The Laws of Gravity

«One of the things that he does really well when he is on the ice is the way he uses gravity, both on a technical and artistic level. His movement has a certain ‘weight’, and this weight generates extreme intensity/tension. It’s a quality that is unique to him.»

Stéphane Lambiel — to French Eurosport (Source, slightly revised)

«In physics, gravity (from Latin gravitas ‘weight’) is a fundamental interaction which causes mutual attraction between all things with mass or energy.”

Wikipedia

I. The attraction of music

What defines a skater’s musicality at a deeper level, their ability to immerse themself in the musical material and to immerse their audience in their skating to such a degree that it seems almost like a natural continuation of a musical thought, like a new voice of the polyphonic whole? Where does this feeling of “natural”, “organic” skating come from — or, to quote Johnny Weir’s insightful remark on Shoma Uno’s skating, that feeling when a skater’s blades seem almost like a natural extension of their body?

The innermost secret of these deeper layers of musicality and the magnetic attraction that results from it lies not so much in the straightforward use of individual musical accents on jumps and spins, and surely not in a few impressive choreographic ‘tricks’ that highlight the most memorable musical passages — those are some of the marks of a more superficial and straight-to-your-face kind of musicality; — no, the hidden secret of this irresistible attraction lies in a precise correspondence between a skater’s moves and their music on a more basic rhythmic level. When the music seems to attract all the steps and turns of the skater and determine their rhythm, tempo and character — this is what generates the ‘gravity’ and the attraction.

Take, for example, jump entries — the most conventional and standardised parts of any program, ones that are normally being polished and perfected by years of uninspired drill. These standard combinations of steps and turns (and arm movements) often stay virtually unchanged from one year to another and from one program to the next, so that eventually they become ingrained in the muscle memory of the skater — it would seem that there is no space for any musicality or artistry in those routinely repeated patterns.

And yet… Have a look at this quad flip entry — and listen carefully!

Pay closer attention to the rhythmic pulse generated by the skater’s steps on the one hand and the music on the other — it is their correspondence and interaction that generates the gravity.

What has always fascinated me about Shoma Uno’s skating is precisely his ability to immerse himself in the musical material on this ‘microcosmic’ level, while performing the simplest steps and the most routine and seemingly uninspired bits of his program. It is also his ability to tread a thin line between being too ‘mechanical’ and rigid in his movements — moving too strictly to the underlying rhythm and accentuating every single musical beat — and being excessively free, breaking away from that rhythm and, as a result, losing that important force of ‘attraction’. It is the unique ability to adjust to the rhythmic framework, while retaining a certain amount of freedom and improvisation within it. Shoma’s skating has something that is called rubato in the world of music performance a certain degree of rhythmic ‘inaccuracy’ that is allowed, and in fact very much encouraged, in order to convey the natural and organic flow of musical thought. Knowing when to speed up and when to slow down — that is, when to deviate from metronome-like precision — is an essential quality for any performer of music.

The 4T-2T combination makes this rhythmic coordination between the music and the skater even more evident.

From the very beginning of this jump entry and up until the very end of the combination, each strong musical beat prompts some kind of bodily response, or reaction: either an arm movement, or a turn, or even the jump (2T). As in the previous example, there seems to be an invisible thread here that ties the skater together with his music. At times, this thread can be tightened or loosened to a certain degree, but it never completely breaks. It is always there.

It is as if the song in Gravity creates its own ‘gravitational field’ within which the skater moves and breathes.

II. The geometry of lines

Another key ingredient of the kind of attraction and gravity that Shoma’s skating generates consists in having a good ‘instrument’ that is able to translate all the curves and folds of musical fabric onto the ice sheet. You can play a piece of music in a very natural and organic way — and with the kind of rhythmic rubato that I mentioned above — yet it will be incredibly difficult to create this attraction and immersion if all you have is a bad violin bought at a furniture factory nearby instead of a Stradivarius. Having the right feeling does not suffice — you need excellent technique and the right instrument, too.

