Choreographer ushers in a new era of dance with troupe of good skates

April 30, 1993|By Mike Giuliano SO:Contributing Writer

Scientists may talk gloomily about global warming, but Nathan Birch would much rather talk gleefully about the Next Ice Age. Of course, he happens to be artistic director of the ice-skating company of that name.

Mr. Birch takes ice-skating seriously. In fact, he looks on it as an art form on a par with classical and modern dance. And he invites the public to have a look for itself when his Baltimore-based company performs tomorrow night at the Northwest Ice Rink in Mount Washington.

"I'm not interested in the sport of skating or the showmanship of skating so much as in the art of skating," he says. "What separates dance from skating is that skaters can glide. We also can go at great speed, and we can make our bodies lean at sharp angles." His hands slice through the air to emphasize what he does ordinarily with his skate- shod feet.

If he smiles a lot as he talks, he has reason to: His company has reached its fifth anniversary; he has been blessed with choreographic grants from the National Endowment for the Arts; and the company will be performing in England in a couple weeks.

Things didn't seem quite so certain when he and Timothy Murphy founded the company here, but he never doubted the artistic course he wanted to take in the highly commercialized world of ice-skating.

"Any good choreographer is a director, which is what prompted me to start my own company five years ago. I wanted to create something on my own from beginning to end. When I started, I knew nothing about running a company," he says.

He and Mr. Murphy, native Bostonians, had belonged to a widely touring company run by John Curry, the British skater who sparked recognition of the artistic potential of ice-skating. However, Mr. Curry's company folded after two years.

Wearing an embarrassed grin, Mr. Birch says he survived this bleak period by touring in a Vegas-type ice revue in which he was clad in a kitschy "costume with a fringe on it."

But he also performed with the renowned Ice Theater of New York, which in many ways acted as a role model for the company he later founded in Baltimore, where he first moved to teach.

He says Baltimore proved an attractive place to start an ice dancing company. The many adults who study skating at area rinks translated to a core audience, and relatively low rink rental rates meant his company could rehearse without having to obsess over how much it cost.

The Next Ice Age's performances were well-received from the start, and even the stay-at-home crowd got to know the company through such gigs as a "First Night Annapolis" New Year's Eve program telecast by Maryland Public Television.

Mr. Birch himself received considerable recognition when he became the first ice skater to be given a choreography fellowship from the dance program of the National Endowment for the Arts. He received $7,000 in 1992 and earlier this year received a second grant for $20,000.

Mr. Murphy also has been gliding along, having just been appointed director of the Ice Capades by its new owner, skating star Dorothy Hamill. (Incidentally, Mr. Birch choreographed Ms. Hamill's "Nutcracker" for NBC in 1990.) Mr. Murphy is expected to continue working with the Next Ice Age, which only performs as a unit several times a year.

That kind of skaterly cohesion isn't surprising when you consider Mr. Birch discusses his company in terms of being an ensemble rather than a collection of flashy individuals.

The program reflects the company's evolution from using mostly classical music to a more eclectic approach. It also reflects Mr. Birch's preference for movement and metaphor rather than narrative.

"I'm not literal in the choreography I've done. I don't use skating as a narrative, because [skating] is so inherently dreamlike. What drives me crazy is that people always ask me what the pieces are about. But if I tell you what they're about, that limits your imagination."

The first two pieces on the program sound like metaphysics on ice. "Cosmic Messengers," set to a score by jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, is described by the choreographer as being alternately "meditative and frenetic." The second piece, "The Akashic Records" (from a Sanskrit word meaning "primary substance") is set to music by the French composer Debussy in what amounts to an East-meets-West hybrid.

The evening's third piece promises to be a startling chance of pace.

"I'm known for doing these heavy dramatic pieces about life and death, so the last piece on the program will be my attempt at being humorous," Mr. Birch says of his tongue-in-cheek "Nancy Sinatra Sweet."

Dancing to a handful of Ms. Sinatra's immortal hits, skaters will be wearing lime green miniskirts to evoke the appropriate '60s aura. A guest skater for this piece is Jo Jo Starbuck.

Tomorrow night's program will help raise money to send the company to England as part of a "Skate for Life" AIDS benefit May 15 that will be telecast May 31 on the BBC2. Ms. Hamill is scheduled to be among the many skaters in the British program.

The Next Ice Age

When: 7 p.m. Saturday.

Where: Northwest Ice Rink, 5600 Cottonworth Ave.

Tickets: $10.

Call: (410) 685-4977.

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