The Covid-19 pandemic brought figure skating to a halt right before the culmination of the 2019-20 season: the World Championship in Montreal in March 2020. Its severe quarantine restrictions and the imposed self-isolation cut many interpersonal ties, including those between skaters and coaches, as well as skaters and choreographers. It endangered—albeit failed to stop completely—all the creativity that was supposed to take place during the off-season: new programs being choreographed and skated for the first time at ice shows; explorations of new styles and unusual movements; fresh bonds being forged in the process of creation, etc etc. And yet these challenging times brought some positive developments, too. They gave us time, allowed us to step back and reflect on things often left unproblematized before, creativity being one of them.
This article grew out of some of these reflections, and it certainly benefited a lot from developing new interpersonal relationships that could have hardly been forged at other, less challenging, times. Hence the unusual shape it took: it is a portrait of, and simultaneously a conversation with, Sandra Bezic—one the best-known choreographers in the figure skating world, an Emmy awardee, a World Figure Skating Hall of Famer, and a former director of the prestigious ice show ‘Stars on Ice’. In short, one of the most influential people in figure skating in the last 40 or so years.
In our dialogue we pursued a common goal: to intellectualize creativity, to capture its eluding origins and internal processes, to reflect on the fragile balance between absolute creative freedom and the needs of specific skaters—on how their own stories and dreams alter and reshape the end result that we, as viewers, watch on a big (Olympic or World) stage. The structure and flow of our discussion is controlled by three main case studies (plus one bonus) adduced to the article.
It is, in short, a portrait painted by two hands, and from two perspectives: that of a casual viewer (who also happened to be a professional musicologist) and a professional choreographer (who happened to be a brilliant discussant). Hopefully, the resulting asymmetry of its two parts only makes it more viable and realistic.
[Abbreviations used throughout the article:
ML — Mikhail Lopatin
SB — Sandra Bezic]
Introduction: Cinematic mind
ML: A major chunk of David Wilson’s 2016 interview for the TSL channel was devoted to his work with Yuna Kim, and one of the most fascinating snippets of that talk covered your participation in choreographing, or at the very least giving ideas and concepts for, Yuna’s 2009-10 Olympic programs. The way he describes your work is worth quoting in full here: ‘Sandra has this incredible mind — she thinks broad-stroke, she’s like a movie director. Oh no, she’s like a movie producer! (…) She has this cinematic mind.’
Looking at your long career as a choreographer and a show director, I find this characterization very much on point — so much so that it is worth expanding and exploring it further in various directions in this introductory section. First and foremost, the ‘movie producer’ part can be understood as referring to your incredible organizational skills and ability to gather right people at the right time to address and successfully deal with questions of any caliber, be it organizing an entire show or choreographing a new program.
It can also refer to your life as a choreographer, more specifically to all your rich experience of choreographing some of the best-selling choreographic hits for the big Olympic stage: Brian Boitano’s 1988 Free, Kristi Yamaguchi’s 1992 Free, and Tara Lipinski’s 1998 Free are probably the best-known witnesses of this incredible ability and vision. The ability to think big and impress most while staying under the radar constitutes, at least for me, another part of this ‘cinematic mind’
Finally, it is a very fitting description for the choreographer many of whose best-known programs are related in one way or another to an actual movie: suffice it to recall Brian Boitano’s iconic 1988 ‘Napoleon’, or Kurt Browning’s 1994 Casablanca, or finally Tara Lipinski’s 1998 Olympic programs based on the music from ‘Anastasia’ (SP) and ‘Rainbow’ (FP). And even where there is no actual movie to rest upon, very often there will still be a ‘movie-like’ storyline and character development throughout the program. In other words, with or without any recognizable plots, many of your best-known programs do seem to merge together image, sound, and the ‘idea’ — the overarching concept — in an almost ‘cinematic’ fashion, as if what we are watching comes directly from the movie: perhaps a few teasers, or a trailer.
This long-winded rumination on David Wilson’s very concise formula finally brings me to the first question, or rather a whole set of questions that aim to shed more light on your creative process and approach to choreography. I am wondering where does the original impetus come from when you start creating a new program: is it a concept, an abstract idea, a formal design, or some other mental image that you then ‘unroll’ and fill in with details in the process of creation? Or is the impetus ‘visual’: a particular gesture, movement, or a bright image of something else which is then incorporated into the canvas, becoming one small part of the colorful whole? Or is your inspiration first and foremost sonic and comes from the music you hear and choose to use: from its ups and downs, musical phrasing, structure, and atmosphere? And how these layers then interact with each other at different stages of your creative process — off and on the ice, at the beginning of the process and near its end?
