In this article, I would like to share a few thoughts about relationships between choreography and music in some recent programs—mostly those of Yuzuru Hanyu and Shoma Uno. The inner musicality of their programs is something that a lot of people notice, but there are still only a few attempts to analyze in more detail precisely what constitutes this musicality. What is the secret behind that ‘naturalness’ of movements and flow in programs such as Chopin’s Ballade #1 (by Yuzuru Hanyu), or Rachmaninov’s Elegy in e-flat minor (by Patrick Chan), or Ladies in Lavender (Shoma Uno), in which it seems as if music has been written specifically for its inclusion in these programs, rather than taken from preexistent pieces?
We may find some of our answers, I believe, if we take a closer look at spins. This element is fairly rigid in terms of number of rotations and positions that the skater has to perform, and it is repeated three times both in the short and free programs, thus occupying a considerable amount of space in each of them. Given that the skater makes only one type of movement (spinning) throughout the element, it is clear that, on account of this monotony, spins are harder to incorporate into a program and its musical accompaniment—harder than steps, which are more diverse and multi-directional, or jumps, which have more dynamic potential and take less time. In fact, one can clearly see and hear these difficulties in a large number of modern programs: spins often overrun a musical break or don’t agree with a phrasal and harmonic structure in music; awkwardly, music sometimes rests at the midpoint of the spin, and so on. It takes some effort and imagination therefore to make at least one spin in the program match the musical structure, let alone all three of them. Synchronizing spins with music, however, helps a lot in creating that sort of inner musicality and ‘naturalness’ which I mentioned in the beginning. Let’s have a look at some examples.
One of the most simple and effective ways to incorporate a spin is to start it where the music changes. Or better still, if this new musical material itself resembles graphically the spinning motion that a skater has to produce. Two examples below are taken from Patrick Chan’s 2014 Olympic short program (CCSp from Rachmaninov’s Elegy in e-flat minor) and Shoma Uno’s ‘Tzigane’ from the 2010-11 season (CSSp, Japan Junior Nationals, 2010).
In both cases, the spin is well prepared by a dramatic musical change and the spinning motion itself suits the melodic shape of a new fragment. In Shoma Uno’s ‘Tzigane’, for instance, the spinning motion is perfectly synchronized with thrills played by piano. The thrill is then transposed down an octave, and this transposition coincides with a change of foot and position in the spin. In Patrick Chan’s Elegy the melodic motion is more complex, but it also has that ‘round’ shape (with a melody constantly moving back and forth) that matches the spinning motion so well. These two examples uncover two important criteria that make a spin look ‘musical’: first, its rhythm has to be perfectly synchronized with a musical rhythm (as in Shoma’s example); second, the spinning motion fits even better if the musical material itself has a sort of ‘round’ (rotational) shape, too. In addition, a skater could accentuate certain melodic movements and accents in a spin by changing his position, going up- or downward, or using arms and hands to emphasize various musical accents. In other words, rhythmic and melodic criteria are equally important to render a spin (and its perception by the audience) more ‘natural’ and ‘easy-flowing’.
Take, for instance, the first combination spin [FCCoSp] from Yuzuru Hanyu’s 2014 Olympic free program, «Romeo and Juliet»:
First of all, the beginning is well-prepared by a sudden change of music. The whole spin is accompanied by a solemn eight-bar chorale. In terms of its melodic profile, the music has nothing in common with the spinning motion of the skater, but the two are closely related rhythmically. Eight bars of the chorale consist of eight different chords that regularly alternate with each other. There are fewer basic position in the spin, of course: a camel spin [#1] leading to a ‘doughnut’ [#3], then a sit spin [#5], and a Bielmann [#7]. However, Yuzuru creates variations of some of them, which at the end allows him to ‘fill in’ every single bar of the chorale (see Figure below), and also change his positions (or modifications thereof) in perfect synchronicity with harmonic changes in music.
In terms of musico-choreographic coordination, one of the most delicate and subtle programs in Shoma Uno’s repertoire is ‘Ladies in Lavender’. As Tatyana Tarasova once said, it looks as if the musical song were written specifically for its inclusion in Shoma’s program—to such an extent the choreography seems to embody and articulate the musical accompaniment. One relatively simple example of this embodiment is Shoma’s sit spin [CSSp]:
Two positions in this spin are coordinated with the two similar musical phrases, and a change of foot between the positions is synchronized perfectly with a transition between the two phrases. Even the direction of melodic motion might be related to the way Shoma moves in this spin: first upwards, when he stands up to change the foot, and then downwards, when he assumes the second position.
