There is hardly any need to introduce David Wilson: a prominent choreographer with some 30 years of experience behind him, and with a long line of skaters for whom he created their memorable programs, some of which helped them win World championships, some — Olympics, whereas other did not win anything, but left their mark anyway. Among his clients one finds some of the best skaters that belong to different generations, all the way from the 1990s up to the present day: Midori Ito, Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon, Kim Yuna, Javier Fernandez, Yuzuru Hanyu, and many others.
Fairly recently, a new name has appeared in this long list, that of Shoma Uno — the Olympic silver medalist, two times Worlds silver medalist, four times National champion, and the winner of the 2019 Four continents championship. It is this relatively fresh collaboration that was the main focus of my talk with David, but the focus was by no means restricted to Shoma. Throughout the talk, David was extremely generous in sharing with me his past memories that spanned the entire 30 years of his work as a coach and a choreographer. So, apart from Shoma, the reader will find many dear names here both from the past and the present that encircle the central point of our discussion, which is not just Shoma Uno, but also his skating club in Nagoya, his coaches, and the rich Japanese tradition of figure skating, of which he is now an essential — almost quintessential — part.
Shoma Uno and David Wilson at the Nagoya Skating Club in August 2019 (Source)
Introduction. The Past: Nagoya Skating Club, 1997-2003
— David, I would like to start our conversation by putting your work with Shoma Uno into perspective and contextualizing it a little bit. As far as I know, back in the 1990s you choreographed quite a lot for the Nagoya skating club: for Midori Ito, Yukari Nakano, Yoshie Onda, and other skaters coached by the legendary Machiko Yamada.
— Yes! It all started when I was asked to choreograph Midori Ito’s comeback. She was scheduled to come back to competitions for the 1998 Nagano Olympics. So, in 1997 I was asked to fly to Japan and choreograph a short and a long program for her. At the time, she was a professional and out of competitive skating for a few years, since the previous Olympics. I was still young at the time — only three years older than Midori. I was very young and relatively inexperienced choreographer. I had only had one or two skaters at the international level. So it was a big mandate for me and I was hugely honored — and terrified!
I came to Japan fully prepared: I found music for her and her coach Machiko Yamada — who is this wonderful lady… I call her the ‘Sophia Loren’ of Japan, because she is very glamorous and almost European in her mannerisms. She took me in under her wing, and she loved very much what I did for Midori, even though two or three months before the Olympics Midori decided not to come back. We had fully choreographed her short and long programs, I had done two or three trips to Japan, we had consulted with their association and their judges to review the programs — everyone was really excited — and she decided not to come back. I was devastated. We choreographers usually try to put our ego on the side, but sometimes things happen in life that are so exciting — it’s hard not to feel proud of themselves.
— You wanted people to see these programs?
— Yes, I wanted people to see them! Midori was known as a jumper and as an adorable little Japanese girl that fell over the boards. I got to know Midori — she has a very interesting story as a person. And she’s lovely and wonderful. We really had an amazing time working together. I thought what we did was really good. I was really disappointed people could not see that. However, Machiko Yamada loved my work so much that she invited me back next year. I was so surprised! I thought my foray into Japanese skating was over and dead in the water before it even started.
Midori had decided to tour with the Prince Hotel ice shows — it was a major tour within Japan, traveling for months and months and performing every night. Machiko Yamada asked me to do two show pieces for Midori, and at the same time start working with these little girls that she had. Yukari Nakano was a novice girl, about nine years old. She was delightful and spectacular! Arisa Yamazaki was a junior girl who was very talented. And there was Yoshie Onda. And there were many others! So, I would go to Japan for three weeks and I would work for about ten hours a day. Sometimes, they even wanted me to choreograph an opening for a little boy — I just did it all! And I loved it. I did that for six years. For six years in a row, I would go to Japan two or three times a year, and each time it was for two or three weeks. My whole thirties were spent working in Japan.
I. Working with Shoma Uno, 2016-2020
— Now, fast-forwarding to the 2010s and your collaboration with Shoma — can you tell me more about how it all started? The first thing you choreographed for him was the exhibition program This town for the 2016-17 season…
— Yes, I did two show pieces for him previous to working with him for his long program Dancing on my own. The first one was Niall Horan’s This town and the second one was Harry Connick Jr’s Time after time. So, we did develop a bit of a rapport and I guess you could say I knew him a little bit, albeit it’s just one week one year and then one week another year. It was over and done with very quickly. But when they approached me for his competitive routine, I was thankful that we had had this experience.