SB: First, thank you so much for all your kind words, and for seeing depth in my work. And thank you to David for his description of my approach. Until he said it, I had never labeled my process as ‘cinematic’ and yet, of course, that’s exactly how I create.
My ideas come from varying points of inspiration and I’ve applied all the possibilities you mention above. It’s difficult to describe my process because I flow back and forth between intellectualizing and reacting instinctively. Every situation is unique. Sometimes a concept leads to a search for the music to support it, and then other times a piece of music opens a world of imagination. The smallest thought or image can be the impetus. A photo in a fashion magazine once generated a 22-minute production number for Stars On Ice. I try to keep myself open to any possibility. I search and research endlessly.
Along with plotting the technical form, I must also find the emotional purpose of the program. This is probably where the cinematic part comes into play. I need a clear understanding of the reason for the piece, and the tone I wish to set, which, when combined with the music, inspires the actual choreography. If the piece is character driven, then I want to know the full picture of who the character is, their backstory, and what the imaginary scene-set or location might be. These layers of information guide the movement. They make the rules. For me to find the style of movement and the steps, there must be an emotional narrative. Sometimes it’s more literal and sometimes more abstract, but it’s always there. Without exception, I always want the skater and audience to travel on a visceral journey together. If the skater is invested in the thought behind the movement, then the audience experience is far richer, whether they are aware of that thought or not. They will feel it.
For a major competitive program, I first set out to discover my skater’s core motivations. I want to give them a vehicle that is an extension of their dreams and the parts of their personality that they may not freely share. I try to uncover their deepest aspirations, and their secrets, to build a piece that reveals their heart. I search for honesty and authenticity. The character, story line or idea we choose is intended to reflect their own truths. My goal is to make the program seem as though it was choreographed by the skater spontaneously, driven by the music, the reason, and their own instincts, at that very moment in performance.
For me, music almost always evokes a location, a time, moods, emotions, personality, relationships, and a narrative. Meshing the skater’s own story with the ideas the music has given me becomes the puzzle to solve.
Sometimes it flows and feels right immediately, but usually my process is not linear.
ML: Your programs embraced a great diversity of styles, from Lu Chen’s soft lyricism in her Rachmaninoff program to the aggressive military style of Boitano’s 1988 free, from Kurt Browning’s hilarious comic masterpieces to Underhill-Martini’s sensual and openly sexual exhibitions, and so on. Do you have a specific set of vocabularies for different styles or is your choreographic process more instinctive and depends on the personality of the skater and his/her particular goals, artistic and athletic?
SB: All the styles you mention are parts of me, and parts of everyone. It just depends which part we want to explore in any given number. Of course, some skaters are more versatile, and some have specific styles to which they gravitate.
I do try to make a conscious effort to change my physical vocabulary with each piece. I’m always looking to find new ways of moving, new ways of expression. As a choreographer it’s difficult to avoid repeating oneself because we have a certain sensibility that is inescapable. Most often, even after I think I’ve made something fresh, when I step back, it still looks like my work.
The work I’ve made for skaters with whom I’ve choreographed multiple programs, reflect our lives – theirs and mine. Barbara Underhill and Paul Martini’s When A Man Loves a Woman, Unchained Melody, Why’d You Lie, Tonight, are explorations of love relationships and sexual tension – a melding and extensions of our own experiences and classic relationship dynamics. I do seem to always go back to exploring relationships.
I respond to what I think my skater has the potential to express combined with my own frame of mind. Sometimes, as in Barb and Paul’s programs mentioned above, an overriding style emerges that is uniquely theirs, and we explore that path a number of times.
I work instinctively in the moment on the ice, but then analyze it for the rest of the day. This system keeps me free on the ice. I relish a collaboration, a back and forth physical dialogue that can ultimately produce something unique to that particular skater.
ML: Have you ever been inspired by any particular dance styles or choreographers?
SB: I learn from and am influenced by every art form – ballet, dance, theatre, art exhibits, written work. Growing up I was swept away by Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire movies. Twyla Tharp’s work with Baryshnikov left a lasting impact because of its groundbreakingly human honesty. It was wonderful to see him embrace her style. I try to keep open to what’s in the air and take ideas and inspiration from life experiences in general.
I was very influenced by Marijane and Louis Stong when they took me under their wings to work with Barb and Paul and all their skaters. Their musical knowledge and nurturing coaching style were hugely educational. Marijane was ahead of her time as a choreographer. I am so grateful for her generosity. She would often pass on a recording for me to think about. These nudges were invaluable. They were also validation from her that I was capable of making those programs.
