“He played a sobbing folk-song”: Shoma Uno’s “Ladies in lavender”

He played a sobbing folk-song, rending the heart with cries of woe and desolation and broken hopes. It clutched at the heart-strings, turning them into vibrating chords; it pierced the soul with its poignant despair; it ended in a long-drawn-out note high up in the treble, whose pain became intolerable; and the end was greeted with a sharp gasp of relief.

(William J. Locke, “Ladies in lavender”)

I. History: Mao Asada (2008, 2003)

In the summer of 2007, Mao Asada — the Japanese prodigy coached by Rafael Arutyunyan — travelled to Russia to train with Tatyana Tarasova. Apart from all the invaluable experience that she gained from training with one of the world’s foremost coaches, Mao came back with a new short program for the upcoming 2007-8 season: it was choreographed by Tarasova to the original soundtrack from the British movie “Ladies in lavender”, released in theatres just a few years back. Initially, the 2007-8 season did not go as smoothly as planned for Mao: she advanced to the Grand Prix Final, but dropped to the last, sixth, place after the short. She had to end her relationships with Rafael Arutyanyan just before the commencement of the Four continents championships. As a result, she participated in the 2008 Worlds championships with no coach at all — despite this, and also her early struggles in the free skate, she ultimately managed to snatch victory and became the World champion for the first time in her career. A solid and clean skate of “Ladies in lavender” became the cornerstone of that triumph.

Mao was not the first to skate to the “Ladies in lavender” soundtrack: just one year prior, the American skater Caroline Zhang won the Junior World championships, using the same movie as her main inspiration. However, she did establish something of a tradition in her native country, Japan. After Mao, several other Japanese skaters took “Ladies in lavender” for their own competitive or exhibition programs: Akiko Suzuki in 2011, Tatsuki Machida in 2014, and finally Shoma Uno.and Yuka Nagai in 2016.

One of the skaters just mentioned shared with Mao a curious biographical detail. Some 5 or 6 years before becoming the world champion for the first time, she met a cute kid at her training rink in Nagoya and encouraged him to continue his figure skating practices.

As time passed by, the cute little kid grew and developed as a figure skater. In the same year of 2008, when Mao won her first world title, that kid won the Japanese nationals in the “novices B” category. Seven more years passed before he won his first junior nationals and the 2015 Junior World championships. A few years after, in 2017, already a senior skater, he became a world silver medalist with an iconic “Ladies in lavender” as his short program. In the same summer of 2017, he skated “Ladies in lavender” as a tribute to the great Mao Asada at The Ice.

His name is Shoma Uno. And it is his program, his “Ladies in lavender” — the program that I cherish the most in Shoma’s entire career — that I want to discuss today.

II. Story: Andrea Marowski (1908, 2004)

William Locke’s eponymous short story, published precisely one century before Mao’s historical title, conveys a relatively simple idea: love does not have an expiration date (or, to paraphrase Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin”, “to love all ages yield surrender”).

A lifeless body of the 20-year old Polish violinist Andrea Marowski is washed up on Cornwall shore after a powerful night storm. Two sisters, Janet and Ursula Widdington, find his body in the morning. Andrea appears to be alive (albeit with a broken ankle) and, as it happens, handsome. Upon their discovery, one of the two sisters quietly confesses: he is “like a young Greek god”. His handsome body is then taken to their house and taken care of by the two sisters, 48 and 45 years old in Locke’s original story (much older in the movie: Judy Dench and Meggie Smith were 68 when the movie was shot), who spend their quiet and relatively uneventful lives in a small isolated house up on the hill, right above the sea. Nursing the sick boy back to health soon assumes new forms and turns into some sort of competition between the two sisters. The younger Ursula is particularly affected by Andrea’s presence, her deep care for the sick boy soon turning into romantic feelings and love.

That impossible love between the two protagonists creates the emotional tension that penetrates both Charles Dance’s movie and Locke’s short story. In the movie, the quiet yet climactic revelation comes when Janet, the elder sister, finds Ursula in Andrea’s room at night and commands her to come back to bed. Ursula leaves and we see a close-up of Andrea’s face: he is fully awake and fully aware of what has just happened.

The following morning dialogue between the two sisters reveals the painful essence of this intergenerational love story:

— Ursula, Andrea is a boy!

— And I am an old woman: silly and ridiculous. And foolish.

— Naive!..

III. Music: Shoma Uno (2017)

All the amorous longing and tension that permeates the movie find its voice in the soundtrack, particularly in the “Fantasy” for violin and orchestra, performed in the fictional world of the movie by Andrea himself, but in reality by the famous violinist Joshua Bell — this “sobbing song” sublimates the underlying drama of this simple love story. It is through the looking-glass of musical tension and longing that we can see and feel all the emotions and all the drama that this movie presents. Music and choreography thus serve as the main portal right into the emotional world of the movie and its dramatic essence.

The program’s initial choreographic “period” — up to its first technical element, quadruple flip — shows all the basic choreographic means with which this story is narrated: the subtle and elaborate facial expressivity of the starting pose; 

the softness and smoothness of Shoma’s arms, which immediately respond to, and then continue to shape and carry, the violin melody;

the rhythmic movement of Shoma’s feet that never diverges from the underlying musical rhythm and meter: both in simpler steps aimed at gaining more speed before the quadruple flip (0:04-0:05),

as well as more difficult steps and turns, such as the bracket LFI-LBO;

the positioning of all required technical elements against the music in such a way that they emphasise the musical structure (in this case, the first jump of the program comes at the end of the entire introductory section, right before the start of the main theme);

finally, the incredible elasticity and smoothness of the upper body that creates more “volume” and makes the skater look bigger on ice, allowing him to explore and transmit the expressivity of the narrated story to the fullest.

