Photo: Tim Krochak
Fans of Canadian figure skating will see some familiar faces around town this week as Stars on Ice prepares for its return to rinks across Canada at Scotiabank Centre.
Friday night in Halifax will mark the start of the popular tour’s first coast-to-coast trek in three years, with champion headliners Kurt Browning and Elvis Stojko joined by Canadian skaters fresh from the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing like reigning Canadian dance champions Piper Gilles & Paul Poirier, Canadian pair champions Kirsten Moore-Towers & Michael Marinaro and 2022 Canadian champion Keegan Messing.
Until the new show premieres this weekend, the stars will be spending most of their time indoors on the ice working out their programs with fellow cast member and three-time Canadian champion Jeffrey Buttle, who is also the tour’s director and choreographer.
The Barrie, Ont. native, who won a bronze medal at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, calls Scotiabank Centre the tour’s home-away-from-home as the ideal place to put the finishing touches on the show, meet up with Montreal-based costume designer Mathieu Caron, and focus on the athletic jumps and spins and graceful patterns that will dazzle audiences across Canada.
In addition to the above-named skaters, Buttle will also share ice time with Canadian champions like Kaetlyn Osmond, Elladj Baldé, Kaitlyn Weaver & Andrew Poje, Japanese champion Satoko Miyahara and U.S. champion Alissa Czisny.
“The skaters are incredibly excited to be back on the ice back in front of a live crowd, and of course, be back in Halifax,” said Buttle via video chat from his home in Toronto. “It’s going to be a great tour, the theme this year is ‘Journey’. And I feel like this translates to so many things.
“It’s in an Olympic year that we’ve just finished, and it’s really focusing on the journey of the athletes and how they got to the Olympics; but also the journey of how they managed through these last couple of years. And I’m sure we’re all tired of hearing about the pandemic, we try to focus more on a general broad journey through our careers.”
For his part, Buttle says he spent much of the past two years doing “dry land training” with rinks closed due to COVID-19, working an off-ice exercise routine at home or in the gym when conditions permitted, and also working with young skaters via Zoom, always finding ways to keep busy while public performance wasn’t a possibility.
With that in mind, he expects audiences will find this tour has a special kind of energy thanks to the shared passion of the skaters, their eagerness to be back in the spotlight, and an eclectic playlist of music that ranges from What a Wonderful World to hard rock and modern R&B to a colourful ensemble piece set to a medley of Elton John hits.
Through the show, viewers can ponder the overarching theme of the show, and feel what it means to the skaters to be expressing themselves through their special mix of athleticism and artistry.
“We like to bring out that personal aspect from the skaters, and ask them what did this journey mean to you,” he explains. “I mean, so many of us have that common goal of wanting to go to the Olympics, to be on the podium or win the World Championships and the journeys to get there are often very different, you know, they’re paved very differently.
“So it’s really nice to allow the athletes to tell us that journey, and explain to us how it’s been and the obstacles that they faced: the jubilation, the joys, the successes that they’ve had. So I’m looking forward to getting there and really putting this all together with some incredible skaters.”
Of course, you can’t have memorable skating performances without eye-catching costumes that sparkle and shine from the ice surface up into the upper decks of each arena. This is where designer Caron comes in, working with the team at his Montreal studio Feeling to create functional, comfortable and fashionable outfits that highlight the athlete’s physicality without interfering with or distracting from their leaps and glides.
For his first Stars on Ice assignment, Caron was handed a dream job in coming up with costumes for the ensemble Elton John finale.
“I created for each skater a different look inspired by the iconic style of Elton John. But at the same time, I try to make sure that the personalities of the skaters are close to what I am creating,” says Caron, who was inspired by the piano man’s famous stage costumes like his rhinestone L.A. Dodgers uniform or the flaming phoenix devil outfit also seen in the biopic Rocketman.
“I always have to find a good balance between something costume-y or something flashy and fun, and make sure that each skater is comfortable with that. Because, at the end, they have to go on the ice and feel one with their performance and their costume and the music.”
Originally inspired by the seamstress skills of his grandmothers in Quebec, Caron recalls playing his father’s Elton John records as a kid, and had a blast going back through his memories of the songs and imagery that fill one of rock’s most colourful careers.
“It was very fun work to do,” he recalls. “I did a lot of research, and I could start with something very campy or extravagant and create a figure skating version of that.”
Promising a finale that is “epic and incredibly entertaining,” Buttle doesn’t want to divulge much more about the Sir Elton set that he choreographed for such a diverse group of skaters. But he does look forward to seeing what they can do with what is bound to be one of the most crowd-pleasing moments in Stars on Ice history.
“I’ve known a lot of these skaters in the show for a decade or more. So I feel that I’m very familiar with what would really work for them and I’ll play up to their strengths,” he says.
“But the group numbers in the show this year are just high energy and fun. And, and I think it’s something that we all really want after, you know, a difficult couple of years.”