I have tried to pay that generosity forward. When David confided in me his struggle to decide on Yuna Kim’s 2010 Olympic programs, I could relate to how daunting that can be. I was happy to pass music and concepts along for him to consider.
ML: Switching now to the sonic ingredient mentioned in my introduction — music — how would you describe your approach to it? More specifically, how does your choreography react to the music, and how do you translate those musical features that interest you most into a set of movements on the ice? Is it the melody, the dynamics, the phrasing, or the general mood of the composition that ultimately shapes and defines the kind of movement you create on the ice?
SB: I try to be as open and unselfconscious as possible to allow the music to tell me what to do. If I stay open to the kind of movement the emotion of the music evokes to me, then the steps flow. If I try to force cleverness, or steps for steps’ sake, then my work falls flat. I respond to the melody, the rhythm, dynamics, phrasing, all of it – and choose which is most important to me for specific sections. Phrasing is particularly important to me. If I miss addressing the phrasing because of a technical requirement, it’s like nails on a chalkboard to me. It’s a compromise I usually won’t make, and I will keep going back until the choreography is musically sound. If I reach a point where I’m stuck, then I refer back to the mission statement, the point of the piece. I also constantly analyze the overall form. When I leave the rink, it stays with me and I’m either listening to the music, or I hear it in my head for the rest of the day. It’s often my last thought before I fall sleep.
It’s a combination of thinking, and then not thinking, and feeling the music instead.
ML: Your musical editing is incredibly meticulous: I know it took 18 edits to build Brian Boitano’s Olympic free program, a month of editing and ‘thinking, thinking, thinking’ to create Lu Chen’s 1995-6 Free, and you did some ‘painstaking editing around the elements’ for Underhill-Martini’s 1984 Concerto in F. What guides you in this process and influences your editorial decisions, and how do you find the right balance between frequent cutting calculated to fit in all the elements and maintaining natural flow and a sense of musical development?
SB: I’m embarrassed by the number of edits in my early programs. I was young and bold. I was focused on the competitive aspect and building around the pacing of technical elements. My saving grace was that I was meticulous about honoring the compositions and had excellent editors who made the final versions. I’ve always worked very hard to keep my edits musically sound. Looking back, I wouldn’t change any of the edits, but now I would not likely take such liberties, since my point of view has evolved. I do enjoy the editing process. The music must have its own satisfying arc. It’s like composing a score for the movie in my mind, and I love the challenge. That time spent with the music in advance of getting on the ice is vital.
I spend so many hours on an edit, and ideas emerge in the process. I begin to know where I’m going. I’ve often decided where key technical moves and key creative moments will be placed and what they must say, even if I don’t know how we are getting from points A to B, or exactly what the gestures or steps are, until we’re on the ice. I usually don’t choreograph a program in chronological order.
I. Olympic epics:
Brian Boitano’s 1987-8 FP
ML: Boitano’s free program is based on the music composed by Carmine Coppola for the 1980 American premiere of Abel Gance’s masterpiece, ‘Napoleon’ (1927), as reconstructed by Brownlow. As far as I know, the idea to take this music came from Marijane Stong, so it was not you who chose the music. But still, the final decision to take it was yours. What did inspire you in this music? What made it a perfect vehicle to realize your main goal, which, as you said in one of your interviews, was ’to reveal his [Brian Boitano’s] soul, reveal his dream and his heart’?
SB: I was looking for an idea and music as powerful as Brian and his dreams. I wanted his force to fill the arena and for his greatness to be palpable. I wanted the audience and judges to experience what I did when I was alone on the ice with him. Brian craved conquering personal challenges. He was driven. The music had to reflect his own intensity.
When Marijane Stong gave me the Napoleon album to consider, it was at a time when Brian’s coach, Linda Leaver, was encouraging us to rework his 1987 program. Marijane’s opinion that he should take a bigger leap helped give me the confidence to not only tackle it but also sell that idea to Brian and Linda with conviction. The Napoleon score had the force, dynamics, charge and romance that I thought could serve his purpose. The score perfectly echoed Brian’s drive.
ML: To what extent the movie itself (its plot and imagery) is relevant for understanding the program? Your ‘naked man’ section right before the final march (one ‘reflecting the «true self» under the uniform, vulnerable and exposed’) corresponds musically to the episode of the main protagonist’s imprisonment at Fort Carré, and so are your ‘doubting’ section in the first half and the ‘Brahms-like’ introduction at the very beginning of the program. Interestingly, there is also a choreographic link bridging this introduction with the end of the ‘naked man’ section: both sections end with the same one-foot glide in the arabesque position:
In both cases this gesture foreshadows a dramatic turn in the music from a more sombre and darker mood to a glorious and triumphant march-like section. I am wondering if this structural link was something pre-planned from the very beginning or just found intuitively on the spot—or something entirely coincidental.
