We are looking forward to seeing one of the stars of Dance Umbrella 2014; the skating collective Le Patin Libre, out on the ice at Somerset House this January as they return with their award winning show Vertical.

Dance Umbrella Programme Assistant Georgia Heighway asked Le Patin Libre members Alexandre Hamel, Pascale Jodoin, Samory Ba, Taylor Dilley and Jasmin Boivin to give us a glimpse into their lives, work and inspiration.

Who are Le Patin Libre? Tell us about yourselves…

We are a contemporary ice-skating collective.  The group was founded by high level figure skaters disappointed by the opportunities offered by the “On Ice” show business.  We wanted to do something liberated and free to evolve, but still using our athletic skills.  10 years later, the project grew into a new contemporary performing art.

How do you work together as a group? What is the dynamic between you?

The five of us tour and live together between six and nine months of the year.  Most of the time in very close quarters and modest accommodation.  Le Patin Libre is still a very modest indie project.  It survives like this because we’re like a family.  We like each other a lot and enjoy the fact that we are so different but so complementary.  We’re lucky to have found each other.

We often work out partnerships with ice rinks normally used as gymnasiums for hockey and figure skating clubs.  The ice rinks get free events where we share short performances and the joy of dancing with the sport people normally using the rink and the local community discovering the rink through those events.  In exchange, we get free access to the unused ice time.  Most ice rinks are empty in the mornings and at night.  We skate at those moments.

Our choreographic process is collective.  We jam, film ourselves, pick the best bits, stick them together.  Other times, artists of the company propose movement experiences that evolve into choreography after many repetitions growing the original idea in more achieved things.

We also manage the company together.  Le Patin Libre is only its five skating artists.  There’s no staff.  So, Alex does lots of the finances and accounting.  Samory organizes European tours and partnerships with ice rinks.  Pascale organizes events in Québec, where we are from.  Jasmin runs the online ticketing system and does all the music.  Hundreds of tasks are shared like this.  It is very demanding and we have to sacrifice lots of our practice to this management.  We are not supported financially as normal dance companies are in Canada, so we can’t have the staff we’d need.  However, because we do all this, we learn lots of things and are truly and really the masters of our own project.  It gives a special energy to our shows.  What you see really comes from the artists and their hard work.

What inspired Le Patin Libre to introduce contemporary dance to ice skating and blend the styles? Did this present any unexpected challenges?

It just happened!  At the beginning, we were doing acrobatic numbers, fire-breathing skating choreographies and long-jumps over line-up barrels under thunders of applause and rock soundtracks.  It was great!  But, we felt we wanted to do something different and more connected with pure skating.

So we danced more.  At some point, we realized that gliding was the only thing we could do that dancers couldn’t do better than us.  So, we focussed on it: immobile bodies in motion.  This is when people started to say we were doing contemporary dance on ice.  We prefer saying contemporary ice-skating but, according to many definitions of contemporary dance, it seems alright to say we’re doing it.  Bodies, motion, poetry…

During this whole process that took about seven years, we slowly discovered contemporary dance.  We also became huge fans of urban dance.  Instead of only looking at videos of figure skating (which we still do in total reverence and admiration) we started to look at a lot of dance.  Two co-producers of Vertical Influences (Dance Umbrella and Théâtre de la Ville in Paris) gave us many tickets to go see contemporary dance companies.  We also started to buy tickets for shows, while in Montreal.  So, we saw Shechter, Khan, Cedar Lake, many national ballets doing contemporary stuff, Rubberband Dance Group, TAO Dance Theatre, to name only a few.  This diversity was very liberating, after years as figure skaters enclosed in a rigid tradition.  We also became YouTube junkies of urban dance groups like the Dragon House, Nonstop, Expression Crew.  We admired the processes of all these contemporary and urban choreographers.  We realized we didn’t want to imitate them “On Ice”, as figure skaters always do.  We wanted instead to work like them, but with our different medium.  The effort would be the same but the result would be different.  Vertical came out of that effort.

What was difficult was to do this without much support, at home.  First, the ice skating clubs where we skated kicked us out because they found us weird and because we didn’t buy their lessons or follow their traditions.  Then, the dance community at home saw us as intruders.  In the Quebec dance community, there’s a strong anti-virtuosity trend.  Being athletic and virtuoso is seen as being commercial.  So, we were told we were not dance.  It was very difficult to get some funding for creation and research projects and we only got very small help from modest “multi-arts” schemes.  We were still never presented professionally in any dance programming in Quebec.  To make our work available to audiences at home, we pooled our personal money, rented ice rinks and sold tickets on our website, for self-produced shows.  If audiences would not have massively supported us one ticket at a time, Le Patin Libre would have died.

