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Pandora Unforgettable Holiday Moments on Ice

by Dorothy Knoell

photos by Shirley McLaughlin

Christmas came a bit early for skating fans in Jacksonville, Fla., as Pandora’s Unforgettable Holiday Moments on Ice arrived at the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Coliseum featuring holiday music from Mannheim Steamroller and Martina McBride and top-flight skating from a cast that included Olympic gold medalists Brian Boitano and Ilia Kulik, world champions Todd Eldredge and Kimmie Meissner and other top skaters.

“This is fun for me,” said two-time U.S. champion Alissa Czisny, who is recovering from hip surgery and has been using various shows to help her get back in competitive shape. “I enjoy performing and this was a fun show for me.”

The male-heavy cast included former national champions Michael Weiss, Ryan Bradley and Czisny, along with professional champions Elena Leonova and Andrei Khvalko and special performers Ekaterina and Alexander Chesna, whose high-flying performance to open the second act brought oooohhhs and ahhhhs from the large, enthusiastic audience.

Mannheim Steamroller is a mainstay in Christmas music and Christmas music tours, and the group has been a mainstay of Disson Skating Christmas shows for many years, as well. This year’s cast did a nice job of spreading Christmas cheer using Mannheim Steamroller music, and McBride provided a nice touch with four beautiful songs, two each in the first and second acts.

Olympic gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi served as a hostess for the show, introducing the acts both in person and in voiceovers. Weiss helped with hosting duties as well as skating, although he announced a year or so ago that he planned to stop performing and move on to other things. But with a couple of last-minute cancellations among some of the performers, he was on the ice as well as on the stage for the show.

“I don’t know,” Weiss said with a smile and a sigh after the show when asked about his short retirement, “I keep trying to retire, but Steve (Disson) keeps pulling me back with opportunities like this. He’s been so good to me over the years, and always has things for me to do, so I don’t know when I’ll actually retire.”

Fans at the show were probably glad Weiss is still on the ice at times, as he had a couple of good performances, to Something You Should Know with McBride (the second performance in the first half) and Angels We Have Heard on High to Mannheim Steamroller in the second half. He struggled with some jumps, but was still trying the more difficult triples, and his backflips were a hit, as always.

McBride, introduced to the fans by Mannheim Steamroller founder Chip Davis, opened the show (after a nice ensemble opener to God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen by combining with Meissner on a beautiful rendition of The Christmas Song. Meissner looked happy and relaxed as she exhibited nice spirals and spins and a beautiful double Axel. The 2006 world champion said she is enjoying skating and coaching as she also goes to school after leaving skating for a year or so.

“I’ve been coaching for a year and a half, about,” she said. “I got burned out for a while and stopped skating, but once I got back on the ice, I was wondering why I ever stopped. I love it. I had to learn a whole new jump technique, it’s taking a while to get those back, but I love coaching and I love performing.”

Meissner returned in the second half to perform to Pat a Fum medley (a medley of Pat a Pan and Fum Fum Fum). She took a fall on a triple toe loop, but hit a couple of nice double Axels.

Eldredge, who is also coming back from surgery (ankle), performed to Joy to the World in the first half and Deck the Halls in the second. Still limited with jumps, he hit double Axels in both programs and earned a big response from the crowd for his signature spin.

Bradley is always a crowd favorite with his engaging grin and big tricks. The 2011 national champion said he is still enjoying his performing career and trying to get the most out of it by putting everything into it. His performance to Hallelujah included a couple of triples, a double Axel and a huge backflip. In the second half, he was delightful to Little Drummer Boy, keeping character throughout and still including a couple of triples.

Czisny was beautiful and lyrical to Faeries in the first half, with her lovely spins and gorgeous spirals highlighting the program. In the second half, she connected with the crowd and with McBride, who was standing on a platform in the middle of the ice and was as enthralled as the audience with Czisny’s skating. The two-time U.S. champion performed to McBride’s playful rendition of Let it Snow. Czisny tried only one double Axel in the two programs. She had qualified for Midwest Sectionals (Nov. 19-23) and said she was planning to try to earn one of the four spots to Nationals,. She had surgery in 2012 for a torn labrum in her left hip, and dislocated that same hip in January of this year.

“The surgery was in June, and it’s been a slow process, but it’s been nice to be back on the ice and build slowly toward my goal,” she said. Unfortunately, a day before Midwesterns opened, Czisny withdrew from the competition, saying her rehab was going well, but was not to the point where she was prepared to compete.

