Introduction: Music as a process and music as a crystal
There is a vast number of figure skating programs that are filled with creative choreographic details and feature some really interesting music, but show little to no interaction between the two layers. There, music would often serve as a pleasant background, or a beautiful frame, for the choreographic content, but it would never join the conversation for real. It is left out of the picture — and pushed towards the margins.
There is still a fair amount of programs in which choreography does follow the musical flow at a surface level, responding to the most prominent and expressive musical impulses and gestures: with jumps amplifying crucial musical accents, spins accentuating repetitive musical formations, and steps following and complementing the underlying rhythmic patterns. Here, choreography interacts with music as a process, so to speak — that is, with the way it unfolds in time, with the music’s going from point A to point B, and then to point C, and so on until the very end.
There is a high degree of immediacy in the relationships between choreography and music in such programs — choreography responds to whatever the music has to say in the moment, here and now. As is the case below, for instance: the spirals that the skater performs respond to a repetitive melodic structure by accentuating the expressive dissonances between the two voices. Choreography and music reach the climactic point together, with the more impressive second spiral emphasising the highest pitch of the entire musical phrase. When this musical phrase comes to an end, so does the choreographic section. Choreography thus unfolds in constant dialogue and interaction with the corresponding musical structures. They constantly look at each other, imitate each other. This is what I mean by interacting with music as a process.
Finally, there exist yet another very small fraction of programs, in which choreography reflects music on a much deeper structural level — it responds to music as a crystal (‘crystal’ here referring to ‘structure’, ‘shape’: the architecture of music, so to speak). There, the immediacy of musico-choreographic interactions can still be very much present, but there is much more than just that. What I mean by this is that here choreography ‘moulds’ itself into the surrounding musical structures, creating a sort of plaster copy of this or that musical shape — one that faithfully reproduces its breaking points and internal thematic arcs. Here, in addition to immediate responses, there are structural relationships at a distance — such as choreographic repetitions that echo musical reiterations across different parts of the entire composition, for instance.
In programs like this, musicality is not just about being ‘musical’ more generally or responding to immediate musical impetuses — apart from all this, it is also about being able to respond to music analytically, which requires some degree of understanding of how music works structurally, how it unfolds in time and what shapes it creates. This is what I mean by ‘the architecture of music’.
There are very few figure skating programs that reveal this level of analytical comprehension of music in their choreographic structures. Satoko Miyahara’s Stabat mater, choreographed mainly by a former NDT dancer Kenta Kojiri (with some extra help coming from Takeshi Honda and Stéphane Lambiel), belongs to this rare — and truly rarefied — category.
Let us come in and have a look at what is inside this building then! (if the video below does not work, click this link)
Part I: On musical form
Since it t is practically impossible to understand some choreographic ideas in this program without first gaining a fair understanding of musical architectonics, what we need to do is, listen to the music itself and discuss its internal structure.
The graph above looks pretty and colourful — at least, that’s the author’s hope — but so far it hardly clarifies anything. Stay patient, reader! The exit is not easily findable, but I will try to guide you through this complicated maze of colours and terms.
The first movement of Pergolesi’s Stabat mater sets to music the first three lines of the eponymous medieval sequence. They outline the main drama of the entire piece: Mary’s standing at the foot of the cross and beholding her Son’s crucified body.
Stabat mater dolorosa // The sorrowful mother was standing
juxta crucem lacrimosa, // close to the Cross, tearful,
dum pendebat fílius. // while the Son was hanging.
The musical structure of Pergolesi’s setting can be divided into two parts of roughly equal duration. Both parts of this binary form explore more or less the same musical material and exactly the same three lines of the text that I quoted above. Before the first part, there is also a purely instrumental introduction (without text) that anticipates some of the main material of the two parts that follow: its opening section (marked in red) reappears at the beginning of parts 1 and 2;
the closing phrase (in blue), too, reemerges in the exact same spot — at the end — of both main parts.
What differs is only the middle section: introduction offers one thematic block (in green), the first vocal part — another (in orange), whereas the second combines both (orange+green).
