Mixing ice-skating with pyrotechnics, aerial acrobatics and jaw-dropping lifts, jumps and spins, The Nutcracker on Ice is Tchaikovsky's music performed like you've never seen it before, writes Caris Bizzaca.
The Imperial Ice Stars are known for pushing boundaries. Their last production to visit New Zealand, Swan Lake on Ice, featured soloist Olga Sharutenko flying across the stage using a harness and dancing en pointe on ice. This time around, two of the ice skaters use silk aerials a la Cirque du Soleil in a routine that has them turning upside down (yes, in ice skates) and at times, bringing their skating blades dangerously close to each others' faces. Fire twirling, gymnastics and even a bit of magic are also on show.
Sharutenko, who in this production has taken a step back from her usual role as a lead soloist, says the Imperial Ice Stars have always enjoyed spicing the shows up with new things.
"I think that's why we try to do something new every time, so even if you come back you're interested to watch and wish to come back again."
Sharutenko is one of the original members of The Imperial Ice Stars, created by British theatre producer Tony Mercer in 2004.
The current group is made up of 26 professional figure-skaters, who have performed the likes of Swan Lake on Ice, as well as Cinderella on Ice and Sleeping Beauty on Ice in theatres across the globe.
But, rather than performing in large arenas as they would in competitions or the Olympics, their shows are done on theatre stages covered in ice.
The stages are tiny in comparison, yet the company are still skating at up to about 50-60km/h and doing the same daring jumps and spins.
Sharutenko says it's tough adjusting to the amount of figure skaters on stage.
"It's hard only at the beginning when you come from sport and you get used to performing alone on a whole big ice arena," she says.
"You start to understand it's not about you anymore, it's all about a combined work together."
Mercer says that's something particularly special about The Imperial Ice Stars - their egos are left at the door.
In The Nutcracker on Ice, Sharutenko and Andrey Penkin have taken a break from their usual roles as lead soloists, with Anastasia Ignatyeva and Bogdan Berezenko stepping into the spotlight for the first time.
But Mercer says "there's no snobbery" about giving the lead parts to different people.
In The Nutcracker on Ice, Ignatyeva plays the young Marie, who is presented with a nutcracker doll one Christmas Eve by the mysterious Herr Drosselmeyer.
That night Marie finds the room, toys and Christmas tree growing larger and the nutcracker transformed into a handsome prince (played by Berezenko), who takes her on a journey to his Kingdom of Sweets.
Berezenko, who also plays a child in a funny Christmas Eve party scene, says he's enjoying being a soloist.
"When I'm a child, when I'm a soldier, I love it," he says.
Ignatyeva found playing Marie made her feel like a child again, which Sharutenko says is actually similar to the feedback they've been getting. "Some of the people were saying 'it's great to watch the show because (it took us) back to our childhood'," she says.
"To bring all the generations ... memories with your family, with your parents, Christmas time and happy childhoods. It's wonderful."
Penkin, who was born in St Petersburg where The Nutcracker was first performed in 1892, says he and much of the cast can remember seeing the ballet as children.
"I know it well from Russia and, of course, in our childhood our mums and dads took us to every single ballet in our cities," he says.
"I can tell you that when I was young I didn't enjoy them at all and actually now if I watch Swan Lake, I just prefer our version of Swan Lake and when I saw The Nutcracker, I prefer our version of Nutcracker."
Some ballet critics have turned their nose up at The Imperial Ice Stars in the past. Mercer says though their productions are paired with majestic music, they are not ballet.
"When the comparisons come along you just stay quiet. We are who we are, we do what we do," he says.
And when Mercer says "we", he really means it, often asking the ice-skaters for input on the shows.
"I think it wouldn't be us if we couldn't do it together. The whole thing is personal (and) it's kind of ours, so the input has to be," he says.
It's made The Imperial Ice Stars like a family, with the skaters like "a pile of naughty children", Mercer jokes.
"There's a whole lot of people that have been together for a long time," he says.
"The Imperial Ice Stars - yes it's mine, but it's actually not. It's shared between myself Andrey, Olga, Vadim (Yarkov), Olena (Pyatash) ... and everybody else."
What: The Nutcracker on Ice
Where: ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre
When: July 3 to 8