Written for The Public Reviews
Peppered around the London Underground a sweeping poster of a man and a woman elegantly advertises The Imperial Ice Stars new show Cinderella. It is a glamorous image and so it seems fitting that I am meeting with the stars and director in the fabulously stylish Brown’s in Covent Garden, and, that I should find them sipping cocktails after a long day of interviews.
Eschewing a mojito in favour of a diet coke with great difficulty, Honour Bayes sat down with the lovely Olga Sharuntenko and her Prince Charming Andrei Penkine for a chat, all under the benign eye of director Tony Mercer.
Cinderella is a much loved story – what drew you to it and what do you think an audience gets from an ice version of the tale?
(TM) The challenge factor. We’d done Swan Lake and whilst everyone knows Swan Lake or they think they do, it [the established version] wasn’t how Tchaikovsky intended it to be and we thoroughly enjoyed addressing that. Cinderella is another one of those stories which people think they know inside out. But there’s 1500 versions of Cinderella that have been brought out over the last 1200 years, even after I’d opened Cinderella I found out that it started life in Roman times! We approached it with the view that we wanted to take a fresh look at it and give it a fresh feel, but you have to retain what is the Cinderella ethic; what is the Cinderella Story. It’s somebody that has faced adversity, it’s somebody that has had difficulty, be it person or persons, and how they overcome those difficulties and that’s the way that we set our staging, which really takes it back to those roots, to the Cinderella roots.
We commissioned a brand new musical score [composed by Tim A Duncan and Edward Barnwell], suited totally for ice dance, which is the very first time that a score of music had actually been specifically written for ice dance. And it was nice to do that because [with Swan Lake] we were using Tchaikovsky’s music and we always drew that comparison that we were trying to do ballet on ice, which wasn’t what we thought would happen but what was critically did happen. So we thought if we approached Cinderella this way with our own musical score, then that perception couldn’t be brought to bare on us anymore and that’s exactly what happened. We’ve come out with Cinderella and our own interpretation and people are judging it on its own values.
What is your favourite moment within Cinderella on Ice/what part do you most enjoy performing?
(OS) Everything. I love being partnered with my partner because as a figure skater I was a pairs ice dancer and so that’s my comfortable area, something I really love to do and being the partner of this gentleman (she motions to AP) it’s wonderful.
Andrei what is it like to skate with Olga, and try to ignore that’s she’s right next to you!?
(AP) She is a great partner, I just think she is one of the best because when she tries to do something she can already do it! That’s why it’s the easiest thing to perform with her, all the time you can have a conversation, that’s why it looks beautiful, we just talk without talking.
What is the hardest part of the process for you? It must be quite an intensive training routine, I’ve read that you train every performance day for 3 hours a day?
(AP) We play football 3 hours a day!
(OS) It is hardest in the beginning when you spend the most hours on ice [6 days a week, 8 hours a day]. This is when you’re trying to create something new and when Tony comes to us and says ‘I want to see this on ice’ and we say ‘No it’s impossible to do that, have you ever tried to do skating?!’. But you know that you can work it out because how many times have you already had that difficulty, and instead of saying ‘No that’s impossible to do on ice’ you try to work it out and then when you perform it, it wows people and amazes them.
How long is the rehearsal process altogether?
(TM) This one was just over 18 months from starting to write and looking up ideas to the dress rehearsal.
How much time is spent on the ice and how much time on characterisation and artistic interpretation?
(TM) We spend 8 weeks on the ice and it’s a mix throughout the process. A) you’ve got the music there B) you’re mapping out what they’re doing and they’re working out what they’re going to do, C) you’ll talk about it and you’ll explain what their character is and what the character should be feeling at that point in time. Also the choreography gives you a lot. It’s a process that you work on together, sometimes I go over my own idea of how I think this is going to be and what I want to see, but then someone like Andrei or Olga will say ‘What about this?’ or ‘What about that?’ and if it feels right and it sits within the parameter of where I feel the character can go that’s what we do.
A & O does this give you a stronger sense of ownership over the characters?
(AP) I say all the time that Tony giving us the freedom is the most important thing for me because I just skate and I feel and I spend every single day just doing what I want. I am free and I enjoy what I’m doing and that’s why the freedom is very important. That’s why we create; I’ve got no limits, well I’ve got limits but I haven’t!
