Romain Haguenauer is one of the foremost ice dance coaches and choreographers. His brilliant career spans a few decades, beginning from his work in Lyon alongside the legendary coach Muriel Boucher-Zazoui, where he had a unique opportunity to work with the Olympic champions Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat, the world champions Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder, the current head of the French federation Nathalie Péchalat and her ex-partner Fabian Bourzat, and many other skaters.
In 2014, Romain Haguenauer joins the Montreal ice academy, where he teams up with another brilliant pair from Lyon that he once coached: Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon. Together, they quickly rise to the very top and set new standards and new trends in the ice dance. It is not an exaggeration to say that the Ice Academy of Montreal has now become the face of the entire field.
This face is not as monolithic and unified as many perceive it to be, however. It includes as many features and voices as there are coaches and choreographers working in the Academy. The main purpose of my dialogue with Romain Haguenauer was to delineate one of these voices, and one of the most distinctive faces in the great trio of Dubreuil – Lauzon – Haguenauer. Ultimately, it is an attempt to show the limits and borders of Romain’s choreographic world: the mat that frames his portrait.
I. Frames and borders: On choreographic process
— Despite still being a relatively young coach and choreographer, you have over 20 years’ experience in coaching and choreographing figure skaters. I wonder how it all started: was there a particular moment of ‘conversion’ when you realized that your biggest dream is to choreograph? Did someone inspire you during this ‘conversion’ or did this transition just occur naturally?
— I started to teach and choreograph in 1997, shortly after retiring from amateur skating. I never dreamt about becoming a choreographer! During my career I worked with a lot of coaches and dance teachers: on classical ballet, contemporary dance, and so on. I remember one of my coaches with whom I did a lot of creative work: the contemporary dance teacher Dominique Audin. This work helped me a lot when I started to teach and choreograph.
At first, I started teaching ice dance, and then when you start doing that, you also start doing some choreography. It came naturally — I could just go and choreograph a piece even if I did not have any time or opportunity to do any research on the music. It was quite easy for me to do it. It did not seem like a hard work that you force yourself to do. Of course, I learned a lot from what was going on around me, too — not only in skating, but in the world of art more generally: in dance, theatre, and so on. I guess I have an eye for these things. I have never danced an Arabic dance, for instance, but I can certainly choreograph one, because I know how it is done, I saw it.
The main stimulus for my creative work comes from trying to understand what this or that pair of skaters could do that would look nice on this particular music. It is this wish rather than my own desire to create something. I work with people, which is why it is not just about my own vision. And then you start choreographing, go from one step to another, create this process and flow. And in the choreographic process you play with energy, time, and space. These are the three most important factors. They are linked with each other.
— Speaking about this more general cultural context of your work: Can you name any particular ballet choreographers and ballet productions that influenced you and your vision the most? Were there any?
— Not really. I have never been a big fan of someone in the ballet world or elsewhere. Even with singers, for instance — I cannot name one person. What touched me most was contemporary dance, which is fairly typical for someone with a French background: choreographers like Maurice Béjart, Angelin Preljocaj, all these big names. I was inspired by that scene, that culture in general. Later, I came to appreciate classical ballet, too. When I was young, I thought it was something for my grandparents. I just did not know how much classical training is actually linked to the contemporary dance that I was enjoying.
— In terms of style and approach, would you consider yourself a French choreographer or rather someone with a more international and cosmopolitan outlook? What prevails — your French background and education or the fact that you work with all these international pairs in Montreal, thus accumulating their own traditions and tastes?
— I think you have already replied to this question! Working with all these skaters from different countries made me see and realize more clearly my own French background and culture. From the moment I started coaching in Lyon, there were some international skaters around. One example is Marina Anissina, who came to Lyon and brought the Russian culture with her — in what she liked, in the way she trained, and even in how she moved.
Also, you have to remember that figure skating is a judged sport. We cannot do anything we want, like in ballet. We have to win medals, get these high positions. We perform before the panel of nine judges. We need to find a good balance between what you want to do and what you like yourself and what other people are going to like. I always keep that in mind. I am not only a choreographer — first of all, I am a coach for these skaters. Those who work only as choreographers can do something they like, because they are not really responsible for the skaters afterwards. I don’t have that freedom. But I also think that the more rules and restrictions you have, the more creative you can become — it pushes your creativity further compared to when you are just filling a blank page. I always work with a frame. I don’t even pretend that I am creating new ways to move. There are rules which I have to follow. I can push these limits, I can try to explore them. Yet even before I start to choreograph, there are already a lot of criteria there to be met.
