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Champions are made in 'Theater on Ice'

'Forrest Gump' on ice? SCV skaters bring teamwork and touching stories to the ice

Posted: August 13, 2009 9:40 p.m.
Updated: August 14, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Darian Weiss, 16, and Rachel Trail, 13, perform a swan lift. The group includes skaters from throughout Southern California, including many from the SCV.

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Showing off their skills and following their dreams is all in a day's practice for local team members of the Los Angeles Ice Theater.

Located out of Burbank, the senior level "Theater on Ice" team consists of 28 ice skaters, ages 11 to 21 and includes many members from the Santa Clarita Valley.

The team is gliding through national and international Ice Theater competitions and coming out champions.

"I saw this team perform one day and I knew I wanted to be a part of it," said Jessica Pilner, 10, a Valencia resident and first-year team member. "It's really fun to be theatrical and skate at the same time."

The team takes amateur figure skating to a different level by utilizing elaborate staging, sets, costumes, music and choreography to tell a story on ice. A relatively new development in the United States, the concept combines the grace of figure skating with the excitement of theater and dance.

The team has performed stories on ice such as "Forrest Gump" and "The Lion King."

"This is a very unique kind of theatrical experience," said Danelle Cole, the team's director and choreographer. "It's truly amazing to see the way the audiences respond. The movements on ice and touching story lines combine to make a strong impression."

Cole, a United States Figure Skating double gold medalist, was approached about starting the theater-on-ice team back in 2000.

With the assistance of Coach Jennifer Brenson, along with parents of skaters, the team achieved nonprofit status in 2001. The team was formed to provide quality performance and cultural exposure opportunities to eligible young figure skaters from the greater Los Angeles area. From preliminary to senior level skaters, the team includes youth from different age ranges, backgrounds and skill levels.

"Joining the team is a way for skaters to feel connected to other competitive skaters, whose training can be very intense and solitary," said Cole. "This kind of teamwork in the sport offers a social experience to skaters who may want to perform but choose not to pursue a solo path."

Theater on Ice competitions have been held in France and throughout Europe for more than a decade.

The concept was something Cole knew would draw much excitement in the states, where the idea was gaining slow but steady recognition.

"The best part of our team is no one skater is the star - everyone is equal regardless of age or ability," said Cole. "They really respect each other and it shows every time they perform on the ice."

Jessica Terzian, 17, a recent Canyon High School graduate, agreed.

"Being with the team is like having a big family out there," Terzian said. "We put our hearts and souls into everything we do and it's so nice to feel supported. We take care of each other and just have a lot of fun."

Terzian said the connection between team members helps take the edge off during competitions. Los Angeles Ice Theater is no stranger to competing. Since its inception, the team of 26 girls and two boys has entered and won multiple international competitions, medaling in each.

Past and present team members have competed at the U.S. Junior National Championships, U.S. National Championships, Junior Worlds and U.S. National Showcase.

In 2008, the team competed in the first United States Figure Skating on Ice National Championship Competition, held in Burlington, Vt. The team triumphed, taking home the senior title as the first U.S National Champions in Theater on Ice.

At the 2009 National and International Theater on Ice Competitions in Bensenville, Ill., the team defended its title as national champions, taking home the gold medals in both competitions.The team is ranked first worldwide over others of its kind.

"I had never won anything like that before," said Mandee McFerren, 15, a Valencia High School sophomore. "It's something that no one can take away from you. Once you know you've earned it, it's the greatest feeling ever."

The other national titleholders on the team agreed with McFerren.

"We work so hard and always give it all we've got," said Elizabeth Brennan, 16, team captain. "It teaches us to persevere and that we can overcome anything if we work hard enough."

Both teamwork and hard work paid off during one of the group's toughest moments.

Cole recalled a hair-raising experience during their second trip to the International Competition in Asnieres, France in 2007. Leading up to the actual competition, the team faced a series of mishaps such as lost skates, late buses and no translators during practices.
"Everything that could go wrong, did," said Cole.
In the presence of international judges and an arena full of fans, the team began their five-and-a-half minute program only to have their music begin to skip, leaving two minutes of dead air.

"They began counting the beats and singing the music while continuing to skate perfectly, as if nothing was wrong," said Cole. "All I could do was just cry watching them. The audience began giving them a standing ovation and the energy just exploded."

The team not only won the hearts of everyone present, they also took home the gold medal. In addition to competing, the team also puts together an annual "Cabaret on Ice" benefit show, which raises funds for their performances and trips to competitions.

The shows are put on by the Ice Theater at their home rink of Pickwick Ice Arena, in Burbank.

"These shows are so much fun and the stories we do are really good," said Sami McCain, 13, of Valencia. "This is my second year on the team and I love it. Our performances even made some people cry."

The team makes numerous special appearances including regular performances at Los Angeles Kings hockey games, holiday shows, charity events, movie premiers, media events and live telecasts. They are also invited to perform for grand openings of seasonal ice rinks and private parties.

In April of 2010, the team will represent the United States in the World competition in Telouse, France.

"Now our work is really paying off," said Arin Delos Reyes, 12, an Arroyo Seco Junior High student and a team member for the past four years.

Only the top three winning teams from the adult, senior and junior divisions of the national competition will be competing for the title of world champion.

"I believe in our team," said Brennan. "This is what we love to do and no matter what, we will always feel good about it because we always do our best."

Besides the on-ice training and practice sessions each week, off-ice training sessions are also mandatory, often featuring guest instructors who work with the team on every aspect of theater and performance such as dance, acting, make-up, conditioning, singing and choreography.

Such efforts give Los Angeles Ice Theater the winning edge, said Cole.

"My skaters have a confidence that draws you into their performance because of how engaged they are," she said. "Watching them reaffirms the love for skating and the beautiful process of creating art on ice."

To learn more about the Los Angeles Ice Theater, visit www.laicetheater.org.

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