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Alison Stewart: This is All Of It on WNYC. I'm Alison Stewart. This Friday, National Dust Art Center will host a musical experience about ice and on ice. The piece titled Cold-Blooded, is the brainchild of Alicia Hall Moran, a celebrated mezzo-soprano, Broadway performer, and figure skater since childhood, who has experimented with ice-based theater before. In 2018, at the Bryant Park skating rink, she premiered the opera Breaking Ice; The Battle of the Carmens, which told the story of the rivalry between German skater Katerina Witt and American Debbie Thomas, and featured Bizet's original score, which both skaters chose for their 1988 Olympic long program. Alicia is known for her ability to move through and between genres with great creativity, whether she's singing jazz at Lincoln Center or opera with a Chicago Symphony, and she can sing on skates. Alicia Hall Moran joins me to discuss and preview her latest piece for the ice. So happy to have you in the studio.
Alicia Hall Moran: Oh, hi. Thank you, Allison. I'm excited to be here.
Alison Stewart: We're going to talk music in a second, but when and how did you start ice skating?
Alicia Hall Moran: Well, I think I was brought by a friend. It's just that activity, public facilities, these ice rinks. I think we forget that sometimes. These are largely and so frequently public spaces, public parks, publicly funded. They're there for us. It's like a playground, a slippery playground, and we were all dumped there on Saturdays, public sessions. From there, you sign up for the group lessons and it just begins from there.
Alison Stewart: Was this something that you continue to do throughout your adult life? You obviously have this prolific career, you travel a lot, you're the mother of twin teenage boys. You have a lot going on. Was this something that you always did or did you come back to it?
Alicia Hall Moran: It's always in my heart. I like a surface that is seen but unseen at the same time. It's really a lot of how I feel I've lived my life as a singer. It's a part of so many of the things I do. For instance, I was on Chicago Symphony Orchestra in their hall, but not with that orchestra. This performance is going to be at National Sawdust, which used to be a sawdust factory. I kind of somehow, whatever I do, wherever I go, have people associate me with a larger term, a larger idea, and I like to go back and dig into the finer detail of it. I think the ice, being not a regular ground, really just became that place where I thought, "Wait a minute, this metaphor for this kind of a stage, this suits me."
Alison Stewart: What did it offer you creatively when you first started investigating, combining the two?
Alicia Hall Moran: I was on a precision figure skating team. That's what they called it back in the day. Now it's called synchro, and a place that I'll be volunteering on ice in the fall. Figure Skating in Harlem, for instance. These girls, they also comprise a synchro figure skating team. You perform kind of like cheer, for lack of better description, cheer formations, dance formations, rocket formations, along with ice skating skills on the ice, to music in full costume, in synchronicity with other people.
That's what I was doing in high school. It's called the shadows. Being on a stage, theatrical stage, getting worked on by choreographers, the way in which they would look at me on site think I was going to be able to dance, and then I would get to go home and be like, "Ma'am, I can't really. I don't want [unintelligible 00:04:19]."
Alison Stewart: You're not a dancer.
Alicia Hall Moran: What's the left and what's the right? What's front and what's back? "Moving it-- Mmm." I was the one they take aside, and they do the little tutorial with the dance captain. That be me all the time, but they always would think I was going to come with. That comes from being the center of these mass rotations of fantastic figure skaters, but I'm the pivot. I move very little. I clasp my arms around the shoulder of the person next to me, and I'm the ballast. I help swing them around. I help slow them down. I pull them into myself so that the teeny ones on the end, the usually most elite skater right on the end, going 80 mph. I'm going 2 mph, but I'm holding it down.
I use that as a performer all the time. That's how I can get on the stage of a Carnegie Hall. When I'm thinking about Jesse Norman in my mind, or Kathleen Battle, how can I step foot on that stage that has been so Billie Holidayed? Something about pulling into the center for me, that's the thread that I follow to get to the iconic histories and try to relive in real steps. I think, in me, maybe people can really see the pathway because it's a little more visible.
I'm not doing no triple axles. It's like, "Oh, she hopped up and turned around backwards." I get that. That's just this woman. She's not a baby either. She had got up on the blade on the ice, and there's no pads, no helmet. I could bust my everything. I got kids. I don't need to do that, but it's like, "Why would she do that?" I think looking at all my projects, it's the why. It's not really the what. It's the why.
Alison Stewart: The way I discovered this not discovered it, but I got interested in this, I follow you on Instagram. I was just going through and I saw you skating. I was like, "I didn't know Alicia could skate." I know your beautiful voice. I was like, "Oh, she can--" You can really skate. Let's put it that way. It's not just like a lady on ice. You can actually really skate. Actually, there's some footage on your Instagram of you singing while you're skating. I wondered about breath control. I wondered about what changes when you have to be-- I mean, singing requires a certain athleticism, but this is a different kind of athleticism.
