“Like a demented acrobat I’ll jump”: On the expressivity of jumps in figure skating

Much ink has been spilt on various issues of jumping in figure skating: transitions in and out the jumps, the jumping technique itself, including air positioning, correct techniques for the toe and blade jumps, the issue of pre- and under-rotations, the GOEs and the practicalities of the current judging system, and so on. It is with regards to these technical issues, that Shoma Uno’s jumps have been criticized by some, whether fairly or unfairly so. Here, however, I would like to take an entirely different road, looking instead at how jumps are choreographed in Shoma’s programs: how they are related to music and the underlying text (if any), to musical accents and a phrase structure, and even to its harmonic and melodic development. In other words, my focus will be on the expressive potential of jumps—something that Shoma himself realized and articulated very clearly in one of his interviews right before the start of the Olympic season:

Expression is difficult when I’m so focused on jumps, but I realized that expressions get better when I put the jumps in correctly. When I land the jumps, I get even more focused, and my feeling of “I can land this” increases, and because of that increase in my energy, my feelings towards expression increases as well. Recently, I’ve been thinking that jumps are one part of expression because of its dynamism.

Indeed, rewatching some of Shoma’s programs, particularly of the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons, I noticed the increasingly important role assigned to jumps in these programs, particularly in their second halves, and particularly to those jumps of Shoma’s repertoire that are technically more solid and consistent, namely the triple axel and the quadruple toeloop. So, while some of the more ‘expensive’ jumps of Shoma’s repertoire seemed to be less crucial for the kind of expressivity I am concerned with here, the axel and the toeloop (used as solo jumps and in combinations) proved to be indispensable for the expressivity and the dynamic profile of his programs—for the kind of expressivity that Shoma mentioned in his interview.

In order to make the above analysis easier to follow, I classified all my examples into three different groups: 1) jumps used as the means of articulating climactic high points of a musical piece; 2) jumps that articulate melodic and harmonic profiles of a given musical piece (used at the and of melodic and harmonic periods); finally, 3) jumps that are closely related to the textual motifs and verbal expressions of the text.

The first category is the most widespread, the one that simply realizes the dynamic potential of jumping and releases the kind of ‘energy’ that is always there. The second category is less straightforward, as it requires a more subtle understanding of what the musical development of the piece is, and how jumps might be incorporated into the program to articulate the inner pulse of the underlying musical flow. The last category is the most idiosyncratic and modern one. Idiosyncratic, because it plays with the text and its motifs, rather than the music, presuming that the audience will pay attention to the text and appreciate the link. Modern, because vocal compositions (with the actual voice singing during a performance) have only been accepted in figure skating very recently, so there are still only a few choreographers that took the opportunity to play with the text. As will become clear in the last section of this article, Mihoko Higuchi, Shoma Uno’s main choreographer, is certainly one of them.

I. Jumps and their dynamic potential

A slow yet irresistible musical crescendo leading to a high point of musical development, then a rest that momentarily holds back this strong dynamic wave already reached at this point, and then all the more powerful fortissimo that breaks through this silence—a familiar scenario for preparing and executing a jump in figure skating. Many skaters of past and present used and still use this kind of dynamic potential in music to highlight their first and most difficult, and also the ‘biggest’, jumping pass in their programs. Two examples below will suffice to illustrate this scenario:

For Shoma’s programs, however, this straightforward and rather direct use of dynamic potential of jumps, their ‘highlighting’ with music, is not something characteristic: Shoma’s toeloops and axels come later in the second half; his first jumping passes (quadruple flips and loops), on the other hand, while earning him more points in the technical score, may sometimes seem visually ‘smaller’. So, ‘highlighting’ the first jump, for example, is not exactly the most effective strategy in his case. This does not mean, of course, that such dynamic highlighting does not exist in Shoma’s programs at all, it’s just that the means of its realization are often slightly different.

Take, for instance, the 2015-16 “Turandot”, in which the second quadruple toeloop coincides with one of the melodic peaks in “Nessun dorma”, on the words “su la tua bocca lo dirò” [On your mouth I will say it]. The jump does use the dynamic potential of this fragment, but the dynamic wave is relatively short, as is the climactic point itself, so there is not so much ‘highlighting’ here—rather, a more pointed and concise articulation of the ascending melodic profile.

