Music on Ice brings a community together

The 13th edition of Music on Ice was held in Bellinzona, Switzerland on January 18 and 19. Bellinzona, in the Italian-speaking region of Ticino, was a beautiful backdrop for a weekend of great skating.

Most of the performers had just competed in the European championships the week before. While for some it meant postponing their holidays, the show was itself a break from the grind of competition and training.

Stéphane Lambiel holds the audience

The cast was led, as it has been in nearly every edition, by two-time world champion Stéphane Lambiel. He is dearly loved by both the local Swiss audience and fans from around the world who travelled to one of his increasingly rare show performances. On Friday, Stéphane skated two numbers. The first was a complex and delicate performance to Mahler’s 5th Symphony. He previously shared that this program tells the love story he has lived with his soulmate. The second number, to the opera piece “Simple Song,” is full of extended movements, exploring how far the body and the edge can be pushed. The lyrics and performance express both fulfillment and longing for more – bittersweet emotions that were shared by an audience that knows that each performance from the 38-year-old Stéphane is a gift to be cherished.

The lesson was driven home when Stéphane suffered a torn calf muscle during the takeoff of a split jump in the finale and had to skate a reduced load on Saturday. He only performed one number, to Mahler’s 5th, and left out the jumps. It is a testament to his consummate skill as a performer that the physical limitations didn’t impede the magic of the moment. At the end of Saturday’s show, he briefly addressed the audience, sharing that he hopes to be back again to perform next year, but that he was glad to see how strong and capable the next generation of skaters is.

Deniss Vasiljevs skates “In the Air Tonight”

With Stéphane not skating the final number on Saturday, that headlining role fell to Deniss Vasiljevs. The Latvian skater has been a part of the Music on Ice cast for 7 years and has been adopted by the Swiss audience as one of their own. Deniss skated his current short program to “Hallelujah,” and his exhibition program, to “In the Air Tonight”. Throughout both programs, but especially with the creative freedom of the exhibition, Deniss showed the full range of his emotional connection to the material. He also landed some brilliant triple axels, treating those jumps as a choreographic transition rather than the be-all-and-end-all of the programs.

Perhaps the most impressive moment in the program was the sit twizzles that went directly into a well-centered spin – I wanted to turn to the person next to me and say “Do you know how hard that was?!?!” In the same way, I wanted to lead the applause for Stéphane’s spin that changed positions from upright to camel to layback. We rarely see upright to camel in that order because the difficulty level is ridiculous! These moments of creativity and technical challenge reward the knowledgable viewer, but since they were always musically and thematically relevant, the casual fan could also enjoy the moment.

In addition to Stéphane and Deniss, this year’s cast of Music on Ice also featured Alexia Paganini, Lara Naki Gutmann, Minerva Fabienne Hase/Nikita Volodin, Annika Hocke/Robert Kunkel, Charlène Guignard/Marco Fabbri, Juulia Turkkila/Matthias Versluis, Samuel Contesti, and extreme skater Jason Graetz. Also featured were two impressive local skaters, Sara Franzi and Elena Martinenghi, and group performances by younger skaters from Bellinzona. There was also live music by Chiara Dubey, a Swiss Eurovision contestant.

Lara Naki Gutmann showed two new programs at Music on Ice

Music on Ice is produced by French champion Laurent Tobel, and hosted by Laurent and Italian champion Maurizio Margaglio. The two served as narrators and storytellers on the ice, appearing between each program to explain how the performances tie together. In this edition, the premise was that Maurizio, the mayor of the “Citadel of the Castles” – aka Bellinzona – has hired Tobel, a mad scientist-type engineer, to create an artificial intelligence, “Astra,” that can find the recipe to happiness. This story provided the framework for each performance, showing the search for happiness in different ways. Each of the skaters portrayed citizens of the town, and their characters, or archetypes, were described in the printed program.

For example, Lara Naki was “a young woman beset by doubts and loneliness who finds the courage to confront her fears and change her life.” Charlène and Marco were “a couple that have been married for a long time but have fallen out of love and have to find it again.” Knowing these stories can help to make sense of the program choices – for example, Lara Naki skating to Billie Eilish’s “What Was I Made For?” and Charlène and Marco to “Je Sui Malade”. But you don’t have to know any of this background to enjoy the performances – and those who don’t speak Italian won’t be lost if they simply watch the skating.

Minerva and Nikita skated to live performances by Chiara Dubey

Most of the skaters created at least one new program at the request of the directors, whether to Chiara’s songs or others chosen for the theme. A real highlight was two new programs by Minevera Hase and Nikita Volodin. While including competitive-level content (triple twist, triple toe loops, and throw jumps, as well as a flawless version of the group 3 lift that was their major mistake at Europeans) these programs also allowed them to take their time and develop the emotional connection. It’s a sign of fantastic things to come from the team in their artistic as well as technical development.

The other pair team, Annika and Robert, went in a different direction stylistically, with a fun Chaplin program choreographed for this event and a version of their rock short program full of crowd-pleasing headbangers and other impressive show elements.

We also got to see a fun side of Alexia Paganini, who skated to an upbeat Flashdance medley and revisited this season’s beautiful free dance by Juulia Turkkila and Matthias Versluis.

I enjoyed these numbers more than the comedic programs by Samuel Contesti and Jason Graetz. To be sure, it takes impressive technical skill to pretend to skate badly, and there’s nothing wrong with being a clown, but it isn’t my taste. That said, the crowd ate it up, and it provided a different flavor from the more emotional and lyrical programs done by most of the competitive skaters.

Robert Kunkel lifts Charlène Guignard in the finale

Another fun component of the show was the finale, which featured a mix-and-match of the couples, with the pair men lifting the dance women and vice versa, and Stéphane and Alexia doing a throw jump.

It is clear that Music on Ice perfectly knows its audience. The performances and narrative were sometimes a little corny and sentimental – but what came through is the passion everyone shares for skating, and especially for performing to an audience. The show is a community event, for the skaters, for the fans who return to see these stars and enjoy Bellinzona year after year, and for the local audience who experience a great night of entertainment.

The lasting success of Music on Ice proves that not every show has to be like Art on Ice, with high production values and all the current world medalists. There is also space for a smaller show that brings the community together around great skating, with local sponsors and local skaters too. I look forward to the 14th edition!

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