Vocalist on Ice Inspired by Skating Rivalry

Posted January 5, 2018 5:46 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — A singer’s natural home is on the stage. But vocalist and composer Alicia Hall Moran’s newest piece lives on the rink.

Hall Moran’s undefinable “Breaking Ice: The Battle of the Carmens” finds its inspiration in figure skating history, and the work will have its premiere in the midst of public skating sessions at Bryant Park on Jan. 11 and Riverbank State Park on Jan. 14, as part of the Prototype festival of new music theater.

“The Battle of the Carmens” referenced in the title wasn’t just an opera lover’s fever dream. It was a bit of media hyperbole that described the showdown between skating rivals, both of whom performed to music from Bizet’s classic opera, at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Canada. Katarina Witt, from East Germany, fully inhabited the role of the cigarette-girl femme fatale through her dramatic choreography, while American Debi Thomas, then a pre-med student at Stanford University, strove for technical excellence with a gymnast’s clean lines and economy of style.

Even though Thomas faltered, ultimately receiving the bronze, Hall Moran remembers her performance as a victory; she was the first African-American to win a medal in the Winter Games. Hall Moran, then a 14-year-old skater avidly following the Olympics, easily related to Thomas, who was 20 at the time.

“Debi Thomas not only looked like me, she really looked like me,” Hall Moran said in a recent interview. “We could have been sisters. And my parents went to Stanford. I never thought that skating was going to take me to Lillehammer” — the Norwegian town that hosted the 1994 Winter Games — “but she made the sport something into which I could realistically and holistically pour my identity.”

Although Hall Moran’s athletic career never advanced beyond a spot on a local synchronized skating team, she will take to the blades herself for “Breaking Ice,” accompanied by tango skaters from Ice Theater of New York. The performance at Bryant Park is free of charge, while the one at Riverbank costs only the rink’s admission fee ($5 for adults, $3 for children). Anyone who wants to join the action on the ice needs to bring or rent skates and ideally should be capable of navigating the frozen terrain.

“Vocalists like to talk about grounded singing,” Hall Moran said with a grin. “Trying to activate the space between the bottom of your feet and that cold surface is a bit like levitating.”

A backing track, at the mercy of each rink’s dubious acoustics, will structure the piece: The mash-up of Carmen’s “Habanera” with Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours)” on Hall Moran’s recently released album, “Here Today,” offers a taste of what the music might sound like. But she has also left ample room for improvisation with taiko drummer Kaoru Watanabe and saxophonist Maria Grand, who will be stationed in hockey penalty boxes nearby, as well as through the physical interaction with the swirl of bodies watching and surrounding her. This kind of imaginative recontextualization of classical singing has long propelled Hall Moran. She is a trained mezzo-soprano who never tries to sound like anything else, despite the diverse artistic company she keeps. She has participated in a number of residencies, including one with her husband, jazz pianist and composer Jason Moran, as part of the 2012 Whitney Biennial; toured with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company; made her Broadway debut as Bess in “Porgy and Bess”; and partnered with jazz musicians like guitarist Brandon Ross and Moran. In her work, as in that of visual artist Kara Walker, historical genres like spirituals and Motown (and even the racialized figure of Bizet’s Carmen herself) take on new, charged meanings in juxtaposition with contemporary forms.

During a practice session two weeks ago with Moira North, artistic director of Ice Theater of New York, Hall Moran indeed evoked Thomas. In a flowing cardigan, ribbons of hair tied back at the base of her neck, she appeared longer limbed than her old hero, though.

While a compact body holds advantages for most skating hopefuls, Hall Moran’s height was actually an asset when she was the only black member of the Shadows, one of the three synchronized skating teams at Terry Conners Rink in Stamford, Connecticut, where she grew up in an affluent family. (Her best friend was the daughter of black mezzo-soprano star Shirley Verrett.)

“I was the anchor, standing tall in the center and pulling little 90-pound advanced skaters around in these pinwheels,” she recalled.

Skating fell into the background as Hall Moran joined a busy choir at her public high school that performed internationally, attended Barnard College and then started her music career.

But now, in her new piece, she is returning to the ice, seeking to broaden our perspective on a sport thought to be populated solely by rich white princesses. (She believes Thomas, wanting to resist embodying stereotypes of overly sensual black women, failed to win Olympic gold because she didn’t give people the boldly carnal Carmen they were expecting.) And at a time when the film “I, Tonya” has rekindled interest in Tonya Harding, depicted as a redneck who failed to find acceptance despite her prodigious talents, “Breaking Ice” has the potential to demonstrate ice skating’s genuine inclusiveness.

“The elite world of competitive figure skating is a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the people who are fearless enough to even try the sport,” Hall Moran said. “If you are to truly address what skating is, the evidence shows us that it’s millions of people of color and from the working class. Just go to any public session: Everyone is on the ice.”