PROFILES: RICKY HARRIS

By Renee Austin

Each person has an individual way of moving which becomes a part of his or her personality and uniqueness of communication. It is my purpose to help the skaters appreciate their uniqueness and discover the differences between themselves and other skaters through self-awareness and self-analysis. – Ricky Harris

It wasn’t until Ricky Harris entered the profession in 1972 that choreographers for figure skaters started to become the norm. Harris worked full time exclusively with competitive skaters such as Scott Hamilton, Elaine Zayak, Brian Boitano, Linda Fratianne, Michelle Kwan and the ice dance team of Michael Siebert and Judy Blumberg. The renowned coaches she worked alongside include Don Laws, Frank Carroll and Linda Leaver.

Harris (far left) sitting in the 1984 Olympic Kiss & Cry with Scott Hamilton & coach Don Laws.

Harris (far left) sitting in the 1984 Olympic Kiss & Cry with Scott Hamilton & coach Don Laws.

Harris did not grow up on the ice however. At 18 years old, Harris’ talent and enthusiasm caught the eye of Eugene Turner who first gave her ice lessons. Her ice show career started at the age of 21 with Shipstad and Johnson’s Ice Follies, then to Sonja Henie’s show before marrying and having two children. During that time she went to the University of California, Irvine, obtaining a B.A. in Drama and an M.F.A. in Dance. After a traveling tour as professor of dance aboard a university ship and head of the Dance Department of Chapman University, Harris re-entered the figure skating profession as a choreographer.

In those early times she was often the trendsetter. During freezing cold practice sessions skaters wore nothing over their skating tights for warmth. In the dance world leg warmers were commonly used even in hot studios to keep muscles warm during long hours of practice.

“I pulled out a pair of leg warmers from my bag for a skater to use. The skater did not know what they were, and was afraid her coach would disapprove,” Harris said. “I said I would accept the responsibility. When the coach saw his skater on the ice he was deeply disturbed. I explained that it was not healthy and could be injurious for skaters not to keep their legs warm until they felt their bodies were completely warmed up. I suggested to the coach to check with a doctor to confirm this,” she noted. “It all culminated in a notice that went out to all skaters at that rink to wear leg warmers from then on. Soon there was a company specializing in leg warmers for figure skaters.”

Movement akin to the dance world that Harris choreographed for the ice shocked many within the skating community. She then attempted to educate them on what was going on in the world of performing arts. As part of the coaching team she assumed she could take her place with the coaches at competitions while the skaters with whom she worked practiced and competed. This was not always accepted by others, but she persisted and eventually it became norm. Continue reading

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American Ice Theatre in Urban Pic Skate Competition

American Ice Theatre’s Anna Cobb & Garrett Kling perform & skate in “I Like the Way you Walk”

They are entered into a chance to win $750 and the top prize in the 2014 Urban Pic Skate Contest.

You can vote by liking their video on Pic Skate’s Facebook page and sharing it with your friends!

Why Skating Needs to Keep Dancing

 

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Cast of Let’s Dance (all photos by Grace Wiley)

What happens when you get a room full of creatives in the skating world and tell them to put together a show all their own?

No, this time it’s not Strawberry Ice.

You get “Let’s Dance” – American Ice Theatre’s spring gala performance that occurred May 31 in Chicago. The show, produced by Jodi Porter, featured pieces choreographed by contestants from Audrey Weisiger’s Young Artists Showcase, as well as special guest stars like Jason Brown (maybe you’ve heard of him), Ryan Bradley, Rohene Ward, Ashley Clark and Lynn Kriengkrairut & Logan Guiletti-Schmitt.

photo by Grace E. Wiley

Jason Brown

It’s safe to say it was a success (just being a bit modest, here folks). To a packed house, the show presented styles of classical to contemporary, solos to large group ensemble pieces, laughs and cheers, heart-felt emotion, breath-taking stunts and beautiful choreography.

Most of all, the show brought together a group of people choosing to skate the way their heart tells them.

The voice of criticism grows louder in and out of skating circles about skating’s current state. After the uproar of Sochi’s controversies and debacles, there’s a broken record telling us that skating is becoming irrelevant. This show proves otherwise. Here are some of the most commonly heard slams against skating today and how the joined forces of AIT and YAS are helping change the conversation with a show like this one.