SB: I didn’t see the film. I responded to the score and saw what I saw in my mind’s eye, and felt what I felt, without any existing influences. It’s much easier to access research material now, and I do research all the pieces I make. But I don’t usually follow the literal storyline of a particular movie score or ballet. It’s usually more the essence I’m after, combined with all our own subtext.
Brian’s Napoleon was not intended to portray the movie or Napoleon himself. The character traits of the romantic ideal of a man in uniform – honorable, brave, fearless, powerful, disciplined, passionate yet controlled – were all traits I saw in Brian. I was also inspired by the drama of his personal journey. We were very aware that Brian’s entire competitive career was now focused on these few minutes, do or die. The score gave us that drama as well. For example, we discussed the tension of the final flight of men at the Olympics and how he could heighten that tension, make it crackle even more, and take command of it, by standing perfectly still at the beginning for those ominous 13 seconds. Most would buckle under that pressure. He was excited by it.
The repeat of the position you mention was intentional and a small motif representing a single-minded man on a mission. But the second time there was transformation and a slow stiffening of his arms and body that started in the preceding spread eagle and was completed during the edge, as he hardens back to his ‘professional’ façade. His ‘game face’.
ML: One thing that strikes me is the way all big and important elements—mostly jumps—are incorporated into, and emphasized by, the music. In some cases the mechanics of this interaction seems straightforward: at the very same moment when the skater finds himself around the shorter side of the rink, there is a clear musical switch which ‘signals’ the beginning of the element—the skater then accelerates, prepares the jump and then finally jumps precisely where the choreographer wanted him to jump. In other words, the music is cut and its duration is calculated in such a way as to make the musical climax and the jump coincide in time. This is pretty much what happens with the first jump (3Lz) and the 3F-3T combination:
There are other, even more interesting, cases, however. Brian’s second triple axel, for instance, falls precisely on a very important musical turn from the darker mood of the ‘naked man’ section to the glorious B major that foreshadows the final triumphal march:
Clearly, with the jump of this difficulty executed in the second half of the program, it is music that has to be adjusted to meet the skater’s needs, not vice versa, and yet there are no clear cuts before the jump. Was there any particular musical gesture before the climactic turn that ‘signaled’ the beginning of the jumping element to the skater? How did you ‘trick’ the skater to jump on the beat and not miss that decisive musical moment of the entire program?
SB: The music was very much edited to the technical content, the pacing, and for stamina. It was also edited for the emotional arc. It had to satisfy both. And maybe that’s where I go the extra mile. Just one of these qualities isn’t enough for me. It has to work for both sides of the composition of the program, the pragmatic and the emotive. But when a certain note has to be hit and can’t be adjusted with an edit, we work backwards, to adjust everything else so that the note is properly addressed. No compromises.
The added advantage was that Brian’s mind is like a computer. His consistency exact. We choreographed all the elements so they were perfectly placed both technically and musically and he was meticulous about the precision of the execution. I could count on him for that. It wasn’t a trick. He knew full well and he also knew how lessened the impact would be if he missed the accents and phrasing. Brian was able to handle the pressure of placing technical elements on the musical accents. Not all skaters can. Before his second triple axel there was a reach into the sky, a symbolic reach for his dreams, that reinforced to him his intention and the timing for the jump. That reach was for him, not necessarily the viewer.
II: Lyrics and femininity:
Lu Chen’s 1995-6 FP
ML: Stylistically, Lu Chen’s Rachmaninoff program is as far from Boitano’s epic ‘Napoleon’ as the two programs can possibly be: soft lyricism vs. aggressively military style; the use of one track and one mood throughout the program vs. a wide range of emotions and a plethora of musical snippets; finally, feminine vs. masculine. Perhaps the only common feature that unites them is that they both have their moments of ‘nakedness’ and ‘disrobing’: more physical and literal in the former case
and more spiritual and metaphorical in the latter (the ‘naked man’ section). Can you tell me more about this central gesture of Lu Chen’s program? What meanings and associations did it bring and what inspired it in the first place?
SB: Lulu was at a time in her life when it was obvious to me that she had outgrown her childish, controlled structure, and she was yearning to blossom. Like most young skaters who grow up only knowing training, she was bound in a system that made it difficult for her to breathe or grow emotionally. I wanted to give her a program that she could look forward to training every day because it was her secret in plain sight.
