Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Skating in the pre-Tonya Harding era

In a previous life, I used to figure skate. My idols were Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay, a brother/sister dance team from Aylmer, Quebec that skated for France after being criticised for being too weird by the Canadian figure skating establishment.

In 1990, they performed an incredible program entitled "Missing", choreographed by Christopher Dean (of Torvill and Dean fame), a piece calling attention to the dissapeared of Argentina. In 1991, their free dance was a sequel. When I found this on the gold mine that is YouTube this weekend, the shivers I experienced while watching it were the very same as when I saw the program the first time, over 16 years ago.

If there was ever an argument for the artistic potential of figure skating, this is it. There is nothing particularly spectacular about any element of the program, but it's just amazing overall. Now that there's all sorts of new rules governing ice dance, folks like the Duschesnays would never be able to perform something like this.

I 've always said that figure skating would be so much better if it weren't a sport. There's a whole lot of artistic potential that is lost in lieu of the conventions of competition. There's just no room for the Gary Beacoms of the world. Sure, Beacom is a rather eccentric fellow who, among other things, was jailed for refusing to pay taxes and insists on keeping his money in gold coins rather than relying on banks. He also doesn't believe in stop signs and speeding limits. But man oh man, he's incredible. His understanding of the physics of skating is apparent from his programs. No jumps, no spins, just the use of his edges...it clues you in to why it's called "figure skating."

When I used to skate we had to do what was called "patch" session. Each skater got a patch of clean ice to use to do what is called compulsory figures. You'd basically draw various shapes and loops on the ice, making sure to balance your weight just so, in order to make sure that the turns and loops you drew were precise. The jumps that are so popular are simply these "figures" done in the air. A loop jump, for instance, employs the same body positioning as a loop drawn on the ice. In fact, compulsory figures were worth 60% of the marks in figure skating for quite some time. Sure, figures aren't particularly fun to watch on TV, but they are incredibly hard to do. In what I think was a big mistake (though probably good for business), figures were completely eliminated from competition in 1990--and this meant that new skaters stopped practicing them altogether.

What makes Gary Beacom amazing is that he is able to demonstrate just why it's a shame that figures are no more. He's a master of the discipline...I remember when I first saw him skate. I couldn't believe it. See what you think...


Anonymous said...

Neither of these routines beats the boy Browning.Innovator.

AJ said...

The Duschenays came closest to incarnating the best in "dancerly" technique, I feel -- and Beacom, who I'd never heard of before, reminds me of Gene Kelly in his inventiveness.

I agree that if it were more an artistic discipline and not a sport, the potential for creativity could be enormously expanded (and not to say anyone can't do that, if they wanted to just shun that whole figure-skating circuit).

I suppose what makes it a bit odd to the non-fan is that most contemporary performances come off as dancing-on-skates (an uncharitable person might say, why not roller skates? why not while balancing spinning plates?), something that takes away from both dance and pure figures skating. But here, at its best, it transcends both root disciplines to become something completely its own.

Thanks for putting these up!

Jill said...

Aw, Gary Beacom is my favourite. I saw him do that programme live in ~1987. Did you see his number where he skated in head-to-toe black spandex, including a hood that completely covered his face, with skates on his hands and feet?

I think the new rules in Ice Dance actually encourage more programmes like Missing, which very much reflects the character of the music to which it is skated, is identifiably rhythmic, shows off dance skills, and is actually quite technically skillful. If memory serves, they choreographed it and its precedent in response to a round of judging changes that wouldn't let them do programs like that looser jungle one that got them noticed originally.

The newest, newest rules finally permit rotational lifts and force the men to do twizzles, among other things, which is actually pretty cool.

It's this stuff they discourage:
http://youtube.com/watch?v=QHBG1yxyxp0 (Klimova & Ponomarenko mainly crawl the ice, not too much skating.)

http://youtube.com/watch?v=nyXy2BetoQo (Bestemianova & Bukin let their narrative run over their skill.)

I think that as in dance off-ice, a solid technical foundation only opens up more possibilities for artistic expression. Often what passes for creativity in skating is really melodrama.

As for eliminating figures, it's not all bad. In training, they replaced it with Skills, which is basically increasingly intricate and difficult footwork patterns that also work the edges and body positions that are fundamental to both Dance and Freestyle. I think it's resulted in a real improvement in the overall quality of the actual skating in Freestyle, and unlike a 2 hour patch session, practicing skills doesn't make you want to kill yourself.

Did pairs and dance teams ever have to do figures competitively? I think it was just the singles.

As an aside, in that Duschenay video, did you notice the totally inane, paranoid commentary at the beginning? They were predicting their failure on the grounds that they re-wore old costumes? Hi-larious.

I think you might want to read Toller Cranston's books. He's all about the creativity, he's incredibly knowledgeable, and he's really funny. The first one is called Zero Tollerance. It's bright green, with a photo of Toller Cranston skating across the cover with a cross on his back. It's a must-read.

erin said...

Thanks so much for your comments...I have to admit that I hadn't watched ice dance since they first put in the new rules and everyone seemed to be doing very stereotypical ballroom dance stuff.
Maybe I should start watching again. And yeah, Toller rules.

I suppose that my love of figures is mostly because I spent hours trying to master the "Swiss-S" and I got endless amounts of satisfaction out of it!

I remember when the skills came into play--it probably has led to better freeskating, but as an English teacher who feels that grammar is incredibly important, I sorta get up on my hobby horse a little. I like the idea of knowing where stuff comes from, why it works the way it does, and how it has developed. I guess cutting patch didn't really end figure skating as we know it, but I can help but being a little soppy. After all, I still have my scribe.

Jill said...

I can understand that. I feel that way about piano scales-- probably because no one ever MADE me do them. And because I never tried to practice them in a cold room, wearing boots too narrow for my feet.

But here's an idea: What if there was room for more than one creative skating technique? Breakers don't do ballet bar exercises, but they still have their own inviolable foundation techniques. I don't want to jump OR learn set dances but I'm still going to keep skating... I don't see why the ISU should get to be the boss of that.

The Chapatikid said...

I LOVE the Gary Beacon video. Thanks for this, E!

MTS said...

How bizarre! Another music critic that's a former figure skater? You would have enjoyed my EMP presentation from 2006. (BTW, I found your blog searching for Torvill & Dean stuff.)