The Clockmaker

«It soared, a bird, it held its flight, a swift pure cry, soar silver orb it leaped serene, speeding, sustained, to come, don’t spin it out too long long breath he breath long life, soaring high, high resplendent, aflame, crowned, high in the effulgence symbolistic, high, of the etherial bosom, high, of the high vast irradiation everywhere all soaring all around about the all, the endlessnessnessness…»

James Joyce, Ulysses, Ch. 11 («Sirens»)

Every good artist — and good skater, for that matter — creates their own time-space, their own chronotope, during the performance. They are able to define and articulate space by their body lines and geometric shapes, as well as by the style of their movement. They are able to manipulate and bend time, too, compressing or stretching its objective flow — the tic tac of seconds and minutes passing by. Every great performance creates its own spatio-temporal ‘bubble’, so to speak, in which it lives and breathes, generating ideas and feelings — and eliciting our response.

Junhwan Cha is undoubtedly one of such artists: a skater with his own distinctive style, charisma, energy, ways of movement, and presence on ice. And his own spatio-temporal bubble, too, which we will try to enter and explore a little here. My entrance point today is Junhwan’s 2021-22 short program choreographed by Shae-Lynn Bourne to ‘Fate of the Clockmaker’ and ‘Cloak and dagger’: two tracks from the recent album ‘Forgotten Odes’ released in 2020 by the group called Eternal Eclipse. After all, there is no better entrance point than a program obsessed about time and clocks — and clockmakers.

And, perhaps unsurprisingly, about music.

I. Timelessness

What comes before clocks start ticking? What comes before the music starts playing? What comes before the time itself? Eternal silence, nothingness? Timelessness? Some of these questions always pop up in my mind when I see Junhwan’s starting pose — the figure-eight shape, the symbol of infinity.

In one of his TV interviews, the skater himself explained the entire program in musical terms and compared his starting pose to the violin shape. The shape of the violin does in fact resemble the infinity loop, or the figure ‘8’ (on its side), although the connection is perhaps not the most obvious one — surely, without Junhwan’s own words, it would be practically impossible to guess this specific association.

Curiously, the same shape can be found twice on the violin body (meaning that any violin is essentially a fractal) — these are the so-called ‘f-holes’: two sound holes that let the sound escape the wooden body of the instrument. Even more intriguingly, the f-hole is the exact replica of Junhwan’s incomplete figure-eight shape.

The eye-pleasing symmetry of this shape makes it a very convincing choreographic gesture, so there is little doubt that the infinity symbol must have been exploited long before Junhwan Cha and Shae-Lynn Bourne. In figure skating, the first program that comes to my mind is Alyona Savchenko and Bruno Massot’s iconic 2018 Olympic free choreographed by Christopher Dean, which starts with the two skaters interlocking their arms in a familiar shape and then turning their hands and transforming this shape twice. This, in turn, was inspired by an as yet unidentified contemporary ballet that Alyona had seen live prior to the start of the 2017-18 Olympic season — perhaps, from Claudia Schreier’s ‘Anomie’ that makes a spectacular use of this hand configuration and its transformations in one of this ballet’s pas-de-deux.

Junhwan Cha’s starting pose can thus be interpreted very specifically and straightforwardly as a violin and, on a larger scale, a reference to the musical plot he explicated in a Korean TV show (in which he acts as a conductor who tries to assemble his orchestra), but it is important to bear in mind that it can also be connected to what is fundamentally a universal symbol of infinity and (more specifically) a dance motif.

For a program filled with references to music and time — as we will see shortly — there is truly no better start. While contemplating the elegant wave-like contour of the skater’s arms and waiting for the program to start, we are reminded of things that come before the music and before the time itself: of the infinite silence and the timelessness.

II. Time

That music and time are closely linked to each other and that one program can be related to both, should not come as a surprise, given that music has often been defined as ‘organised sound’ (Edgard Varèse) — organised with regards to time and space. In Junhwan Cha’s case, the rhythmic foundation of his music is so straightforward and explicit that it immediately brings all the associations between music and time — or even more specifically music and clocks — to the fore. This is reflected in the title of the first track: ‘Fate of the Clockmaker’. The clock motif is also reflected in Shae-Lynn Bourne’s choreography.

What strikes me at the very beginning of the program, even before the first jump (4S), is Junhwan’s use of hands: the hands themselves are very straight, and their movements — sharp and mechanical. They look and move like… clock hands. Coincidentally, the music itself introduces ‘clock-like’ ticking at the very same moment when the clock hands first occur in the choreography.

This idea would certainly sound familiar for the skater: in the 2018-19 season, he used ‘clock hands’ in the midnight scene from Prokofiev’s Cinderella (choreographed by David Wilson). There, the inspiration most likely came both from the music itself (imitating the ticking and chiming of the clocks) and some ballet interpretations of the same scene (see below).

