Their gold medals are packed away, and so is the rule book they had to follow to get them. With their Olympic days over, Canadian ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir now feel freer to dream about developing themselves as dancers who happen to work on ice.
Virtue and Moir became darlings of the country after winning their event in a close-fought competition at Pyeongchang in February. The passionate style of their free-skate number, set to a song from the film Moulin Rouge, belied the strict International Skating Union regulations that had to be followed as the routine was being assembled.
“We don’t have to follow the ISU rules any more,” Moir said, after a warm-up in Ottawa during the pair’s current Stars on Ice tour. “Imagine stopping and dancing four times in a routine!” – something forbidden by the ISU, which also imposes a five-second limit on moving in one spot.
“Stopping and dancing,” pretty much sums up the challenge of putting dance forms on ice. Most kinds of dancing feed off a resistance that isn’t available on skates.
“The dances we like are very grounded,” Moir said. “They work off the floor, but when you’re on the ice that friction is gone. That’s what makes us glide. We can’t use the friction that you would on the floor.”
Even ballroom dancing, the off-ice form that’s most associated with ice dancing, doesn’t translate easily onto blades. The elegant presentation and close pairing style, yes; the actual steps, no.
“The impetus for our movement as a pair should be quite similar to that of the ballroom world,” said Virtue. “But we have just that forward-backward plane of motion with our blades. It’s very tough to transfer ballroom technique onto the ice, to give the illusion of the proper hip motion and position, with the speed and glide of the blade.
“You have to figure out how to incorporate the lateral movement and still keep the flow and integrity of the skating,” she said. “We try to give the effect of ballroom, but we often have to get there through very different means.”
In dance terms, their Moulin Rouge routine had a ballroom base, a lot of balletic movement in the arms and bits that looked more contemporary. It’s the last category – the one least favoured by the conservative standards of their sport – that they most want to expand in their non-competitive ice dancing.
“We always claim that we do contemporary stuff, but don’t really,” Moir said, of their competitive routines. Their new number for Stars on Ice, danced to Michael Jackson’s You Rock My World, has a lot more angular movement, less cross-ice speed and some sequences that wouldn’t look out of place in a Béyonce video. There’s also a 10-second rhythm break in which the pair dance on the spot. Take that, ISU.
You Rock My World, however, was put together quickly for the current tour, which they see as a way of taking their Moulin Rouge routine across the country – a kind of extended victory lap. Virtue and Moir otherwise seem to be moving toward a research and development stage, thinking about what kind of dancing they want to do next, and who can help them get there.
All of their recent routines have begun to take shape in dance studios. “If we start on the ice, perhaps we’re apt to go into our default setting,” Virtue said. “If we’re off the ice, I think we can be more easily pushed in the direction of doing something new.”
Studios are also the natural habitat of people such as Sam Chouinard, the young Montreal hip-hop choreographer who has contributed movements to three of the four competitive programs Moir and Virtue have done in the past two years. Converting what happens in a studio into something usable on ice is part of the job of the pair’s ice-dancing coaches, Virtue said. “Marie-France Dubreuil is very gifted at doing that” – though much gets lost in translation.
“Often we choreograph off the ice and get on the ice, and only about half of it will work,” Moir said. It’s not just the steps, but also the scale of the stage, he added. A stadium rink is much bigger than any dance floor. The movement has to expand accordingly.
Virtue started studying ballet, “my first love,” as a girl, going to summer classes at the National Ballet School, where she was eventually offered a place as a full-time student. By that time, she had already committed to skating with Moir, and decided that ballet would be better as a second pursuit. “But it was disheartening, because skating trains the opposite muscles,” she said. “My proficiency with ballet was on a steep decline the more I skated.”
Moir was more sporty, had done no dancing as a boy and was reluctant to line up at the ballet barre. His interest picked up, he said, as the off-ice dancing became more modern and as he realized how useful studio work was to the pair’s skating. These days, while touring, they take dance or yoga classes as often as they can.
When asked about their individual personalities as dancers, they characteristically described each other, not themselves. He thinks she’s “a purist,” always listening to the music and lining up to the beat. She says he’s about passion.
“I’m more head,” she said (as opposed to heart). “I think through movement a little more, when Scott would just feel it.”
“I don’t think you lack that passion,” he told her. “I think in 2010 you might have been a little more in your head.”
They have a list of choreographers they’d like to work with, and aren’t shy about sharing some of the names. “Every time I see [National Ballet of Canada dancer] Guillaume Côté, I say, ‘You’ll choreograph for us someday, right?’” Virtue said. “It would be quite intimidating, no doubt, but really thrilling. And for a long time I have wanted to work with Mia Michaels” – choreographer for Prince, Céline Dion, Cirque du Soleil and former judge on the TV series So You Think You Can Dance.
A few weeks ago, the Montreal ice-dance company Le Patin Libre gave a series of shows for Danse Danse, the city’s premiere independent dance producer. Getting an ice-based work on the calendar of a dance series could be an important step in defining ice dance as something other than sport or stadium entertainment.
“We would love to do a project like that, even just to get the experience of playing a different room,” Moir said. He and Virtue appeared in a European revue in 2015 that also included Le Patin Libre.
Moir and Virtue are a little less eager to do their own choreography. They skated one of their pieces at Pyeongyang – a flowing, elegiac tribute to Gord Downie, set to The Tragically Hip’s Long Time Running. But “we tend to steal from ourselves,” Moir said; and when working alone, they miss the perspective of what Virtue calls “the outside eye.”
They have plenty of outside eyes watching them on their current tour with Stars on Ice, which ends in Vancouver on May 17. After that, they have seven weeks’ touring in Korea and Japan.
They’ll have other projects to announce soon, they said, and new collaborations to begin. The next act for Canada’s Tessa and Scott may look a lot different from what we’ve seen so far.