«This town» at the 2018 Four continents championship
«Time after time» at the Prince Ice World 2018
I do find it very difficult, especially with the so-called ‘high-end athletes’, when they are already stars and somewhat of a champion or medalist, to choose music for them and to decide in which direction to go, when you don’t know the person. You might be familiar with their skating, with the way they move and skate, and their on-ice persona, but you do not necessarily know who they are, or have any sense of their personality, or their soul. And for me, as an artist, that is really what I am mostly interested in. I am not so much interested in their on-ice persona in terms of what they have done before — I am interested in knowing something about the person and trying to bring something out of them that maybe they have not shown before, or haven’t experienced before and included into their skating.
So, I was lucky to have that window into him. I don’t profess to knowing him well, but I did gain some access to him through many discussions with his agent Koji Ohama who shared with me a lot of information about what he has been going through in his life — and also within his skating life — at the time.
— Was this invitation in any way special or just another part of your long collaboration with the Nagoya skating club?
— Actually, it had nothing to do with my past history of working in Nagoya, nothing at all. His coach at the time was Mihoko Higuchi, who I knew very well, because she was Ms Yamada’s assistant and she did a lot of choreography for the younger kids. She was also assisting me on everything I did, except for Midori. We were always together.
When I was first asked to do my show number for Shoma, he was still with her, and the second time, too, but by the time his agent asked me to do a competitive piece, that was no longer the case. It was sad for me, because it would have been nice to go back home to that team. I was a little bit sad about that actually. I think the idea just came from him, his agency, and his mother. They were interested in working with me. I don’t think it had anything to do with his former coaching staff, otherwise they would have asked me two or three years before.
— In some of your previous interviews, you stressed the importance of a consistent long-term collaboration between a skater and a choreographer, saying that the results of their work can only be seen after a few years of close partnership. Seen under this light, how would you assess your own collaboration with Shoma? Would you say it has the right dynamics and development right now, after the two exhibitions and the competitive program that you choreographed for him?
— I always say that because, honestly, I had been quite spoiled in my career from the beginning. One of my first collaborative relationships was with Sébastien Britten, who was an absolutely gorgeous, brilliantly talented skater from Canada. He won the Nationals in 1995. He was one of our top medalists, too, and went to the 1994 Olympics. He was highly regarded around the world as one of the most beautiful skaters of his generation, highly respected by his peers. And the judging community at the time, it would say to him: ‘oh Sébastien, if you could just do one triple axel, you will be on the podium!’. He had trouble with the triple axel, but he had everything else. We started right at the beginning of my career — literally within the first year of me starting to teach, I became his choreographer — and we worked together closely for about 10 years. Such an amazing learning experience for me! I owe so much gratitude not just to him, but also to his coach, for all those years of developing, and growing, and learning. And I had long-term relationships since then: with Jeffrey Buttle, Joannie Rochette, Cynthia Phaneuf… With many skaters. Alissa Czisny from the United States…
— And of course with Kim Yuna and Javier Fernandez.
— And then to top it all off, Yuna was the cherry on the sundae! She did not just come to work with me and go home — she decided to stay. So, for four years I had access to her: to work with her, to develop our work together. And then even after she left Brian, she kept me included. I went down to California to work with her and Peter Oppegard many times over those two years. And then, since she went back to Korea, she brought me to Korea. Even as a professional, I still continued to work with her.
I have been really spoiled in knowing what that brings. Of course, it is always fun to work with a new athlete, but in the back of my mind I am always thinking: is this a one-off? There is a trend that skaters use new choreographer every year. They buy the Louis Vuitton bag, they buy the Gucci bag, and then they buy the Armani bag and then they are back to the beginning. And we are now in an era where there are many wonderful choreographers. Many! You have Shae-Lynn Bourne, Jeffrey Buttle, Lori Nichol, Tom Dickson. These are doing amazing work constantly. You also have Benoit Richaud who is doing gorgeous innovative work; and you have of course fabulous Russian choreographers, and Italian choreographers.
