Le Patin Libre

The Physics of Participation

They describe it as sculpting a new art form – a way of passing through space without moving. Ruth Little considers the magic of glide.

By Ruth Little

March 12, 2019

An empty ice rink, chilled to -6C; perfectly still and blank. A giant Zamboni machine, driven in slow circles by a middle-aged man with the focus and precision of a zen gardener, has just reglazed the hockey-scoured surface, restoring a smooth wet sheen of ice. On a poster hanging from the ceiling, local sporting hero Stephane Richer, for whom the rink is named, gazes into the middle distance, his dark pupils like tiny pucks. Around the walls, regional team banners hang on either side of an advertisement for the local abattoir.

St André-Avellin, Quebec, is currently home to a group of migratory skaters who travel through life as they do across ice: with a love of unimpeded movement, a commitment to community, and an understanding of the constitutive relationship between the two.

Le Patin Libre is Alexander Hamel, Pascale Jodoin, Taylor Dilley, Jasmin Boivin and Samory Ba. ‘Les pirates sur glace’, they’re a company of professional skaters who have invaded the domain of contemporary dance, at the same time flouting the revered traditions of both figure skating and hockey which dominate Canadian skating culture. They are, they say, sculpting a new art form, and they’re engaged in a durational act of social sculpture of which Joseph Beuys would have been proud. Le Patin Libre has developed a way of moving which is also a social movement based on the physics of flocking and gliding.

Le Patin Libre at Alexandra Palace, part of Dance Umbrella 2014.

“For Le Patin Libre, to glide is to be glad.”

The verb to glide is probably part of an ancient group of Germanic words involving notions of ‘smooth; shining; joyful’. Ice glistens, skaters glide: for Le Patin Libre, to glide is to be glad. The near-absence of friction releases the body into a new relationship with space and time, making possible speeds unachievable on dry land without mechanical assistance. It also enables the skater to hold a position while moving forward or backwards—the experience for both skater and watcher is one of pure passage. This is glide: a form of flight in two dimensions, which opens up a third—the empathic and embodied imagination. For those who watch, the body–mind moves out with the skaters onto the ice in formation; it’s impossible, feeling on your face the cold air that follows them, not to be drawn into their slipstream. What you see, you feel. This is the ancient, relational truth of what it is to be moved.

Choreography means ‘writing the space’, and skating, even more than dance, is a calligraphic act; poetry made of motion. And as they score the ice with loops and lines, the skaters are also inscribing a manifesto. The physical act of gathering, of synchrony, of communal adjustment while travelling, is for Le Patin Libre a gesture of collaboration based in sensory awareness, respect, humility and joy. Their movements shine. At their heart are the motions, and notions, of flocking and gliding: a perpetual dialogue between freedom and constraint, sensory connection and attention, which is the essence of all art, and of social wellbeing.

Unimpeded movement and community co-create one another. This is the essence too of freerunning, the inclusive form of parkour which combines physical efficiency and aesthetic/sensory pleasure in the negotiation of obstacles in urban landscapes. Intentional communities – from the Latin intentio, to stretch towards, are moved by an idea or ethic, and approach their goals collaboratively. Free skating, freerunning, freedom of movement: all resilient communities live by a tendency or intention, maintaining their identity, and their traditions, in constant motion, undergoing adaptive change in evolving contexts. It’s flow and glide, not freeze, that keeps them living and thriving. 

Le Patin Libre both works and plays interchangeably in accessible public spaces around the world; on ice rinks and, in their absence, on roller skates and blades in urban squares and in the streets where people flock and flow. There, they practise and teach the principles of sync—the countervailing movement against entropy and disorder throughout the universe. The rules of flocking are simple: the movement emerges out of alignment, cohesion and a degree of physical separation/mutual respect. A flock of birds or a shoal of fish is a leaderless and emergent phenomenon. Any individual can initiate change which ripples through the group, and a large group navigates far more efficiently and safely, according to scientists, than an individual. At some level, we too, with all our human willfulness and individualism, are drawn to the movement of flocking. Something ancient in us still responds to it emotionally. We’re mesmerized by the phenomenon of murmurations of starlings turning chaos and complexity into dynamic form. There’s something of life’s quintessence in this, something of belonging, connecting, committing, rejoicing.

On ice, Le Patin Libre shed their pedestrian selves and replace them with fluid being. In this chill, uncluttered world apart, movement concentrates into metaphor; it speaks of the forces and patterns that animate the universe. Its logic is the logic of the vortex and the centrifuge, of the blade edge digging for friction, and of a vibrant human assemblage seeking pure joy in shared motion.   

Le Patin Libre at Alexandra Palace, part of Dance Umbrella 2014.

“It’s impossible, feeling on your face the cold air that follows them, not to be drawn into their slipstream. What you see, you feel.”

They live and work as they skate, travelling together throughout most of the year to places where access to the ice is cheap or free, where the boundaries of performance can be made porous to acts of participation which confound the separation of professional and amateur, contemporary and traditional, rich and poor. They skate all day, most days, on rinks and in car parks, on winter lakes and rivers and canals. They host community events and parties on the streets of their base in Hochelaga, Montréal, and at festivals around the world.

At the end of their shows, and sometimes throughout their shows, Le Patin Libre invite audiences onto the ice to teach them new skills of articulation and collaboration, building physical confidence and proprioception, deliberately confusing art and play, all while tracing the shape of infinity onto the ice.

Gerard Manley Hopkins saw in the flight of a kestrel the shine of glide:

As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird—the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

The achieve of Le Patin Libre is that the spirit that animates their art brings them more fully into the lives and places that surround it. It’s that their art is an expansion of what it is to be human, a tending towards the grace of birds, and their form of flight reminds us, bodily, that love too is a form of movement and participation.


For upcoming performances of Le Patin Libre visit their website

Ruth Little

Ruth Little is a dramaturg and writer. She has worked as literary manager of Out of Joint, Soho Theatre, the Young Vic and the Royal Court, and as dramaturg since 2010 for Akram Khan. As associate director of Cape Farewell London she took part in sailing expeditions in the High Arctic, leading groups of artists and scientists across the Western and Northern Isles of Scotland. She is a director of Archipelago Folkschool, Scotland, and works between theatre, dance and environmental projects in the UK, Canada and Australia.

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