• Aly Leia Wein

Rock The Rink 2019

When Rock The Rink culminated its two-month-long touring domination of Canada Saturday night in rainy St. John’s, Newfoundland,

it wasn't just the final performance of a spectacular cross-country ice show, it was also the grand finale of the 22-year-long ice dance career of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, aka the most decorated figure skaters in Olympic history. Rock The Rink wasn't only a farewell tour though - it was so much more than that. From overjoyed to heartbroken to elated to every human emotion in existence, Rock The Rink took audiences on a journey of what it is to have lived and loved to the very best of your ability. Canadian skating icons Kaetlyn Osmond, Patrick Chan, and Elvis Stojko joined forces with a cornucopia of international skating talent - Jeremy Abbott of the USA, Carolina Kostner of Italy, and Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov of Russia - to create the dream team that made up this show.

A follow-up to the successful Thank You Canada Tour of last year - also produced and headlined by Virtue and Moir, Rock The Rink added its own unique twist to the undersaturated market of North American ice shows. While The Thank You Canada Tour was quite literally a thank you note to the nation for supporting over two decades of maple leaf-tinted Olympic dreams, Rock The Rink is a love letter to the ice and everything this beautiful, chaotic sport of figure skating represents.

I was lucky enough to be there for both the Mississauga and Ottawa shows and witness firsthand the incredible skill, passion, and frosty fervor of all who set foot on that icy stage. Rock The Rink accomplished what the highest level of skating should do - it made you feel something. Yes, there were complex lifts, soaring jumps, and dazzling choreography, but the RTR team really struck gold with the perfect marriage of emotion and entertainment - a secret sauce that is one of the many reasons some fans flew across the world to take in half a dozen performances of RTR.

What puts the “rock” in Rock The Rink, if you were wondering, is the unexpected yet totally perfect addition of Toronto-based indie-rock band Birds of Bellwoods, comprised of five phenomenal performers - redheaded lead vocalist Stevie Joffe, thoughtful jack of all trades Adrian Morningstar, chaotically exuberant Christopher Blades, sweetheart bass player Kintaro Akiyama, and drummer extraordinaire Dylan Gowan. Those Birds have completely changed the energy of the tour, both on and off the ice, and have added that final dash of magic, elevating the show from something you watch to something you truly experience.

The group opened the show with a 30-minute-set of some of their catchiest tunes, which included “Easy,” “Melatonin,” and my favorite, "A Year Ago." Striking the delicate balance between having a mischievous twinkle in their eyes while still radiating warmth and sensitivity, Birds of Bellwoods are a top-notch crew in every way. Each Bird shines in his own way, and collectively they’re like a treasure chest of musical gems. A brief intermission followed, where fans had a chance to meet “them Birds” in the lobby and pose for pictures - as well as buy some essential merch, if desired.

And then… it was time for the skating!

The cast burst onto the scene in bright hues and even brighter smiles as a rollicking Rolling Stones medley showcased the array of national, world, and Olympic champions. The aptly-named “Start Me Up” kicked things off, and then a chorus of screams erupted when “Sympathy for the Devil” played and Tessa and Scott resurrected their 2017-18 Latin Rock Olympic short dance. The music in RTR, I have to say, is all pretty much universally loved, which makes for a very enjoyable experience from start to finish, whether you're a middle-aged purist or a Gen Z whippersnapper. Something unique about this show was that the focus was more on group numbers than solo numbers, which really added to the community feel of the cast. It wasn't just a handful of accomplished athletes doing their piece and then retreating, it was a family of skaters. Though divided in age, origin, and life experiences, they united as one on the ice.

2014 Olympic ice dance champion Charlie White choreographed the show, which is unique because he and partner Meryl Davis were Tessa and Scott's biggest rivals - and training mates in Canton, Michigan - for the bulk of their competitive careers. No one is better suited - personally or professionally - as Mr. White to help Tessa and Scott bring their fairytale ice dance tale to a close.

So much of the time, ice show choreography can be repetitive from one year to the next, but Charlie - assisted by So You Think You Can Dance? phenom Randi Strong - brings a fresh perspective and employs storytelling-driven movements that complement each skater, as well as create the show's cohesive and distinctive look. The future of skating choreography is certainly in good hands with Charlie, whose work I hope to see much more of - in both the competitive and show skating realms - in the coming years.

And I would be remiss to not mention the beautiful costumes designed by the one and only Mathieu Caron, who is responsible for many of the top skaters' outfits in the figure skating world (including Tessa and Scott, most famously their Moulin Rouge free dance costumes).

The entire show was masterfully curated with both a sense of nostalgia and innovation, adding in dashes of motifs of programs gone by, Olympic medals won, step sequences of days of yore. Blink and you’ll miss some Easter eggs from Tessa and Scott's most iconic programs, including their 2007-08 Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 2016-17 "Latch", and 2017-18 Moulin Rouge free dances. And don’t forget their iconic goose lift, which first made its appearance over a decade ago and continues to demonstrate just why these two are the GOATs (greatest of all time) of figure skating.