We now expect things to slowly get easier as more and more of our peers in the dance community at home start understanding our work.  And, the fact that recognized dance presenters like the National Arts Centre of Canada and Dance Umbrella support us encourages others to click on our YouTube links and see for themselves.

Having started performing on frozen ponds and canals in Montreal to touring internationally, is there a particular place or venue you would love to perform?

Alexandra Palace is one of our favourite ice rinks, because it was not built as an ice rink, but as a big ballroom.  We nearly bankrupted the company in 2013, to rent it and do our first shows in London.  Then, Dance Umbrella, a contemporary dance festival, mobilized the rink for us so that we could return in 2014 with our most recent creation.  It gave us a context more pleasing than ice rinks looking like bowling alleys or gymnasiums.  We needed that.

Somerset House was also on top of our list!  It’s one of the most beautiful seasonal outdoor ice rinks in the world.  We’re really happy we’ll skate there this winter, for performances of one of the two pieces that are part of our new double-bill Vertical Influences.

And, more modestly, we love the many local ice rinks that dot all the neighbourhoods of Montreal, our hometown in Quebec.  The city or volunteers just spray water on base-ball pitches, in the winter.  Or, it’s just ponds naturally freezing from December to March.  Kids and families play hockey spontaneously in the day.  We love skating on those simple but beautiful spaces, when they are calmer at night.  We sometimes hook-up speakers on car batteries and jam.  Sometimes, intrigued late-night skaters clumsily join us and we have a great time dancing altogether, falling, laughing or wowing each other!  We feel at home, on those rinks.  So, from London palaces to modest parks in Montreal!

Our next project is to combine the two things and create a tourable ice rink that could both be a nice comfy theatre and a simple community space for fun on ice.  We’re working on it…

If your life’s work hadn’t become professional Ice skating, what might it have been?

Jasmin: He’s a cello virtuoso and a great DJ.  He would be wowing audiences with music, if he would not be skating.  By the way, he also composes all our soundtracks.

Pascale: Before Le Patin Libre, she was running a successful little jewellery making business.  She would probably still be doing this, if she would not spend her time with the company.

Taylor: Taylor is a jack-of-all-trade with a strong sense of hard work.  He had a small landscaping business in Western Canada and sometimes returns to it between tours.

Samory: Samory trained in hypnotherapy before joining us. He would be helping people with this skill, if he would not be in this project.

Alexandre: He was an award-winning documentary filmmaker working for TV and the web.  He would still be doing this if the skating project would not have gradually filled up his agenda.

When you were creating the work Vertical, what were you hoping your audiences would feel/think/experience?

We wanted this piece to communicate what we feel when we skate.  There’s a thrill, an adrenaline rush.  But, there’s also a calm found in the mastery of that speed and energy.

We built Vertical to realize this desire to share this feeling we feel so privileged to have because we skate since our early childhood.  This is why we needed people to be close to the ice surface.  For non-ice-skaters, seeing Vertical is the closest experience to actually being a high-speed gliding professional ice skater.

Following your recent achievement of winning the Total Theatre & The Place Award for Dance 2015 and your return to Somerset House to perform Vertical, what’s next for Le Patin Libre?

We’ll tour this show a lot, in the next few years, because each performance feels great.  We’re a little bit like ski bums who always want to ride more.  This summer, we’ll partner with great European dance festivals and theatres to organize performance at their local ice rinks.  They didn’t even know those rinks were there, a year ago!  And now, they’re borrowing them to bring our show to their cities.  That’s great!  We finally feel the bridge being created between the secretive world of ice rinks and the world of culture.

Between these opportunities, we’re now starting a new choreographic research project.  We expect we’ll need to do research for at least a year.  Then, we’ll start thinking about putting a new show together.  Or many little shows?  We don’t know, yet.  For now, the important thing is to try new ways to use our skating.

We’ll also be working a lot on the creation of this tour-able ice rink we so desperately need to fuse together skating as a leisure and as an art form.  We dream of this multifunctional site since years now…

And, we’re also constantly working hard to reach new audiences with our creations.  We’re happy contemporary dance fans like what we do.  But we also want to share our work with other people that are not close to contemporary art events.  Skating creates a bridge between those audiences and contemporary art, because it’s a fun and accessible thing everybody already saw on TV.  So, we tour short performances and playful workshops in ice rinks organizing winter holiday parties or in Quebec villages organizing winter carnivals.  We also organize our own community events, sometimes.

Finally, describe Le Patin Libre in three words….

Glide, freedom, work

Find out more about the company

See them live at Somerset House 12 – 16 January 2016 more info