Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier have strummed the dance strings of long ago, and what sung loudest to them was a classic: “Mack and Mabel.”
“It’s one of our all-time favourites,” Gilles said, beaming after leading the rhythm dance at Autumn Classic International with 79.61 points, just .83 points short of their career best.
And “Mack and Mabel” put them there, leading over fellow Canadians Carolane Soucisse and Shane Firus, out to make people remember their names this season.
Anyone familiar with the history of dance knows that “Mack and Mabel” was a glorious ground-breaking free dance done by 1984 Olympic champions Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, garbed in costumes that looked like spun gold. They were the untouchables back then, bringing a new energy to the sport just when it needed it. That was 37 years ago.
They won the European Championships in Lyon, France in 1982, and for their free dance, they received three marks of 6.0 for technical merit and eight of nine marks of 6.0 for artistic impression. They went on to win the world title in similar fashion.
Those who dared skate to Torvill and Dean music over the years risked unfavourable comparisons. Yet there have been a number of those brave souls who have skated to “Bolero,” the music of Torvill and Dean’s Olympic free dance.
“Mack and Mabel” has largely rested its heels in fond memories. Until now.
The rhythm dance choices that dance teams have had to make this season have been fraught with difficulty. The International Skating Union has asked them to skate a partial compulsory step, the Finn step, a very difficult version of the quickstep, invented by the lively minded Finns Susanna Rahkamo and Petri Kokko. It’s difficult enough by itself. But layer on top of it the theme of Broadway and teams have been cracking the books and the soundboards to find Broadway music that falls into the tempos of quickstep.
“We found it a challenge to get the right type of tempo,” Gilles said. “We were listening to a couple of different Broadways that we were falling in love with. But just making the right mash-up to fit with the Finn was kind of tough.
“But this program almost did itself. It knew almost exactly where to go and where to cut and then it just slotted in at the end of the program. It wasn’t too much of a challenge when we found this piece.”
Both Gilles and Poirier have watched Torvill and Dean’s “Mack and Mabel.” It is the story of a silent movie director Mack Sennett and his leading lady, Mabel Normand, who had a tempestuous, on-again, off-again relationship. The storyline is tragic. But Gilles and Poirier wanted a light and bright program, more about the creation of the movie, with a fast, upbeat tempo. Torvill and Dean’s version is bright and upbeat, too.
But Gilles and Poirier wanted to be careful about how they choreographed the piece and how they selected the music. “We didn’t want to just redo Jayne and Chris’s program,” Poirier said. “I think having the lyrics really helps because back in the eighties, you couldn’t have music with vocals. So you really wanted to use the versions from the Broadway show with the vocals.”
Interestingly enough, people who have already seen Gilles and Poirier’s “Mack and Mabel,” have noted that the music sounds familiar, but can’t quite put their finger on what it is. Gilles and Poirier want that.
“We want our music to sound familiar, but we don’t want it to be just a copy of Jayne and Chris,” he said. “It’s a program we really admire and we think that it’s taking a big challenge on ourselves to try that music.
“But it’s something that we wanted to do and we felt it was a piece of music that allowed us to show the Broadway theme to the best of our ability, as we believe Broadway should be.”
This means that they wanted real Broadway suits. “If we could wear top hats, we would,” Poirier said.
It really is only because of Torvill and Dean that the “Mack and Mabel” music is familiar to anybody. The real Broadway show ran only for nine days and folded. Torvill and Dean found the music in the Radio Nottingham sound library, dusted it off and brought it to life.
And now, decades later, a pair of cheeky Canadians will try it again. In their own way. A modernized version. “This is our moment to have it as our special piece,” Gilles said.
Gilles and Poirier usually work as a unit to do choreography with coaches Carol Lane and Juris Razguliaevs. But this time, they brought in renowned (off-ice) dance choreographer, Jeff Dimitriou, known for his work creating the opening ceremonies for the Pan American Games in Toronto several years ago.
“We knew we wanted to bring someone with a dance background into a program like this because it needs to be Broadway,” Gilles said. “We wanted to make sure it was very authentic.”
Dimitriou pushed them out of their comfort zones, she said. They did choreography off the ice for a full week, then transferred it onto the ice. “It’s weird having a third person in your unit, because you get so used to the choreography process and it’s going to be like this, or that,” Gilles said. “But he really mixed it up and challenged us to do something better than what we had done before. We are very happy with how it’s turned out.”
They are in the lead by almost seven points. Saturday, they will perform their “Both Sides Now” free dance.