Breaking the ice for Britain

PUBLISHED: 12:00 11 October 2017

Art on Ice. Photo: Erwin Zueger/Art on Ice

Art on Ice. Photo: Erwin Zueger/Art on Ice

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The world’s most successful show this year – beating the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Justin Bieber – is a Swiss figure skating performance. Could the British warm to it, asks WAYNE SAVAGE?

The UK’s mild weather is perhaps to explain for our uneasy relationship with ice.

Despite an intense, if short-lived, fascination with Torvill and Dean, and the odd subsequent spasm, induced by the Winter Olympics or latest series of Dancing on Ice, the British have never particularly warmed to the frozen stuff.

Getting out on it, or watching other people get on it, remains a fringe activity on these shores. Elsewhere in Europe, things could not be more different. Not only is the brutal, frantic sport of ice hockey – or just ‘hockey’, as it is usually known – a mainstream concern on much of the continent, but so is speed skating.

Figure skating, too, is a popular and well-supported pursuit, attracting interest more than just once every four years. Indeed, its massive appeal in Europe is such that this year, the most successful entertainment show in the world has been Art on Ice, an ice skating spectacular based in Switzerland.

The Zurich show is built on the simple concept of sending out onto the ice some of the world’s best figure skaters, to the accompaniment of music performed live by some of the world’s greatest musicians.

It grew out of a conversation, in 1995, between Swiss skater Oliver Höner and businessman Reto Caviezel, over a few drinks in Zurich’s Splendid bar. Höner, who won the Swiss national title 11 times (he came 12th at the 1988 Olympics at Calgary), had just finished his first skating show as a producer when the pair struck on the idea of a performance backed by live music, rather than a taped backing track.

The resulting show became a Swiss institution and has been the country’s best-selling event for years. Now, the organisers are looking further afield and – ambitiously – setting their sights on the sometimes ice-averse British.

“I’m talking to different people right now,” says Höner. “If we talk about London there are at least two venues that are totally suitable. It’s one of Europe’s – one of the world’s – entertainment capitals. You have a lot of music stars, musicals, concerts, agencies, management...”

The idea of moving abroad has been encouraged by their recent number one slot, in a chart calculated by trade publication Venues Today, for shows of a comparable size. It compares events around the world, taking into account venue capacity, attendance and ticket prices. Art on Ice came in above Bruce Springsteen, Andrea Bocelli, Justin Bieber and Cirque du Soleil, among others.

“I’m very proud,” Höner says. “It’s the second time we’re been rated the number one show. It’s encouraged us to get more focused on a long-term strategic international roll-out... The focus on going abroad wasn’t really that big before but I think now is really the time to do it; the interest is there.”

A few years ago, the organisers did take the show on the road, on an ad hoc basis, for performances in cities including Shanghai, Prague, Budapest, Tokyo and Sheffield. The difference now is that the aim is to create a more established international tour and perhaps even, ultimately, some permanent bases overseas.

The organisers are also in serious discussions with China. “China has the most potential. There are millions of people coming new to the entertainment market. The 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing is coming along and the government is supporting winter sports and entertainment,” Höner says.

“We just started the process (of discussions) and we’ll see where it’s heading to; it’s really difficult to say where we will go with it.”

The current focus is on next March’s shows, inspired by the story of Wolfgang Beltracchi, a German artist and forger who was jailed in 2011 for mimicking greats like Picasso and Ernst. His paintings graced the walls of museums and art galleries around the world, selling for millions, before his scam was uncovered.

“He’s paid all his dues and he’s now selling his own art,” Höner says. “It’s an interesting story and I’m really looking forward to that one, it’s a totally different angle. The theme will actually be art; paintings, sculptures. We’ll start the production side of it in the middle of October. That’s when new numbers and the stage design will be developed. We’re still about to finalise the contract for the music acts and it’s probably going to take another two to three weeks until I can announce those.”

Previous artists include Chris de Burgh, Donna Summer, Mick Hucknall, Seal, Anastacia, Chaka Khan, Simon Estes, Lana Lang, Nelly Furtado, Robin Gibb, Leona Lewis, Ronan Keating, Hurts, Zucchero and the Sugababes.

“It’s wonderful to work with such talented people.” Höner says, “We also produce big music festivals and other stuff but with Art on Ice you really work with those people. We talk about the set list, that I need different songs than they would normally do in their set or even make new arrangements. You create something unique, that’s the fantastic thing about it.

“There have been so many fantastic people that have been great to work with – Roger Hodgson of Supertramp, Jessie J, The Jacksons, The Scorpions, James Morrison...”

Höner, once ranked number eight in the world, says his years competing paid off when he switched to producing shows. “I stopped in 1991 and then I went on performing in shows until 2000. Back then I was a good skater ,but of course there were better ones otherwise I would have won the World Championships,” he says. “My goal was to achieve something where I’m the best in the world and producing this kind of show is the motor for that.”

He laughs when asked if he thought Art on Ice would still be going 20 years after that first show, when 6,500 people packed into Zurich’s Hallenstadion.

“I didn’t think it would become the largest entertainment show in Switzerland. I hoped it would grow but I thought after a certain time maybe the people have seen it and they’re getting bored but that wasn’t the case, they wanted to see more. It’s important to get over what it is and to make people who have never seen the show understand what they can expect.”

In those early days people wondered if the concept would succeed. The skating fans might not like the music acts and vice versa. The trick, says Oliver, is targeting people who just love being entertained.

“They go to see movies, shows, musicals. I also don’t target a fan-base of a music act. Of course the music act is important because people say ‘okay, it’s a big star, it’s going to be great music’ and that’s the confidence builder for buying a ticket. But it’s not ‘we’ll only go because it’s Simply Red and we’ll never go again because we’re only Simply Red fans’. My audience is 90% non-figure skating and non fan-base orientated. It’s enter-tainment and you’re seeing the best.”

Figure skating without music, he adds, isn’t really skating and not that much fun. Art on Ice – especially the budget, Höner laughs – has grown over the years with the addition of acrobats, dancers, performance artists and remote controlled stages that float across the ice. Every single year is different and they never use the same artist or the same look twice.

“It’s always a unique thing. People come every year and I still find new audiences. From time to time I hear them say ‘oh it’s the first time I’ve seen it, I didn’t know what to expect but it’s great because I was never a fan of figure skating, I never watched it but now I want to see it again’. Building that type of audience, that’s a success.”

It’s a formula that might even thaw British interest.

  • Wayne Savage is an entertainment writer

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