Why ‘This Town’?
Shoma once said that his ultimate goal is to touch people’s hearts rather than remain in record lists, and he undoubtedly moves towards this goal rather steadily throughout his career, having already made an indelible impression on many by his musicality, expressiveness, skating skills, the softness of his arms, elbows, hand gestures and body movements—overall, with his beautiful and meaningful programs. Among these, Shoma’s exhibition programs from the last two seasons stand out: their gentleness and intense lyricism come to the point at which they become almost intimate revelations, acquiring Shoma’s own voice and speaking with that voice directly to the viewers. They come to the point at which they become his means of self-expression, his way of being a true self. This is not to say that his competitive programs are somehow less ‘Shoma-esque’—not at all. Yet I do believe competitive programs demand a stricter balance (a compromise, one might say) between very specific technical requirements and a desire of artistic self-expression, leaving less space for the kind of lyrical intimacy that we see in the exhibition programs. They require difficult jumps (better in the second half), level four spins and step sequences and so on, in order to gain more points and climb the final rankings. In exhibitions, on the other hand, a skater is free to express himself the way he likes, to jump whatever he wants, to spin however he likes, making as many rotations and changing as many positions as pleases him (and as required by the music he skates to), and to immerse fully into the music he chose. This is what makes Shoma’s exhibition programs so special and so memorable: the fact that they do not depend on anything else but his personality, that they are fully and undeniably his own.
There are now many programs of Shoma’s that stay in my heart, but one remains (and will forever remain, I believe) particularly dear to me: ‘This town’—the exhibition program choreographed by David Wilson, which Shoma showed on many occasions, including Worlds 2017, WTT 2017, Skate Canada 2018, and 4CC 2018. What follows in the analysis below is my understanding of this program’s choreography and music, and the ways these two blend into something truly unique, truly ‘Shomaesque’. And through that, my own understanding of Shoma Uno—of who he is as a skater and of the values his skating embodies. This is the Shoma Uno who touched my heart. My Shoma Uno.
‘In the beginning was the word’
Niall Horan’s lyrics is the root of this program’s style, form, and expressive bodily language. This love song plays with multiple overtones, with nuances, ‘shadows’, with feelings never completely expressed and exhausted, words never said, smells almost gone, but ‘still stuck in the air’: in other words, with everything that is about to go, but is not completely gone. It is a farewell to the past love, of course, but one in which hope and regret still have their place in the poetic persona’s heart.
These characteristics define the style of David Wilson’s choreography, which is similarly centered on nuanced expressiveness delivered by body movements, arm and hand positions. It is also the reason why the kind of facial expressiveness normally reserved for stronger and more straightforward feelings and emotions is way less important in this particular piece: Shoma’s face seems calm and almost emotionless, deeply immersed in inner thoughts, throughout the performance. The structure and content of the song are articulated by Shoma’s characteristically soft and gentle movements and postures, akin in style to another lyrical masterpiece in Shoma’s repertoire, ‘Ladies in Lavender’.
This is also the reason lying behind his choice of relatively ‘easy’ jumps in this program: no quadruples, no triple axel—only triple loop, triple salchow, and double axel. Jumps have, of course, their own expressive and dynamic potential, so the bigger the jump is, the more expressive potential it gets. A quadruple toeloop would be indispensable in, say, articulating a strong climactic point, but it would simply look excessive in the ‘quieter’ and more nuanced kind of program. In ‘This town’, jumps are inserted into the choreography in such a way that they become a part of this program’s ‘softer’ style. They do not articulate or emphasize any particular words or melodic phrases, do not stand out from the rest, so to speak, but rather seem intertwined with other choreographic elements. In other words, their expressive potential is similarly ‘toned down’. That is not to say, that they do not play any role in this program, but just that this role is somewhat different from what we normally expect from them in competitive programs.
The way Shoma moves in this program cannot be properly understood without listening to the song and its lyrics, since the choreography created for this program by David Wilson closely follows, and at times almost duplicates, this song’s structure and content. In terms of structure, what is important here is the way all divisions and sub-divisions of ‘This town’ are articulated by recurring choreographic elements, by similar gestures and positions occurring at similar positions within the song. Jumps play an important role in this particular regard, as at least two of them, a triple loop and a double axel, appear at the end of their respective musical sections: the loop at the end of the first verse (‘so far from the stars’),
and the axel at the end of the refrain (‘everything comes back to you’).
Another jump, triple salchow, is likewise used at the end of a musical phrase (but not section):
The jumps therefore serve as ‘structural markers’ that separate one part of the song from another, or one musical phrase from another.
Not only jumps ‘come back’ at crucial formal breaks of this song, however, but also some specific choreographic gestures. The last line of the refrain just quoted, for instance—”everything comes back to you’ (itself about repetitions and returns)—is articulated in all other cases except this last one by a hand gesture which is clearly directed to the invisible ‘you’ of the song: to the lost beloved of the poetic persona (all three repetitions of this gesture are merged together in the example below).
This last example already lies at the intersection of formal and semantic criteria: the recurring hand gesture articulates the formal divisions of the song, the recurring ending line of the refrain, but at the same time expresses the poignant sense of the line itself: it is ‘to you’ (the hand gesture) that everything comes back at the end.
