Katherine Hill and Ben Agosto pose in front of a poster for their new Cirque du Soleil ice show, "AXEL."
It’s a new world for 2006 Olympic silver medalist ice dancer Ben Agosto and noted choreographer Katherine Hill.
They are expertly versed in elite competitive skating, where creativity is important but getting all the moves in for max points matters more. Now their newest project, working on the creative team of the new Cirque du Soleil ice show “AXEL,” has dropped them into the happy abyss of making the wildest ideas become real.
“AXEL,” Cirque’s second foray into arena-based ice shows, opens Oct. 4 in Cornwall, Ontario, and is booked to tour across North America into early spring 2020. It’s a mix of skating, plus Cirque’s noted acrobatics, innovative lighting, set design and costumes, all set to a score of current pop hits and newly composed music.
Agosto and Hill, herself a former competitive skater, have been working on the project since last fall, moving to Cirque’s headquarters in Montreal for the summer to prepare the show in ongoing rehearsals. Cirque custom built a practice space and laid ice to the exact size and working set of the touring show in a warehouse.
“It is a breath of fresh air from the standpoint, we had no rules and the sky is the limit,” Agosto said, about his mindset in creating the “AXEL’s” skating. “But that also comes with the certain amount of pressure, because it is Cirque du Soleil — everybody knows Cirque has no limits. You have to meet that big challenge.
“It has been so rewarding, very exciting, to feel like we can think outside of the box. No question is too crazy to ask. The more outlandish the idea, the more celebrated it is here. That is an amazing space to be in as a choreographer and skater.”
Agosto, a five-time U.S. champion, four-time world championships medalist, two-time Olympian and U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame member, is best known for his long-standing partnership with Tanith Belbin-White. They retired in 2011, moving on in the skating and sports world. Agosto has dabbled in TV but is doing more coaching, consulting and mentoring.
Hill moved on from competitive skating into the creative side, working for years as a creative movement specialist and choreographer for theater and on the ice.
Different forms of skating will be highlighted in “AXEL,” such as dance and pairs, but the show also features newer forms, such as freestyle. Acclaimed U.S. skaters such as ice dancers Karina Manta and Joe Johnson, and other high-level skaters, will be part of the cast.
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(L-R) Ben Agosto and Katherine Hill posing for a picture together.
“This show truly is great combination of all disciplines, there is a lot of skating,” said Hill. “It is something very important, that we put the show together, we wanted all figure skating to stand on its own. The beauty and athleticism of skating — it’s there. We have been really able to highlight skating on its own terms and combine it with the Cirque acrobatics and magic."
Agosto and Hill said they wanted to show the diversity in skating creativity, and they made a point of reaching out to find skaters that go unseen in the competition system or in traditional shows.
“They are free spirits, their own breed of wildly creative skaters — I love them,” Agosto said. “They are like hip-hop dancers, B-Boys, a totally different flavor on the ice.”
Being free to dream big comes with the reality of execution. And there are some serious constraints. The Cirque ice surface, because of the show, is significantly smaller than an Olympic-sized rink. The choreography needs to address new ways to enter jumps and moves in a tighter space. The skaters, called “artists” in Cirque language, will be performing in 10 shows per week, so careful thought needs to be given to the physical toll on their bodies.
The cast of 41 artists developed new skills: the skaters learned acrobatics, and the acrobats learned how to skate.
Creative and innovative moves are great in theory but will only make the final show if they are also safe and sustainable for the artists, Agosto said. He was part of the creative team for Cirque’s first ice show “Crystal,” and said he learned a lot to help him make “AXEL” stronger.
An interesting twist in the Agosto-Hill partnership is their status of also being together off the ice. Some advised them to not work together, as the long hours could cause friction in their relationship. Normally, they are on opposite sides, coaching and choreographing for skaters that compete against each other.
This time, they were able to be together, and Hill said their close bond makes everything work. They have tried out a few of Cirque’s acrobatic elements together, such as getting rigged to fly, to get a feel for what the artists will need to do.
“We have felt extremely lucky to work together, and that would not be possible without constant communication,” Hill said, adding a laugh. “It’s been an absolute blessing to tackle such a fun and exciting project, and we can share the highs and lows on and off ice with each other.”
Agosto added, “It’s beautiful to share such an exciting professional experience with our personal person. It’s something that I’ve watched people do over the years, and I wished I was able to do it, too. We have this time together and, not going to lie, putting this together is pretty stressful because we want it to be fantastic — but we’re doing it together. And us together is even better than could have imagined.”
Joanne C. Gerstner has covered two Olympic Games and writes regularly for The New York Times and other outlets about sports. She has written for TeamUSA.org since 2009 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.