(OS) I absolutely agree with Andrei, it’s just so great to have that feeling that you are actually so involved and you are involved from the first minute when the show is created on ice technically or artistically and from then you are always adding something of yourself.
You’ve been compared in skill and spectacle to Cirque du Soleil – how would you respond to those comparisons?
(TM) When I saw the comparison you kind of go ‘Wow’! I think what they were saying when they wrote it was that Cirque took a genre which everyone thought they understood, which was circus, and all they did was change its presentational style and they changed the way that you looked at it. They’ve taken something and progressed it, refined it and changed people’s ideas of it and that’s great and that’s the comparison which is a great compliment.
Nearly 3 million people around the world have seen your shows – what is it like to tour around the world?
(TM) I enjoy it, to create something and perform it and then to be able to go along to so many countries and continents with all these different languages and still touch people. It doesn’t matter in what language, we still make people cry. You come to the final adagio and a tear is a tear it’s an international language – it’s great.
(OS) I think any country has something special and different and different audiences do react differently. But the most beautiful thing is when the show finishes and they say they expected something when they came to see the show but they didn’t expect anything like that…
What do you like doing to relax whilst on tour?
(AP) Actually I enjoy shopping because my wife enjoys shopping, it’s a very nice way to spend our time.
(TM) Hang on a second I just heard you say today that you love Cambria because it’s the best shopping place in the world. Why? Because there’s no shops!
(A) If you are in shops all the time you need to enjoy them, (he looks shifty!), alright I love Cambria because there are no shops.
Who inspired you as a young person starting out and who inspires you now?
(OS) When I was young, when I started figure skating I probably was most inspired by my mum, my mum was a figure skater and I wanted to be a dancer, I wanted to do this and I loved music, loved movement. So my mum and at this moment I don’t think I have anybody, I think for me it is more important as to how you are as a person. As much as I’m a figure skater I think I should stay professional in lots of areas of my life. I don’t try to create a hero for myself or a star who I look to but I respect people who are achieving something in their life and who are staying as a human very nice.
What advice do you have for young people wanting to pick up skating?
(TM) I was saying that if you want to be a great figures skater that you have to train you have to practise which is something that we don’t really have here anymore. We’ve lost that desire, that drive. We don’t have that internal structure the same way that they do in Russia where if there’s a modicum of talent inside of somebody its encouraged and so if somebody was going to do it you have to be self driven and you have to practise and practise and practise.
We were talking to Andrei about it who said the other important thing about it is to practice and smile because here everybody used to take it very seriously, which is right, but at the same time you’re supposed to enjoy it. If you wanted to be a figure skater who came to the Imperial Ice Stars then I would say practice but enjoy it and smile and that’s what we’re doing.
It is a momentous occasion for the Royal Albert Hall to be fitted for an ice performance and the first time for 25 years – how does this feel to you to have your work on/to perform at such a prestigious venue?
(TM) We don’t know yet we’ve not got there! Come and ask that question after the opening night. It’s exciting – 6 years since we’ve created the company and to already be taking a show to the Royal Albert Hall it’s terrifying but very exciting.
What other stories would you like to see on ice?
(TM) The next production that’s coming out after we’ve finished is we’re re-visiting Swan Lake. I pushed it as far as I felt I should at that time but there are more details of Tchaikovsky’s that are buried and I want to show those next time round. Then after that a version of Phantom, which I think will lend itself very well.
I’m just hoping that for now at the Royal Albert Hall everyone will enjoy it, we’re only doing it for a week this time so what do I want to do next? I want to do two week at the Albert Hall!
Olga and Andrei – what roles would you like to play before you hang up your skates?
(OS) Anything that Tony would create for us would be a dream come true anyway (TM slides her a fiver!) I’ve never thought that I would get to perform such roles that I had in Swan Lake, I had Odette and in Cinderella I’m playing Cinderella – it is anybody’s dream come true to dance such roles in these shows. Anything with Tony I would love, at least for the next five years, I would love to be in the role.
(AP) Every single night I have huge fun and in each role I’ve got some pieces which I want to continue over time and to repeat repeat which is why every single day I enjoy it so much and I don’t know what Tony will propose in the future, who knows what it will be…
(OS) (With a pleading look to TM) Maybe Romeo and Juliet?
Cinderella on Ice runs from Wednesday 24 February to Sunday 28 February 2010. For tickets please go to the Royal Albert Hall website – http://www.royalalberthall.com/tickets/cinderella/default.aspx