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Bezic comes full circle with "Ice Castles"

Renowned skating stylist follows in her own choreographer's footsteps

For the choreograher, Sandra Bezic, it was important that the stars, Taylor Firth (left) and Rob Mayes (right), were comfortable on the ice.
For the choreograher, Sandra Bezic, it was important that the stars, Taylor Firth (left) and Rob Mayes (right), were comfortable on the ice. (Chris Large)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(04/15/2009) - Almost every skating fan of a certain age has a favorite scene from the 1978 version of Ice Castles.

Maybe it's when Lexie Winston's hard-drinking original coach, played by the late Colleen Dewhurst, tailors a simple blue costume with "Lexie" embroidered on a white Peter Pan collar. Or perhaps it's when Lexie's opportunistic second coach calls triple jumps "acrobatic stunts." Or it could be the skater's triumphant return to the ice.

"I think we all have our own memory," said Sandra Bezic, one of the choreographers for the upcoming Ice Castles remake.

"For me, it's more of a personal connection. My choreographer, Brian Foley, was the original movie's choreographer."

Before she gained renown working with skaters like Brian Boitano, Kurt Browning and Tara Lipinski, Bezic and her older brother Val were five-time Canadian pair champions (1970-1974) who placed ninth at the 1972 Olympics and skated professionally for a number of years. Foley, a well-known dancer and educator who also choreographed for Dorothy Hamill, John Curry and Toller Cranston, created many of their programs.

"I remember he was leaving for the movie, and when he came back, he had a lot of stories to tell," Bezic said. "So when I got a call to do the remake, I was tickled. How cool is that? Everything has come full circle.

"They wanted me to be involved, and I knew I had experience that would be helpful to everyone."

That call in January thrust the Toronto-based Bezic into a whirlwind of movie-related activities. She had several meetings with the film's director, Donald Wrye, who also directed the 1978 original. She was also busy studying audition tapes and choreographing for the movie's star, Taylor Firth, who placed 13th at the 2009 AT&T U.S. Figure Skating Championships in January.

As Bezic explained, time was of the essence, because outdoor scenes had to be filmed in Halifax, Nova Scotia, before the ice melted. Ice Castles is scheduled for release prior to the 2010 Olympics.

"We first had to get to know Taylor and her range," Bezic said. "We had eight days in Toronto, and we could have used three times that. There was almost no pre-production. There was a lot of work to do, a lot for Taylor to absorb."

Bezic's programs for Firth traced her character's progress.

"The first time you see Lexi [new spelling], she's doing a small competition with a self-choreographed program -- sweet and innocent," the choreographer explained. "It had to look like something she would do herself."

"The next piece was done by her coach, and it's appropriate for a bigger competition. The final program is to the Ice Castles theme song."

The time frame was further constrained by a decision, fully supported by Wrye and Bezic, to re-cast the leading role. Initially, an actress was cast as Lexi. After due consideration, it was decided a skater was needed.

"We lost a week of rehearsals," Bezic said. "But it was a wonderful change to switch to Taylor. What's so terrific is it's as it is in the original movie. It's real skating [Lynn-Holly Johnson, who played Lexie in the original, was a former nationals competitor].

"Originally, we had used an actor and a skating double. I felt strongly that did not live up to the original movie, that to do it that way it was a different movie, without a skating centerpiece. The director also felt that way; he wanted a skater, not an actor."

Once Bezic and Wrye saw Firth, their minds were made up.

"It was exciting to find Taylor. We first looked at her as a possible double. When [the decision to switch to a skater] was made, I said to the producer and director, 'She's your girl,'" Bezic recalled. "Just her personality -- her joy, youth and enthusiasm -- is perfect for the role of Lexi."

Firth's fellow U.S. competitor, Molly Oberstar, also won a role.

"I worked on a number for Carrie Turner [Oberstar's character], Lexi's competitor, who is sort of unintentionally pushed aside by Lexi in the movie," Bezic said.

"In making the movie, no one is going on the ice who can't skate. That's why we made the choice to put the coach [played by Morgan Kelly] in shoes. There was no point putting skates on. The lead male, Rob Mayes, is comfortable on the ice; he worked at it."

Bezic was unable to move to Halifax for the six-week shoot, which began two weeks before the 2009 ISU World Figure Skating Championships, due to her commitment to provide NBC with commentary during that event and her motherly duties to her 15-year-old son, Dean. Instead, another renowned Canadian choreographer, David Wilson, worked with the skaters on location.

"We tag-teamed, and it really worked well," she said. "I've been so lucky in my career to work so much during the skating boom in film and television [including on the Emmy-winning Carmen on Ice in the 1990's] ... . Since the drought, current choreographers haven't had the same opportunities, so I was happy to be able to call him.

"The word I get from the set is that there's a great energy there. All of it is really special and so good for figure skating. It's the real thing, and it's being done lovingly."

Bezic, along with Michelle Kwan, also plays a cameo role as a television commentator.

"It was just a day, in and out, a couple of lines together," she said. "It was great to have Michelle on the set."

While Bezic continues to choreograph show numbers for pros, as well as exhibitions for eligible skaters, she's largely absent from the competitive scene.

"NBC doesn't want me to work with any top competitors, and I respect that," she said. "I have done exhibition programs for Takahiko Kozuka and Yu-Na [Kim], and I will probably do one for Patrick [Chan].

"When you work with competitors, they require 100 percent of your involvement, and I did that for so many years. It's a very emotional thing and a big responsibility. I did not want to take on anything I could not give my absolute all to -- the way I did for Brian, Barb [Underhill] and Paul [Martini], and Kurt. That's not to say I wouldn't in the future. But whatever I do, I always give 100 percent."