney on Ice, Holiday on Ice, Stars on Ice, and the Sun Valley Ice Show. His choreography has been in television shows all over the world including Disson Skating, Winter Solstice on Ice, Skating with the Stars for ABC TV, and Sterren Dansen of Het Ijs [Dancing on Ice] in the Netherlands.
He recently shared his thoughts about ice dance and skating in general with IDC.
Growing up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, what was it like skating outdoors on ponds?
My family would go skating together on lakes and ponds around North Conway, New Hampshire. Though not a pond per se, I did skate on an outdoor rink in front of the old train station. It was a makeshift type rink with a hose and scraper for an ice cleaner. My time at that early rink has become a key to building our Get Out and Skate programs with the New Hampshire and Maine public schools with the hope to inspire everyone to enjoy skating outdoors in the winter.
It’s a gift to skate outdoors breathing fresh air with the natural world flying by. It’s a feeling that still resonates with me today. There’s a little pond down the street from where I live now in Kittery, ME that I like to skate on in winter. It’s so nice to walk down the street and hop on the ice for a spin.
Tell us how your early skating experiences eventually led to becoming a professional?
I began skating in the 70’s. When I became a more devoted skater at the “old” age of 12-13, every couple of weeks my dad would take me to the Skating Club of Boston for one lesson. [A five-hour round trip drive]. In the summer we went to Lake Placid, New York, and Augusta, Maine, where John Millier & Amy Webster introduced me to ice dancing.
When my family moved to Fairfax, Virginia I met Audrey Weisiger and a wonderful team who guided me through my tests at a rapid rate. I competed in Novice at the 1985 US Nationals and in Junior Men at Easterns the following year. After that, I quit skating and went to college. At the end of my sophomore year, I got a soloist job at a Willy Bietak ice show at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia, which introduced me to the awesome world of professional skating.
Who were some of your fellow performers in your early days of show skating?
My best friends in the ice shows remain my best friends today. Cindy Stuart and Jamie Isley were my closest friends in the early days, and we share a unique bond today. In 1988/89 we performed together in Willy Bietak’s Festival on Ice and the first rendition of Broadway on Ice in Miami with John Curry and then at Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe with Scott Hamilton. Judy Blumberg & Michael Seibert, Tai Babilonia & Randy Gardner also performed. [He also did Carmen on Ice in Spain before returning to college.]
Share some of your memories of John Curry.
It was a gift to not only know John and work with him in the 80’s, but I saw his John Curry Skating Company in 1985 at the Kennedy Center when I was a senior in high school. I was lucky that my family took me to the theatre and ballet; John’s company added wonderful skating to the combination. Seeing John’s company has inspired every bit of my life and career…and Ice Dance International.
Tell us about working with the Ice Theatre of New York. (ITNY) Share some memories.
I arrived in New York City in January 1991 just after graduating from William and Mary College. Valerie Levine, who had also done Carmen on Ice, encouraged me to skate with the Ice Theatre of New York. I stayed on with ITNY until October 2014 as a performer, choreographer, ensemble director, associate artistic director and finally as artistic director.
I have many fond memories of my time with Ice Theatre of New York.
- Skating and performing with Judy Blumberg in Appalachia Waltz.
- Choreographing Departures for ITNY as a tribute to those lost at the World Trade Center.
- Choreographing Unforgettable, a repertory piece created for Richard Dwyer as an homage to the classic era of ice show.
What were your greatest challenges when you began choreographing?
Back in the day with no Facebook, Instagram or even personal computers, things were just a little different. There were so few opportunities for choreographers in production skating – and there aren’t that many today, which is why social media is such a wonderful gift to not only young choreographers, but for anyone who wants to share their passion for movement on ice.
Getting paid is another thing – and outside having your work seen – is the next major obstacle for a new choreographer or videographer like Jordan Cowan / On Ice Perspectives. For years, getting paid was secondary to creating…and then understanding ownership of your work.
I basically did everything and anything I could for experience. I asked Brian Wright, one of skating’s great choreographers, who passed from AIDS in 2003, how to become a working choreographer. He said, “Just show up to everything.” And I did.
I think my whole life as a skating choreographer has been a struggle between the creation of the work, getting it seen, and then feeling confident to find value in the work.
What has been the most memorable choreography you created and for whom?
It’s difficult to imagine one that is most memorable as there have been so many different types of choreographic opportunities between productions, competitive skating and the decades throughout.
- Competitive skaters: Choreographing Lucinda Ruh’s Chopin piece for the World Pro and Keegan Messing’s “Always Look at the Bright Side of Life”; Elena Leonova & Andrei Khvalko’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”
- Production: I’m so glad I got to choreograph and direct the Wizard of Oz at the Autostadt in Germany, work on High School Musical for Disney, and, of course, Shall We Dance on Ice with Disson Skating.
- ITNY: Dare Greatly, Departures, and Roots
- IDI: After the Rain and Into the Light!
I can fall into a video hole watching opening numbers I created from Sterrne Dansen op Het Ijs. Each one brings a memory and a smile.
If you were asked to choreograph a competitive ice-dance program for a current couple, whom would you choose and why?
I would ask to choreograph the entire Montreal School in one ice ballet. The Montreal School should have a professional company for the skaters to mature into.
