Torvill & Dean now thrilling audiences on world ice dancing tour. Former Olympic and world champions from Britain emphasize artistic side of skating in lavish $10 million show

Eight massive poles of a giant big top stand 80 feet high in this historic city in central England. The largest known tent in the world, 330 by 220 feet, is supported by more than 10 miles of steel cable. A seating gallery for 7,000 surrounds no sawdust circus ring, however, but the largest portable ice floor in the world with a surface area of 11,000 square feet.

The scene is thus set daily for a quite remarkable show business venture -- the long-awaited professional world tour of Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, whose Olympic and world ice dance victories last year climaxed a dazzling amateur career of an unprecedented standard.

The ancient city of Nottingham -- where, only six short years ago Dean pounded the streets as a police constable and his petite partner worked as an insurance clerk -- has long been known for its legendary Robin Hood and his merry band of robbers who stole from the rich to give to the poor.

Today they are replaced, both in worldwide and local esteem, by the phenomenal Torvill and Dean. Just 18 months after the pair ended their amateur career with a fourth straight world title in Ottawa, their fellow citizens are ecstatically welcoming them back to their home city.

The current joke here, though, is that the T&D show has changed the Robin Hood story around so the poor give to the rich -- a facetious commentary on the inflated admission charges and the fortune this charismatic duo is now reputed to earn.

After opening their tour with a six-week run in London's more conventional Wembley Arena, Torvill and Dean have transferred to this elaborate tented venue for a similarly long stay in Nottingham that ends Oct. 27.

``This is what we always dreamed of doing,'' enthused Chris, his eyes sparkling with obvious zeal. ``Our own show, backed by artists of our own choosing, enables us to interpret skating as an art and sport the way we best know how.

``The competitive element of championships was challenging, but restricting. Everything we did as amateurs was inevitably dictated by the complex rules of competition and a technique calculated to gain the highest marks we could from the judges.''

``For us,'' interposed Jayne, ``skating in the big top is more enjoyable than in the conventional rink. The audience seems closer, whether they are or not, and the atmosphere and rapport is much more intimate.''

In a performance lasting more than two hours, they repeat the favorite renditions for which they are best known -- ``Barnum,'' ``Mack and Mabel,'' and the spectacular ``Bolero'' which thrilled the worldwide TV audience at the Sarajevo Olympics -- but there is also very much new to see. One highlight is an immaculate ``Song of India'' pas de deux, a vividly descriptive interpretation of the great Rimsky Korsakov music.

Two modernistic ballets based on themes dealing with the hereafter are the best of routines featuring their 16 supporting principals, most of them former national champions from North America.

The ensemble choreographic ability of T&D, aided by Australian Graeme Murphy, is an added dimension to their talents, which could keep them in the business long after their own skating days are over -- and that is their present intention.

Bereft of the need to score marks, the excitement of competition is lacking and the element of uncertainty diminishes, enabling full attention to be directed to quality of technique, which, as always in their case, can be hardly faulted -- the nearest to perfection on this hazardous medium one is ever likely to witness.

This is, without question, a show for the connoisseur who appreciates the finer points and is certain to approve wholeheartedly.

Developing a trend set by John Curry and Toller Cranston, Jayne and Chris are now elevating theatrical skating to a higher art form while discarding the razzmatazz of the traditional ice revue.

The difference is like that between ballet and music hall shows, and both forms will retain their respective aficionados. The louder, brash, and less subtle revue format, with its elaborate decor, sumptuous costumes, and eye-catching props, may keep its long proven appeal, but T&D have different ideas.

With seats along both sides and at both ends, they believe the general tendency in ice shows will be the disappearance of proscenium, scenery, and large-scale props -- with greater emphasis on the individual artistry, music, and lighting.

``Theater in the round -- that's what it's all about,'' insists Chris. Their lighting rig is one of the biggest ever used for a theatrical presentation, with over 450 lamps providing a myriad of dazzling effects.

It has cost around $10 million to mount this unique extravaganza, created and first rehearsed in Australia and New Zealand.

Michael Linnit, the London impresario who is co-presenting the show with Australian Michael Edgley, says ``it can be quite disturbing at 3 o'clock in the morning to realize your financial solvency depends so much on four blades of steel.''

Despite spending almost all his waking hours with Jayne for more than seven years, Chris maintains ``it's still a platonic relationship. We spend leisure time together because we know how to relax with each other better than with anyone else.''

Obviously, they share an extreme mutual respect. Are they, then, like brother and sister? ``Oh no,'' says Jayne. ``Brothers and sisters always argue. We only argue about our skating routines.''

After Nottingham, the show moves to Paris, then Hobart and Brisbane in Australia before reaching North America in the early spring. It will be performed in existing facilities when possible, but wherever there is no suitable venue available, the big top will be shipped out and re-erected.

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