When I first met Alexandre Hamel, the founder of the skating group Le Patin Libre, it was amidst the blare of electric guitar and heavy bass blasting in the crowded upstairs Montreal pub L’Escalier. I remember taking one look at him as he bobbed his head to the blaring live rock while pouring himself another pint of Quebec beer and wondering how the hell this guy could possibly be a figure skater.
“You know, I could really go for a smoke right now. Do you have any?” he asked me after a couple of pints, a grin playing at the edges of his boyish mouth.
Was he joking? Figure skaters don’t smoke. Figure skaters don’t drink either. Yet here was Alex in a baggy t-shirt and faded army pants, lounging languidly in his chair and singing along to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as if he’d been a Nirvana fan all his life. I was perplexed. Where were his tight pants, his fitted button-down shirt and flamboyant air of self-importance? I had fit male figure skaters into a box just as I had done their female counterparts, whom I presumed to all be ice princesses and painted ballerinas on skates.
I never expected that Alex would be normal. I especially never anticipated that Alex could actually be, well, cool. I liked him instantly.
We moved outside onto the tiny corner balcony and I lit us both a smoke. “I really shouldn’t be smoking, but what the hell. You’ve got to live a little sometimes, you know?” he said casually in his heavy Quebecois accent. I laughed and agreed, asking how it was that a professional figure skater came to drink beer and smoke cigarettes.
“You know, that’s just it, right there – everything that’s wrong with the image of figure skaters in Canada. I bet you think I like Chopin and have a closet full of sequined jumpsuits too, don’t you?” Alex laughed and leaned back farther in his chair, exhaling another heavy drag. I shrugged my shoulders sheepishly, guilty as charged.
“Don’t worry, it’s not just you. It’s everyone. It’s the skating world’s fault.Â They’ve created this image of what it means to be a figure skaterâ€¦ but hell, there are some of us who are just regular people, regular people with a passion for skating. I mean, between the countless hours of training on and off the ice, most of us have had to sacrifice leading normal lives to pursue our passion. It’s hard for those of us who didn’t grow up as spoiled ice princesses because we’re shoved into the same stereotypes that we’re trying to break. No sequins for me, thank you very much,” Alex pronounced, a tinge of bitterness lingering around the edges of his humour.
Breaking stereotypes is the reason why he started Le Patin Libre. “I’d been kicked out of so many skating clubs because I wanted to do things differently, to not have to fit into a role anymore or to be shoved into any more fitted spandex jumpsuits. I wanted to skate to punk rock and incorporate acrobatics into my routines. They hated it. Judges tore me apart and coaches told me I couldn’t do it. So I said screw it.”
Le Patin Libre is the first independent contemporary skating group to break free from the competitive arena. Since their creation in 2004 they’ve practiced “free skating,” seeking to break the norms of tradition by eliminating the boundaries and confinements of competition. Each of its members has skated at the highest competitive levels. Alex himself skated on the Canadian National Team with Le Patin Libre co-founder Liam Dougherty.
They define their work not as a sport but as a distinct art form and means of creative expression. Their goal is to open the doors of figure skating to the public and to appeal to young people, not just 40-year-old women and girls under the age of 10.
I’d seen the troupe perform before meeting Alex. Within minutes of watching them, I knew what they were doing was a revolutionary breakthrough. They weren’t some bad Disney on Ice spinoff or flowery ice dance rendition. They were Cirque du soleil on ice, a myriad of eclectic styles forged together in a show that can only be described as extreme, including pyrotechnics, aerial artists, dancing and acrobatics.
Yet nothing felt contrived or overwrought and I didn’t feel like I was watching the same powdery routine over and over again as I so often do when watching traditional figure skating. The show told a story and it was believable, it was real. And the best part about watching them? No ruffles, no sequins, no spandex, no frills.
I reached over and topped off Alex’s beer. I could see the wheels cranking, the fire blazing in his lively boyish face.
“You know if there’s one thing that kills me, it’s that after all this time the skating princesses are still being powdered and pampered by Skate Canada while we’re still busting our asses, living just above the poverty line in crummy mice-infested flats so that we can afford to rent out ice time.” I suddenly wished I had something stronger to offer him than the stout Quebec draft I’d just topped off his glass with.
For all the innovation and ingenuity of Le Patin Libre, they’ve struggled to find success. The major hurdle they continually face is the lack of financial support and sponsorship they’ve received in Canada.
While the members of Le Patin Libre have worked ceaselessly over the last seven years to get as much exposure as possible, with each minor success they achieve they’re forced to face about a dozen fresh obstacles, such as Skate Canada’s lack of support or promotion for non-traditional figure skating. The troupe’s biggest frustration has been the opposition they’ve faced time and time again from private figure skating clubs who manage and allot ice time and hourly fees.
“I was always angry that ice time paid by cities was managed like private skating schools by super-conservative skating moms.” Alex said that young skaters enjoy their performances, but because of this, private coaches view Le Patin Libre as “commercial competition.”
“I was never disappointed by the lack of help from Skate Canada,” said Alex about the association that promotes and sets standards for skating in Canada. “They support skating as an Olympic discipline. It’s legitimate they don’t encourage something that clearly defines itself not as a sport, but as an art. But traditional figure skating could still easily cohabitate with our contemporary style if private clubs didn’t continue to kick us out because we ruin their ambience.”
But where Canada has failed the troupe, France has reached out to embrace them. Last December, Le Patin Libre embarked on a preliminary tour of France, doing shows in MonÃ©teau, Troyes, Lagny-sur-Marne, Roanne, and Marseille. The energy and enthusiasm of the crowds that met them blew Quebec audiences out of the water, not only meeting the needs of their humble budget but exceeding them and reigniting their spirits. In fact, their short tour was so successful that they’ll be returning to France again in May and again in September through January, kicking their tour off in the Bourgogne region where they’ve been booked for a plethora of shows and will be given free access to greatly needed ice time. For years, the troupe has aimed to fulfil their homebound ambitions of success in their native Quebec, but the reality is slowly becoming undeniable: there is no future for the troupe at home and relocation is the only plausible solution.
Alex took a final drag of his cigarette and tossed it off the balcony, sucked back a heavy gulp of his beer and turned to look at me squarely, his bemused sideways grin lightening the weight of his expressed frustrations.
“Skating is not a sport because it is not objective. It’s not about a number scored, or points achieved. It’s about beauty. The attempt to calculate this beauty through a scoring system just underlines the lack of intellectual rigour of people who still try to see figure skating as a sport.” Alex explained that he was dissatisfied by the lack of sustainable options for professional skaters who do not want to compete. “It’s like, hell, you wasted your life skating so now either go join Disney on Ice or become a skating coach and help someone else waste theirs. That’s not what skating is supposed to be about.”
I’d just met Alex, but I liked him and I appreciated the integrity and quality of what he and his troupe members were trying to produce. It was sad, thinking that Canada had abandoned such a talented group of artists and forced them to seek success on foreign soil.
“The tough realization is that the project is doomed in Quebec and thriving optimistically abroad.Â It’s sad, but that’s the way it is. We’ll wipe our feet and move forward until we succeed. As for Quebec, Ã la prochaine.”
Le Patin Libre will be performing on April 9 and 10 at Pete-Morin Rink in Lachine. For more information check out lepatinlibre.com