— You already mentioned the importance of interaction between choreographers and skaters. I wonder if you can explain this in more detail. What is the role of the skater in the final shape of the program? Do you approach different skaters differently?
— It is always very different with different skaters. Choreography is never a one-way road. It is always very personal and intimate, because you always communicate with skaters. Some are more ‘passive’ and are only waiting for your commands, but with others it is a two-way process of communication and exchange. Or even three-way, when you work with a pair. In this case you don’t have to tell them to do this or do that; they also propose their own ideas, and then you choose what looks best. With Gabriella [Papadakis] and Guillaume [Cizeron], for instance, we don’t even have to talk with each other — we understand each other without saying anything. Sometimes it can happen with a person you have never met before, too!
— Another side of my previous question was whether the skaters’ backgrounds, national traditions — of dance, for instance, but not only — influence the way you choreograph for these skaters. How do you adapt to different ways of moving, to different physical bodies?
— I adapt myself to the skaters I have: to their mentalities, backgrounds, nationals traditions, and so on. I take that into consideration when I choreograph. When I coached one young Japanese girl, for instance, I had to teach her how to touch her partner, how to express this or that feeling, and so on. This is because Japan is culturally very different! If I have a Russian dance couple with a very classical posture and style, I will not go in the opposite direction and make them do something entirely different — say, a crazy French contemporary piece. At the end, I want my skaters to look the best they can. When I start working with a pair, I always find problems and think the skaters are not looking good. I am a little bit like a physician who diagnose medical issues: you are not able to move, you are not able to dance, you cannot hold your partner, and so on. It is all about finding a balance between using your strengths and at the same time trying to hide your weaknesses. While doing that, I need to take into consideration the skaters’ backgrounds and cultures. And I learned a lot while doing that!
II. Freedom and creativity: Working with single skaters
— Now, zooming in from these general questions to more specific aspects of your choreographic work, I would like to start with one particular side of your career which is usually less well-known: your work with single skaters. Your work is mostly associated with the ice dance, but in fact you have been working quite a lot with single skaters both in Lyon and Montreal. First of all, you choreographed for such French skaters as Alban Préaubert and Romain Ponsart, also collaborated with Sonia Lafuente. But you did some other work, too, not necessarily as a choreographer: mostly on skating skills, I would guess. And these were quite famous skaters, too: there is a photo of you with Daisuke Takahashi dating back to 2011, when you were still in Lyon;
and then of course there are two photos of you and Shoma Uno in Montreal, one from the summer of 2017, the other taken one year later.
My first and more general question is: What were all these skaters coming for and what kind of work did you do with them?
— I worked with single skaters and pairs, too, although not too much, because I had so much work to do with my ice dance couples. For skaters like Daisuke, Shoma, Brian Joubert, and Javier Fernandez I did not have to choreograph their programs — instead, I was working with what they already had. Let’s take Shoma, for example. He came to Montreal to improve his skating skills. This was one part of what we did. Another important part was working on his choreography: polishing his programs, working on details, making everything more musical, and so on. It was the same with Daisuke. I hold dear memories of our collaboration. He is a very inspiring skater even when you just watch him, but to work with him — it was really impressive. He has no limits. You could ask anything you want and he would go and do it. He’s one of the best single skaters I have ever worked with. And now he is an ice dancer! It is not easy for him and he still has to learn a lot, but I think he did very well on his first attempt!
These skaters could find a good choreographer elsewhere, it is not an issue for them. But they are mostly coming for something else: to get this sort of skating quality that we can offer. Even if you have the best program and the best moves, but you cannot skate, there is no value in having all this. If you do not have flow in your movements, if you ‘walk’ on the ice instead of skating — it does not matter that you work with the best choreographer and have the best program. It is not going to work anyway.