Let us look at all these choreographic aspects one by one.

A. Shapes: Jumps and spins

Quadruple flip is not the only jump in this program to fall on some kind of structural break. The two technical elements that follow (the 4T-3T combination and the first spin) are positioned in a similar way, so that the combination jump emphasises the end of one musical phrase (called “the antecedent”), with the take-offs of both jumps on strong, or relatively strong, beats, whereas the spin starts at the beginning of the following phrase (called “the consequent”). The shape of Mihoko Higuchi’s choreography is thus inextricably linked with the musical structure.

The internal structures of some other technical elements, particularly spins, respect the musical phrasing in subtler and more nuanced ways. The sit spin is a good example of that: its two main positions divided by a change of foot are perfectly synchronised with two similar musical phrases — the jump in between falling precisely on that structural break.

The end of the step sequence, with its rhythmically precise third block of steps (rocker RFI-RBI, counter RBI-RFI, bracket RFI-RBO), and the beginning of the final combination spin (CCoSp) are emphasised by a very clear musical accent (on the butterfly entry into the spin) that signals the virtuoso conclusion of the piece.

The climactic point of the entire “Fantasy”, however, is positioned against Shoma’s triple axel, with its take-off perfectly synchronised with the “take-off” of the musical phrase that leads to the climax.

Synchronising various mandatory technical elements with the underlying musical structure(s) allows this program to breathe and evolve naturally, to feel innately “musical”. This, however, is only an external shape — an empty shell that can be filled with all sorts of “content”. The internal expressivity of this program is achieved by other means: by Shoma’s use of arms, feet, and upper body which create this program’s own “melody”, “rhythm”, and “texture”.

B. The melody of the arms

In some of his past programs, Shoma’s arms looked rather sharp, edgy, and openly expressive. They work differently here, however: from the beginning, one notices rounder shapes, “softer” wrists and elbows, “gathered up” fingers, and smoother movements — in other words, more balletic and graceful port de bras. This is clear from the very beginning, but becomes particularly noticeable in the transitions between the two spins, where Shoma’s arms seem to “mould” the shape of the melody with its up- and downward movements.

A more open and familiar type of expressivity comes back only when it is called for by the music: for instance, just before the climactic triple axel,

or at the beginning of the final spin that I have already discussed above.

C. The rhythms of the feet

While arms are primarily responsible for accentuating the shapes and the colours of the violin melody, Shoma’s feet are busy with supporting the underlying rhythmic foundation. In the introductory section discussed previously, the underlying rhythm becomes apparent in a short series of running steps that precede the flip entry. This rhythmic precision does not dissolve when the technical content becomes more complex. The entire step sequence is a good example of this rhythmic synchronisation: see particularly lunge, besti squat, Ina Bauer, and the RFO edge at the beginning of the step sequence,

as well as the last block of steps at its end already discussed above.

D. The “texture” of the upper body

One of the crucial expressive means that allows the skater to “connect” the melody of the arms with the rhythms of the feet is the skater’s upper body. One can synchronise jumps and spins with the music, add good posture and post de bras, and follow the rhythm with one’s feet, but the program will only start to “breathe” properly when all this is merged together and animated by the body. The unique expressivity and innate “musicality” of “Ladies in lavender” could be largely attributed to Shoma’s uniquely flexible and fluent upper body.

Throughout the program, it is easy to pick out numerous examples of this flexibility and fluency. One such example comes from the beginning of the step sequence, in which Shoma’s body is never static and stiff: it creates precisely the kind of fluidity and flexibility that allows the skater to express the subtlest details of the music and to render its complex emotional world in the most faithful way.

IV. Postscriptum: Tatyana Tarasova (2017)

Whether Shoma Uno watched the original movie or read the plot of that movie whose soundtrack is used in his program, or whether he did neither of those, does not really matter. The exact details of Dance’s movie and Locke’s short story could well be unimportant for understanding his program. If Shoma did not know the movie or the story, it is all the more surprising then that his program did convey, through the musical filter, the key point of that movie and that story: the tragic ambiguity and insolubility of love.

It is no wonder then that after Shoma’s skate at the 2017 Worlds, Tatyana Tarasova — the choreographer of Mao Asada’s program mentioned at the beginning of this article and the commentator for the Russian television that night — delivered a long and profoundly affectionate monologue, forgetting for a moment about her own protégé Maxim Kovtun who was about to step on the ice. This monologue itself is a fascinating piece of evidence (English subtitles are available here).

“You see, I love him so much!” immediately after the skate; “a cute kid… this malyshatina [little one] — a cute kid” at the beginning of replay; “it is just such a pleasure, such an immense pleasure” acting as a “summary” of the entire skate; “adorable, simply adorable” during the Kiss & Cry scene — all this shows sincere love and deep appreciation of Shoma’s skating, of that side of the sport that he presented so brilliantly in his program: of musicality, skating skills, and beauty. And yet this monologue shows something else, something even deeper than that. In a way, it also reenacts the central drama of the story itself: the tragedy of love and its sublimation in and through music.

This monologue shows that, either deliberately or by intuition, in these four and a half minutes of his program Shoma did indeed turn into the main protagonist of the story, the Polish violinist Andrea Marowski, and turned the entire arena, including Tatyana Tarasova — all those whose hearts were transfixed by his skate — into “ladies in lavender” longing for beauty and love. This transformation is, I believe, the main mystery that lies behind this unforgettable performance and this program — a sobbing song that rendered the heart “with cries of woe and desolation and broken hopes”.

P.S. I wholeheartedly thank Little Sparrow for her prompt help with various technical matters.

This is the English translation of my article that was originally published in Russian here.

A Japanese translation of the article is now available here.

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