Entertainment Performing Arts

Meet the local skaters in Cirque du Soleil’s “Crystal”

Robin Johnstone and Andy Buchanan in the "Courtship" segment in "Crystal." Photo by Matt Beard.
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Cirque du Soleil hits the ice with Crystal — and for one Sarasota skating couple, it’s the chance of a lifetime.

You know what to expect from Cirque du Soleil: astonishing acrobatics, dynamic choreography, stirring music and killer visuals.

But… ice?

Yes, ice. In Cirque’s new touring production, Crystal, the stunts may seem more stunning, the dances more graceful and the thrills more thrilling (and chilling) because much of them will be carried out by performers on ice skates. And since skating requires a rink, Crystal’s run in Tampa from Dec. 19-23 will take place, where else, but at the home of the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Amalie Arena.

The hockey sequence in “Crystal.” Photo by Matt Beard.

So it’s quite apt that one of the most heart-stopping segments in Crystal evolves out of a hockey game, in which the players — daredevil extreme skaters dressed in hockey gear — do flips, twists and jumps at full speed from huge ramps (think skatepark on steroids).

And that, of course, is not all. There’ll be trapeze artists twisting and jugglers juggling (on ice); pole-to-pole jumps, synchro skating, even tap dance (on ice); and something called banquine, which involves throwing people very high in the air and hoping their partners will catch them (on, in case you forgot, ice).

The “Tempete” sequence in “Crystal.” Photo by Matt Beard.

At the center of all this is a personal narrative that’s reputed to be one of the most direct and affecting yet seen in a Cirque show — the story of a young writer named Crystal, who is trying to find her voice amidst the deadening routine of daily life. That she does so via a crash through the ice, encounters with mysterious Shadows, an air-borne pas de deux, and what may be the highest chair-balancing act ever seen – well, that’s what makes it Cirque.

The chair-balancing act in the office sequence. Photo by Matt Beard.

If the addition of ice-show elements to Cirque’s already eclectic mix is exciting for audiences, it’s been positively life-changing for professional ice skaters.

Andy Buchanan.

“We’ve been waiting our whole careers for this,” says skater Andy Buchanan, 41, who performs in the show with his wife, Robin Johnstone, 44. The Canadian-born couple, who now live in Lakewood Ranch, spoke to me by phone from Green Bay, Wisconsin in the midst of the Crystal tour, which began in July and will continue until May 2019.

Both grew up in the world of professional skating — met there, in fact — and have been married 11 years. Having performed all over the world, co-starring in, among other shows, Holiday On Ice and Disney on Ice (where their roles included Aladdin and Jasmine and Tarzan and Jane), they hadn’t been planning on touring again. But when this opportunity came up, they couldn’t resist.

“Skaters had been waiting for Cirque to have a show for so long!” says Robin.

Neither of them was a stranger to acrobatics — “Robin and I had done aerial in other shows,” says Andy. “But Cirque,” he emphasizes, “is at a whole other level. We’ve been learning new things every day.” At the same time, they’ve been teaching skating to the acrobats.

Sharing the tricks of the trade is nothing new to the couple. When they’re home in Sarasota, they practice at the Ellenton Ice and Sports Complex, where many of the country’s top Olympic pairs skaters train. “We get to show them a lot of things that aren’t legal in the competitive world,” says Andy. “Certain things that cross the acrobatic line.” In turn, the Olympic skaters share what they’ve learned from coaching and competition.

Robin Johnstone.

Andy is an adagio and pairs skater in Crystal; Robin is a Shadow, a Businesswoman and understudy to the lead role. “I get to go in quite often as Crystal,” she says. “Anybody has to be ready for anything to happen. It’s kind of non-stop.”

Talk about non-stop: at the time of our call they’d already performed in 46 cities.But they can’t imagine it any other way. “We met on the road,” says Robin, “so living and working and hanging out together is our normal.”

And they also get to share special experiences off the ice. They’d just played Winnipeg, which is where Robin is from: “We had a lot of visitors every night – friends, family, ex-skating colleagues from when I grew up, my old coach. And we had Canadian Thanksgiving, too!”

Robin’s favorite thing in the show is to skate with Andy. “In the romantic numbers [like “Courtship”] I really feel like I can get into character.”

Andy loves dancing with Robin, too, especially in the finale.

Andy and Robin make some startling moves in the “Courtship” segment.

“We get to do a trick called a caniche. Two acrobats take her by the arms and legs  and swing her back and forth until she gets up to velocity, and she flies 10 feet across the air and I catch her with her leg around my neck. And then we do a neck spin.”

You can find it on Andy’s Instagram. Like everything else in Crystal, it looks pretty amazing.

Cirque du Soleil: Crystal, Amalie Arena, Tampa, Wed.-Fri., Dec. 19-21 at 7:30 p.m.; Sat., Dec. 22 at 4 and 7:30 p.m.; Sun., Dec. 23 at 1 and 5 p.m. Tickets at 1-877-9CIRQUE or cirquedusoleil.com/crystal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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