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Pandora Unforgettable Holiday Moments on Ice

Story by Dorothy Knoell Photos by Shirley McLaughlin

This isn’t the first – or even the fourth or fifth – time that Mannheim Steamroller had combined with Disson Skating for a skating show. But although skating and Mannheim have combined many times before, both managed to make Nov. 10th’s Pandora Unforgettable Holiday Moments on Ice at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Ariz., feel fresh and uplifting, even though Christmas, which was the music that was featured in the show, was still six weeks away.

Practices and the show were upbeat, fun and well performed by the performers on the ice and the performers on the stage, which included Megan Hilty, from the NBC show Smash!

Most of the cast gathered at a rink in Scottsdale for practice on the Thursday before the show. The Ice Den was cold – sometimes, we forget just how cold practice rinks can be – but had, if orange cones could be believed, it had a much bigger ice surface than would be available to the skaters a couple of nights later at Grand Canyon U. Perhaps it was because there was so much ice available, the area available in the cones appears very, very small, and several skaters had to adjust as they tried to stay within the cones. Headliner Brian Boitano was having the most trouble as he tried to adjust one of his programs – a signature piece of his, Nessun Dorma – to fit within the cones. Several times, he moved the cones out just a little – didn’t know if that would work for the show, but it helped him fit a jump in at the Ice Den!

Eligible skaters Ashley Wagner and Mirai Nagasu were not at practices on Thursday – they had other things to do before the show – but the rest of the cast, bundled up against the cold, was on top of things, Steven Cousins was directing traffic, as the director/choreographer of Disson shows this year, and he proved to be good at having fun with the group (he said he found out that he would be skating in the show, as well as directing it, just a week or so before the show when Alissa Czisny had to pull out because of injury) and still keep the skaters focused and working hard on choreography.

Saturday’s dress rehearsal at the Grand Canyon Arena rink was a lot of fun. Megan Hilty was on hand to sing her pieces, and it was obvious she hadn’t seen the skaters performing in front of her before. As Ashley Wagner finished her runthrough to Sign Of Love, sung by Hilty, the singer could be heard saying, “That was so beautiful. … Wow!” Mannheim Steamroller is used to having skaters performing in front of them, of course, but still had a few comments here and there and reactions to skaters as they tried to make thing work exactly right.

And from the this-is-why-you-have-dress-rehearsal department, in the finale, as Joannie Rochette and Wagner finished their turn on the ice, they were supposed to be rejoined by Kimmie Meissner, Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernyshev and Nagasu. They waited … and waited … and waited … until the skater suddenly realized they’d missed their cues and hustled out onto the ice to form their circle and kneel down – laughing all the time. Happened again a while later when Elvis Stojko missed his cue, as well. Lots of laughter – and proof of professionalism as, on the re-run, every cue was hit exactly.

After rehearsal came a few minutes with what appeared to be some lucky winners of some local contests, as Boitano, Stojko and the rest of the cast meandered around the ice with several youngsters – Tchernyshev did some dance lifts and poses with a couple of teenage girls who were smiling deliriously, and the other skaters spent time with various youngsters.

The show itself started a bit late, perhaps due to a traffic jam outside the arena (mostly due to some road construction, and partly due to a fender-bender accident in the road construction area) which made many of the attendees late. But the arena was mostly filled with what appeared to be mostly skating fans (at least, it was the skaters who got the biggest cheers, which isn’t always the case in these shows).

And the skaters responded with a very clean, very well-skated show that was full of high spirits and sharing emotions with the audience. Cousins did well with short notice, opening the show to Gagliarda and performing well to Carol of the Birds in the second half. Lang & Tchernyshev, who are seldom together and tend to make up their programs over Skype and then during the practice sessions for the show (they were obviously doing just that on Thursday, working extra time putting together their two programs), were, as usual, smooth and together and always crowd favorites. Their interpretation of Greensleeves (or, in the Holiday Season spirit, What Child Is This?) was sumptuous, with gorgeous costumes (in green, of course) adding to the feeling. In the second half, they delighted the audience with a playful performance to Winter Wonderland, as “poor Peter” couldn’t ever get quite color coordinated with Naomi’s winter apparel, try as he might, and she continued to refuse to recognize him as long as he wasn’t coordinated with her. Sigh. It was adorable.

Meissner’s White Christmas included a triple toe and double Axel, both very strong and nicely done, and her second performance to I Saw Three Ships also looked good. Nagasu combined with Hilty on Silver Bells, hitting a triple toe and triple loop and including some nice one-foot footwork. Her second-half was one of the highlights of the show, as she and Meissner combined forces on God Rest Ye – a perky, Victorian-themed piece with the clippity-clop beat of a horse. Obligingly, Meissner and Nagasu each tried to outdo the other in giddy up skating, having such a good time with each other that the audience couldn’t help but have a great time, too. (Neither could the cast – every time that piece had played, even in practices when Nagasu wasn’t there yet, everyone in the cast had provided their own “cowboy up” interpretation of that piece.)

“It had that kind of beat, and they said that’s what they wanted to do, so I said, ‘Go ahead,’” said Cousins when asked about the piece.

Ryan Bradleywas perfect to the drumbeat of <>Little Drummer Boy, including his big technical stuff, too, with a triple Lutz, loop and flip. His second-half performance to <>Good King Wenceslas was another hit with the audience. Bradley has become a better and better performer since he turned pro, and is always an audience pleaser.

Rochette was delicate and lovely to Lullaby and joined Hilty for a beautiful performance to Christmas Song. Wagner’s Joy To The World included a nice triple flip, and also lots of personality in a go-go-go program. In the second half, she was again “just beautiful” to Hilty’s Sign Of Love, with two triples and a double Axel and a pretty split falling leaf.

Stojko, back on the ice after taking a break for a few years, looked trim and fit and like skating was fun for him. He was very good in a slower, emotional performance to Northern Lights, then upbeat with lots of fast footwork in Carol of the Bells. His triple toe and double Axel were high and light and the audience loved his scratch spins.

Boitano wrapped up a near-flawless first half with a smooth, powerful, flawless performance to Hilty and Mannheim’s combined performance of O Holy Night. Triple toe, triple Salchow and double Axel were all beautiful, but it was a lovely spread eagle that earned the biggest applause. His second-half performance of one of his signature pieces, <>Nessun Dorma, was powerful and beautiful, although the small ice did manage to bite him a bit, as he needed a quick hand down as he swung around to avoid the stage on that pesky toe loop that had given him trouble in practice around the cones.

It took only moments to complete the retakes, since there had been few miscues. Rochette hit a triple toe on the first retake, then Boitano, appearing to move down just a hair on the ice for the retake, so he had an extra stroke to take in the lead-in to the toe loop, nailed it with no trouble on the first take. Meissner quickly turned a popped toe loop into a triple, although there was a moment when she was told she’d have to do it again because she didn’t include the requisite “15 seconds before and after” of choreography. She happily pointed out that there was only about 10 seconds of choreography after the jump before the program ended, so she didn’t have to redo. Rochette, back for a retake on a double Axel in her other program, nailed it on the first try, but had to retake again because of a wrong light cue. About that time, the stage hands realized that electric candles, used by the skaters in a beautiful portion of the finale to Silent Night, were still arranged along the front of the stage. They were removed as Rochette tried a couple more times to get the Axel right – don’t know if they’ll show up in the retakes for the other skaters.

But whatever happens with the candles, the audience went away happy and full of Christmas spirit, even if it was a bit early, as the skaters and musical guests provided a wonderful evening of holiday entertainment.