Every ice dance school should have its company school…like SAB [School of American Ballet]…and they should be creating work together. These pieces would be non-competitive, but company pieces of repertory building to the professional company. These companies could co-exist and help build all the current competitive programming and help provide alternatives to one competitive path that ice dancers thrive on. This would be an hour a day, along with a company edge class.
Is there any retired ice dance team that you didn’t choreograph, but wish you did? What kind of program would you give them?
The Duchesnays! They were so unique and interesting. I would love to collaborate with them at their prime. Also, Rahkamo and Kokko. All are influencers in our art.
Again, I would love for these folks to take part in an ice dance company – one that takes these couples out of the traditional partnership and places them in an ensemble dance that utilizes their individual skills to full effect to create company works.
Your Shall We Dance on Ice in 2014 brought Anissina & Peizerat and Dubreuil & Lauzon out of retirement plus added other Olympic ice dancers and Dancing with the Stars cast members. Tell us how you chose that format and how it all blended together so successfully.
I had already been thinking of creating a dance company with a trained company of ice dancers as its core. Meryl and Charlie had just won the Olympics and were on Dancing with the Stars at the time we thought about doing the show. Finding a vehicle for them was key to Steve Disson (the producer) and me.
I was working with Edward Villella, the founder of the Miami City Ballet [MCB]. He had just created The Three Smokers men’s trio. He and I were discussing a piece that was a segment from an MCB dance called Neighborhood Ballroom, and how it went through different eras of dance. I think all these swirling conversations got us to Shall We Dance on Ice. Then I created the idea of the ballroom segments and genres [danced by couples in small groups].
Regarding the dancers coming out of retirement…I think everyone saw the rise of ice dance at the time. To be part of a large-scale production that celebrated the joy of it all was exciting. It was an incredible cast…wow! [Marie-France Dubreuil & Patrice Lauzon, Marina Anissina & Gwendal Peizerat, Tanith Belbin & Ben Agosto, Naomi Lang & Peter Tchernyshev, Kim Navarro & Brent Bommente, Isabelle Tobias & Ilya Tkachenko, Sinead & John Kerr, Meryl Davis & Charlie White + Dancing with the Stars cast members + TV Hosts Ryan Bradley and Kristi Yamaguchi.]
What could our current competitors learn from skaters you worked with in the past?
Sustained edges and a commitment to glide.
Is Ice dance a sport or should it be dropped from the Olympic?
Ice dance is an extreme athletic endeavor, but fares poorly in criteria alongside any sport where getting a goal or going the distance is the base for a win. My personal feeling is ice dance is the best thing to watch in the Olympics, so I’d hate for it to be stripped from the world stage, but I also see it as glorious entertainment.
IDI strives to build a bridge from sport to art and develop the awareness of ice dancing as a performing art form.
Tell us about your two specials and cast that are currently showing on PBS.
I created The World of Ice Dance International and Flight: The Art of Ice Dance International to showcase the company and document some of the history of dance on ice as an art form. The specials provide a platform to promote a unique way of creating dance on ice with the top ice dance talent in the world.
I’ve been developing the cast for eight years. Pasquale Camerlengo has been important in the belief of IDI and encouraging some of his skaters to take part if possible along with top choreographers with ice dance backgrounds like Benoit Richard whose work is featured in Flight, the second special.
We’ve been fortunate to have top ice dancers like Naomi Lang, Kim Navarro, Brent Bommente, Todd Gilles, Joel Dear, Beata Handra, Anastasia Olson, Ian Lorello, Jordan Cowan, Carly Donowick, Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker along with other terrific skaters like Ryan Bradley, Erin Reed, Adam Kaplan, Mauro Bruni, Lauren Farr, Natalia Zaitseva, Jonathan Hunt and Neill Shelton.
You have seen many changes in ice dancing over the years. What do you like the best and the least? Twizzles…the worst…not so much for competitive skating, but how they’ve found their way into performance skating – like watching the ice dancers in Stars on Ice…I think the fear of screwing up a side-by-side twizzle is more difficult than the feat itself. Then the theatrical full face and shazam moment when they’re done always makes me laugh. Side-by-side twizzles are completely uninteresting to me. The same as how competitive skaters do leveled footwork in their exhibition programs. Break free people!! Think outside of the box!
The best is the seamless interaction and use of the full body. I teach a class for US Dance Camp and our own IDI clinics called Skate 360. The class is about how to use (and discover) the full body while skating in a 360 sphere of energy…using all different levels and planes of motion. This is currently happening, and I see it in all parts of figure skating, singles, pairs, etc. To me, the dance of skating is the full use of the body while staying in the push. Gabriella [Papadakis] & Guillaume [Cizeron], the French World Champions, totally get it.
The other thing they get is the loss of the self in their skating. Their expression is inherent in the skating and the dance…not forced. Expression comes through the whole body…not just the face. This is a big step away from ballroom and pushes skating into a deep artful place…the loss of ego in the dance. Doing that in competitive skating gets big bonus points.
What lessons did you learn from the many famous people you have collaborated with over the years?
I think I learned the most from my partnership with [choreographer] Cindy Stuart. She is so thorough in her preparations and understanding of how to build a large-scale production, which led to saving time and lots of money – to great effect.
The most important lesson I have learned is life doesn’t get any easier when you’re famous. Often, it’s just more complicated. Otherwise, I’ve learned to trust my instincts and follow my heart. The best creative energies come from your core and not by trying to imitate others.