I wanted Lulu’s ‘unclothing’ gesture to represent boldness and confidence – a young woman’s realization of her feminine power – the physical as well as the spiritual. It was a point of control. In a world where she felt completely controlled and always told what to do, this gesture represented claiming ownership of herself.
For me, nakedness – revealing, and especially owning, one’s soul, one’s desires, and yearnings – is clearly a recurring theme.
I look to find movements and body positions that serve the narrative, but also serve the skater. I study what looks authentic on their bodies. With Brian, against the Napoleon track, I discovered that the more minimal and angular his positions and movements were, the more forceful his presence became. I intentionally remained as minimal as competitively possible so that even a small move, such as the snapped turn of his head became impactful and memorable.
My first intention was not to create masculine movement per se. But this unadorned purity elicited classic masculinity. In addition, I gave myself rules around what positions would ring true. This man in uniform just wouldn’t put his arms in 5th position. There is more lyrical roundness in his movement during the two slow parts, but they are still pure and fairly unadorned, therefore could be interpreted as masculine. His movements and positions were intentionally classic and clean because that’s how Brian looked most genuine to me.
Lulu’s positions and movements were absolutely intentional in their classical femininity – rounded, lyrical, sensual, but still always with the undercurrent of strength and assertiveness, because that was the point of the program. I wanted to portray a femaleness that she could easily understand and access.
My work tends to be minimalistic. I keep peeling away movement to find the essence. Sometimes this is to a fault, because the simplest moves are actually the most difficult to execute with honesty and impact. They can quickly disappear if the performer is not completely committed. They can’t be faked.
ML: Speaking about classical masculinity and femininity—I recall your idea, expressed in some of your previous interviews, that Lulu’s program is very much about ‘acceptance of beauty’ and ‘coming of age’. I wonder to what extent your choreographic vision and style relied on, and was determined by, the issue of gender and gender division (apart from its reliance on individual skaters and their skating qualities). And how, in your view, figure skating in general—as conservative as this sport is in this particular regard—coped, copes, and will cope with gender issues? Is there (or will there be) any alternative way outside the usual dichotomous, oppositional gender relations, as in feminine vs. masculine, soft and lyric vs. powerful and aggressive, and so on?
SB: As I mentioned earlier, all those qualities are in all of us. Perhaps to different degrees, but they are still there.
I don’t often consciously consider the gender of movement as I choreograph. I’ve used rounded movement on men, and sharp, powered and angular movement on women. As I try to answer your question, I see that to me, it always goes back to the intention of the movement. Then it’s more in the interpretation and performance of that move than the move itself. Any movement can be performed in either a masculine, feminine, or genderless way. For example, in Katarina Witt’s ’94 programs, Robin Hood, and parts of her Where Have All The Flowers Gone, there were some consciously masculine movements. But because it was Katarina, I knew her sexuality was irrepressible and was always going to come through loud and clear.
Now, if I were to choreograph a competitive program, I would want to try to go somewhere I haven’t been before, but it would always be guided by the skater’s potential range. I also always review the landscape so that my skater and I can offer up something that will contrast all the other competitors.
I suppose I’ve naturally leaned towards more classic gender portrayals and heterosexual tensions, but I’m open to any potential. I don’t think it’s so much about experimenting with expressions of gender as it is about travelling down new roads. I would think any impressions of gender would be a byproduct of the journey, not the impetus, unless, of course, that was the point of the piece. I always search to find my skater’s unique voice, whatever that may be.
I do think figure skating is ready for any possible interpretation. Why not?
ML: What I found particularly striking in this program is the fact that you only used the second movement of Rachmaninoff’s concerto, skipping the first and the third movements that provide some of the most iconic and recognizable musical material. In the light of the later Rachmaninoff tradition in figure skating, this looks like a very unorthodox move—but of course there was no distinctive ‘tradition’ in 1995 when you choreographed the program. What was your main motivation for disregarding the two extreme parts of the concerto and focusing instead on its central lyrical part?
SB: The second movement was enough. I could hear and see in it the story I wanted to tell. I thought the first and third movements were too heavy and performative for the concept. They weren’t as intimate, and they were louder than Lulu. The fact that they were iconic made me think that Rachmaninoff’s own presence would dominate Lulu’s gentle spirit. I also liked that the second movement was the inspiration for the pop song composed by Eric Carmen, “All By Myself”, adding another, more contemporary layer to Lulu’s secret message. I loved the potential of the build to the climax (2nd triple lutz) and then the bravery and confidence it would take to end quietly. I was so appreciative that Lulu and her coach agreed to the far less commercial ending.