— For you, is there any fundamental difference between choreographing for single skaters and pairs or ice dance couples? What changes when there is just one skater on the ice instead of two? I presume the dynamics of your interaction changes a lot…
— Yes, it is very different. As an ice dancer myself, I feel more comfortable when there is more interaction. When you choreograph for a pair or an ice dance couple, it’s all about this three-way interaction between the two skaters and the choreographer. It’s not about the choreographer — it’s always about the skaters and their interaction. When you choreograph for single skaters, it is always a face-to-face work. I feel more involved in the process — I have to show every single movement myself, and they have to reproduce it. And it is me who generates these movements. It is even psychologically different! In ice dance, I can choreograph separately for a boy and a girl, but I have to create a movement that will be one part of their interaction. I am not creating these moves for myself, they are always one part of something else.
For me, single skaters have more freedom, and I like that. They don’t need to hold anyone, to look at anyone else, so there is way more freedom at the end. At the same time, with less restrictions come challenges for creativity. In a way, there is a risk to lose some creativity, too. I may be wrong, but I do think there are more opportunities when there are two persons on the ice rather than when there is just one.
— Is there any particular single skater for whom you would like to choreograph a program in the future?
— I do not really have any particular dreams or preferences here. I very much respect all the champions and leaders of this sport, in any discipline. What I really like is discovering new people. Of course, I would be honored to create a program for any great skater! But the thing is — great skaters probably do not really need me, if they are already great. I would probably prefer to work with someone who could benefit from having a better program, a better choreography.
III. In Vogue: Lilah Fear/Lewis Gibson
— On this note, let’s talk about the British pair Lilah Fear – Lewis Gibson. When I was reading some of their interviews and looking at their profiles, I was struck just by how different their paths had been prior to becoming a pair. She started skating when she was only two years old — he, on the other hand, started when he was already 11! She skated as a solo ice dancer — he tried single skating, then pair skating, and only then moved to ice dance! Their backgrounds and their career paths are completely different. Hence the first question that I wanted to ask is: How are you dealing with this difference?
— I have known Lilah Fear for a very long time. I did some choreography for her when she was still doing solo ice dance. And then one day she and her family had this idea to find a partner, and Lewis was available. She did not have much experience in dancing with a partner though, nor much international experience. Lewis was at a somewhat higher level as a single skater than Lilah was in ice dance, and he did have some international experience. But in terms of ice dance, I had to teach him everything: the basic positions, and even how to touch and hold a girl! I had to build this team from scratch, starting from the very first steps they made on the ice. He later regretted that he had not switched to ice dance earlier in his career. For him, skating was all about jumps.
So, it was March or April when they started skating together, and then I had to make them competitive for the following season! Usually you need three seasons to develop the skaters and make them look like a real team on ice. It’s always easy to start, problems come later! Like in a marriage: if you survive the first three years, you will probably succeed after. Lilah and Lewis, however, did not have these three years to improve and polish their skills — they needed to be ready for the next season! So, in this case you try to work with what you have. Obviously, I could not apply the same recipe that I use for Gabriella and Guillaume who skated together for 15 years! You have to be intelligent and to learn how to hide weaknesses. You invent tricks for that. He cannot lead the girl and cannot hold her? Just make him jump around her then!
At the end, their history and all their differences is precisely what makes them truly special and their interaction unique. So in this case your duty as a choreographer is to cultivate and cherish this difference. They are very different compared to some couples that skated from when they were, say, 7 years old. Yet they have their strengths, too: they are very good performers and they don’t really doubt what they do — they can adapt and perform to anything you offer them.
— Interestingly, it was precisely during their third season in seniors (2018-19) that Lilah and Lewis had a breakthrough with their ‘disco’ free dance: they placed in top-10 at the European championship and then top-15 at the Worlds. The next 2019-20 season only solidified this success. With regards to the 2018-19 ‘disco’ dance, I can quote Lewis saying this: «a lot of the routines of recent times have been very slow and lyrical, but we wanted to do something fun and something that would stand out to help us make a name for ourselves.» [Source] Who found this new style — and how?
— Lewis and Lilah always try to find new music for themselves, they are very active in this regard. And, of course, our team in Montreal is always trying to challenge their skaters, too. It is the same with me, Marie-France, and Patrice! As far as I remember, they showed me this disco music during the 2018 Worlds in Milan — right after the free dance, at the banquet. I remember how one British judge told me: «yes, listen, they showed me this music, but I am really not convinced… I am not sure you should do that.» Usually, though, when judges say that something is not a good idea — it is a good idea! I myself am never sure of any choice though. So I told Lilah: OK, let’s try that and if after one hour you see that it goes easily and smoothly — it is good. If it is hard and if the next day you look at what you did before and you don’t like it — it is not a good sign. I don’t force myself or my skaters. I am always open and ready to try things.
