THE BLOG
12/03/2014 11:09 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2015

Is That Legendary Ballet Edward Villella Choreographing Ice Skating? Yes, It Is!

So it's Saturday night, date night, and I'm looking for somewhere fun to take my wife. Then I see there's something called Ice Theatre of New York. And The New York Times has called it one of the 10 best cultural experiences in New York City.

The New York Times said that?

I dig a little deeper and discover that one of the choreographers is Edward Villella.

Edward Villella?

The great dancer and choreographer of the New York City Ballet?

Choreographing ice dancing?

Am I reading this right?

So off we go, to a community ice rink with seating for approximately 200.

And we see a performance that's powerful, dynamic, exciting, and graceful that it should have been seen by a crowd of 20,000.

So who, or what, is Ice Theatre of New York, and what's Edward Villella doing hanging out with them?

Turns out that ITNY is the brainchild of a Canadian law student-turned-skater named Moira North.

She grew up in northern Canada, skating in the winter and, by her own account, panning for gold in the summer.

She moved to Vancouver, planning to study jurisprudence, but her creative side won out. She skated for four years in some of the major ice shows, touring the world and meeting other skaters who were artists and wanted ice skating to be viewed as one of the performing arts.

"You could compete in the Olympics or other venues," North says, "and you could skate commercially for the Ice Capades or Disney On Ice.

"But what if you wanted to do ice dancing as performance, as an art form, without a profit motive or gold medal driving you? There weren't any options."

So North formed the Ice Theatre of New York in 1984, the world's first not-for-profit ice dance company. After four years, an Anna Kisselgoff review in The Times put the group on the map.

Then legendary skater Dick Button introduced North to Edward Villella in Sun Valley, Idaho, where ITNY rehearses. Villella's wife Linda is a national champion ice skater. The idea of Villella choreographing for ITNY was mooted, but it would be more than 20 years before it finally came to pass.

Villella has created two pieces for ITNY, one a ballet-like piece called Reverie, and the other a fun piece set to music by Artie Shaw called Back Bay Shuffle.

Villella says that there was definitely a learning curve when it came to choreographing for the ice rink instead of the ballet stage.

"First, there's simply the sheer size of the rink," Villella says. "Then, you need to plan for building up speed or slowing down, which are activities that occupy parts of the body that ballet dancers are free to use for other forms of movement."

The dancing master was a natural when it came to transferring his genius to the ice, says ITNY's Executive Director Douglas Webster.

"When people watch ballet," Webster says, "they're seeing the release of the human spirit in the way that people move, and that's also what they see in skating.

"We had to teach Edward the vocabulary of ice dancing, of edges and turns. We planned out the piece together, and then we worked very closely as a couple of dancers, ice skaters, come in, and we would all collaborate. He made the transition seamlessly."

Villella says he loves the experience of choreographing for ITNY.

"My goal," he says, "was to bring my the sensibilities of my mentor, George Balanchine, to the ice, and that's what I think we've done. It also means a lot to me to come into [my wife] Linda's world and make a contribution to it."

Webster describes Villella's choreography thus: "It's accessible work. It serves skating and it serves dance, but it's a hybrid, for sure.

"It's also ensemble skating," Webster adds, "which is something that people don't see. Eight people, four couples, working together to create dance on ice, where it's not an amusement park, it's not Disney on Ice."

Webster says that Villella's ITNY choreography "is truly about the craft. It's not about ego of the star or celebrity who's skating. Instead, it's about the beauty and the actual wonder that skating provides."

So if a Saturday night rolls around and you're looking for something spectacular to do, see if ITNY's performing. It's the greatest show on ice.