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Behind the scenes of figure skating - June 5

The Next Ice Age celebrates 20 years

Members of <i>The Next Ice Age</i> perform.
Members of The Next Ice Age perform. (Courtesy of The Next Ice Age)

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By Lois Elfman, special to icenetwork.com
(06/05/2008) - Nathan Birch and Timothy Murphy are Massachusetts natives who got to know each other when they competed at New England regionals as kids. In the early 1980s, both were members of the John Curry Skaters, which performed at the Metropolitan Opera House. When the company disbanded in 1985, they began discussing how they would continue to explore skating as a dance form. That vision became reality in 1988 when they formed The Next Ice Age, which will be celebrating its 20th anniversary during the year ahead.

Home for more than two decades has been Baltimore, Md. Both teach at the Columbia Ice Rink and at the Chesapeake Skating School at the Laurel Gardens Ice House, where they are again teaching Next Ice Age skating classes, which are like ballet classes on ice.

The anniversary celebration begins with the company's seventh year at the Carousel Resort Hotel and Condominium in Ocean City, Md. A cast of four skaters performs a 30-minute show seven nights a week for 10 weeks. Murphy serves as the on-site company manager.

"The summer show is a bit different than what we'd previously performed, because it's geared to a family audience," Birch says. "The music is upbeat, and the costumes are contemporary, and it's fun."

Carousel is a resort catering to families, and the skating rink, which is a fairly decent size (82 x 54), is located in the hotel lobby. The Next Ice Age was originally brought in to boost restaurant and bar business, but over the course of the years, they have developed their own distinct following.

"They have a huge marquee right on Route 1. Every day, all summer, in great big letters, people see 'The Next Ice Age,'" says Murphy. The shows are free and open to the public.

Birch and Murphy joke that with a cast of four, the company has kind of come full circle. Their first show, at the Columbia Ice Rink in Columbia, Md., had four company skaters -- Birch, Murphy, Martha Muth and Pamela Duane (now Pamela Gregory, former coach of Kimberly Meissner) -- who were joined by guest artist Shaun McGill.

"Now that we've done the family audience show and met the challenges of that, the feeling of both Tim and myself and the board members is we would like to pursue getting presented again as a dance company," says Birch. Many of the board members have been with The Next Ice Age since its formation, and Birch and Murphy thank them profusely for their loyalty and commitment.

It would be a return to the style of performances that they presented on stage at the Kennedy Center Opera House in May 1997 and at the Eisenhower Theatre in September 2001. They also did a stage presentation in 1998 at the American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C., where fellow presenters included renowned modern dance company Merce Cunningham.

"We have had fortunate response from the dance world, but everything in the dance world changes from year to year -- just like in our sport," Birch says. "It's something that has to be constantly watered like a plant. I'm sure there are a lot of people in the dance world who have heard of us, but we haven't had a performance like at the Kennedy Center for a few years now. That is something we want to head back toward."

In the late '90s, Birch was the recipient of a grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. With a desire to return to their artistic roots, fundraising will begin anew to meet the costs of mounting such a production.

Throughout the life of The Next Ice Age, Birch and Murphy have done all the choreography. "For our own exploration and our journey as choreographers," says Birch. The only two guest choreographers to create pieces for the company were Laura Dean, "Ocean," and John Curry, "On the Beautiful Blue Danube."

Birch and Murphy have also stayed connected to skating in other ways. For more than 15 years, Murphy has served as coach and choreographer for Dorothy Hamill. "I love my work with her," he says. "I think I've done more than 70 programs for her [four or five in the past year]. She's a great friend. She's on our board. She's a great asset to our company, and she's performed with us many times."

Birch choreographed the programs that Emily Hughes skated at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin. He is currently choreographer for Armin Mahbanoozadeh, a U.S. junior skater. He's also done about eight show programs for Meissner. Murphy choreographs for young skaters and does exhibition programs. He also does a lot of music editing for skaters in the Baltimore area.

Whenever they begin thinking about new programs, they toss around the idea of reviving one of their well-received past dances but almost always decide against that. "We did not choose our name by accident," says Murphy. "Nathan and I have always been interested in what is next. We're looking forward to the next 20 years."

Keep checking their Web site, The Next Ice Age, for announcements about anniversary events.