At the end, it was super easy and fun. We did it in two or three days, very quicklyю. I am usually very fast at this first stage — of course, it is never a finished product, there is always a lot of work afterwards. It may not be the best program in the entire history of ice dance, but it was very important for them to have that one program that would put them on the map. Every single skater and every pair or dance couple need a program that puts a spotlight on them. The main recipe of success is to find the right material for the right people at the right time. You do not control it though — it depends on the talent, on the time, on the circumstances. You cannot control it.
— For the 2019-20 season, you choreographed the Madonna free dance for Lilah and Lewis. Since the ISU profile lists several choreographers, I was wondering whether you could say a little bit more about this collaboration and who did what precisely.
— For the Madonna free dance, I was the main choreographer, while Sam Chouinard did all the arm movements and the choreographic step sequence. Usually I and Marie-France are both choreographing the entire program, from the beginning to end, but other dancers and dance coaches that we have here in the Academy are usually involved in this process at any point before it all starts, during the process, or after the program is complete.
I always had in my mind a Madonna program — that it has to be done at some point. And then they brought her music to the table! I immediately agreed, but again, I was not really sure of this choice. So we did a workshop even before making any final decisions. We do the same with a lot of teams, including Gabriella and Guillaume. When you listen to the music, you always filter it through your own ears and your personality, so for me it is always great to have someone else around working with these skaters and trying new moves on the floor first, before taking this music to the ice. This way, I can see what looks good on them and what does not work.
In addition, there was some work on music going on. When Lilah and Lewis brought me the first musical cut, I thought it was too flat, so we had to change it. I proposed specific changes: where to put each of the songs.
— «Vogue» and «Like a prayer» are two very famous and equally controversial songs. I am particularly interested in how important was the «Vogue» background for the program. Obviously, «Vogue» is not just a song: its text and choreography refer to a very specific African-American and Latino LGBTQ+ ballroom scene, and to a particular dance style called ‘voguing’. In fact, the entire choreography was done by the two black gay members of the Xtravaganza family. The impact of this song and its importance in moving this entire subculture into the mainstream is undeniable, and has become the main focus of the recent TV-series ‘Pose’ launched in 2018…
— Madonna’s songs of the 1980s and 1990s belong to my generation. I knew her songs very well. It was not the case for Lilah and Lewis, however, so they had to some research and discover this whole culture. I think they were attracted more by the voguing itself, rather than by the deeper meaning lying behind this ballroom scene of the 1980s. And it’s an easy approach: you choose Madonna, you do these moves, and everything immediately clicks. Sam [Chouinard] is a big fan of voguing, too, so he added a lot of these moves throughout the dance.
For me, it was a little bit different, of course, particularly with the second song: ‘Like a prayer’. It is more mature. I wanted Lilah and Lewis to be entertaining on the one hand, so that they don’t disappoint the judges after their disco program, but, on the other, they needed more maturity to be able to achieve their big goals.
Lilah has a very normal family, she never had to go through really tough periods in her life, she never dealt with great difficulties. And the maturity is partly about this: if you had a hard life, you could probably have more to say, more to express. Obviously, I did not want to create problems in her life, so instead the decision was to take a song that would have a deeper meaning behind it. And to make Lilah look like a diva on ice rather than just a cute and very entertaining British skater. At the end, I think this combination of songs worked!
IV. Rising to Fame: Gabriella Papadakis/Guillaume Cizeron)
— Gabriella Papadakis’s and Guillaume Cizeron’s 2019-20 rhythm dance is based on the well-known «Fame» franchise, which includes the original 1980 film, the TV series that was launched a few years later, a few musicals, and so on. I am curious to know what parts of this large franchise were more important for the creation of this program: was it the original movie, the TV series, or more generally the atmosphere and style of the 1980s?
