A portrait of the choreographer: Stéphane Lambiel

Throughout his long and extremely successful competitive career Stéphane Lambiel conquered the audience first and foremost by his skating skills, the expressiveness of his skating, the subtleties and nuances of his musical interpretation, and, of course, by his dizzying spins. The 2010 Olympics saw the end of his amateur career and the beginning of a new and no less exciting chapter. Without a competitive framework, Stéphane’s artistic genius truly blossomed: a long list of outstanding programs co-choreographed together with Salomé Brunner for shows and galas; commissions from, and productive collaborations with, the competitive skaters that started to multiply immediately after the end of his career (from the 2010-11 season); finally, the emergence of the first students by mid-2010s, especially Deniss Vasiljevs — all this testifies to the quick rise of Stéphane as a choreographer and a coach.

As a result, in a twelve-year period of time since the end of the Vancouver Olympics, he became a well-established coach and a founder of his own school of figure skating in Champéry (Switzerland), which has recently attracted a few skaters of the highest caliber (Shoma Uno, Rika Kihira). Apart from all the coaching and administrative duties, he has established himself as one of the most creative and prolific choreographers, with a never-ceasing influx of skaters coming from all over the world every year to get a glimpse of his artistic vision: in addition to the three protagonists of this essay, Stéphane’s clients include Daisuke Takahashi, Nobunari Oda, Shoma Uno, Miki Ando, Rika Kihira, Carolina Kostner, Elizaveta Tuktamysheva… This long list continues to grow.

A decade of choreographic activity is a sufficiently long period to be able to draw some preliminary conclusions and try to outline the main features of Stéphane’s choreographic style and artistic vision: the basic contours of his portrait as a choreographer, so to speak. This essay’s main goal is to paint this ‘portrait’ with three large brushstrokes, presenting three programs that belong to three different choreographic and musical styles (modern electronic dance music, jazz and American minimalism) and, chronologically, to three different periods of Stéphane’s creativity: the 2010-14 Olympic cycle that marks the beginning of his career as a choreographer and a coach, the 2014-18 cycle that saw his quick rise to prominence, and finally the recently completed 2018-2022 Olympic cycle that cemented his success and legacy.

I. 2010-2014: ‘F-U-Y-A’ by Tatsuki Machida (2012/2013, SP)

Tatsuki Machida is a great example of a late bloomer: a skater who fulfilled his true potential only relatively late in his competitive career. His first notable successes date back to the 2012-13 season: winning his first Grand Prix medal in the US, followed by the first gold (in China) and, as a result, qualifying for his first ever Grand prix final. An unfortunate setback at the All-Japan National Championships later in the season brought this Cinderella story to a temporary halt, but it did become a springboard for Tatsuki’s major successes the following season: his silver medal at the World Championships in Saitama, and 5th place — merely 1.68 short of bronze — at the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games.

Tatsuki was one of the first major ‘victims’ of Stéphane’s choreographic experiments. Their collaboration started one year prior, with the 2011-12 Don Quixote routine — coincidentally, featuring the same piece of music that was to become an important part of the skater’s professional career later on. Next season, Machida collaborated with Stéphane on the new short program. Whereas the new free program choreographed by Phillip Mills to Stravinsky’s «Firebird» emphasised all the well-known strengths of the skater, first and foremost his artistry and clean balletic lines, Stéphane’s short was an experiment — and a highly successful one at that.

It is choreographed to the track F-U-Y-A by C2C, a quartet of French DJs who released their first EP in early 2012. With its plain and crisp melodic profile, captivating rhythm and steady pulse, this EDM track provided a stylistic foundation that was as far from Machida’s usual balletic style as possible. This is emphasised by choreographic means: the program is equally dynamic, rich in creative transitions and modern dance moves that utilise the entire body.