We are living in an era where choreography has come into its own. Choreographers really rock right now! At one time, it was all about coaches — choreographers were a little bit peripheral. And there were not many of us who were notable. Now we are in the era where the public desires really cool stuff. They want it to be fresh, and new, and innovative. They want it to be meaningful, heartfelt, and moving. They are not satisfied with just the jumps anymore! It has to be sophisticated, it has to be good. So on one hand I would say, because there are so many good choreographers now, I can understand the trend of ‘shopping around’, but on the other I would say that there is something to be had by finding someone who you can connect to and grow with. You do learn how to bring out the best in that skater over time. It is hard to do the first time, the first year. Sometimes you get lucky: you choose the right piece of music, you work with them — and boom, it’s great! But it is hard. It is better when you have a little bit of a journey.
— Shoma’s situation is interesting in this respect, because he had this sort of long-term collaboration with his coach Mihoko Higuchi. And he already had his own style. I am wondering whether you actually engaged with this style that he had, whether you tried to change something in it, or add something — or whether you just started from scratch.
— I do not think about it in those terms. For me, it is not about changing, it is about understanding. I do not try to change my skaters, I try to find out who they are and what we can do. It is all about self-discovery as a person. It is not like being a painter or a music composer. When you compose music, you are dealing with silence, and only your own thoughts, and only your own heart. I am dealing with a human being — and music. Yes, I have my own creative inspiration from the music, but it is only valid if it reaches that person — because that person is going to perform it. So, my ideas are worthless, unless they touch that person, unless that person feels them and can make something of them.
— So, coming back to one of my previous questions: how would you assess your collaboration with Shoma in these three programs? Did you manage to find his soul, his personality, or is it still a work in progress?
— It is always a work in progress! I think it definitely shows that we had worked together for three years. Shoma’s performances of Dancing on my own, I think, are representative of more than just this year. The fact that we did two programs before shows. I don’t think I could have got the performance that he managed to create if it was just the first time.
— Comparing these three programs, I find many common features in them, some more general, such as graceful and almost balletic arms or the lightness in his skating that reminds me of the North-American skating style, but also smaller details like those brief spread eagles used as transitions between various steps and turns, or characteristic neck rolls, and some other gestures and moves.
«Time after time»
«Dancing on my own»
— Aside from the jumps, all skaters have certain moves that they are comfortable with, that they do well. As a choreographer, you are looking for ways to use those moves. It is like if I come to your house and see all the furniture you have and then ask how I can redecorate your house with all the same stuff — and make it better. This is what we are doing as choreographers. Yes, we try to bring in a new pillow, a new chair, maybe a new painting, or change a color on the wall, but we are not completely throwing our all your furniture. We are working with what you have. These skaters are already on the top, they are already near the peak, they are top ten or top five. They are already really good. They have a lot of nice furniture and a lot of beautiful paintings on the wall. It would be stupid to throw it all out. And that is why you can see some similarities. Even if he worked with a different choreographer, you would still see these similarities — and that is because Shoma is Shoma. He has an iconic style.
— And yet I think this style has slightly changed!
— Thank you! That’s the hope. When I work, all of my programs are like puzzles. Even though it might not immediately show, I do not leave blank spaces for them to just skate from this end to that end. Everything is on the count of eight or on the count of six, or whatever the phrasing of the music is. And everything is designed to fit together like in a puzzle, including the jumps and the spins. Some skaters have trouble with this if they have never worked with a choreographer like me — they could feel constricted, because they like to change it as they go. This is one of the main factors, I think, that Shoma could understand, because we worked together twice before on show numbers. By the time we got to a competitive piece, he already knew how my brain functions. He was committed to work through that process with me.
And of course I want them to be comfortable. But you can’t just start changing the phrasing here and there, because then nothing means anything. To me, choreography is more than just accents, or highlights — it’s like weaving a web. And we’re following the ebb and flow of the music, and the phrasing, and the emotional changes, and the tonal changes — we are following the music!
II. ’Dancing on my own’: Text
«Dancing on my own» at the 2020 Nationals
— Speaking about music and text, let us move on to this particular song: Dancing on my own. In one of his recent interviews Shoma said that you had sent him two songs out of which he chose one. Would you be willing to reveal now what was the other song that you offered, or at least what was the other direction that you wanted to explore with Shoma in the 2019-20 season? Was it something markedly different from Dancing on my own or relatively close in terms of style and tone?