Alicia Hall Moran: It absolutely is. When I go to National Sawdust, there's going to be a wonderful accordionist, Nathan Koci, and he's a member of the band The Hands Free. They are just one of the set of musicians following me on the journey. Watching the bellows, watching him suck that thing out and the accordion gets big, and then watching him squash it and his fingers make the notes, so the notes change, but that bellows is constant, and so beautiful in his body, it becomes an extension of him.
I think that when I'm skating, there's so much symmetry there. It's that your ribs and your bellows, your solar plexus, your seat. Like, I'm sitting, I feel my sits bones. When you stand, you can lose a sense of how gravity works all of that down, because so many other things, like your big face and my big mouth and shoulders and breastbone, have provenance. They have prominence. People pull into these so hard that you want to give them, but what that also sends your neck out of a line.
When I'm skating, because I have to balance between those sits bones so much or certain death, ma'am, it's like perilous out there, that I have a more centered singing. On a stage that doesn't move with shoes on, I'm never afraid that I'm going to fall on my face. This extra energy, fear, I have really begun to relate to my early panic stepping on the ice, but also stepping on the ice as kind of--
I don't know if I thought of myself at the time, but I was a Black girl on a team of all white young women. So wonderful and supportive, the girls, inside a culture where when my parents go to the figure skating meeting, it is remembered, it is remarked upon. Your father-- If you're having your kids in these activities, you're bringing them into whole worlds. I was brought to working class area of Stamford, Connecticut, down there by the water. I was with one of my best friends in the group. Her father was a trucker, and he'd drive cross country in a truck.
My parents went to jobs at desks, and that's how I made it onto the team in a sense These huge culture and access, gaps-- so many of which really have to do with power of length, of imagination, and access to productivity in your own boredom. What makes someone on a free radio turn the dial to a different kind of a station, all things being equal, what is that thing that pushes the dial? I think that that's the privilege that I've had. I don't even remember your question. Oh, singing on the ice. Oh my God. Well, that's what it is. It's all these bags that I bring on. It really triggers me into my childhood deeply.
Alison Stewart: Oh, sure. As you were talking about it, I could tell you were reliving it and you were thinking about it. Also, just hearing you talk about it, it made me think that you were a brave young woman to do that, that there's a sense of bravery, but also when you're being brave means you're maybe a little bit scared. Maybe the fear because you talked about the fear of falling. You can either have it paralyze you or it can be an energy source.
Alicia Hall Moran: Debi Thomas, 1988, Winter Olympics. She's training, studying to be a surgeon at Stanford University. She had the Black girl bangs. She wore the banana clip. The hair-straightening game was exactly where I was. It was in the very 1980s.
Alison Stewart: I'm here.
Alicia Hall Moran: I don't care that much. There's no edges here to speak. It's just pure wings all around the forehead of Black girlhood and life flinging. She had muscles in her legs. Let's be clear. You step on the ice in these little costume, you're a Black girl. Your consciousness of your body. You are the Black racket in a sense. That's extra. That's extra also for them, and that's the part that people don't always acknowledge at the time. I think now it's so much better.
Alison Stewart: Sure.
Alicia Hall Moran: You're allowed to say, "Hey, there's a darker person. I'm a lighter person." All things otherwise equal. Debi Thomas, that nose, I have that nose. I say I skate. People go, "Oh, like that Debi Thomas?" Now, suddenly, I'm placed, and people don't give me that, "Hmm, well, oh, I don't really get it. What is it?" They get it.
Alison Stewart: It's amazing when you think that she was the first Black American athlete to win any medal at a Winter Olympics and that was 1988.
Alicia Hall Moran: Wow. She won bronze. She'd also been world champion, which she did in a Black body suit, ma'am, with sparkles on the shoulders, a little illusion on the pose, and the neck, very much in that. Well, anyway, and then Black. I think of Serena Williams and the catching fire of these tremendous athletes right now and the outfits that they're wearing. Debi Thomas for me, and 1986, I think she wore that Black catsuit. I don't know if they made it illegal after she did it either and then now I think you can do it again.
Alison Stewart: Yes, but there was commentary let's just say that.
Alicia Hall Moran: Oh, those Black legs, shining, jumping, gold medal worlds and gold medal US champions. It's like all that glory. What have I had got to complain about? Show me one. I'm done. One and I'm there.
Alison Stewart: I want to play a clip from the piece that you wrote, Battle of the Carmens, about Katarina Witt and Debi Thomas. It's actually going to be featured in Friday show, right, yes?
Alicia Hall Moran: Yes.
Alison Stewart: The music is George Bizet's Habanera, but on top, you sing the lyrics and melody of Stevie Wonder's Signed, Sealed, Delivered and it's from your album Here Today. Let's take a listen to Alicia Hall Moran.