Stylistically, this program is fairly uncommon for Stéphane Lambiel’s own creative output, too — watching it now, it is not easy to recognise Stéphane’s hand. A few things are clearly recognisable though even in this rather unusual stylistic framework: first and foremost, the choreographer’s exceptional sense of form and musical phrasing. The final jump of the program (3Lz) in particular stands out in this regard: the entire preparation of the jump and the entrance are accompanied by a dead silence, whereas the landing is emphasized by a strong musical accent. This creates a tremendous amount of tension and release, making this element a climactic point of the entire composition:

The second spin, too, shows excellent understanding of musical phrasing and structure. The two camel positions are perfectly coordinated with two similar musical phrases, with the foot change in the middle of the spin marking the structural boundary between the two. There is thus a perfect structural correspondence between the obligatory technical element of the program and the underlying musical structure.

It is hardly a mere coincidence that it was during this period of intensive and extremely productive creative collaboration with Stéphane Lambiel that Tatsuki’s scores and results began their meteoric rise. In terms of scores and medals, the climactic point of this development would be achieved with the silver medal at the post-Olympic World Championship in Saitama in 2014; the artistic growth of the skater, however — as well as of the choreographer himself — would go far beyond that, reaching its next peak in the unique choreographic experiments of the second half of the 2010s.

That, however, is a different story altogether.

II. 2014-2018: ‘Les feuilles mortes’ by Yulia Lipnitskaya (2016/17, SP)

Having become one of the symbols of the 2014 Sochi Olympics with her ‘Schindler’s List’ — at least on a national level — ‘the girl in the red coat’ faced a lot of turmoil in the following couple of seasons: first losing her consistency and self-belief, then moving from Eteri Tutberidze to Alexei Urmanov in an attempt to chase her best form and fight her way back to the top in the quickly changing climate of the women’s figure skating of the time. This went hand in hand with an attempt to expand creative horizons, first by working with Marina Zoueva (while still staying under Tutberidze’s guidance) and then, after moving to Urmanov, by collaborating with Stéphane Lambiel.

This latter collaboration brought about not only the new short program of the 2016-17 season, but also Yulia’s curious observations that disclose Stéphane’s approach to the choreographic process: on the one hand, his incredible sensitivity to the musical material; on the other, a head-spinning creative freedom in handling this material and the importance of improvisation:

Stéphane is another story. The music started and he just… flew away. He loves music and ice so much — it is such a pleasure to watch him improvise! But we didn’t come all this way to admire him skating — we came to choreograph the programs! In reality, it looked something like this: Stéphane puts on music and starts quickly arranging steps, while Alexey Yevgenyevich [Urmanov] and I just stand there with our mouths wide open, unable to understand how he is doing all this. Then I come to my senses and ask him to repeat everything, and he does that — but in a completely different way, often without even realising it, because he does not remember either the steps or their precise sequence.


The main fruit of this collaboration is a nostalgic program to the famous jazz standard, ‘Les feuilles mortes’ (“Autumn leaves,” or literally “dead leaves”). Joseph Cosmas’ song to Jacques Prévert’s lyrics was born in the post-war Paris of 1945-46. Originally inspired by Jules Massenet’s “October Poem,” the composer first wrote this melody for one of Roland Petit’s ballet productions (‘Rendez-vous’). One year later, the melody was reused for Marcel Carné’s film ‘Les portes de la nuit’ (‘Gates of the night’), this time with the appended text that we know today. In this form, the song became instantly popular first in the French, and then the American, pop scene.

The ‘autumn’ that this song alludes to is, of course, not just one of the four seasons of the year. It refers, above all, to the decline of amorous relationships and the fading feelings between the two protagonists — feelings that vanish like footsteps on sand erased by the incoming sea:

C’est une chanson qui nous ressemble

Toi, tu m’aimais et je t’aimais

Et nous vivions tous les deux ensemble

Toi qui m’aimais, moi qui t’aimais

Mais la vie sépare ceux qui s’aiment

Tout doucement, sans faire de bruit

Et la mer efface sur le sable

Les pas des amants désunis.

This is a song that resembles us.

You loved me and I loved you,

and the two of us lived together,

you who loved me, me who loved you.