ML: Taking one step further, what were the main criteria for your editorial decisions, particularly for skipping the main subject at the beginning of the program, but coming back to it at the very end? Was it because you felt the need to place certain music against certain elements? My guess is that Lulu’s second triple lutz (in much the same way as Boitano’s second triple axel in his program) was one of such key moments— technically, emotionally, and choreographically—but were there any other?
SB: Lulu’s program was not edited around the technical elements like Brian’s had been. Brian’s jumps were thrilling, so they were used for emotional impact. My approach for Lulu was to be more subtle. Her jumps were not intended to carry the emotion, but rather, they were woven within the choreographic sentences. Where Brian’s program was ‘in your face’ and American in its dynamic pride, like fireworks, Lulu’s was to be an introspective, patient, and gradual unwrapping. I wanted the edit to reflect Lulu’s undeniable passion, but without any bravado. The build to the climax of the program for the second triple lutz was the one commercial decision.
The emotional pacing over the four minutes was critical to me (as it always is). I was focused on several key markers when I was editing. First, it was important to take the time to establish the resolute but feminine tone, the atmosphere, with the introduction. Then I wanted a healthy build before the stop, so the audience would be ready for the quiet. The disrobing moment needed to breathe and couldn’t be rushed. Then the main theme – the song – had to have the time to play out. There also needed to be enough time for a satisfying denouement. That left any musical sacrifices for the beginning section after the introduction. But I preferred to hold back the main theme anyway, and not use it at the beginning of the program, so that when it finally burst out, it would be especially satisfying.
III: Dramatic return:
Kurt Browning’s 1992-93 FP
ML: One of the goals that you pursued with Casablanca was to rekindle motivation in Kurt Browning after his unsuccessful 1992 Olympic performance by switching his focus from jumps to something more artistic and creative, and I think this program achieved this goal in a spectacular way. Starting with music—again proposed to you by Marijane Stong—I was wondering about the musical cut you made, and particularly about the insertion of Nino Rota’s La Strada into the first half of the program, which works really well. Why La Strada? Did you include it for purely musical reasons, to complement the Casablanca material and create a contrasting section, or there was an additional motivation behind this decision, related to Fellini’s movie and its protagonists?
SB: The Casablanca edit was a challenge because there wasn’t a lot of music from which to choose. La Strada was chosen for purely musical reasons. It came from the same disc and had the same tone. I used it for a change of pace. In our composition, this piece represented to me the energy of a chaotic street in an exotic location.
ML: The central and most iconic part of this program, from the ‘cigarette’ episode up to the second triple axel—roughly one minute of music!—is an almost theatrical ‘play within a play’ which includes lots of creative steps and transitions and which is exceptionally musical, too—almost every single movement the skater makes accentuates all the little melodic gestures that accompany this episode. I wonder what was your inspiration for including something as bold and unusual as this in the program. Was it because of your desire to generate motivation in Kurt, or there were other reasons behind this decision?
SB: At the time, Kurt was elusive. He loved to skate, but not to train. He already had three World titles and a world record with the first quad. He was tired, and perhaps burned out. This program needed to capture his attention. We did approach it as a play, and as playtime. It intrigued him. We had made a TV special where his acting prowess was emerging, and we naturally gravitated towards that approach. I didn’t want it to feel like a competitive program that he would begrudge having to train. We spent hours on the smallest details. He is astonishingly talented, and he loved breaking down every nuance and character trait of this Bogie guy. The focus was not on the jumps at all, and the program reflected where Kurt was headed as an artist.
ML: Could you imagine doing something similar in different circumstances or with a different skater? Or did you take this risk precisely because there had been no Olympic pressure at that point and thus more creative space for ‘freedom’ (whatever ‘freedom’ means in figure skating)?
SB: I think I instinctively read into the skater’s state of mind and values, so I don’t do for one what I’d do for another. My approach and thought process is probably always the same, but my delivery may adapt. Each is a unique relationship. I try to build a bubble of trust. If we do more than one program together and work over years, then we evolve together, adjusting to our parallel lives. Perhaps that’s why I’ve been able to be as versatile as you mentioned. I really pay attention to each of the skaters as people, their strengths, their priorities and I try to push their range. They also push me. I love exploring all kinds of music and styles of movement, provided that there is also an emotional driving force.
