As the music of Mendelssohn fills the rink, seven world-class skaters glide toward the center of the ice, braiding themselves, then separating, and braiding again as if they were genetic strands of the sound. As they move, they seem to breathe the same breath, pursue the same thought, spring from the same curve.
They arch in effortless arabesques. They jump and spin in a way that is both fearless and hopeful. They are all the things you once thought you could be.
Suddenly Nathan Birch calls a halt to the magic. It's time to review a fine point of interpretation.
"Remember, we're looking for curiosity, here, curiosity! Let's just quickly listen to this again as a group," he says, hunching into his leather jacket. Hands on hips, wiping away perspiration, members of the Next Ice Age skating company huddle around a CD boombox as their choreographer illuminates the depths of this passage.
Nathan Birch and Ice Age co-director Tim Murphy are redefining America's ideas about ice-skating. Next week they will bring their 15-member Baltimore-based skating company to the stage of the Kennedy Center Opera House, where they will perform with a live symphony orchestra on ice as black and shiny as marble.
They will present three world premieres, including a nine-minute solo for one of their most ardent supporters, the legendary Dorothy Hamill, who is moving to Baltimore to be near them.
"I think the dance world is going to flip," says Charles Rinehart, one of the artistic directors of the prestigious American Dance Festival. "And the skating world is going to realize this is an art form as well as a sport."
Rinehart has traveled to the Benfield Pines Ice Rink in Severna Park with his wife and ADF co-director, Stephanie, to watch this rehearsal. Last January, on the basis of a video and a fervent recommendation, the couple booked the Next Ice Age sight unseen into the Kennedy Center after the Kirov Ballet canceled.
For Birch and Murphy, the phone call brought the biggest opportunity and challenge of their careers. It meant assembling 14 skaters they knew could handle new material on practically no notice. It meant raising $80,000 for the lodgings, rink time and coaching necessary to learn and perfect 97 minutes of skating. It meant creating three world premieres.
It meant pulling together in three months what could easily take two years.
Now, the Next Ice Age is about to be judged by thousands of Washington dance lovers who have already seen performances by Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp and the Dance Theater of Harlem this season. Rinehart has no doubts about its appeal.
"Imagine being able to hold an arabesque and cover space at the same time!" he enthuses as a grove of skaters passes. "It absolutely frees dance."
It also liberates skating, its fans say. No longer is skating merely scoring hockey goals or landing quadruple jumps. The Next Ice Age is exploring the soul of music through the power of the skate's edge, finding new ways to turn sport into art.
Introducing John Curry
Nathan Birch and Tim Murphy have known each other since they were kids. They grew up in Massachusetts, met at the Skating Club of Boston and competed against one another as teen-agers.
"Nathan would win one, and then I would win one," Murphy says.
They didn't become friends, however, until they joined the skating company of John Curry, who founded the art form of artistic ensemble skating 21 years ago.
When Curry started his company, group skating was basically variations on a Las Vegas-inspired theme. The British skater, who won an Olympic gold medal in 1976, pioneered the notion that ensemble figure skating could be as beautiful as ballet -- as long as the skaters are trained as dancers.
For the 10 years it existed, the Curry Company stunned critics and audiences. Further blurring the distinctions between skating and dance, Curry commissioned works from Twyla Tharp, Peter Martins, Laura Dean and Lar Lubovitch to perform in addition to his own pieces.
For Nathan Birch, Tim Murphy and Dorothy Hamill, who first worked together in Curry's company, ensemble skating changed their careers.
Next week's engagement at the Kennedy Center is not only a leap forward but also a promise to the past. Curry, who died of AIDS in 1994, hoped Birch and Murphy would continue to transform figure skating.
After Curry's company folded in 1986, Birch and Murphy started their own. They moved to Baltimore -- where rink time was relatively cheap and plentiful -- and founded the Next Ice Age in 1988.
For the next four years, the nonprofit company presented artistic ensemble skating shows -- some with appearances by such artists as John Curry, Dorothy Hamill and Jo Jo Starbuck -- at the Columbia Ice Rink and at Baltimore's Northwest Ice Rink. Birch became the first skater ever to receive three consecutive fellowships from the dance program of the National Endowment for the Arts. Murphy also became a master of skating choreography: He is the only choreographer Dorothy Hamill uses for solos.