Zooming in to this song’s smaller and less prominent formal divisions, one can similarly see how this choreography is embedded into the song’s overall structure, how it follows it not just verse by verse, but even line by line, almost word by word. The first half of the first verse, for example, consists of three lines:
“Waking up to kiss you and nobody’s there. //
The smell of your perfume still stuck in the air, //
Note how in this choreography each line of the text ends with a hand gesture or body posture that acts as its ‘closure’: spread out hands and a bent body in the first,
hands moving up in the second,
and, finally, a head bow in the last third line.
In the same way as the singer ‘recites’ his line and then pauses to take a breath before the next one, all Shoma’s movements are directed towards these final ‘pauses’, the postures that momentarily stop the motion and ‘freeze’ the choreographic development of the lines.
Let’s have a closer look at these postures and gestures, however. The first verse ends with three (or four, if the last line is sub-divided into two smaller units, as it happens in the performance) more lines, and therefore four more positions, comprising 7 musico-choreographic ‘closures’ in total. The majority of these positions, I believe, are directly related to the poetic motives of the lyrics. Here is the entire first verse of the song:
Take the second half of the verse, for instance: the two half-lines ‘so far / from the stars’, with a clear cesura between them, are marked by two arm gestures, in the first of which the arm points forwards and slightly upwards, as if drawing a circle around the skater (‘so far’),
in the second, the arm moves upwards (‘from the stars’).
The first closure (‘waking up to kiss you and nobody’s there’) plays with the motif of ‘[not] seeing’: the spread out arms (‘waking up to kiss you’) and particularly the focus on Shoma’s eyes (and a rare moment when his facial expression is not neutral), make this body posture semantically charged.
In the second line (‘the smell of your perfume still stuck in the air’), both arms make a quick upward movement, as if trying to show the quickly dissipating smell of the beloved’s perfume.
While some of the relations between text and choreography just observed might seem more convincing, and some less, the fact that this choreography clearly takes the lyrics into consideration and tries to follow it as closely as it possibly could, can be proved by a few important gestures that are reiterated only together with their textual foundation. One of these gestures has already been discussed above—the hand gesture on ‘everything comes back to you’. Other important elements of this musico-choreographic mixture are the two gestures on ‘over and over’ and ‘butterflies’.
The ‘flying’ arm movements on the latter word is particularly visible, and leaves no doubts about the intentions of David Wilson here. This word is repeated twice, both times in the refrain section in the second half of the song, and both repetitions are choreographed in an identical way (note also the use of hands in the preceding phrase, ‘you still make me nervous when you walk in the room’).
The ‘over and over’ gesture is more variable, but the overall idea behind all all variations is ‘turning around’, creating a circular motion that resembles figuratively the textual idea of circularity (‘over and over’ meaning, of course, ‘all the time’, ‘again and again’).
The presence of these repetitive poetico-choreographic ‘gestures’ within the choreography, I think, leaves little doubt about the semantic relation of other choreographic ‘closures’ to their respective textual snippets, including, of course, those discussed at the beginning of this section.
All in all, what this choreography aims to achieve at the end, it seems, is the closest correlation between Shoma’s movements in this program and the text of the song he’s skating to, a kind of ‘realistic’, almost ‘naturalistic’ even, depiction of the words in the skater’s positions and movements. As some of these relations between choreography and music/text are purely formal, some semantic, some clearly naturalistic (think again of ‘butterflies’), and some more ‘symbolic’, this alternation of postures and gestures does not create monotony and certainly does not come to the point of being excessively ‘descriptive’. What it shows instead is the choreographer’s respect of the song’s form and content, and his desire to reproduce both by the bodily choreographic language, to accentuate those motifs that seemed central to David Wilson (and Shoma?), and to play with various overtones and ‘shades’ of the text; but also to articulate clearly the song’s structure, its ‘circular’ alternation of verses, pre-choruses, and choruses, its repetitions within the text and the music.
This is exactly the kind of deep, all-embracing, uncompromising musicality that can never be quite accomplished in competitive programs, where the skater simply has to pay his dues to the technical requirements imposed by the rules. It is the Shoma Uno that we can only see and admire in his exhibition programs.
There are certainly many programs in Shoma’s repertoire that are worth admiring and worth re-watching, and indeed many more competitions where he was close enough to skating these programs without major errors, and where he came close to expressing himself in the best way that was available to him at that moment. Yet for me personally, ‘This town’ will always hold a very special place in my heart, as the program (THE program) of Shoma Uno—one whose choreography penetrates deep into Shoma’s personality and reveals who this skater ultimately is, and what he has to tell us through his art and mastery.
This is the kind of program that ‘touches the heart, rather than remains in the record lists’ (to come back to the initial quote)—in fact, it will never enter any of these lists, because it simply does not get any scores in a competition. In a sense, one might even say it is beyond any scores—in the same way as any artistic achievement is beyond simple ‘scores’ and ‘records’, however strong we feel towards it and however high we rank it among the things we love.
This is the essence of Shoma Uno that I see, that I feel and that I will never forget. This is my Shoma Uno—the one I love, the one I admire, the one I re-watch and the one to whom my thoughts will always come back:
‘over and over the only truth,
everything comes back to you’