Aliens, Animals & Artists of the Autostadt: A backstage pass to the German outdoor ice show

On any given night at the Autostadt, its ice show Urmel Aus Dem Eis presents all the ingredients of a professional production – effortless triple jumps, soaring back flips, high-flying bounce spins and fast-paced ensemble numbers. But this show is anything but ordinary.

Here you will find life-sized space ships, Tyrannosaurs Rex’s, meat grinding machines and remote controlled couches. You will see skaters as chocolate tortes and cherry souffles, pandas and parakeets, nuns and priests, runway models and bullfighters, farmers and Carnival showgirls, baroque waltzers and Star Trekkies.

And don’t forget, lots and lots of pyro.

Under rain, snow, sleet, torrential winds and even melting ice the outdoor show must go on. Located in Wolfsburg, Germany, the Autostadt is widely known for its museums of Volkswagen automobiles, but its ice show is the biggest attraction of the holiday season running until Dec. 28.

The entire experience is a whirlwind of rehearsals and performing. An ensemble of 22 skaters collectively learn 46 numbers over a three week rehearsal period in Bad Sascha, Germany. Stephanee Grosscup, the show’s choreographer, sometimes teaches up to four numbers per day in order to finish all the productions.

“We never let up. Everyone starts to get overloaded with steps and stories [however] these young, athletic, creative and talented skaters are a constant source of inspiration to me,” she said. “There is a spirit amongst [them] that is so unique. We are trained athletes first and foremost, but we are dancers, actors, characters, musicians, muses.”

Once they arrive in Wolfsburg, the skaters perform twice each day and open a new show every Sunday over four weeks. Installation for the following week’s show takes place late at night, often in less than favorable weather conditions.

“We have exactly five days [for installation each week] to clean and add huge props, attempt to get everyone through insane quick changes, add numbers to the show if necessary, drive cars, trains, helicopters, ride on fish, fall in ponds and wells, cast spells, have pyro on skates, disappear, reappear, be a dragon, walrus, panda, the list goes on and on,” Grosscup said, who is in her fifth year as choreographer. “In the end, it is over the top hilarity!”

This year’s production is based on the adventures of Urmel, the heroine creature of a children’s book series by Max Kruse. The storyline takes place on the island of Titiwu where Professor Tibatong conducts a school teaching animals how to speak. Each show captures a different adventure where the Urmel travels everywhere from Spain to space and back again.

“Children’s literature is fodder for the most fantastic imaginings,” Grosscup said. “These stories give opportunity for skaters to create, manifest and embody the most unusual characters. The learning curve is so steep and fast.”

Costuming, the majority of which was designed by Volkor Deutschmann, is a detailed and elaborate undertaking. In this zany production, we are no longer in the world of the skating dress; twirling snakes glimmer atop skaters’ heads, chiffon billows behind a leather penguin-suit jacket, sparkling LEDs orbit around runway models’ garb, shiny silver space suits appear out of an even shinier spaceship, and an alien’s oversized thumb-like head protrusion with bushy squared eyebrows and Einstein-esque hair patches complete the ensemble.

Almost 200 costumes are created for all four shows, many of which must be put on and off in quick changes done under one minute. The combination of eccentric costuming and variable winter weather create an array of unusual experiences that aren’t ever a consideration for indoor productions

“Because of the high wind, my wig’s ponytail kept whipping me in the face so we had to change my hairstyle four times before it was right,” said Anna Madorsky, a former US ladies competitor and professional skater for 8 years. “You just never know what you’re going to get with the weather. One week the wild winds pushed away many of the props. The next week a warming streak caused the ice to melt. It’s so unpredictable.”

“Somedays it’s so cold we have to skate with multiple pairs of long underwear,” said Adam Kaplan, former US mens competitor skating in the show for the second consecutive year. “Last year we skated during a snowstorm and you could just barely open your eyes. That was definitely the hardest show of my life.”

Even with sketchy weather from time to time, this year’s show broke an all-time high, one-night attendance record with 17,000 people visiting the park and watching the show.

“Ice skating has again become popular and that is thanks to the great work of the skating cast and the talented choreographers that appear here,” said Angela Schwarz, casting director for Dynamic Shows, Inc. She has been casting the Autostadt winter ice show since 2006.

“The shows over the years have built in popularity and everything has gotten bigger from the cast, costumes and props,” she said.10408628_10204465309926656_4375841588738728241_n

As attendance escalates, audiences line up on a standing room only platform up to one hour before the show begins. A sea of heavy coats, wool hats and thick scarves jostle closer to the ice in anticipation. On the edge of the stage, the front row is reserved for the very littlest of viewers who often push their way through to catch a glimpse and a high-five from their favorite fairytale characters.

“They’re all squished together so tight row after row. They follow the story like hawks – you can see it in their eyes,” said Mauro Bruni, former US mens competitor and professional for 8 years.

In between production numbers, on-ice acting scenes fill in the dots of the storyline. Roland Kalweit, the Autostadt entertainment director, conducts dialogue rehearsals for the skaters to fully understand their roles.

“It’s a hilarious disconnect because only one of the cast members speak German, but we start to memorize the rhythm of our character’s voices and create our own persona through improvisation in each scene,” Bruni said. “And we have to be on point every time – because the kids and the audience do understand and for the length of the show, their emotions are tied up in the other-worldly storylines.”

Whether the skaters come out from backstage as aliens, animals or even souffles, the magical journey they invite their audiences to take with them is always worth the effort.

photo by Sharon Withouk

“They’re unbelievable at times,” Bruni said of the show’s stories. “But it’s a fantasy land and it’s a highly rewarding job to transport them.”

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