"It's a tough decision for me not to compete at Sectionals this week,” she said in a press release from USFS. “I've given my very best to make a full recovery and a successful comeback to competition, but I'm simply not yet completely prepared to be competitive. I've made great progress, and all the elements are returning, but it's been slow and I cannot rush the process without risking further injury.”

The Chesnas opened the second act with a flying act to music from The Nutcracker. They wowed the crowd with acrobatics above the ice, using long cloth streamers to get them off the ice and heart-stopping acrobatics once they were airborne.

Leonova and Khvalko also elicited a lot of wows for their acrobatic lifts and tricks (the headbanger always earns a lot of gasps), but also suffered a rare fall on a usually rock-solid throw double Axel. Leonova crashed hard on the move during warm-ups, and said she suffered an ankle injury at that time. But that wasn’t going to stop her from performing the couple’s first-half wrap-up program to Good King Wenceslas. The rest of the program was every bit as powerful as usual, and drew a huge reaction from the audience. Their second-half program to White Christmas was beautiful and wistful and included a lovely sail move. /p>

“So it hurts, but you just go on and do it, anyway,” she said after the show.

The couple split time between Russia and the U.S., and said they spent the summer performing in the Sun Valley Ice Show. The couple said their two daughters, aged 10 and 5, are doing well, with the youngest starting into skating, while the older is already an elite triathlete.

Despite the sore ankle, Leonova also joined a gorgeous trio performance with Bradley and Czisny, who were breathtaking to Mannheim Steamroller’s signature piece Silent Night. The audience was hushed as the three glided and spun and twirled in a beautiful piece put together by show choreographer Steven Cousins.

Kulik was in top form in both his programs. Some 15 years after his gold-medal performance in Nagano, he still has his big, effortless jumps – doing six triples, including Lutz, flip and toe, over two performances – but also exhibiting interesting footwork and movements to fit each different musical choice. In the first half, Christmas Lullaby was full of silent speed and intricate footwork, while his performance to McBride’s What Child is This in the second half was softly powerful and tender.

While Kulik most consuming interest lately has been the new ice rink that he and wife Ekaterina Gordeeva have opened in Lake Forest, Calif. (Orange County – kuliksskating.com), he said performing is something he still loves to do and thinks helps him as he works as a coach as his new rink.

“I try to take as many chances as I can to do this,” he said, referring to his performances in the show. “For me, it keeps me moving forward, giving me more to offer my students. I think it helps when I am still performing and working on the ice, it allows me to help my students more.”

If his performances at this show were any indication, he has an awful lot to offer those students.

Boitano performed to Mannheim Steamroller’s Do You Hear What I Hear in the first half. He said music itself – a simple refrain repeated several times, with, he said, a “tinkle-y” feel -- was the inspiration for his charming program. He said he’d been tempted to wear a stocking cap and old-fashioned skating regalia, as he based the movements on figures and the training drills that young skaters use as they learn to skate, but instead opted for a red turtleneck and red pants. He moved through the very simple maneuvers to the more complicated figures and on to more sophisticated edgework, spirals, spread eagles, etc. Many in the audience likely didn’t recognize the figures – which, after all, haven’t been a part of competitive skating since they were eliminated in 1990 – just as most probably didn’t realize, or couldn’t believe, that Boitano has reached the half-century mark a few weeks earlier.

“Nah, I don’t think many of them (recognized he was doing figures),” he said with a chuckle after the show. “But that’s what I felt like I should be doing to that music, and it was fun.”

Boitano skated with a youthful joy throughout the program, fitting a triple Salchow and a couple of double Axels in with all those more basic skating moves, in a program had fans smiling and cheering at the end..

The 1988 Olympic gold medalist wrapped up the solo portion of the show to Chicago’s version of I’ll Be Home For Christmas, a jazzy, upbeat performance that featured Boitano grinning and interacting with the audience – and tossing off a couple of double Axels and a triple toe – and the whole audience overflowing with joy and the Christmas spirit.

Mannheim’s Carol of the Bells gave all the skaters a chance to take one final bow and gave the audience the opportunity to give all the performers, both musical and on skates, a well-deserved standing ovation.

Retakes gave everyone the chance to spend a little more time with the skaters, although most of the skaters corrected their bobbles in one take. Leonova and Khvalko got perhaps the biggest cheers, as she landed the first one, but something was deemed to be wrong by Khvalko, who stopped immediately, and the pair tried it again – and again, Leonova nailed the landing and smiled hugely as the crowd cheered. Meissner got in a couple of triples, and Bradley nailed a triple-triple.