But life separates those in love

quite softly without making a sound,

and the sea erases from the sand

the footsteps of lovers split apart.

Source of English translation

A slightly ‘detached’, dim and introspective style of the song was a perfect vehicle for Yulia, whose skating had often been criticised before precisely for those qualities. This style allowed Stéphane, too, to be in his element and speak the language that he knew best: to show his exceptional musical sensitivity and attention to detail, to work with musical nuances and shades of poetic meaning, to show his ability to synchronise steps and turns with musical phrasing, and so on.

Let us focus on the latter aspect. One great example of how this synchronisation works practically is the end of the step sequence (StSq) and the following double axel (2A). The way the rhythm of all obligatory steps and turns in the StSq are coordinated with the underlying musical rhythm and phrasing makes it feel like the skater’s blades are ‘singing’ the melody together with the singer.

Note particularly how a set of twizzles, like a set of precious beads strung together on the same thread, responds to a short piano passage: a good example of rhythmic precision in coordinating music and skating.

The following axel nicely closes the entire phrase:

In a tragically prophetic way, the autumn of this song foreshadowed the metaphorical autumn — the sunset — of Yulia Lipnitskaya’s entire skating career. The brilliant performance of this program at the Rostelecom Cup-2016 boosted hopes in the hearts of those who witnessed it, but these hopes were very soon shattered. There is no point in describing how it all ended — many people remember it, and many of them (including the author of this essay) saw Yulia’s free skate live. Then there was a withdrawal from the Nationals, then a long silence… And the quiet end of her career.

“The girl in the red coat” was gone, but nothing could erase her traces — including the precious footsteps that marked her collaboration with Stéphane Lambiel — from the sand of figure skating history.

III. 2018-2022: ‘Gnossienne no. 1’ (Eric Satie) and ‘Metamorphosis II’ (Philip Glass) by Satoko Miyahara (2019/20, EX)

Satoko Miyahara’s 2019/20 exhibition to Eric Satie’s ‘Gnossienne no. 1’ and Philip Glass’s ‘Metamorphosis II’ — turned into a short program for the following 2020/21 season —  is a truly outstanding example of Stéphane’s craft and finesse in dealing with music in his choreography. In the absence of any constraints and limits that always come with a competitive framework (e.g., obligatory jumps, spins and other technical elements), it is the musical fabric itself — its structure, phrasing, dynamics, accents, melodic profile, and so on — that becomes the main protagonist and the main story of the program.

In this boundary-free musico-choreographic world Stéphane’s unique sense of musical flow and structure becomes particularly tangible. His intuitive understanding of the way music breathes in and out, and of the rhythmic pulse and structure thereby created allows him to synchronise this breath with the skater’s movement in such a way that physical motion ‘activates’ along with the activation of musical motion — and freezes along with it. This sense of structure and deep intuitive understanding of the logic of musical development is almost impossible to learn from textbooks — and it is precisely what makes Lambiel’s choreography so natural, so smooth, so musical.

Listen, for example, to this short phrase from Satie’s piece. Take a closer look at it.

Here, we can hear two identical short phrases and a brief closure (cadence). What is the skater’s response to this structure? Two identical hops at the beginning and a brief spread eagle to close the choreographic period. Structurally, these moves create an exact replica — a cast, so to speak — of the underlying musical idea.

What happens here, on the exact same phrase?

Inserting a spin here may initially seem like an unnecessary tribute to competitive framework. Nothing special. But do take a closer look — and pay close attention to the melodic profile this time!

The melody quickly reaches the top note, then goes a little down, then comes back to the top, then down it goes yet again, until the final cadential gesture resolves the tension. Now, if you look at the spin, you will see that the skater is copying this movement: the spin starts in a ‘standing’ position, then goes down, reaching the ‘sit’ position, then back up, then there is a creative exit, and then finally the end of the choreographic period is emphasised with a short Ina Bauer move — much in the same manner as the end of the previous fragment was accentuated with a short spread eagle. The skater’s movement is yet again “molded” to the shape of the music, this time to the shape of the melodic line with all its ups and downs.