The new 2017-18 “Turandot”, while being directly related to the older version, presents a different relationship between jumps and music in the second half of the program. First, because Shoma skated to a new musical rendition of “Nessun dorma” in the second half, clearly more dynamic and ‘big’ compared to the earlier version. Second, because Shoma’s jump repertoire widened tremendously during the last two years, which naturally led to a different arrangement of jumping passes in the program. Nevertheless, it is still the toeloop and the axel that play a crucial role in highlighting the dynamic potential of music, as here, on “Dilegua, o notte! Tramontate, stelle!” (note that this is the same melodic gesture as in the previous example, but from the next verse):

and here, with Shoma’s signature triple axel combination highlighted by percussions:

Coming back to my earlier observation on the use of dynamic potential in Shoma’s jumps, below are two more examples, in which, again, rather than using a long and powerful dynamic wave to set up a jump and execute it, the idea is to articulate a more local, albeit strong and very audible, musical accent. Moreover, what strikes me in these examples is just how these two jumps articulate the melodic profile, almost imitating graphically either the up- or downward motion of the melody.

In “Ladies in lavender”, it is the triple axel in the second half of the program that clearly highlights an ascending musical motion (a stunning choreographic gesture that immediately prompted a response from the famous coach Tatyana Tarasova: “Mamma mia! How beautiful, and how musical!”):

In “Balada para un loco”, the 2016-17 free program, the musical gesture is precisely the opposite: a ‘glissando’ sliding downward, followed by a rest and then … ‘boom!’, a drum stroke that ends the entire section. After performing his sit spin, Shoma uses the musical transition, the rest, and then the downward sliding motion itself to set up and perform another triple axel, which he then lands precisely on the beat (on ‘boom’). At the GPF 2016 in Marseille, the coordination between music and jump was ideal, with the downward spiral that leads to the landing resembling the glissando that ends this section. From a technical point of view, the landing was far from perfect, which in fact prevented Shoma from jumping his planned combination with the triple toe. Musically, though, this error curiously turned to the better.

II. Jumps as the means of formal articulation

The last example already lies on the borderline between the first two categories proposed in the beginning of my analysis: between the dynamic use of jumps (here, however, the music is rather ‘anti-climactic’) and a more formal approach, with jumps articulating a melodic and harmonic structure of the piece. By that, I mean their use as closures, that is, at the end of musical phrases and periods, at the ‘cadential’ point of musical development.

This particular use might be less clearly visible (and audible) for the audience, but it does prove to be rather effective and often results in what the audience would feel as a ‘natural’ flow of the choreo and a natural arrangement of jumping passes. The end of a musical phrase (a ‘cadence’) is a very appropriate point to introduce a jump. Interestingly, the word ‘cadence’ itself (from Latin ‘cadere’—to fall) seems to indicate, so to speak, the ‘landing’ of a melodic phrase, the way it ceases its motion. So, it is all the more appropriate to articulate this melodic ‘landing’ with a corresponding ‘landing’ of a jump.

This use of jumps gained more importance for Shoma’s programs in the last two years, particularly in his exhibitions. “La vie en rose”, “See you again”, and “This town” all use simple jumping passes (mostly triples and a double axel) on cadential points of musical sections, or right between two different sections.

In “See you again”, for instance, the triple axel appears twice, and both times roughly in the same position (but in different verses of the song): at the end of the phrase “when I see you again”:

Similarly, in “This town” all three jumping passes are used on the cadential points of different melodic phrases, and two in particular articulate the end of their respective musical sections:

This more formal approach to the expressivity of jumps found its way to Shoma’s competitive programs as well. In the second half of his “Winter”, for instance, after a dramatic pause in the middle of the program, Shoma uses the initial phrase from the first movement of Vivaldi’s concerto to set up the toeloop jump combination (4T-3T), which he performs at the very end of this long phrase:

What Shoma does here is nothing new to the world of figure skating, of course—similar approach can be found in many other programs skated in the past and present. One recent example is Carolina Kostner’s SP on “Ne me quitte pas”, where the most important and ‘expensive’ jump combination similarly appears at the end of a musical section:

For Shoma’s jumping technique and all its peculiar characteristics, however, this approach seems for me particularly fruitful: Shoma’s jumps may sometimes look ‘smaller’ compared to other skaters, but it is precisely this compactness and their fast speed that allow an easier incorporation of these jumps into the musical fabric, their easier integration into a melodic phrase or musical section.

