Technique and Artistry

The summer months are the time for elite skaters to create their new programs (and the young rising stars to show their new material at select competitions). Max Aaron just finished working with Canadian choreographer Mark Pillay on his new short program that will certainly push the artistic envelope. This season singles skaters will also be allowed to use vocal music in the IJS system. Could this change be a chance for all skaters to really be able to show their true personalities and a different side of their artistry? I hope so. I am excited about this possibility because quite frankly the IJS rules have made figure skating programs look very similar in COMPOSITION. This is because after skaters execute their level four spins and step sequences (which are more intricate and time consuming than what was completed by champion skaters in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s) and then complete 7-8 jump boxes only a small amount of time is left for choreography, performance and interpretation.

One of my favorite skating performances of all time is John Curry’s 1976 gold medal winning long program to the music of the ballet Don Quixote. When I was 13, I used to “skate” around the living room jumping and spinning to that music while playing it back on the VCR. It is such a complete moment of artistry and technical ability woven into a quality performance under the pressure of Olympic competition. Coincidentally, I own a copy of Mikhail Baryshnikov’s 1980 version for the American Ballet Theatre. The similarities in movement between the two men are striking.

I first met John Curry when I was a junior man training at South Suburban Ice Arena in Littleton, Colorado with Norma Sahlin. He and his company were rehearsing in Vail and drove down to Denver in search of ice time during the week of the Vail Invitational. I will never forget the suppleness of John’s handshake which matched the tone of his voice and his words as he encouraged me to heed Norma’s advice, “Without technique there is no artistry.”

Coincidentally, Janet Lynn was living in Denver and skating the same day on the same session while her three sons sat in the stands and watched. Later that same week Scott Hamilton would join a similar session. Having come to work with Norma because I admired the skating of World Champion and Olympic Bronze Medalist Charlie Tickner, it was a thrill meeting and seeing so many champion skaters in one rink at the same time. What I observed then has been invaluable to the foundation of my coaching in helping develop skaters from the grassroots to the championship level.

The most important thing is to be yourself, be unique and be the best you can be.

As I begin to assess my first 25 years of coaching, I realize that even though I coach with a structured, periodized format, I take pride in the fact that none of my skaters “look the same.” Because they are different people with different minds and bodies, I have encouraged all of my students to develop their own style–Ryan Bradley, Rachael Flatt, Jeremy Abbott, Brandon Mroz, Max Aaron, etc. When you grow up as I did in an era of John Curry, Robin Cousins, Charlie Tickner, Toller Cranston, Scott Hamilton and Jan Hoffman, who were all podium finishers at the World and Olympic level, you begin to realize and APPRECIATE how different they all were — and all could perform and compete brilliantly despite their weaknesses while emphasizing their strengths. Some more athletic. Some more stylish. Some with more dance influence. Some more technical. Some more theatrical. Some more showy. All strong. All great.

When I began coaching in 1990, I brought Nathan Birch from The Next Ice Age (which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary) to St. Joseph, Missouri to teach “Skating Class” to my young skaters, one of which was Ryan Bradley. Nathan along with Tim Murphy and Lori Nichol were some of the original members of John Curry’s skating company. I skated my first class when I was on break from Walt Disney’s World On Ice tour and was cast for Dorothy Hamill’s production of “Nutcracker On Ice,” which Nathan and Tim were hired to direct and choreograph along with Dee Dee Wood. Skating in an ensemble was a new experience for me and I certainly enjoyed learning to “bird” with Gary Beacom, Patricia Dodd, Martha Muth, Amy McPartland and Gia Guddat among others.

We started every rehearsal in the shopping mall rink in Palm Desert, California with “Love Shack” by the B-52’s blaring from the bar that was adjacent to it. Even though the rink no longer exists, I think back to that time in my life as the genesis of a more complete understanding of the concept of melding the sport of figure skating with the art of dance. This “lucky” break in my professional career enabled me to work in a different performing capacity from the Disney experience, which was certainly both stimulating and enriching. It is mind boggling to think that after retiring from competitive figure skating in 1988, I was fortunate enough to work with Jill Shipstad, Bob Paul, Nathan and Tim and also audition with Sarah Kawahara for a job in a Willy Bietak production all within the span of 18 months. Each of these professional choreographers created in such a different way than I had been trained as a competitive figure skater and this enriched my knowledge of the art of skating.

Given these experiences, I have encouraged all of my students to first develop their technique and skill level as the platform which will allow them the opportunity to then experience a broad range of choreographers including Lori Nichol, David Wilson, Phillip Mills, Tom Dickson, Catarina Lindgren, Nikolai Morosov, Pasquale Camerlengo, Mark Pillay, Nathan Birch, Jill Shipstad and new up and comers like Kate McSwain, Drew Meekins and even Rachael and Jeremy.

So as everyone settles into summer creating and then training I would like to pass along some advice:

To all the skaters: as you continue to develop your technique and find your artistic voice it is okay to look up to your skating idols but remember to become your own skater with your own unique style.

To all the coaches: as you work with and develop your skaters always continue to find ways to have them appreciate learning good technique as the means to express their artistic voice.

To all the fans and pundits: as you watch skaters from all over the world develop right in front of your eyes be slow to criticize this young talent rising in the skating ranks within the social media. Try to take a step back and “appreciate” the place in the developmental process where each one of these skaters is and allow them the time and give them the encouragement they need so that they can grow into becoming the best they can be.

This is the job of every good parent and every good coach. And every good fan;)



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