It must tell us something that the ice found in arenas is always known as "artificial." Artificial ice, how curious. Why don't we also say the cubes that come from the Kelvinator are artificial? I'll have a Scotch on the artificial rocks. The frozen water that Bobby Orr and Richard Dwyer make their livings on is man-made, true, but artificial? One might as well say that Colonel Sanders' chicken is artificial, that direct dialing is artificial, that Orange County is. Why, then, do they always call it artificial ice? Perhaps because, of all our spectacles, those staged on ice appear the most unreal.
That frosty world presents two extremes, hockey and ice shows. Hockey is played by toothless, lumpy men with pumpkin faces, their lacerated bodies further deformed by the most hideous uniforms—swollen stockings, robot gloves, droopy, diaperlike pants. Their actions are macho and choppy, any stylishness swallowed up in a mean jumble of collision and casual pain.
But just as grotesque in a sugar-plum way are ice shows, which are even more make-believe than hockey. They are so lovely and neat that the heavy high boots soon look like Mercury's sandals, the skaters' sweat like champagne drops. The costumes celebrate the human form. To an obscene world the shows bring beauty; to a disorganized one, pattern; to a dowdy one, grace; to an artificial one, the grandest tinsel-plated artificiality.
The bastard child of sport and vaudeville, related by presumption to art, the ice show is an enduring form, but only momentarily gratifying. For one evening we escape and, by God, we follow our best instincts to dreamland. And that's not bad. But when it is over, when the last skater departs through the curtain, there is nothing left except the ice...and that is artificial. It is very much like Emmett Kelly sweeping a spotlight under the rug.
Nothing lasting is offered by an ice show, because only illusion is there to start with. An ice show is parasitic. Its performers are taken from athletics; its music from Broadway, Vienna, The Top 40; its comedy and costumes from burlesque and Ziegfeld; its movement from the dance; and its themes from the obvious. The most predictable criticism of ice shows is that they never change. In fact, ice show critics change less than the shows. The skating gets better, the productions more lavish, the staging sharper. But the ice revues never appear to change, because they carefully stay a step behind the real world. So no matter how much the shows advance, they always seem static.
Ice shows have come to ordain the popular nice things in our culture. Something has truly arrived and is certified when an ice show builds a number around it. This year there is the Bicentennial (of course), country music, Dyn-O-Mite, nostalgia, physical fitness, Busby Berkeley. Safe and sound. You want avant-garde. Buster, you go consort with the Maharishi, with Charles O. Finley, Woody Allen, Eric Sevareid and other far-out radical types. This is Family Entertainment. Ice Follies irritated some fans back in the '60s by updating a little too vigorously with some loud, hard rock. No ice show is going to make that mistake again.
Well, to be fair, there is one aspect of an ice show that has been raised to true art. The exit. Of all those who come and go for a living—actors, salesmen, politicians, thieves, the Gabors, clergy, athletes, children, dancers—none depart so well as ice show performers. Zip! zap! and they're gone at full speed. Nothing else really belongs to an ice show quite the way leaving does. Exit.
JOHN MARTIN, "THE NEW YORK TIMES" DANCE CRITIC, 1939: The ubiquitous art of dance has poked its nose into the field of the sport on something more than a mere snooping expedition. There is definitely something of great interest to be developed in the realm of the ice ballet [but] at present its virtues are also its handicaps. The marvelous capacity for effortless speed, for smooth continuity of motion, leads ultimately to monotony.
KEN SHELLEY, ICE CAPADES, 1975: The problem we face is basically with the pieces of steel on our boots—we're limited by them.
In uncertain, hard times, America turns to the ice shows for spangles and solace. They were created in the Depression and they are still glamorous and live—independent of television. Little else surviving in sports or entertainment can make this boast. As many as 10 million paying customers will see ice shows in the U.S. and Canada this year, and largely because of their popularity here and abroad, ice dancing was included for the first time in the 1976 Olympics.