— The other song was by the performer who I saw on one of these late night talk shows. He is a kind of an underground artist, very much a Youtube star, and he was on the cusp of getting a major recording contract: half-Japanese, half-Australian. His name is JoJi, and the song is called Dancing in the dark.
It had a similar subject matter with Dancing on my own, but a very different vibe. It is completely different. A little more bluesy, but in a techno way. Strangely enough, I saw just recently that Vincent Zhou did a show piece to Dancing in the dark, which I was completely unaware of.
I took these songs and asked two different artists to make arrangements. The first one was done by Orin Isaacs — the Toronto-based artist, music composer, and music director for many Canadian television productions. I know him through Sandra Bezic. That genre of music was in his wheelhouse, so I gave that piece to him and we talked about how to make it into a long program. But ultimately Shoma chose the other one.
— So what you sent to Shoma were actually arrangements, not the songs themselves?
— Yes, I took both and created long programs out of them, and we added the music to frame the vocal part. It was more than just the original song. But of course we never created the other one. It’s left undone. As for ‘Dancing on my own’, I knew this song as a dance hit, because I loved the artist Robyn from years ago, when I was younger and used to go dancing. She had been off the music scene for probably a decade, and then she came back with that song. It was a more recent hit of hers. Then a few years later I happened to hear the male vocal version done in a more ballad format, and I immediately thought of Shoma — just because of what he was going through in his life at the time. At first I thought it could be a show number, because it did not have enough power or enough diversity in the music to be strong enough for a senior man long program. But we have a wonderful composer here in Montreal who is very experienced in dealing with skating — he does a lot of work for the ice dance community — and so if ever you can find a vocal piece, he can compose music around it. He can compose an Intro, or a breakaway. He can frame it for you, and he is wonderful at taking you off the melody, bringing you somewhere else orchestrally, and then dropping you back into the song in a seamless manner. His name is Karl Hugo. He composed what we needed: an Intro and a breakaway, and he also added a new percussive layer on top of the song.
Karl Hugo playing «Your last kiss» — two newly composed parts of Shoma’s program
— In a way, you have already answered my next question, but maybe you can add something here and expand on what you said before. Many noticed how Dancing on my own deeply resonated with Shoma’s own coaching situation, which made this program so uniquely personal: the story of the lyric persona and his struggles and Shoma’s own breakup with his team and fight for his place in figure skating intersect and merge together. Under the mask of the lyric protagonist of this song, we can easily discern Shoma’s own self, his own struggles. I wonder to what extent all these parallels that seem so obvious in retrospect were thought through in August, when you first came to choreograph this program for Shoma, and to what extent Shoma’s uncertain coaching situation shaped your thinking in the process of its creation?
— Without being too revealing of what I know about his personal life, I will just say that it goes deeper than just his coaching situation. Much, much deeper. It is a story of a young man at the crossroads of his life. It is not just a coaching situation — it is your home situation, your professional situation. It is about having to stand on one’s own two feet — and it is a coming of age story more than anything. Last year especially there was a lot going on in Shoma’s life. He was coachless! Not only was he not with his coach — he had not chosen a new coach yet! So, I was working with an athlete with no coach, which I have never done before.
I was hoping that he could attach to the song to give himself strength, so that he could find himself in the song. Whenever you do a piece that is in any way autobiographical, it has to be in an uplifting way. Otherwise, it is too hard. It is too hard to bare your soul in front of the world and be vulnerable. But if there is an uplifting factor to it, then you can find your strength and you can find your reason to do it.
It is too bad the pandemic happened. Shoma had a very difficult season, of course: there was a lot of turmoil, a lot of instability, and he got a late start. He was scrambling to get himself organized, but I feel like he was just about ready to go do Worlds. I feel like he might have actually surprised a few people. But then it did not happen. We’ll never know what would have happened.
— With this program, he had such dramatically different showings throughout the season. One that was probably the lowest point of his entire career was in Grenoble, but then he had a comeback within that same season: a good performance at the Nationals, and finally a brilliant showing in the Hague. So, as the season progressed, we saw how this loneliness first turned into a realization and acceptance of one’s own self, and then into a newly found happiness of being oneself: the happiness of recovering one’s own goals and identity, and more. And then came the smile and the good results.
— One of my friends who teaches skating in the San Diego area was there in the Hague with one of her young athletes. I remember her calling me from the arena right after Shoma’s skate, and she was like: ‘Oh my God, he was so gorgeous, he is going to win the Worlds, it is amazing, amazing!’