The entire second part of the program to Philip Glass’s Metamorphoses II consists of a regular alternation between rapid spinning motion and episodes of ‘freezing’ in dramatic poses, almost sculptural in their affective beauty. But the very logic of this alternation, as well as the shapes of those two contrasting types of movement, are fully determined by similar contrasts and similar shapes in the musical material itself.

This is where it starts:

Throughout the Glass’ part of the program, both elements undergo some changes — they gradually transform and metamorphosise. And this development and mutation, too, is reflected in the choreography.

Take the second ‘static’ element, for instance: in the example below, there are no ‘spinning’ passages anymore, only three long, held chords, which are then repeated with a few changes. In the choreography, this structure is reflected in a series of beautiful poses that are also repeated when the musical material comes back. The musical structure — two identical phrases — is yet again copied almost verbatim by the skater’s body.

Perhaps the main reason why this program appeals so much to our senses is its exceptional musicality. There is so little going on in music — one may almost complain that there are ‘too few notes’ there. And yet for Satoko’s program every note is important: every note has weight, and volume, and layers to it. And this is why at the end we feel as if ‘there are as many as necessary’ notes, and ‘as many as necessary’ moves — like in a winter landscape, every line becomes dramatic, and every single point on a snowy surface indicates someone’s trace, and tells us something about their life, and their fate.

Epilogue: Stéphane dancing Stéphane

Everything that I said above about boundless creativity in the absence of a competitive framework can also be applied to Stéphane Lambiel’s own career and development as a skater and a choreographer. While he was competing, his programs looked really good and creative. But when his competitive career ended, his creativity rose to a whole new level.

In Lambiel’s — and only Lambiel’s — case, ‘a portrait of the choreographer’ might well have been drawn by showing only those programs that he created for himself — and performed alone. This is because there are few people in this world, if any at all, that can perform Stéphane’s programs the way Stéphane himself performs them. But that wouldn’t be quite right, of course, for collaborations with other skaters always add new colors to his choreographic palette. Without these colors, such a portrait would not be entirely complete, after all.

Since 2010, Stéphane has created and performed dozens of stunning exhibition programs, many in collaboration with his trusted colleague Salomé Brunner. There are programs in all styles and genres there, from classical music to pop and rock songs. Yet for all the enormous variety of genres and styles that are present in his creative output, one thing unites them all: Lambiel’s stunning musicality, his mastery in creating a natural flow and a convincing dialogue between music and movement. His ability to make the blade and the body ‘sing’ or remain silent, scream, and even cry.

There are many beautiful details and accents in these programs. So many, in fact, that in this short fragment alone — taken from ‘Water’ — you can almost drown in them.

Do you want to see a spin so masterfully inserted into the music that it seems as if music just… called for it? Then look at this little masterpiece to Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto! Watch this spin shimmering with all its colors, until the arm — and the melody — both leap upwards to signals its end — and the end of the corresponding musical period.

Are you tired of musical subtleties? Do you want to see a good old-fashioned jumping to the music? No problem! Here is a triple flip from another gala performance, this time to Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G minor.

Examples of this kind can be multiplied ad infinitum. After all, the main reason why we see and hear so many fine details of this sort is not because Stéphane is trying so hard to find these accents and to fill them in with an appropriate choreographic material. They pop up because there is a much deeper understanding and feeling of musical flow and musical development, which then creates a natural, almost instinctive, bodily response to it.

Stéphane Lambiel is a true musician on ice. And a very special one, at that — he plays and sings with his blade, with his body, with his arms and feet. The body is his instrument. And as long as there is music, this body will sing, and cry, and speak, and tell stories. As long as the music plays, more and more beauty will be created from under his blades.

Which is why the best thing we can ask for is:

‘Don’t stop the music’!

Published by: Mikhail Lopatin

A musicologist working on the medieval music of the 14-15th cc. I publish widely in the leading international journals, in English and Russian. A big figure skating fan. See my academic profile at https://uni-wuerzburg.academia.edu/MikhailLopatin

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