A skater’s ‘instrument’ is his arms, his posture, his face, his legs, his blades: in other words, the entirety of his body. Shoma is, without a doubt, a lucky owner of a truly impressive instrument: a flexible upper body, beautiful arms and outstanding skating skills form the three pillars of the skater’s expressivity on which one can erect choreographic edifices of any level of geometric complexity.

«His movement has a certain ‘weight’, and this weight generates extreme intensity/tension» — no one has defined this quality of Shoma’s skating better than his own coach, Stéphane Lambiel. What this means practically is Shoma’s ability to generate ‘tension’ and ‘release’ (or, in Martha Graham’s terms, ‘contraction’ and ‘release’) as well as only a handful of skaters can do.

What strikes me in those brief choreographic gestures is the skater’s dedication to his movements — the way his body, arms, head, neck, and even eyes all work together to create the intensity and amplify the gesture — and, as a result, make the skater look bigger on the ice.

This amplification of movement becomes particularly evident when it leads to geometrically complex figures that explore all the four main coordinates of spatial plane: top, bottom, right and left. Both step sequences this season display this virtuoso counterpoint of lines created by the arms, upper body, and blades:

The climactic part of the step sequence in Gravity is particularly beautiful and complex as far as geometry of lines is concerned:

Note how within this brief fragment the skater explores different axes and planes of space. Even the trajectory of Shoma’s right hand alone is indicative of this multidirectionality: grabbing the head at the beginning – moving down – up – back to the head. Meanwhile, the left hand that initially follows almost the same trajectory diverges near the end, thus creating a new line, a new ‘voice’. In addition, the upper body ‘sings’ its own tune with all its extensions and contractions, and the blades add yet another line — the bass line? — to the complex contrapuntal whole. Behind Shoma’s mastery and virtuosity in creating such complex geometric patterns on ice lies, I think, the flexibility of his upper body that ‘glues’ all the single lines of the whole together.

This spatial complexity, volume, and the multidirectionality of movement is what allows Shoma to feel at home both in the contrapuntal complexity of baroque music and a more transparent classical texture, in the openly emotional Italian verismo of Puccini’s operas and the subtle expressiveness of iconic French songs, the rhythmic complexity of blues and the dramatic flamboyance and explosiveness of Latin-American and Spanish music. This is what makes him look so convincing in different styles and genres.

Shoma’s body is his Stradivarius. You can play any music with this instrument, and it will sound beautiful.

III. The attraction of Shoma Uno

The gravity of John Meyer’s song expresses the weight, the pressure of expectations, the disappointments, the breakups. All the things that pull us down. All the things that make us forget our dreams and hopes. All the things that make us stop moving. 

Gravity is working against me

And gravity wants to bring me down

That gravity is also about the heaviness of expectations. It is about that Sisyphus’ boulder that we often start rolling up the hill by our own free will. The heaviness, for instance, of the 2018 Olympic silver medal; the heaviness of the newly acquired superstar status and of all the expectations that come with it. The burden of performing well and getting all the scores and medals — one that gradually sucks your energy and love for what you do.

It’s wanting more that’s gonna send me to my knees

Until you reach a breaking point when the boulder slips out of your hands, until you find yourself alone in the Kiss & Cry after a disastrous skate. Until that heaviness breaks you down and spills out in tears.

Shoma Uno’s career had its moments of heaviness — and a new rise. But that heaviness has not gone away completely without leaving traces — it has left its mark on his skating, on his personality. It shaped Shoma’s career, it created volume, form, and geometric complexity. It transformed into intensity, tension — and generated attraction, and gravity.

This is the kind of gravity that prompted me to buy tickets to the Grand Prix Final in Turin, even though organising that trip involved a complete rearranging of my entire work schedule. I needed this trip to see his skating again — six years after the Rostelecom-2016 and for the tenth time in my life, I needed to witness his growth, and his rebirth. I wanted to see how one can fight against this heaviness — and how one can win. And how one can fly, and how one can dream. I wanted to get this inspiration, to find the strength inside to look gravity in the eye and say:

Gravity, stay the hell away from me!

P.S. This is a revised English version of the essay that was originally published in Russian here.

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