— It is interesting how a disastrous skate in Grenoble emphasized this heartbreak and this sheer sadness which is in the music and in the text themselves, while in the Hague you had this ambiguous juxtaposition of Shoma’s newly found happiness and the ‘sad’ subject matter of the song. In both cases the performance made ‘sense’ — only a very different sense in each case, of course.
Shoma Uno in Grenoble (above; credits: @yawning_shoma) and at the Nationals (below; credits: Olympic channel)
— Isn’t it interesting that when you do a vulnerable piece, you are actually taking a risk. More of a risk than skating to a big champion music like ‘The Gladiator’. Big champion music is easy. It does not require an emotional connection, you just have to be good. If it is a more vulnerable, nuanced, and sensitive piece, you are taking a chance. But when you skate good, the payoff is huge! It is always huge. But it is a risk. It is always a risk to bare your soul.
III. ’Dancing on my own’: Music
«Dancing on my own» at the 2020 Challenge Cup (The Hague)
— Speaking about music, I wonder whether you already bore in mind Shoma’s technical content and its disposition prior to asking Karl Hugo to make his arrangement of the song. While working on this soundtrack, did you ask for a particular kind of music to be placed in a particular location, or did you let the composer take the lead and create whatever he found fit?
— Yes, absolutely! With the senior level, and especially with the boys, those first three elements are quad, quad, triple axel, or quad, quad, quad. How do you get them to do a quad and think about the music, the emotion, anything? Other than landing that f***ing quad? What people need to understand is that we are living in a generation where skaters are pushing themselves to the edge of what is humanly possible. And I don’t say that lightly. Shoma, Yuzuru, Nathan are doing multiple quads in a performance: two, three, four, five — and it is like running a four-minute mile, or thirty meters in less than whatever the record time is — over, and over, and over again. All this within the context of something that is supposed to be meaningful, and beautiful, and intricate, and nuanced. That is our mission as choreographers: to create the illusion of artistry when they are basically trying to defy physics, defy human limitation.
It was not like that back when John Curry won Olympics with the triple salchow, triple toe and triple loop. He could afford to be beautiful. I am sure he could have done all these triples in practice. Petra Burka, my ex-coach, was credited as the first woman to execute a perfect triple salchow in competition. She is in the history books. In competition, she often did not even do it. She did it once, but she did not do it at the Olympics and I do not think she did it when she won Worlds in 1965. She was a very high jumper, she had springs in her legs, she was stronger than all other girls. And you know what she told me? She told me she did all her triples in practice! Even triple lutz — in the 1960s! But at the time skating was in a different place. It was not all about the jumps, so they were not pushing themselves to the edge. Now the challenge is creating something where we have the satisfaction that the music is being expressed, and those elements are being executed, where there is this union.
When you are talking about a vocal piece, the demands increase. When you have words being sung, sentences being delivered, and you have a story literally being told, the choreographic requirements become even more crucial. It is not just the highs and lows of the notes, and a dynamic moment followed by a soft moment — it is also words, meanings, thoughts, images, pictures. They are not left up to the imagination — they are words, we know what they are saying! So, whenever I use a vocal piece for a competitive program, I need an instrumental intro. We will do a little bit of choreography at the beginning, then go, skate, quad! A little simple transition on the music — not too physically taxing — go, boom, quad! Same thing again: a simple transition — not too physically taxing, but kind of musical — and go, boom, quad (or a triple axel)! And then I can have the vocal come in, because I will have at least 10 seconds where we can do something that addresses the words.
— What you can do at the beginning is at least address the musical phrasing, right?
The first jump (4S) at the beginning of the phrase
4T at the end of another musical phrase
3A-1Eu-3F combination at the end of the phrase (in the latter half of the program)
— Yes! And here is one the reasons why I think it is nice to start working with skaters when they are a little bit younger, because when an athlete comes to you from a foreign country, and you do not know the coach, nor the history of what they had been taught — you take your chances as a choreographer. You really do. I try to convince my skaters that if they train their ear to follow the phrasing in the music, and every crosscut, and every three-turn, and every little nuance leading to the jump, including the turn, the preparation, the reach and the peak are all musical, then it will help. The music will lift them up, it will help them to perform the technical endeavor under pressure more easily.
— Does it also depend on a skater’s concentration during the program?