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AMERICAN ICE THEATRE OPENS NEW CHAPTER IN UTAH

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Salt Lake City, UT. (October 9, 2013) —-  A wave of artistic figure skating is flowing into Utah as American Ice Theatre (AIT) opens a new chapter of its company to Salt Lake City. Founder and Director Jodi Porter, B.F.A. in Modern Dance at University of Utah and former resident of Bountiful, has enlisted figure skating coaches Giselle Gorder and Rachel Peterson to be co-directors and continue spreading artistic figure skating throughout the area.

“I believe AIT Utah will be able to offer professional opportunities with the highest artistic integrity,” Porter said. “It is wonderful to see opportunities for skaters continue after a competitive career and I am confident Rachel and Giselle will be able to reach out to the community and generate enthusiasm about the art of dance on ice.” Continue reading

I’m (here) but I want to be (there) so how do I…

Sometimes it feels like gloppy-oatmeal is saturating my brain. And that’s because I too often try to take over the world.

And by taking over the world, I don’t necessarily mean starting up my own green NGO on climate-control or spearheading the latest-and-greatest method of education reform. But it does mean that in my own, minuscule universe (with my gloppy brain) that I become too eager to be THERE when I am just HERE.

Let me explain.

First to preface: even though I am coming from my point of view (as performer and choreographer), you can insert any other passion or career path into this post — musician, carpenter, pharmacist, snake milker.

Yep, it’s legit

So anyway, for me as a performer and choreographer, I dream of being THERE – meaning I want to create really awesome stuff that I feel proud of and for creativity to erupt in a massive volcano of amazingness.

But that’s the thing – right now all of that is kind of in my head. I make stuff happen now, but it doesn’t always translate into what I envisioned or I feel like the process just goes haywire halfway through, thus becoming more damage control than an actual work of art.

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Finding the art of figure skating in a pair of point shoes

Thomas spreads her love of ballet and figure skating to a global community

As a child, Annette Thomas’ favorite activity wasn’t playing in the backyard or swinging on the jungle gym; it was keenly observing her mother teach ballet.

“I would sit by the rosin box and just watch the whole class,” she said. “I loved discussing the class with her afterward. My mother never talked to me as a kid; she talked to me as if I were a partner, a friend.”

Her mother Mika Mingo, a skater and professional dancer, often brought skating friends to ballet class. After the class, Mingo helped her skating friends translate the lesson onto the ice, working on the specific needs for figure skaters to strengthen muscles and improve alignment for on-ice performance.

“My mother mixed the worlds,” Thomas said. “She would tell me to watch the skaters and see the differences in how they moved. We would discuss the skaters and dancers strong and weak points. And so skating and ballet have always been in my heart.”

After her mother’s sudden death at age 17, Thomas continued a career path combining the two passions her mother instilled inside her. Now an international publisher, professional dance teacher, choreographer and mother, she devotes her time spreading the art of ballet to those needing its special touch on the ice.

“Teaching movement is in my soul. Making an image that stays in your head and goes into your heart is what I love to see,” she said. “I want people to understand the beginning, middle and end of each movement. It’s how you tell the story, not the story itself.”

Living in New York City, Thomas never became a competitive figure skater attended skating shows with her mother at Madison Square Garden and loved skaters such as Janet Lynn and John Curry. Her dance background includes extensive training at Carnegie Hall by Maria Nevelska of the Bolshoi Ballet. Gaining experience throughout her lifetime in Flamenco, Modern, Folkloric and Character Dance, Bharata Natyam and Mime, figure skating continued to be a love in which she yearned to be involved. Teaching ballet to figure skaters at rinks throughout the Milwaukee area since 1984, she wanted to see how ballet was being integrated in figure skating training on a national and global scale.

Eric Bensen and Thomas, age 4, at Wollman Rink in NYC. Photo courtesy of Annette Thomas

She got her wish as the technology boom of the 1990s brought an invention: online discussion forums. In 1998, she started the first ever online forum on Yahoo! that specifically dealt with ballet in the field of figure skating.

“It was very informative and rewarding to get high level coaches and ballet teachers from all over the world to contribute and discuss relevant topics and share information,” she added.

The group reached around 50 members, but she decided to close it down after three years when dialogue among members succumbed to bickering.

“Some coaches don’t want ballet teachers telling their skaters things that they believe may be contrary to their progress on the ice,” she says. “What skaters need is a team working together to be able to transfer everything on the ice. What it boils down to is that a lot of ballet teachers are just teaching ballet as a piece of choreography. They are not understanding the biomechanics of the movement.”

