The toughest aspect of transfering beloved fairy tale Cinderella to an ice-dancing stage had nothing to do with the performers' breakneck mid-air spins or subzero chills, according to the director.
The test, says Tony Mercer - the creator of ‘Cinderella on Ice’, currently performing at ADNEC in Abu Dhabi  - was to take a story everyone knows and make it relevant to their lives.
“The story of Cinderella has been around for a couple of hundred years and everyone is familiar with the Disney version, the one that I call the fluffy, glossy one. But the story of Cinderella is all about a girl that has been put down, who has suffered the trauma of losing her mum, and it is about how she rises up from that,” says Tony. “It’s the story any young teenage girl nowadays could go through. You never know who you are walking past in the mall - that girl could be going through the exact same thing,” he says.
Tony’s ‘Cinderella’ maintains a period setting, but that’s where the ‘playing it safe’ ends. “Everybody expects ugly step sisters, for example. Mine are drop-dead gorgeous,” he says. “My Cinderella is actually an aspiring dancer in a local dance school. The stepmother is the dance mistress at the school, so Cinderella is put down in two ways, at home and at school. She has some amazing talent and isn’t allowed to shine because the stepmother wants her own daughters to have it.”
Yet ‘Cinderella on Ice’ does present one unavoidable physical challenge - at some point the heroine must lose her slipper.
“Technically it is extremely difficult,” says Tony. “The girl who plays Cinderella does do that, she does lose her slipper, which is her skate, then she performs without it, so you understand the point. Skating on one blade is difficult.”
Tony began his career far from an ice rink. In fact, his early roles included working as a tour manager and production manager for musicians such as The Three Degrees, Kool and The Gang and Dionne Warwick. Yet he always maintained a love of sport, especially figure skating. After being glued to the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics , in which British duo Torvill and Dean dominated, Tony had a flash of inspiration.
“Having watched Torvill and Dean, I thought; ‘Wouldn’t it be great if you could take what you’ve seen in the arena and put it on the stage?’” he recalls. That eventually led to the creation of his Imperial Ice Stars company, which also offered a post-competition career option for lots of ex-professional figure skaters.
But competitive skating and theatrical skating is very different, says Tony.
“I say to all of the pros when they join me, ‘OK, put your medals away. We all know you have great blade technique. We all know that you know how to use your body to dance. What you are now going to do is learn how to use your body to tell a story through movement’,” he says. When colleagues at Imperial Ice Stars suggested that their next show should be Cinderella, it was also expected they use the traditional Sergei Prokofiev ballet score, something Tony was against.
“Beautiful music, but it was written for a ballet and we are not ballet. The movement that we have is far greater, like the ability to move at speed and our lift techniques. Prokofiev’s score was written for people that specifically go plod, plod. And I thought, if I use Prokofiev, I would forever stay in that bracket of ‘ballet on ice’.
So to get past that challenge, I decided it was worth the extra $100,000 spend to get an original score.”
BREAK A L...DON’T SAY IT!
Traditionally you’d wish a performer good luck by saying ‘break a leg’. But the non-stop injuries of the ice-dancing world - Tony and Co travel with their own doctor - mean you’d best not say it at ADNEC. Tony laughs as he explains his favoured theory of where the saying comes from: “It’s nothing to do with the body. You had ‘legs’ down the side of the stage - decoration.
In the old days, understudy performers would wait in the wings and be brought on quickly. So they would say to understudies ‘break a leg’, meaning they were going to get paid that night - break a leg of the set decoration.”
By Julian Pletts