Dance: No wonder they call it figure skating

Package tours to Alaska may be the coming thing, but that's not what 280 million people around the world understand as a Holiday on Ice. This spangly phenomenon is not only the best-attended live spectacular of all time, but also, according to The Guinness Book of Records, the most popular (subtle difference) and the costliest to produce. The last you don't doubt. As well as the hardware required to turn Wembley Arena into a frozen pond, the pounds 2m spent on the current show has had to stretch to denuding several sequin factories and half the world's herds of ostrich.

This particular Holiday has reason to push the boat out: it's 50 years since one Professor Perkins developed the technology that made possible the portable ice-floor, and 50 years since Holiday on Ice first glided on to one. Historical perspective provides this show's rather shaky theme, each dance number representing one of the "big events" of the past 50 years. Thus "Liberation 1945", an opportunity for a spot of jitterbugging, is followed by a skit featuring Prof Perkins developing his ice-machine, helped by some fluffy polar bears. There's a sequence about Las Vegas in which a giant roulette wheel sprawling with sequinned lovelies is trundled onto the ice, followed by "The Moon Landing", with Neil Armstrong besieged by yet more sequinned lovelies in Darth Vader helmets. But "The Fall of the Berlin Wall", promised by the programme, somehow happened without my noticing.

The entire exercise in vulgarity has an oddly old-fashioned feel, falling back on the kind of sexual typecasting that makes The Black & White Minstrel Show look like an Equity debate on gender policy. With their tease-me feathers, false lashes and cheesy grins, the girls are straight out of the Danny La Rue charm school. Holiday dress means lots up top - giant headdresses of fluorescent lions' manes, peacock plumes and bowls of tropical fruit - and not much down below. There are no breasts showing - even the raciest costumes have flesh-coloured stockinet up to the neck - but there's a strong suggestion of bare bottom, give or take a whisper of American Tan and a bit of fringing. They don't call it figure skating for nothing.

So what's the attraction of ice? Given the palaver of creating and maintaining the dance-surface, it would be simpler to perform this sort of thing on a solid stage. What sheet ice offers, of course, is an enormous canvas, bigger than any theatre could offer, on which a director with flair can paint in large, bold strokes. The most effective routine in Holiday's more-than-two-hour show is also the simplest: regimented lines of 30 dancers, dressed in a single colour, forming a rotating star. It's a classic: the skaters on the outside scooting to keep up, the ones nearer the hub doing a judicious shuffle. The whole is a feat of military planning, immaculately brought off.

The other thing ice is good at is speed, and once or twice in the solo items we are allowed to marvel at the phenomenon in its purest form. Building momentum round the rink in large, fierce swirls generates a physical thrill for the skater that transfers directly to spectators, not least those near enough to feel the rush of air as he passes. The other great speed-number is the fast pirouette: a champion ice-dancer on a true perpendicular can spin until almost invisible. Even more impressively, once out of the turn, she glides on without turning a hair.

Certain kinds of movement are unwieldy on skates, whatever the dancers' skill. In its desperate search for innovation Holiday on Ice attempts the rumba and the can-can, both somewhat gingerly. It can't be done. Nor can knockabout comedy, to judge by the Ukrainian duo whose chief bid for laughs is to go cross-eyed. Their acrobatics are marked by a dampening degree of caution - quite understandably with the equivalent of carving knives stuck to the soles of their feet. Decapitation would not be funny either.

As entire families rise from their seats for the umpteenth unscheduled loo-break, or to fetch fresh popcorn, you realise that Holiday on Ice is exempt from normal codes of theatre conduct. Witness the bouncers who, during the interval, guard the ice. (From what? a geriatric urge to do a figure-of-eight? Everyone here is over 70 or under seven.) Holiday's nearest cousin is old-style circus, in its determined low-browness, in its marked style that remains impervious to the changing tastes of the real world. Fifty years on I don't doubt the biggest applause will still be for the Quality Street ballroom number, whose climax is the entry of a girl in a white crinoline who just stands and smiles. Why applaud? Because the compere tells us she's going to be married on ice.

'Holiday on Ice': Wembley Arena (0181 902 8833), to 9 Feb; then touring.

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