Coming back to ‘Fate of the clockmaker’ — after making their first appearance at the very beginning, these straight and rigid (clock-like) hands reemerge throughout the program.

It may be a mere coincidence, of course. Or it may tell us that this program is as much about time more generally — and the physical manifestation of time in the form of clocks — as it is about ‘organised time’ more specifically in the form of music.

Either way, time is the main protagonist here.

III. Timing

There are skaters whose approach to music is purely analytical, sometimes even way over the top so: they can spend endless hours adjusting their movement to the music, and music — to the layout of their programs, until the juxtaposition of the two becomes perfect. Wha they often sacrifice in the process is the sense of freedom and organic flow. There are those who are innately musical and have an outstanding natural sense of musical rhythm and flow more generally, but can be a little bit sloppy when it comes to specific musical accents or transitions in which they need to count and analyse.

Junhwan Cha is somewhere in the middle. He is first and foremost a dancer with an impeccable sense of rhythm. And he is very precise and patient in his movements. This is probably why choreographers have always trusted him with big crescendoes and important accents that cannot be missed — or else the program will fall apart. He is not overly analytical, but he can dance, and he can count.

Junhwan’s dance talents are well-known and do not need any elaboration here. He has excellent body control and is perfectly capable of utilising all parts of his body when needed: not just the arms or the legs, but also the head, the shoulders, the upper body, and so on.

Junhwan’s precision in timing his movements becomes evident, for instance, when it comes to synchronising the opening quad salchow to a powerful crescendo in the music: as here in ‘Fate of the clockmaker’,

or the 2022-23 Bond program.

He can be very patient in his timing — a quality that many skaters miss.

It is also evident, and perhaps even more obvious, when the synchronisation of movement and music needs to be fine-tuned on a much smaller scale — when it comes to intricate details like breaking the glass in the 2022-23 Michael Jackson medley (within the step sequence),

or articulating the beginning and end of a musical phrase in ‘Fate of the clockmaker’ (also within the step sequence),

or inserting a cantilever on a ‘drop’ between the two sections of the piece.

His talent shines in these small details, revealing him as a true master of time — a true clockmaker.

IV. Fate of the clockmaker

I have been following Junhwan Cha’s career for some time now, since his junior years. I always liked his skating and enjoyed his programs. It was clear from the very beginning what a wonderful talent and bright future star he was. And yet throughout all these years, there was something impeding his progress score- and medal-wise. He was inconsistent, he struggled with underrotations, never-ending boot issues, nagging injuries… And even when it seemed like all stars had finally aligned, there were always others that took the glory away from him. There was always something, or someone: old stars, new stars, more difficult jump layouts. And so it started to look like he would never rise to the top. He would never fulfil his potential. That he would never escape his gloomy fate.

All this changed in March 2023, at the world championships in Saitama. When the clock was already ticking on his medal chances and career prospects, he delivered two brilliant skates and won the most important medal of his career so far. Hopefully, this is only the beginning of a rise. Hopefully, the clockmaker has not created his greatest masterpiece yet.

Hopefully, the time has come — for us to see him ‘soaring high, high resplendent, aflame, crowned’.

Spinning into the endlessnessnessness of his multiple talents.

One thought on “The Clockmaker”

  1. Спасибо огромное! Потрясающая работа. Я очень надеялась, что ваша статья про “Часовщика” Чжуни когда-нибудь выйдет. И она превзошла все ожидания!

    Не устану повторять, что фандому очень с вами повезло. Вы всегда предлагаете какую-то особенную точку зрения на ФК (хронотоп катания, боже мой), позволяя уйти на неизведанную глубину и увидеть связи и тонкости, до которых самостоятельно доберется далеко не каждый. И приходится потом смотреть пустым взглядом в стенку, потому что слишком круто. :))

    Очень интересные наблюдения по стилю катания Чжуни и его музыкальности (шпильку в адрес “чисто аналитичных” также ОТМЕТИЛА…). Тоже очень рада, что судьба наконец-то вознаградила этого фигуриста по достоинству. Его талант уже много сезонов сияет в оправе замечательных программ, но все время что-то омрачало этот блеск, да… Надеюсь, прошедший ЧМ откроет более счастливую главу в его истории.

    Очень жаль, что ваш блог задушили на спортсе, и спасибо большое, что не забрасываете этот сайт. Я знаю, что написание постов (даже про то, что действительно нравится и вдохновляет) не всегда похоже на легкое и приятное развлечение, и хочется как-то передать вам свое огромное (ОГРОМНОЕ) удовольствие от прочтения. Вы замечательный проводник в мир красоты и всегда достигаете цели, просто знайте это.

    Надеюсь, что мир ФК еще много раз будет давать вам повод и желание высказаться о прекрасном.

    Liked by 1 person

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