Kurt Browning’s ‘Clown’
ML: This brings me to the final program of this post and its final ‘bonus’ section. Normally, when I am writing about choreographers, the bonus section covers something fairly idiosyncratic, lying outside the choreographer’s main interests, but showing a different side of his/her personality and style: an interesting exhibition program perhaps, or a show number. This strategy does not really work in your case, however, because figure skating shows, exhibitions, TV specials, and everything else that could be called ‘a different side of the choreographer’ is in actuality your main side, or at least a no less important side of your creativity than all the competitive programs that you created in the 1980s and 1990s. Can you tell me more about this side of your creativity—when and in what circumstances did you start choreographing for all kinds of shows and TV specials, and what do you think are the main challenges of this kind of work, and the differences from the work you had been doing before with Boitano, Browning, and Lu Chen?
SB: In the early ‘80s, along with my competitive work, every summer I choreographed principal skaters in Ice Capades. During that time there were also many one-off live shows and TV productions where I began to learn about creating shows and all that entails. My first big opportunity to choreograph for the camera was for the TV special, Dorothy Hamill’s Romeo and Juliet On Ice. I was asked to co-choreograph with the director, Rob Iscove, who was a dancer. It was a dream of an experience. Not only did I love every minute of it, I learned so much. I also cast the production, and that may have been the beginning of thinking like a producer/director.
After the ‘88 Olympics, we created an ABC Special for Brian, Canvas of Ice, then Katarina asked me to choreograph the German feature film, Carmen on Ice. Brian and Katarina then asked me to direct and choreograph their three Boitano/Witt tours. From there I directed and choreographed eleven seasons of Stars On Ice at a time when these tours were performing in fifty to sixty sold-out cities across North America annually. At the same time, I choreographed and began to produce a multitude of TV specials including Kurt Browning’s You Must Remember This. This explosion of opportunities allowed me to hone my craft and see skating’s potential more broadly.
Choreographing for the camera is very different from making a live show. I learned to watch the monitors and I worked hand and hand with directors so that they could begin to see skating through my eyes too. Making steps with the camera in mind was a skill learned by trial and error. I wish young choreographers today had the same opportunities that I have had. These experiences also informed my competitive work.
I love to make full live shows too. It is both daunting and thrilling. It’s a unique challenge and responsibility to create two hours that transport an audience. I can’t say which I prefer – live, or TV, – but I do enjoy the freedom of playing in the round and hearing the audience reaction immediately.
The main challenge for TV specials is scheduling the shoot in a way that optimizing the skaters’ performances. The “hurry up and wait” of film and TV can destroy a performance with unplanned stops and starts. Within all the creative ideas, first and foremost, the conditions for the skaters must be as optimal as possible.
The main challenge for live shows is time versus budget. The time to properly conceive, design, choreograph, light, and rehearse a show cannot be undercut. It’s a challenge to conceive a show within a budget. As a producer and director, one has to make those judgement calls and also lay the groundwork so that everyone involved is inspired and working to their full potential.
I have had the good fortune of being surrounded by so many talented people – lighting designers, music directors, costume designers, set designers, technical crew, writers, choreographers, directors and producers. I cherish these collaborations.
ML: There is a vast amount of great exhibition and show numbers that you created throughout your career. One that stands out to me is Kurt Browning’s Rag-Gidon-Time, in which the skater portrays a clown entertaining the crowd with all sorts of funny tricks. This is a hit-or-miss kind of program: it can work brilliantly or it can get really awkward and disastrous. Of course, in this case it’s definitely the former. I wonder what kind of inspiration you had while choreographing this number, and how this program took shape. Was it a particular type of clown whose tricks you wanted to imitate here or did you (and Kurt) just improvise and put whatever seemed funny on the spot into the program?
SB: Kurt and I labored over this program. Kurt brought me the music because he was intrigued by it. It was Michael Seibert’s idea to make it a clown number. Michael and I took this idea one step further and also made a clown production number with the whole cast of Stars On Ice that year. We invited a professional clown to work off-ice with the cast before we began, but Kurt did not attend. I can’t remember if I choreographed Kurt’s piece before or after I participated in these classes.
Rag-Gidon-Time was intended to be a stand-alone number that Kurt could perform on his own, anywhere. Kurt and I workshopped the character and movements together. We didn’t study any other clown performances. I wanted to draw from skating. The music, including its pauses between the notes, profoundly influenced the physicality and character development. As we workshopped, we established Raggy’s personality traits, and then did what the music said.
This is a clown who wishes to be, and pretends to be, a great skater. But actually, he can’t skate very well at all, so he keeps trying to make the best of difficult situations. His body never quite works the way he expects it to, and he’s always just on the edge of disaster. Yet, sometimes he surprises and even delights himself. It’s very much action/reaction. Each movement is a response to what just happened.