— No, it depends on commitment. This is the only factor.
— Still, I did notice in Shoma’s Grenoble skate that not just his jumps were off, but also his timing was terribly off — even before the first fall.
— He was probably rushing and ahead of the music. That anxiety that causes you to be ahead of your music will also cause you to make errors. One of the most important factors about executing these quads and these difficult technical elements is timing. The timing of the jump is crucial — more than the push, the effort, and anything else. Over the years, the skaters that had reaped the most benefit from what I tried to teach as a coach were those who committed to it.
And do you want to know who committed to it the most? Yuna Kim! She herself is a very musical person: she loves to sing and has a lovely singing voice, she loves music. Everything I spoke to her — she believed. It was not a challenge for her to be on her music, it was essential. If she was off her music, she would fall. She could not be off her music. If you watch Yuna Kim’s performances, it would be a challenge to find a single moment where she was off her music. And she was one of the most consistent competitors in the history of skating.
Trying to get other skaters to believe in that is not easy. Skating is a little naive. They think technique is technique and artistry is artistry, but it is not true. It has to be a union of the two! If you take a ballet class or a dance class, your teachers will deal with artistry and technique in the same breath. There is artistry in the technique and there is technique in the artistry.
— And Shoma’s skate in the Hague was very precise both technically and artistically! Compared to Grenoble, his timing was really on this time. Which brings me to the next question. You came to Telfs in January to work with Shoma and Stéphane on brushing up the program. Can you tell me more about this second stage of your collaboration on this program? What precisely did you do there, what was the plan?
Shoma Uno, Stéphane Lambiel, and David Wilson in Telfs (Austria), January 2020 (Source)
— It was wonderful! I have got to know Stéphane over the years through Yuna’s shows. Every single show we would have Stéphane, because you cannot have a show without Stéphane Lambiel. I have never had a chance to choreograph Stéphane individually, although we did talk about it many times — the opportunity never presented itself. I was very happy and excited to find out that, of all the people in the world, Shoma had decided to take on Stéphane as his coach. Stéphane was wonderfully gracious to reach out to me and ask to come over to work with him and Shoma. He had talked about me working with some of his other students, too — that was all future plans for the new year.
I went there in January and spent some time with Shoma and Stéphane, worked through the program to see if there was anything we could find to make it better and more comfortable, and if there were any problems. That was one of the wonderful things about the four years that Yuna was in Toronto. After every competition, Brian could come and say to me: OK, this happened and this happened, and then Yuna would say: I want to change that, tweak that, here I feel like I could do more, let’s find something else. As a choreographer, it’s such a blessing to have these times when you are with the coach and the athlete, in the inner circle, when you are given a chance to elevate the work. It is my favorite thing — to work with the coach and the skater, the three of us. I love it! I think the best coaches make that possible: they want to spend time with the choreographer and the skater to understand what is going into it and to share what they know. I think we need to be open to that as choreographers.
I really enjoyed my week. I cannot remember what we did, but I felt at the end of the week that the program was better.
— It did get much better! Then he skated in the Hague and there were lots of visible changes in the program, lots of little things…
— Little things that read louder to the audience, little things that are more comfortable to the skater — it is about the nitty-gritty, the little tiny things. As you progress in your season and move closer to the World championship performance, it becomes nittier and grittier. One of my big pet peeves is athletes that do not appreciate a follow-up. I am always telling them: call me! Bring me in, we will make it easier and better. Choreographers need to be included in the follow-up process. It is absolutely essential if you want it to be anything that is memorable.
— Interestingly, there were a couple of little changes in Shoma’s free that started to take shape even before you came to Austria. One particular change that occurred before your visit was in the cantilever move. At the first three competitions (Japan Open, Finlandia trophy, and Internationaux de France in Grenoble) Shoma did it in a plain way, whereas from the fourth competition (Rostelecom cup) onwards he added a hand gesture to emphasize an important musical accent. I wonder if this change was your idea, or Stéphane’s, or probably even Shoma’s.
— I do not remember it, but I think it was probably Stéphane who did it. Or maybe it was Shoma. Let’s not kid ourselves: Stéphane is a spectacularly talented choreographer himself. He has chosen to take upon the role of a coach and created his own school, which is fantastic. We are so lucky to have people like Stéphane in the world to teach children. I say it with all grave seriousness! We’re so blessed to have people like Stéphane to teach the future generation. There are certain individuals like him who represent the most exquisite kind of skating, most beautiful example of quality in skating and craftsmanship. It’s wonderful that he choreographs, but it is even more wonderful that he teaches. It gives me hope for the future that there are people like him who are giving it back and sharing it.
