The Canadian company brings a unique form of contemporary dance to this month’s Melbourne Festival.

In 2005, a group of former figure skaters in Montreal, Canada decided to turn their back on the sequins and scoreboards of competitive skating and explore a new form of contemporary ice dancing under the moniker Le Patin Libre, meaning “free skate”.

“We didn’t really know what Le Patin Libre was going to be. All we knew was that we wanted to break free from the constraints of the competitions and show business. So at the beginning it was just funny and rebellious with a bit of teenage spirit to it,” recalls Alexandre Hamel, one of the original founding members.

Over the first five years, skaters came and went and the project gradually evolved. The current line-up has been together since 2011 and now tours regularly internationally, thrilling audiences with its unique, signature performance style, which combines the subversive wit of street dance and the technical virtuosity of contemporary movement with the adrenaline-infused speed, athleticism and grace of ice skating. Le Patin Libre makes its Australian debut this month when it performs Vertical Influences at the Melbourne Festival.

Le Patin Libre consists of five performers (four men and one woman): Hamel, Samory Ba, Jasmin Boivin, Taylor Dilley and Pascale Jodoin. They are all trained in figure skating except Boivin, a cellist, electronic musician and DJ who first became involved with the group as a composer. “Just for fun he started to skate more and more, and at some point we realised we loved his style, which was completely different from ours but very interesting – more like urban dance, I’d say. In Vertical Influences, it worked really well to integrate him into the show, and he also composed the soundtrack,” says Hamel.

Co-choreographed by the five performers themselves, Vertical Influences premiered in London in October 2014. In a five-star review, The Guardian described it as “an engaging body rush of a show” with “choreography of exhilarating inventiveness”.

The group has certainly come a long way since its formation when it was forced to rehearse outdoors. “At the beginning we were part of the elite skating schools in Canada and what we were doing was seen as a rebellion – but it was a rebellion!” says Hamel with a chuckle, over the phone from Montreal. 

“The coaches and the people who manage the community of traditional figure skating didn’t like what we were doing so we were expelled from the world of the skating schools. There was no budget so we went skating where it’s free. These were the frozen ponds and the ice rinks that are in parks in Montreal, and from there we did performances on those surfaces at the winter carnivals, which are a tradition here. It was small at the beginning. We could not expect that it would lead to where we are now.”

Vertical Influences features two works. They are “quite different”, says Hamel, but both focus on what makes Le Patin Libre unique – epitomised by the glide. “If we wanted skating to become a form of choreography and an artfrom, we had to find our own modern voice and why are we using this medium instead of dancing,” says Hamel. “We found that gliding [makes it possible] for human bodies to be in motion through space without the body or limbs actually moving. The glide is the way to make those two things completely independent. You can be standing still but going through space at 40 kilometres an hour. Both pieces in Vertical Influences are focussed on that choreographically.”

Though abstract, Influences explores the tension between an individual and a group. The second piece, Vertical, plays with the relationship between a united group and the audience. For Vertical, audience members sit on seats on the ice. “The fourth wall is completely broken. We really play with perspective – the fact that we can be very far away and then one second later we can be very close,” says Hamel.

“We skate towards them at speed and then turn away [at the last minute]. We can feel people having that almost physiological reflex reaction. It’s like ‘oh my god! Let me get out of the way!’ as they feel the rush of air.” Jo Litson

Vertical Influences plays at O’Brien Group Arena, Docklands from October 15-22 as part of Melbourne Festival