There were so many times where we came up with what we thought was funny one day, that we then found to be not at all funny the next day. We realized we had to be very specific with the movements, gestures and especially the timing. We broke down each move so we could understand exactly what it was that made it funny. With this knowledge, we could be more certain that it would all still be funny 50 or 100 performances later. But of course, since we created it alone in an empty arena, we wouldn’t know for sure until Kurt performed it for an audience. I was very nervous. A choreographer never wants to send their skater out to a disaster.
ML: What makes this program so brilliant is also its musicality—the fact that from the beginning and until the very end every single move gets its inner motivation from Giya Kancheli’s music. I am particularly impressed by the ending, with its long glide and arm-waving that ends (disastrously and hilariously) with Kurt colliding with the boards and ending up almost on the judges’ laps with the final chord of the music. I wonder how you trained that: the magic of this trick is in its perfect synchronicity with the music, which is not an easy thing to accomplish in this particular case.
SB: I remember asking Kurt to try the hop onto the boards the first time. By chance he hit the last note perfectly on his first try. We knew it was absolutely the right ending, but we also knew how difficult it would be to be consistent with it. We looked for alternatives, compromises, or at least a plan B in case it didn’t work in any given performance. But the option of compromising didn’t make us happy. He was determined to make this high-risk ending consistent. He figured out how to gauge his speed so adjustments wouldn’t be obvious, and in every new arena he paces out his steps to the size of the ice and height of the boards, so he can get it right every time.
ML: The central episode of Casablanca and of course this entire program is something unimaginable in the modern competitive skating, which partly explains their appeal today: their beauty is unconventional. This brings to the final question, or rather a comparison. You are known as one of the most vocal critics of the new judging system, one who pointed out its many flaws and inconsistencies from the point of view of a choreographer. I am not asking you to raise this criticism again and to repeat the points that you already made many times before. Rather, I am wondering whether, as someone who choreographed for the old system and with the old set of rules, you see any positive developments that were inspired and shaped by the new judging system. Whether, for instance, the very recent trend to use a ‘busier’ type of contemporary choreography or hip-hop can be seen as a creative and ingenious response to the new constraints built by the new system. And whether, as a result of this new system, there emerged a new space for creativity—different from the one inhabited by Kurt’s Casablanca or Lu Chen’s Rachmaninoff program, but bringing its own moments of beauty nonetheless. And if you agree with that line of thought, what are your favorite moments of beauty in this new world of choreography?
SB: There are many breathtakingly beautiful pieces of competitive choreography today. It is so much more sophisticated and complicated. Skaters are so much more adept at turns and moving in both directions. Spins are much faster and more important. Skaters are able to execute a staggering amount of content. The current rules have increased the importance of all elements of skating. I still think that the judging system is deeply flawed, but that’s for another conversation.
The current trend in hip-hop is exciting, but not necessarily new. As long as I’ve been skating, classical and contemporary dancers have been invited to choreograph competitive programs as well as exhibition numbers. Brian Foley, Clarence Ford, Barry Lather and Benji Schwimmer are just a few who have left their mark.
Skaters and choreographers today continue to push the creative boundaries in brilliant ways. These are just a few of the programs that have given me a visceral experience. There are many more, and all countries and great choreographers are not represented in this short list:
- Javier Fernandez, free program 2016 Guys and Dolls by David Wilson
- Yuzuru Hanyu, short program, Chopin’s Ballad No 1 by Jeffrey Buttle
- Yuzuru Hanyu free program 2017 Hope and Legacy by Shae-Lynn Bourne
- Nathan Chen, short program, Nemesis, by Shae-Lynn Bourne
- Carolina Kostner, short program, Ne me quitte pas by Lori Nichol
- Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, free program, Rain, In your Black Eyes by Lori Nichol
- Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot, free program, La terre vue du ciel by Christopher Dean
- Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, Oblivion by Christopher Dean (they have so many gorgeous programs)
- I admire all Marina Zoueva’s work, but this piece, although not competitive, is transcendent. Ekaterina Gordeeva, Mahler Symphony No 5, for Sergei:
ML: Would you consider contributing to this ‘new brave world’—or recreating your own world—again any time soon? Could you imagine doing something similar to what you had already done within the constraints of modern figure skating? Or is this beauty gone and forgotten, never to return again?
SB: Of course!
If I were to make a competitive program now, I would have to figure out how to impose my style and approach onto the system and parameters of the current rules. I’d have to find the emotional arc and the moments in the program that breathe. I’d still have to be satisfied that I did my best technically, without compromising my need for emotive pacing and resonance.
ML: Across the entire spectrum of different styles and approaches, new and old, what would you single out as one essential part of your style, one indispensable element that lies at the foundation and defines your choreographic language?
SB: Emotional resonance. Passion. But maybe this is best answered by someone else.