Thomas received her Certificate of Completion of the First Class Pedagogical Course for the Study of Classical Ballet in 2005 and has released two books: Fundamentals of Alignment and Classical Movement for Figure Skaters and her latest book Lessons in Classical Ballet for Figure Skaters. She has been mentored by skating legend Ricky Harris and received critical acclaim of her books and material from those within the skating community such as Deidre Arianne Kellogg, Ryan Jahnke, Salome Brunner and Dorian Shields Valles.

With the rise of social media sites, Thomas has rekindled her online presence by creating a Facebook group and continues the up keeping of her website. In June, American Ice Theatre announced a partnership with Thomas that will include collaboration on educational material.

“I’m very grateful that Jodi is reaching out to me,” she said. “Creativity is contagious and we want to share it.”

No doubt Thomas will continue to share it wherever she goes.

“People are just so full of creativity and life and I just want to stir that up,” she said. “I want people to be all they can be creatively and ballet for figure skating is a venue of what’s in my heart to give people. There’s so much in the world that is mundane and brings us down; I just want people to be lifted up.”

Q&A with new Advisory Board Member Audrey Weisiger

Audrey Weisiger is a woman in need of no introduction.

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She possesses a multitude of titles: Olympic coach, radio talk show host, Young Artists Showcase Founder, Grassroots to Champions President, public speaker, choreographer and mentor. The list goes on.

But I like to call her Aud Mama. Affectionately coined by choreographer Amber Van Wyk, it is a title that may just describe her the best.

As AIT welcomes Audrey onto the Advisory Board, I talked with her about the upcoming season of YAS and her visions of where skating will be going in the future.

Q: You created the Young Artists Showcase in 2010 and now it is about to enter into its fourth season. What is different about this year than the previous three?

A: This year there are more theatrical type of challenges. The first challenge is a piece based on ethnic culture. The fourth challenge will be a piece based on a mythological creature. Challenge five is all about using a set of unconventional requirements like skidding, heel work and basic school figures. Tommy Steenberg and I cooked out the stuff that they are going to do. When we first started I had no idea what kinds of challenges or creations the choreographers were capable of concocting, but now I’m aware that more choreographers are welcoming the idea of doing something so out of the box.

Q: A budding choreographer is interested in doing YAS, but they are completely and utterly mortified. What do you tell them?

A: Choreography has to be about the joy of creation. I always go back to watching Cain’s Arcade, because no one told him to make the arcade; it was something he felt in his being that he wanted to make. Skating has to be like that. You go out there by yourself and you make something. Those are very personal moments when you get lost in your creation. That’s the essence of YAS. I tell this to the kids all the time – if you like what you created, then it was worth taking the time to make. It has value because it is done.

Choreography is very personal. I want to encourage choreographers to be creative and to become themselves without fear. I actually think in this day and age with so much visibility and social media, it’s so much more important for kids to stand up and be themselves. YAS really becomes a part of your toughening shell as much as it is an outlet for creativity. There aren’t many opportunities to experience creating something that is different than conventional skating. Continue reading

Q&A with Lorna Brown

I had the pleasure of speaking with Lorna Brown over the phone and immediately it is imminent that the creativity inside of her pours into everything she does. Her passion for life is evident in her role as choreographer, activist, mentor, performer and artist. We welcome Lorna as the newest member of AIT’s Advisory Board and would love for you to get to know her a bit better.

GK: You are known for such original program concepts as a professional, but the one that stands out most is a piece you won with at the 1980  World Professional Championships. Tell me about the program and your inspiration behind it. 

LB: It was based upon the movie Jonathan Livingston Seagull (originally a fable written by Richard Bach). It was about a bird who didn’t fly with the rest of the flock. He transcended into other dimensions and was able to dive into the ocean. I could relate to that because I was always a bit different and didn’t follow the flock if you know what I mean. And so that really inspired me to make my program.

GK: You and John Curry have a long history together. Please share with me how you met and what your relationship was like. 

LB: John and I were like kindred spirits. We met in London from a young age and trained together at the Streatham Ice Arena in London. We would talk about the possibilities of doing an ice ballet featuring all kinds of dancing. We would improvise and play Romeo and Juliet on the ice.

Everything that John did, he did with finesse. He knew his music and dancing. He danced onstage with Anthony Dowell, one of the greatest dancers Britain’s ever had. He did so many different styles like contemporary, classical and folk. It was wonderful.

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