— We watched everything: a little bit of the movie, the TV series… I knew all of this already, but Gabriella and Guillaume did not — and they really liked it, they had lots of fun watching this. At the beginning, we used music both from the original movie itself [in the middle and final parts of the program] and the TV series [at the beginning].
But I was not particularly happy about the middle section, which is just a slowed-down version of the title song for the original movie, so for this season we created an entirely new and original composition. It has been recomposed entirely, and performed with a new singer from France in a studio. Most of the time, we worked together with Hugo Chouinard — he works with a lot of skaters on their musical cuts. Apart from him, Gabriella and Guillaume also worked with Maxime Rodriguez on the slow part of the program.
— In some of their iconic programs, Gabriella and Guillaume create a closed circle of a kind: there is a lot of interaction between the skaters, but all this interaction is still kept within that circle. In the programs like this, the audience has to ‘get in’ — get in the mood, enter the flow, and then experience the magic. In «Fame», however, there is a lot of projection outwards, towards the audience. This program is much more «open» in this regard. Did you work on this projection specifically or did it just come naturally with the music and the mood of the program?
— Everything we do is for the audience. Most importantly, the music itself shows you the direction. It’s like in Lilah’s and Lewis’ disco — it’s designed for putting a show, not for closing yourself up and going deep inside your emotional world. This is music for fun, for going to the club; or, as is the case with «Fame», for doing aerobics! And the choreography must reflect that character, that rhythm, and that purpose. Everything I do is meant to create an impact on the audience. Sometimes, to achieve this impact, you need to «close» the pair, but sometimes you need to «open» the pair up, to dance, to show them to the audience. We always try to project the program to the public, to create an impact.
— Gabriella’s and Guillaume’s skating is often associated with one particular style, even though they actually skated in a variety of styles during their career: this style is characterized by minimalistic music, slower tempo, smoothness and fluidity of transitions, the lack of openly dramatic expressiveness, the use of the whole body to express subtle musical nuances, and so on. And this style, in turn, is often associated with Guillaume Cizeron and his unique qualities as an ice dancer, with his ability to generate this fluidity and this smoothness. In the last season’s programs, however, the focus seems to have been switched to give more space for Gabriella’s expressivity. Would you agree with that and where would you place «Fame» on that spectrum of styles and approaches that this pair explores? How important is it for their artistic development?
— For me, Gabriella and Guillaume are not just exceptional ice dancers — more importantly, they are great dancers, too. And yes, they have their own recognizable style, their own ways of movement. When it works, it can be magical. So, why wanting them to be not who they are? If I go to a Jennifer Lopez’ concert, I do not want to hear Madonna there! It is the same with Gabriella and Guillaume — they are who they are artistically. They have their own style.
On the other hand, they do not actually live in this mood and in this style all the time. They are both very fun people, it is always great to spend time with them, to laugh together, and so on. And with the rhythm dance last year being focused on musicals, it was a great opportunity to showcase this side of their personality — and so we grabbed this opportunity.
We were not sure at the beginning, of course, but I told them: ‘let’s show the judges how much fun you could be, how you could do a little kitsch, something different. Let us explore this!’ This is how it started. Then they had a workshop with Samuel [Chouinard] and experimented on floor before getting their choreography on the ice. It was very quick! And at the end they won the ISU award for the most entertaining program of the year, which they are very proud of. I personally think this program will stay in people’s hearts. In 10-15 years people will probably say that Papadakis-Cizeron did «Fame» and how much fun it was.
I am far from thinking that this is their best program though. Of course, their strongest point is a more contemporary lyrical style, where they have some unique ways of moving, gliding, creating lines, showing their emotions and the purity of their movements. This is something that is very difficult to achieve! It may look very simple to some people, but in fact it’s very tough, because it requires a great quality of dancing.
— Coming back to one specific part of my previous question: Would you say that, compared to the programs like Mozart’s piano concerto or Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata, «Fame» is more focused on Gabriella? Or do you think they are both equal here and the focus is instead on their interaction?
— I strongly disagree that, for instance, programs like Mozart’s piano concerto or Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata are more focused on Guillaume. It often happens in ice dance that when you have a great team, the boy seems exceptional. It is the same with Jane Torvill and Christopher Dean: people often think that they are great because Christopher was so exceptionally good. It is only partly true. Yes, Guillaume is a fantastic skater. But Guillaume and Christopher look great because they have partners like Jane Torvill and Gabrilla Papadakis, who let their partners explore their expressivity to the fullest. In addition, they bring something very special to the pair. In a program like Mozart’s piano concerto, Guillaume probably attracts more attention because he is doing more things, because he leads most of the time, but the success of the program largely depends on Gabriella’s interaction with Guillaume.