Interestingly, the sit spin from the 2017-18 «Winter» is incorporated into Vivaldi’s music in a very similar, almost identical, way.
Again, the spin falls on two closely related musical phrases, which is in fact a brief melodic and harmonic sequence. Two positions in the spin accentuate these two phrases, and the transitions both in the spin and music occur at the same time. What makes this spin even more intriguing is the fact that the choreographer edited Vivaldi here, adding one extra repetition to the first phrase (making it one beat longer), so that Shoma has more time to complete comfortably all his rotations in the first position and then change the foot in perfect synchronicity with the music.
It shows, I believe, just how much effort and thought was put into choreographing this one spin, to make it look (and sound) more smooth and natural.
The last example in this section comes from Yuzuru’s «Ballade #1»:
The camel spin in this program is choreographed in such a way as to reflect all harmonic changes and some melodic accents in Chopin’s music.
As always, Yuzuru’s arms are particularly instrumental in expressing all musical subtleties, particularly at the end of his spin [position #5 in the Figure above], where he raises his left arm to accentuate the top note in the melody. A gem.
Melodic motion and spins
In the last example, one can clearly see that choreographic opportunities in spins are not restricted to a simple rhythmic congruity between spinning and musical motions. There are melodic opportunities here that could be taken on board: arms and spinning positions might equally well play with directionality of melodic motion and its accents.
In Shoma Uno’s 2014-15 «Kreutzer sonata», the first spin (CSSP) is performed to the introductory section of Beethoven’s first movement:
A slow tempo and a certain irregularity of harmonic changes makes it very difficult to incorporate all positions in this spin into the music. Instead of creating a rhythmic synchronicity, this spin is more focused on articulating the melodic motion in the violin part.
The first position is initiated with a jump that falls on the first two notes. From that point onwards, each violin note is articulated choreographically: a camel spin on the first note [#1], then a layover [#2] on the second, leading to a half-Biellmann on the third [#3], and finally the exit from the spin on the last cadential motif of the musical fragment. Note that because of some changes in the jumping layout during the season, the position of this spin in the program constantly shifted, but it is (rather unsurprisingly) this first, original, position analyzed here that remained the most successful in terms of musico-choreographic relationship.
As has already been said, using arms to emphasize single notes and musical accents is a characteristic feature of Yuzuru Hanyu’s spins. The first combination spin from his «Seimei» can serve as a good example:
What strikes me here particularly is the way Yuzuru uses his arm in the ‘doughnut’ position to articulate the end of a musical phrase. Although the spin position itself overlaps with the following phrase, thus creating an impression of some incompatibility with the harmonic structure in music, the arm gesture helps overcome this by creating a visually strong accent within this one position.
The final combination spin from the «Ballade #1» is a similar example. Initially, it may appear that the beginning of the spin is slightly dissociated from what happens in music, as the spinning motion starts before the music arrives to the last chord:
The solution is, again, simple but elegant: Yuzuru clenches his right fist, while still spinning in the first basic position, precisely on the crucial harmonic change. This greatly enhances visually a strong musical accent and helps overcome and smooth a seeming desynchronization of movement and music at the beginning of the spin.
The last example is Shoma Uno’s combination spin from his 2016-17 «Loco»:
Both rhythmic and melodic profiles in this last section of the song are rather irregular, so it is problematic to coordinate all positions with that musical accompaniment. What is perhaps more important in spins like this is the acceleration toward the end, which is very often nicely paralleled by the skater’s accelerating spinning motion in the final upright position. This particular version though, taken from the 2017 4CC competition, is quite special in terms of how Shoma uses his arm to emphasize several important melodic accents. Technically, this might be not the best execution of that spin in «Loco» (compared to the 2016 GPF, for instance), but in terms of musicality this particular version is ahead of others. This spin provides an impressive ending to the program that played such an important role in Shoma’s career—not only in terms of ranking positions and medals he won, but also in how it disciplined Shoma’s approach to music, his hearing of, and his coordination with, the musical material.
The examples analyzed above might seem small and inessential parts of the whole, and yet they allow us to see and appreciate a sheer amount of effort and thought that was put into choreographing this one particular element of figure skating, as well as the amount of work and concentration required from a skater to perform that element to music, to synchronize his movements with the sounding material. Not all of this work, I think, is fully appreciated and evaluated by the judges, and even when appreciated, it does not bring as many points as, say, difficult jumping passes. Competitions are not won by musicality. But people’s hearts are. Musicality helps achieve some bigger goals, I believe: it creates a flow, smoothness, and a natural rhythm in the program which makes it stand out from the rest, which capture the audience’s attention from the beginning up to the end, creating memorable impressions that last much longer than one spin or one program.