CLOTHED IN AN eclectic assortment of warm-up duds, members of the Next Ice Age stroke the virgin ice at the Dominic M. "Mimi" DiPietro Family Skating Center in Patterson Park. Silently, they get a feel for the surface, executing crossovers, counter turns, and other basic skating moves in preparation for the demanding rehearsal ahead.
The skaters from throughout the country and Canada have gathered in Baltimore for the artistic skating ensemble's upcoming week of performances at Columbia Ice Rink. Among them is Olympic gold medalist Dorothy Hamill, in a white pullover top and a black, diaphanous skating skirt.
Following the balletic regimen established by his mentor John Curry, Nathan Birch calls class, and has the skaters, in pairs and threesomes, glide and scull back and forth across the rink, which echoes with his instructions. "Bring your arms through on the collections," he says, as the skaters join their feet in small leaps called collection steps.
The object is for the seven skaters, all veterans of Curry's now-defunct company, to work in absolute synchronicity. But Birch spies tiny imperfections. "These are not particularly difficult exercises," he says rink side. "And these are some of the best ensemble skaters in the world. Just to give you an idea how difficult the art form is."
It has been three years since Birch and his colleague Timothy J. Murphy formed the Next Ice Age. As former competitors and later members of Curry's skating ensemble, the duo has long shared a passion for skating as an evolving art form more akin to dance and theater than contest or glitzy, empty show.
Based in Baltimore, the Next Ice Age started small, as a five-member troupe. In well-received works, Birch and Murphy as well as cutting-edge choreographers fused the essence of dance and skating into dazzling works of intricate footwork, lilting and lightening-fast passages and sculptural group movement.
Buoyed by grants, a successful membership drive, and Birch's meticulous attention to detail, the Next Ice Age has grown into a healthy non-profit art ensemble known internationally among skating circles for its pioneering work. Unique in its mission, the ensemble is also comparable only to the Ice Theater of New York.
With next week's ambitious series of performances, Birch, 28, is taking a giant leap.
"I am a big risk taker," he says. "If you want to do something new, you cannot be afraid of risk."
Birch is anchoring the show with "Sisyphean Victory," which he has set to the first three movements of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6, a work he has been devoted to since his competitive years. It is Birch's dream to stage this piece in Leningrad in 1993, on the centennial of its premiere in the same city.
Without Hamill's presence, performing a work of this scope would be impossible. But the well-known figure skater -- who has skated with Curry, and has worked with Birch on her "Nutcracker on Ice" production -- expressed interest in giving the Next Ice Age a boost by lending her name and expertise to one of its productions.
Hamill "was the impetus," Birch says. "I didn't know when I would ever be able to do it" otherwise. Birch hopes her reputation will draw the audience required to pull off such an ambitious show. "Her coming here is opening up all sorts of doors for us," he says.
But Hamill, who will perform several solos as well as skate with the ensemble, is not just a famous draw, Birch says. "She is a really, really good skater, not a cute little girl with a cute hair cut. She is interested in true skating. If another skater [had wanted to do this] I might not have done it."
With this performance, which will also include solos built by Birch and Murphy, the Next Ice Age is entering an era of production that Birch has "been dreaming about." Seating for the show will be erected on the ice, and will face a stage area as spacious as an opera house stage. Although skaters will have less room to maneuver, they will have more exit and entrance options. And Birch's vision of presenting skating performances in a format similar to other that of other dramatic art forms, will find a literal translation at the Columbia Ice Rink. "We want to build all our choreography in this kind of space," Birch says.
By bringing a production with a classical heritage to an ice rink, Birch believes he is bridging the gap between popular and high culture. The Next Ice Age performance will attract "people who go to see the ballet or opera and bring them into rink. And we're taking people in the rink and putting them into the theater," he says.
As well as transforming skating venues, Birch also hopes to teach audiences not to expect simplistic, "boy meets girl" story lines. "I want to break people of that fear" that they cannot understand a work of art, Birch says. He calls the works he has created, such as "Full Circle," set to Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" and "Called Upon," to Mendelssohn's "Reformation" symphony, "abstract narratives," which lead an audience on an emotional, if not crystal-clear journey into the other-dimensional world of skating.
Birch gave himself and his ensemble only a week to prepare for next week's show. "I prefer to work in a very focused situation," he says. "Everybody is on the same wave length."
At the conclusion of class, all skaters minus Birch and Hamill leave the ice. Birch's beloved Sixth Symphony fills the rink, and he and his soloist are left to skate on their own. Hamill spins and flies and leaps, as sure and graceful as ever. Birch, himself an extraordinary skater, is clearly thinking about the solo he is about to build for her. He circles the rink, stops, kicks ice chips out of the way, tilts his head back in a sweeping, spread-eagle motion. After several minutes of intense concentration, the two come together, join hands, hug and leave the ice.
Dorothy Hamill and the Next Ice Age will perform at the Columbia Ice Rink at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday; at 8 p.m. Wednesday through April 6; at 2 p.m. Wednesday and April 6; and at 1 and 5 p.m. April 7. Tickets range from $17.50 to $50 and can be purchased by calling 1-301-730-1384 or Ticketron at 1-800-448-9009. Senior citizens can receive a 10 percent discount. There is access for the handicap. Patrons are advised to dress warmly and allow time for satellite parking.