Still sounds confusing? Let us fill in these dry graphs and schemes with Pergolesi’s music (if the video below does not work, just click here).
There are several important thematic arcs in this musical ‘building’, some of which are fully explored in Satoko’s program: 1) all three parts (Intro+two vocal parts) start and end with the same musical material; 2) Introduction and the second vocal part have some common material in the middle section (green+blue complex); 3) finally, the two main parts share the same closing thematic block that is missing in the Introduction (yellow+blue).
Overall, the resulting shape of the entire structure is that of a circle, with the same musical motives reemerging again and again throughout the piece, just in a slightly shuffled order.
Part II: On choreographic form
A) In my end is my beginning: The circle
The circular shape of the whole musical structure is emphasised by the two similar poses at the very beginning and end. The program starts abruptly, in medias res, when Satoko starts skating towards the centre of the rink, with her hands stretched out to form a cross-like shape with her torso. At the end, she kneels and turns 360 degrees on the ice — but the position of her hands and even fingers clearly echo the opening.
With this simple gesture, the skater creates a large-scale choreographic arc and closes the circle — and so does the music.
B) Introduction / Part II: The jump
Creating a circle-like shape by ‘rhyming’ the beginning and end of the program is not completely unique, of course — a curious reader will surely find many other examples in the history of this sport. No deep analytical investigation of Pergolesi’s music is needed to do this. However, the next two examples show two very specific structural parallelisms that are not easy to brush off. Example 1 is the positioning of two double axels: they are landed in exactly the same spot within the Introduction (axel #1) and Part II (axel #2), on exactly the same musical material (at the end of the two ‘green’ sections). This is hardly a coincidence!
Coming back to some of my reflections at the beginning of this article, one can probably say that in a bad program jumps are not motivated by music at all; in good programs, they emphasise important musical accents; here, however, jumps are not just motivated by musical accents — they are permanently ‘glued’ to a very specific material within the overall structure. They form much deeper musico-choreographic bonds across different parts of that structure. To create these relationships between specific technical elements and music, a choreographer and a skater both need a deeper structural understanding of musical development.
C) Part I / Part II: The spin
Another important choreographic arc, this time between the two main vocal parts of the piece, is created by two of Satoko’s spins. The underlying idea is essentially the same: similar-looking (or identical) technical elements are positioned in such a way as to emphasise the parallelism between two similar-sounding (or identical) musical sections. One structure imitates the other.
Both spins in the example above start precisely at the beginning of the two closing sections in Parts I and II (the ‘yellow’ sections in the graph). Here, again, we see a peculiar musico-choreographic bonding, with the same music acquiring the same visual/choreographic counterpart. This structural parallel is further reinforced by two long RBO curves that serve as an entrance to the spin in both cases.
Coda: To Satoko
It would be truly fascinating to untangle the musico-choreographic ‘knot’ of this program even further, singling out other moves or technical elements that help to glue together the entire structure: to see how, for instance, the two spirals in the second part that I showed near the beginning of my article grew out of the choreographic material that accompanied the same music in the first part; or how similar gestures and moves round off identical musical phrases throughout the entire piece… Instead, I want to conclude with something else.
There are skaters who are primarily focused on all the technical elements of their programs — they are not necessarily concerned too much about the music and the relationships between their choreography and music.
There are other skaters that are capable of adjusting their elements and their rhythm to the music — skaters that can jump to the music, spin to the music, and even move to the music.
There is a small fraction of skaters who are truly musical in a deeper sense — they can understand musical nuances and emotions, and project them into their skating, and to the audience. They are capable of hearing the music.
And then, there is Satoko Miyahara. The ‘skaters’s skater’ that entrances the audience and makes Stéphane Lambiel cry; who collaborates with the former NDT soloist in order to create something that is much bigger than just figure skating — that belongs to dance, that is ‘artistic’ more generally.
The skater that quietly and somewhat abruptly retired at the end of the last season.
To say that there are not many performers like her in the world of figure skating is quite an understatement — there are simply no skaters quite like her at all.
There is no other Satoko.