I was really excited to become a part of their new relationship. I mean, Stéphane has so much to offer — he does not need me! Stéphane is everything. He is everything you would want from a skater: unbelievable technical ability in the jumps and the spins, but the artistry… and the skating quality! He is one of a generation. He will never be forgotten. So I was very flattered that he wanted to keep me involved and offer something.
Epilogue: Shoma Uno and the Past
— I would like to wrap up our talk with three last questions about your collaboration with Shoma. Here’s the first one. Your work greatly enhanced his versatility as a skater and opened up — or at the very least emphasized to the degree not reached before — the softer lyrical side of his skating persona. In your view, what other paths are there to explore for Shoma, or at least what other paths would you want to explore with him, had you been given another chance to work with this skater? Would you want to do something different or go further in the direction that you took with the programs you have already choreographed? Do you think there are still other sides of this skater that we do not know yet, the kind of potential that is still hidden from our view?
— Working with other skaters long-term, I was continually looking for a new direction — what have we not done before? What else could you connect with? What else could you identify with? For Shoma, I have no idea what to say, because it was just the beginning. We have only just scratched the surface. And I think he has only just scratched the surface. He has only just become his own man, or is just becoming his own person. All I can say is, if I were still involved, I would be looking for a direction that has nothing to do with what we did in the past, but something that he could identify with, something that he could feel. This is the most important thing — skaters need to feel the music to be able to express it.
— Throughout your collaboration with Shoma and his coaches, what was the funniest or perhaps the most touching moment that you would be willing to share?
— In the beginning, before Stéphane was involved, when Shoma had no coach and was training on his own, it was just him and his agent Koji Ohama, with whom I was communicating all the time. I was very concerned that after going to choreograph him, he would be left alone with all this material. So I was adamant that we do some FaceTime follow-up. After coming back home, I kept pushing, pushing, pushing: ‘I want to see what he is doing! Let’s just go to the rink with him and we can do some FaceTiming and talk to him directly!’
I wanted to make sure that my work was good enough for him. The thing that people do not understand is that this follow-up process is not just for skaters, but it is also for choreographers themselves. It is really difficult to choreograph something within a week when you do not know the skater. And even if you do know the skater, you just do not know if it is going to work. We need that follow-up time to make our work worthy of the skater.
So, Koji made it happen and we had four or five sessions on FaceTime. It was late night for me, morning in Japan. And it was hard to understand what is going on, because he films it, and you can’t really see, and so on. But I really appreciate their patience. As a choreographer, I felt honored, because I felt like they were doing it for me. The thing is: he is going to skate it, and the judges are doing to judge him — but also me! The fans are going to judge him, but they love him — and so they are going to judge me! The Federation is going to judge him — but also me! So I did feel honored that they took the time to give me the chance to try to make it as good as it could be, even though it was through FaceTime.
It was not necessarily the funniest thing, but still…
— The last question: what impress you most in Shoma’s skating? Is there one particular quality, one character trait or trick that stands out and makes him truly special?
— Oh, that’s easy! There is a lineage of Japanese skaters…
Let me go back in time for a moment. There was a time when figure skating was a very “white” elitist sport, dominated mostly by European and North American skaters. Through the decades many other countries have risen to make a place for themselves on the world stage. Japan has cultivated its own legacy of skating that for many years was bubbling just beneath the surface of worldwide acclaim before becoming the super power that they are today.
With the men, a couple names that come to mind are Fumio Igarashi in the late 70s who was amazing and ahead of his time in many ways; Naoki Shigematsu in the mid-90s was a beautiful skater with elegant lines and wonderful edge quality. There were others of course and then in more recent times the list gets very long indeed, topped off by Daisuke Takahashi, Yuzuru Hanyu and Shoma Uno raising the bar to new heights.
I think there is definitely a Japanese style of skating and that includes such qualities as effortless flow and speed, soft knees, deep edges and a very explosive yet organic jumping technique. You can see there the history of martial arts and the philosophy that they live with — you can see it in their skating.
Shoma’s skating is emblematic of this wonderful heritage.