[MUSIC - Alicia Hall Moran: Signed, Sealed, Delivered]
Like a fool I went and stayed too long
Now I'm wondering if your love's still strong
Oo, baby, here I am, signed, sealed, delivered, I'm yours
Then that time I went and said goodbye
Now I'm back and not ashamed to cry
Oo, baby, here I am, signed, sealed, delivered, I'm yours
L'amour est enfant de bohême
Il n'a jamais, jamais connu de loi
Alison Stewart: That's Alicia Hall Moran. Cold-Blooded will be at National Sawdust on September 15th. How do you describe Cold-Blooded and how is it staged? We've been talking about your skating. We have to hear your big voice.
Alicia Hall Moran: I had taken in an art gallery mode to ordering blocks of ice and then skating on them, let's just say encounter expectation that I would be a polite cocktail singer in the corner doing Cole Porter if brought on for such engagements. I was just trying to turn that. I brought Taiko drummer Kaoru Watanabe and guitarist who you'll see at National Sawdust, Thomas Flippin, and we performed as if the ice was a regular stage. It's like a sense of it being on a podium. Very much also a comment on that alpha idea, this idea of being on top. This idea of gold or this idea, lover, Abby Lee Miller, but the second place is the first to lose, all these ideas, that if I had bought into any of those, I don't know what, if anything, in my career I would've ever accomplished.
Everything I do is in some looking to the gold from where I stand. I am not in pursuit of the biggest, widest, fastest. I'm in constant pursuit of the present in the experience, and shifting that stage allows me to pay attention. I will say I have very bad behavior. I'm very chatty in my edge class at Chelsea Pierce that's run by the Ice Theater of New York, where skate coach Sarah France teaches. I chat, chat, chat. I love the people that I've met and found through my exposure to the ice.
At every age, these people-- or a woman at the rank, she was in her 50s and beautiful skater at City Ice in Queens. I just was chatting with her last week and she said, "This really isn't for people who are needing that instant gratification." Stop me in my tracks, and I thought, "Oh, my gosh. I'm trying to make all my performances harder." The writer that I love that we lost during the pandemic, Maurice Berger, something I hold onto like a chain at my chest, he wrote me an email once. He said, "Yes, Alicia, I think you're just allergic to stereotype." I was like, "No, I want to be a stereo-- I want it so bad. I want to be the girl twirling on a cake, but it's never me."
Alison Stewart: It's much better that you're not, so much more interesting. So much more. How does the audience react to you on a block of ice performing, challenging what they see and what they hear at the same time?
Alicia Hall Moran: Honestly, not even in the moment, they send me pictures later of them doing stuff. Not my stuff, their stuff. "Oh, I went in a bikini to the beach today. Thank you." "Oh, I got my bike out of the garage. Got my bike out of the garage." These are not kids. I've just cried just thinking of the people who has happened to be, but people be like, "Yes, I can-- That's it."
Alison Stewart: I can do something.
Alicia Hall Moran: Yes. I'm not there to fill in nobody's blanks. You got blanks, but I'm there to shoot a gun at the doubt. I'm there for feedback. A lot of the show is about what if I fall. I worked for a year with this incredible percussionist, LaFrae Sci. She's actually also the executive director of Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls. Oh, this woman is so incredible.
Alison Stewart: That's a great thing.
Alicia Hall Moran: I worked with her for a year playing her Carmen over Zoom. Things I liked about the opera, none of it is in the tracks as far as I know, but the vibe and underwater oceanography video, she started checking out. We started just getting into aspects of flow and twirling, the ice cracking. During the pandemic, I was so stressed out. My consciousness was fine. My psyche was great. I was thriving, but my body was falling all the way apart. I'd cracked a lot of my teeth off. A small tuition of somebody's technical school I probably paid my dentist. Shoutouts to him, Dr. Berg. I just bit all my teeth off from the inside with ice. He took a picture of it, and I thought I would make it the cover of the show, but it's so graphic, and everything about me is that. I have to write these songs so that I can express to people what it feels like to not drag them through the death of my father.
A great, great man. A great outdoorsman, skier, sailor. The piece ain't about that, but what did it feel like to show up to my own workshop on ice at Bryant Park and have the ideas fall out of my head? Look out, down the ice, and see old friends, like Kaoru Watanabe at the end with his drum and new friends, all volunteers. Really pulling into the day. This is 6:00 AM out in the cold, all the research to get to this concert. God bless the present. It's so uncomfortable sometimes, but I love it.
Alison Stewart: Got to live in the discomfort. Interesting things can happen. Cold-Blooded is at National Sawdust on September 15th, you can see Alicia Hall Moran. We're going to go out on Deep River, which will be featured in Cold-Blooded. Thanks for coming to the studio.
Alicia Hall Moran: Oh, thank you.
Alison Stewart: Have a great show.
Alicia Hall Moran: Thank you.
Alison Stewart: There's more All Of It after the news.
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