III. Jumps and textual expressivity

The last series of examples is perhaps the most innovative in their use of textual expressiveness in relation to jumps. Vocal music with texts has only been allowed to use in the 2014-15 season, so the use of textual motifs in the choreography is a relatively recent phenomenon. This opened up some fascinating new perspectives to the choreographers, although I believe this new potential has not been used in full so far.

In Shoma’s repertoire, the program that stands out in many respects, not only in its use of text, is the 2016-17 free program on Astor Piazzolla’s music, his “Balada para un loco”. Have a look at the way Shoma’s first quadruple toeloop is integrated into the musical and textual development of the song:

In terms of its position within the music, this jump falls easily into either of the two categories mentioned above: it accompanies a high climactic point of the song (“Loco, loco, loco!”), and it falls precisely on the borderline between two different sections. It is the original text, however, that makes this jump even more exciting:

que un corso de astronautas y niños, con un vals,

me baila alrededor… Baila! Veni! Vola!

[that a row of astronauts and children, waltzing,

are dancing around me… Dance! Come! Fly!]

Of the series of verbs at the end of this segment, it is the last one (“Vola!”—Fly!) that is most revealing. The verb does not actually sound here, because a part of the verse which includes this verb is simply cut out. Shoma’s toeloop though appears precisely at the point where the verb should have been sung, were it not edited out.

The link between jumps and the poetic motifs of ‘flight’ and ‘jumping’ in this program becomes a lot stronger later in the second half of the program, particularly on Shoma’s two jump combinations: 4T-2T and 3A-1Lo-3F. In the former example, the two jumps fall precisely on another important verb of this song, “saltar” (to jump):

Loco! Loco! Loco!

Como un acrobata demente saltare

[Crazy! Crazy! Crazy!

Like a demented acrobat I’ll jump]

In the latter, Shoma’s wonderful axel combination is punctuated by another ‘flight’ in the text:

Vola conmigo ya! Veni, vola, veni!

[Fly with me now! Come, fly, come!]

So, while in all examples cited here the inclusion of jumps could well be justified my musical considerations alone, the poetic text adds a new layer of meaning, linking these jumps to the poetic motifs just discussed. This program reveals a great care that the choreographer (Mihoko Higuchi) took to arrange the jumps and cut the musical piece in such a way that the two could perfectly synchronize—not just with the music, but even with the text.

Conclusion

What all these examples reveal, I think, is the potential expressivity of jumps in figure skating, the potential used by Shoma’s choreographers to their full extent in the last two years. Since jumps normally require a long set-up and they are certainly the most difficult elements to perform, we often see that the kind of expressivity mentioned here is lamentably abandoned in favor of their safe and ‘unproblematic’ execution. It is all the more exciting to realize that this is not the path taken by Shoma’s team, as Shoma himself so clearly articulated in the interview cited at the beginning.

The work that this team is doing on integrating jumps into choreography—moreover, making them an essential part of this choreography—must be very hard, but it certainly pays off for those who watch these programs. The use of this kind of expressivity in his jumps is perhaps one of several reasons why his programs never seem ’empty’ in choreographic terms, why they are always so exciting to watch—it is because their inner musicality is already something that can be perceived by the audience, whether consciously or not.

Finally, it is interesting to see how Shoma’s jumps are now differentiated in terms of their expressive potential, how some of them become more central for this expressivity and musicality (triple axel and quadruple toeloop), while some still remain in the shadow (quadruple flips and loops). In this light, it will be interesting to observe which direction will be taken in the future, and whether other jumps (and perhaps the new jumps that he will learn) will follow the same route as triple axel and the toeloop.

Hopefully, this development will bring new and unexpected results and widen even further the horizons of expressivity and musicality in Shoma’s programs, and even in figure skating in general. Needless to say, this work should go hand in hand with some basic work on technical issues, with learning new jumps, stabilizing and making more consistent the older ones, etc.—so that Shoma can fly:

Baila! Veni! Vola!

Since its original publication on sports.ru on October 25th 2017, the article has been translated into Chinese.

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