Two-time Olympian and four-time U.S. national champion Jeremy Abbott was the first up for solos, skating to Santana’s “Treat,” which is basically the caviar of elevator music. The essence of the melody was translated from sound waves into seamless edges by way of the agile Mr. Abbott - who, by the way, does a number of backflips during the course of this show, and lands every one of them. Jeremy is really the heart of Rock The Rink, and everyone in the cast and crew will say the same. He has a way of bringing people together and is just one of the most wonderful, gracious, down-to-earth humans out there. His light and presence 100% helped make RTR the exceptional show and experience it was.

Next up was Kaetlyn Osmond, whose greatest victory in life isn’t her world or Olympic titles, but the delicate balance of strength and vulnerability that she exudes on and off the ice. Kaetlyn is one of the most refreshing skaters and people I’ve had the pleasure to come across - she takes her struggles, her fears, and her emotions and beautifully expresses them on the ice. She doesn’t just interpret the lyrics of Jess Glynne’s “Thursday,” she embraces them: “Sometimes I'm shy and I'm anxious, sometimes I'm down on my knees, sometimes I try to embrace all my insecurities, so I won't wear makeup on Thursday, ‘cause who I am is enough.” Today's young skaters are so fortunate to have a role model like Kaetlyn to show them you can still succeed at the highest level while being true to yourself. Her program was a joy to watch, and she literally lets her hair down and enjoys every moment, from her beautiful serpentine spiral to triple toe-loop.

Russian Olympic pairs champions Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov have been friends with Tessa and Scott for over 15 years, so it only made sense that they were part of RTR as well. They skated to Whitney Houston's “I Will Always Love You," and it rings especially true, considering they’re married and have a beautiful two-year-old daughter. Combining grit with astounding artistry, they take your breath with every perfectly executed element, from an easy-as-pie death spiral to a massive throw triple loop that rivals most currently competing teams. Tatiana and Max still look and skate like they could walk into any Grand Prix on any given day and smash the competition. They are both so pure in their joy for skating and love for the ice and each other - it’s simply amazing to observe.

Three-time world champion Elvis Stojko seems to get more badass with every passing year, like some sort of figure skating Benjamin Button. And it comes as no surprise that he decided to skate to an AC/DC medley - complete with fingerless leather gloves, skinny jeans, and a mic stand, like the full-on rockstar he is. He made the crowd - especially the older ladies - hoot and holler for him like he was Channing Tatum in Magic Mike. With a spring in his step (and triple jumps) and a scratch spin that rotates faster than the speed of light, Elvis has no plans of slowing down any time soon.

Patrick Chan might have had the most fun out there with his showstopping program, a lively rendition of “Shout,” which featured lots of fancy footwork and some humorous antics. Donning a colorful Hawaiian shirt, Patrick ramped up the audience like an evangelical preacher in a sweltering church, even tossing an autographed sweat towel to a lucky audience member near the climax of the program. He sped across the ice like quickstepping bowling ball, blasting down the lane with a million steps and utter precision. Patrick’s skating skills have always separated him from the rest, even when he was a leader in the quad revolution. Such a joy seeing an all-around great skater in action!

When you think of Italian national treasure Carolina Kostner, one of the first things that come to mind is her breathtaking “Ne me quitte pas” short program, brilliantly competed in both the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons - and now across Canada during RTR! Even without jumping, Carolina's mature skating style and silky quality of movement leave you speechless. Her spin positions and the way her body echoes the melody is unlike any other skater out there. Just like a Tiffany's necklace or little black dress, Carolina Kostner is a timeless classic.

Finally revisiting good ol' Pink Floyd after their “Money/Great Gig in the Sky” free dance from the 2008-09 pre-Olympic season, Tessa and Scott pull out “Wish You Were Here” to great acclaim. The lyrics are poignant, and the beautiful, rustic chords of the song transport the rink into another dimension for a few minutes. When Tessa and Scott are skating, it doesn’t feel like they’re performing - it feels like they’re experiencing firsthand every emotion they project on their faces and incite in their bodies... which is one of the reasons why the world can't seem to get enough of them.

The National Ballet of Canada's Guillaume Cote choreographed this piece, which is very full-circle because many years ago, Tessa had to choose between dancing with Scott or pursuing her dream of becoming a ballerina at the National Ballet. The thing that sets Tessa apart from any other ice dancers is her innate musicality and the way her body moves, stretches, and emotes - it's something that simply can't be taught. The sentimental choreography includes Tessa removing Scott's hands from her face and pushing him away, a gesture that reminds us that this is truly the end of the road for the pair. "Wish You Were Here" is an artistic masterpiece, period - it's wonderful seeing dance enhance skating instead of hinder it.