You notice Guillaume more because he is so flexible and expressive, which is quite unusually for a male partner, but Gabriella is exceptional, too. Sometimes we pair Guillaume with other girls, exchange the partners, and I can tell you — it is not the same! This fluidity and smoothness is not something that happens automatically just because of his presence. Yes, it is true that he generates lots of elasticity and flexibility, but if Gabriella was not on the same level with him, it would not work! Same with Jane and Chris — I am watching them more and more now, and I finally came to appreciate everything Jane was doing there. Chris is the leader, but it does not mean he was doing everything by himself. She is strong, too. It is similar to how Gabriella and Guillaume work as a pair.
V. Boundaries and definitions: On music
— Earlier in our talk, you mentioned the British judge who was highly suspicious of Lilah’s and Lewis’s disco choice; you also emphasized at the beginning that figure skating is a judged sport, which of course impacts many decisions. This may explain why figure skating in general remains an extremely conservative sport in terms of musical choices. Throughout the history of this sport, one finds dozens of programs that use the same «Carmen», «Swan lake» or other popular classical pieces. There are strict gender expectations, too, which are also part of this conservatism — expectations for women and men to skate in certain ways, and for pairs’ programs to be all about the relationships between men and women. There are still a lot of stereotypes of this sort. How are you dealing with this issue? Have you ever tried to break the rules or overcome certain boundaries, this frame — and how?
— It is difficult to answer your question — but I do agree with everything you said! I appreciate variety in skating. If all skaters start skating to popular songs, everyone will complain that they are all doing the same thing. Some skaters can bring more modern and experimental stuff to the table, but others might be just not in that stage of their careers yet. I did ‘Swan lake’ with my Chinese team, for instance — and why not? It gave them the opportunity to work on their lines. A classical program could help some of the skaters to do this important work. The choice that we have is at the same time wide and not so wide. The problem lies not so much in the choice itself as in the quality of execution. It would not be all that bad if we were to watch 10 Swan lakes or Don Quixotes, on condition that the quality is there, that they are performed really well.
Another problem is that when the Olympics arrive, people want to win, to do their best, and they want an Olympic performance — not just to skate clean and make all the elements, but also to touch people. And it is very difficult to touch people with the music they don’t know. Classical hits belong to the whole world, whereas even the best songs, say, in Russia, or France, or the US, would hardly touch so much people from different countries and with a different background. This limits the choice we have.
I think the leaders in each discipline have to push the boundaries, because everyone’s unconsciously following the leader — not necessarily copying, but definitely making choices that are influenced by the leaders. I often get complaints that Gabriella and Guillaume are doing the same thing over and over again. But it is true about every couple that follows their lead. Somehow, for them it is fine, whereas for the leaders it becomes a problem all of a sudden. The leaders are more vulnerable, too, and often get attacked for their choices. People expect them to do something demanding, something new — that puts a lot of pressure on them, a lot of expectations.
Another problem with figure skating as a form of art is that its main stage — the ice rink — is simply horrible for artistic creation: it is too white, there is so much light there, you have the audience sitting all around, so there is no real background, no depth. And the atmosphere is not quite suitable either — it’s the opposite of what you have in all the great theaters. This impacts the choice, too. This place has not been created for the appreciation of music and art. It is much easier to achieve in an exhibition number, when the lights are switched off and you can focus on the skater. It is not at all like that during the competition — it looks more like a hockey match!
Ultimately, as a coach, I have to take risks into account. At the end, we are not creating art for the humanity to enjoy — we want to win medals. For that, we need to make the right strategical decisions, including the choice of music. People know that with these classical hits you can win, because someone else won before you. This music speaks to the people. We made some riskier choices, too, particularly with Gabriella and Guillaume — for instance, in their last free dance («Find me»). Some loved it, some did not understand, and some thought that it was not music at all. I heard this from some judges: it is not music!
But then my natural response would be: define what is music! Because to me, if there is sound — there is music.