Through a partnership with Special Olympics Canada, the Rock The Rink took #ChooseToInclude to another level and featured a different local Special O skater or pair at each show. It was heartwarming seeing the audience’s reception to these lovely skaters, and it was the experience of a lifetime for them, just as much as it was for the cast. In Mississauga, we got to view Nicole Vespa and David Robertson skating to a lively Shrek medley. In Ottawa, Katie Xu and Jack Fan “set fire to the rain” with wonderfully executed tango. I hope the gap between mainstream skating and Special Olympics skating can be bridged more in the future. As proven by this experience, inclusion benefits all involved.

Then it was time for the speakeasy medley, one of several group numbers, which is really what set RTR apart. In last year's Thank You Canada Tour, there was a Tragically Hip medley, a flash mob, and a girls vs. boys dance battle (the "dance-off" style was replicated by Stars on Ice with its 90s medley this past spring). But there is just something different, something elevated, about the 1920s medley. Maybe it's the cabaret tables, the fringe-fest of costumes, or the timeless tunes, but this was definitely my personal favorite part of the show. It was very musical theatre on ice, chock full of funny expressions, a variety of storylines, and details on details on details.

Carolina Kostner embodied Jessica Rabbit when she strut onto the scene during "Why Don't You Do Right?" while Tessa and Scott once again demonstrated their command of the blade and sizzling chemistry when they took on Dean Martin’s “Sway.” The full cast had a blast during "When I Get Low I Get High" and "A Little Party Never Killed Nobody," both of which featured poor Jeremy Abbott getting humorously rejected by every woman on the ice! (Don't worry Jeremy, you're always #1 in all of our hearts.)

Birds of Bellwoods returned to the ice to play a special acoustic version of their song, "Let You Go," which was paired with contemporary-style skating by the trio of Tessa, Scott, and Jeremy, in addition to Carolina and Patrick. With the lights dimmed and the bass slowly humming that haunting melody, this was the point during the show - both nights - where I teared up. The lyrics "I'm not strong enough to say goodbye, don't know if I'll survive," seemed to hit too close to home - to say the least, it was an emotional number all-around.

But then it was back to one last fun, upbeat number! The Motown medley was so much fun and featured the cast flirting, flexing, and flouncing around to the beats of Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, The Temptations, and more Motor City hits. In a world where hip hop and rap are growing increasingly, it's refreshing to hear the solid melody and rhythm found in these oldies but goodies. There's partnering between all members of the cast, in what is just a celebration of music and movement.

The medley opened up with "I Heard It Through The Grape Vine," followed by "Stop! In The Name of Love," and "Ain't Too Proud To Beg." Once again, "cool uncle" Elvis Stojko grooved out during "Superstition," and sweethearts Tatiana and Max brought the adorable "You're All I Need To Get By" to life. The Contours' "Do You Love Me?" closed out this colorful cavalcade with a bang and left the audience roaring for more.

Next was the big, emotional 11 o'clock number, which left very few dry eyes in the house. Coldplay's "Fix You" was the backdrop for Tessa and Scott's last hurrah, in which the other members of the cast tried to break them apart, but ultimately they lept back into each other's arms. It was like a flashback of their whole career, ending, of course, in the closing pose from their Mahler free dance that won them their first Olympic gold a decade ago in Vancouver.

The Mississauga show was especially remarkable because a group of fans (organized by @vmdrawings) printed out and distributed hundreds of “Thank You Tessa and Scott” posters to be held up by the crowd during “Fix You.” It was magical to see Tessa and Scott’s reactions after they hit their ending pose and looked up to see all the posters thanking them. They looked so surprised and grateful, and it was a very special moment to be a part of.

Coldplay's "Viva La Vida" wrapped up the show and was the perfect happy ending to a very intense, emotionally-fueled experience. It was the equivalent of the montage at the end of the movie where all the characters are laughing and hugging and living life. If "Fix You" made you cry, "Viva La Vida" made you smile through those tears.

The world has been captivated with Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir for many years, but it wasn’t until they won their fifth Olympic medal (and third gold) that they really rocketed to superstardom. I mean, in what world do Canadian ice dancers appear on The Ellen Show?! But regardless of the hubbub around Virtue and Moir and their decision to hang up their skates for good - aka no more ice shows either - one thing is for certain: they are truly two of the finest skaters to ever grace the ice. By bringing together this incredibly special group of people, they have continued to make their mark on figure skating and make it accessible to the masses.

So while one chapter is set to close, we're two years out from the next Olympics, and the sky is the limit for what the future of skating will hold. I think it's a bit bittersweet, but also very hopeful. The Dr. Seuss quote, "Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened," seems very appropriate here.

Thank you, Tessa and Scott, for over two decades of sweat, blood, tears, ingenuity, creativity, and hard, hard work. And thank you to this incredible cast and crew for bringing your own special touches of magic to Rock The Rink. Here's to what's next.

All photos by Aly Leia Wein/Edges of Glory