Tag Archives: figure skating

What are you?

26 Feb

Long time, no see blog!  The blame mostly goes to the Olympics, but of course the responsibility always belongs to me.  It was nice to have a couple of weeks of sparse blogging though and due to upcoming circumstances March may prove to be another month of infrequent posts.  Making life changes often leaves little time for other pursuits, but I am committed to a few more entries for sure (I still have two DVD reviews formulating in my head, one of which I still need to watch, a possible book review, another eight-of-a-book review…in other words, an assortment of fragmented ideas that either need time to mature or some actual effort being put in to will that to happen).  However, in the spirit of the Olympics, I thought I’d share what I learned from watching my favorite sport of the games, which is not surprisingly, figure skating.

While figure skating is a sport and cannot truly be considered an art in its Olympic format, aside from commonalities in aesthetics and movement principals there is the fact that it is still a movement of the body that somehow grabs us in a very real way.  It’s a dance of sorts on ice and it presents dancers and dance aficionados with something familiar yet altogether different, which is the aspect of competition.  I think the fact that artistic sports like figure skating and gymnastics are constantly locked in a battle to achieve some sense of harmony (albeit failing miserably at times) reflects on the fact that this is something we have to decide for ourselves.  The older I got, the more I realized I was never a competitor at all.  I played a few sports when I was younger but never cared about winning or beating rivals; I just loved to have fun.  Competition pretty much ruined it all for me and I got burnt out of many things because what I now realize is that I’ve always had the heart and soul of a performer, not a competitor.  There’s nothing wrong with competing; in fact, the world needs it and nobody is really exclusively a competitor or artist.  I think each person has different percentages of both and my percentages happen to be dominant in favor of artist.  I’m an oxymoron though…as I can get a little competitive when it comes to silly things like board games.  It’s not that I take winning seriously but when it comes to a round of Time’s Up or Scattergories, I always find myself making a pronounced effort to emerge victorious.  I can say with pride that I often do.

The psychological aspect of sport is what I was most impressed with by Kim Yuna of South Korea, winner of the gold medal in ladies’ figure skating.  I’m not one to buy into nationalistic pride and it doesn’t matter to me if she breaks world records or is the “queen,” best figure skater of all time.  What I loved (besides the fact that she skated to Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F, which I sacrilegiously like more than Rhapsody in Blue) is how she really lived the moment.  Korea can be a nutty country and her rise to popularity was at a light speed for the record books…but I remember seeing videos of her as far back as 2005 and I even saw her live once while living in Tokyo, when the 2007 World Championships were held there (she skated to the music The Lark Ascending, by the way).  She fell…but she had a definite magnetism that came from being invested into and living in the performance, something I feel from dancers all the time.  But unlike dancers she doesn’t have the luxury of having an understudy or even knowing that a little mistake is easily overlooked.  When you’re competing, mistakes simply can’t be overlooked and you’re subject to a lot of harsh criticism and expectations.  If a dancer flubs a step on stage, nobody may be the wiser but any audience member can pick out a mistake on ice.  She’s lucky to have a great coaching team behind her who steer her away from perfectionism (a disease I always say), which may have even contributed to errors in the past.

She was near perfect when she became a World Champion in 2009, which is a psychological nightmare.  Going into the Olympics as the reigning World Champion has often been stigmatized as a curse, because often a reigning World Champion falters under the pressure of trying to win gold again.  One could easily become overconfident or crumble under the pressure, which is why a reigning champion rarely strikes gold at the Olympics.  Add on top of that a fanatical country with high expectations, the pressure of being the first from her country to achieve this kind of success (Korea never won a figure skating medal or even had a woman in the top ten I think) and you have the perfect storm for the worst situation imaginable.  My artist soul runs away screaming at the very thought; I can’t even begin to imagine what that pressure was like and I am so glad I never even wanted to imagine what it would be like (as I said, I was never a kid that dreamt of winning Wimbledon or Olympic gold medals in the sports I did!).  I’m just in awe that she was able to deal with the pressure and deliver a flawless performance as comfortably as she did, like a dancer in rehearsal and translating to performance without a hint of nerves.  How much does the weight of nation weigh exactly anyway?  I can’t even begin to fathom it.

She has a great team of coaches around her and one of the reasons I think she has probably been so successful is that her coaches were able to identify where she was in the competitor-performer spectrum and let her be it.  I always say, “explore the world, figure out who you are and be THAT.”  It was funny listening to her coach in interviews talking about how other coaches barraged their skaters with corrections right before a performance and all he told Yuna was “you’re ready.”  It’s entirely applicable to the dance teacher-student relationship and looking back at the classes I’ve taken, I remember teachers saying the same thing in so many words, that I was ready, whether it was correcting technique, learning a new technique or simply do what was being asked of me.  Powerful words this…this “you’re ready” business.

I could go on and on about the great things that happened when Kim Yuna took to the ice, but really, like in dance, her actions spoke for themselves.  But in order to relate this to dance just a wee bit (and because I need to file this under a particular category), two-time Olympic champion and figure skating commentator extraordinaire Dick Button once had this to say about Yuna:

I think what’s so incredible is that she’s absolutely a Balanchine-type skater.  Long arms, long legs, truly elegant moves.

And if you know Dick Button’s commentary you know he doesn’t kid around…he’ll point out a turned in foot on a spiral quicker than you can blink.  I don’t know how Balanchine felt about figure skating, but we all know Balanchine liked speed, and that’s something Yuna had plenty of.

I'm almost inspired to don the skating boots and see if I can still do anything. Almost.

NBCOlympics has a full replay sans commentary (Scott Hamilton can be a little grating at times) but I think it only works for viewers within the US.  Link here (watching it still gives me chills!)

Like your mullet, your views are outdated

17 Jan

Okay, so here’s the deal.  I normally try to keep things in check and rarely find a reason to get snarky and mean in my criticisms of people because I find it unnecessary.  However, as it is with every normal human being there are occasions in which I find myself incapable of exercising restraint.  This, folks, is one of those moments.  Although I shan’t degenerate to reckless mudslinging (because I always aim of course), this may not end up being a particularly…how shall I say, “constructive” post.  But I have my reasons and if you’re a fan of ballet and men dancing I think you may find them agreeable.

So my topic for today is the relationship between figure skating and ballet.  ‘Tis the season for figure skating with the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver just a few weeks away and for Canada and the United States, national competitions are being held to determine who will represent their respective countries at the Olympics.  It is at the US nationals where two-time Olympic silver medalist Elvis Stojko, while working as a correspondent had this to say about figure skating in an article published today:

This ain’t ballet.

First of all, DUH.  Second of all, “ain’t” is not standard English.  And lastly, if you knew the context of his comment, you would join me in a universal declaration of “oh no he di’nt!” (while I realize that my credibility is on the line by using improper English myself, annunciating “oh no he didn’t!” just doesn’t have the same effect.  Whatever, I’m not being published in the news!)

To summarize, what he really meant by that is men’s skating has become too “feminine,” or even worse, “too gay.”  Now, I have to attack and sink my teeth in for two reasons…one, he just insulted ballet with his ignorance (clearly he doesn’t know a thing about danseurs and is unfit to comment on them!) and two, ballet has had a tremendous influence on the aesthetics of figure skating, which should not be ignored.  I don’t even know where to start with this, but here goes.

Last year, Stojko spearheaded some kind of campaign to “butch up” figure skating, when Skate Canada (the governing organization over Canadian figure skating) had asked him to help in promoting the athleticism of the sport.  I guess he misinterpreted what they were asking for because he inserted his own opinions on masculinity into it and Skate Canada issued a statement that basically said they knew their demographics (obviously, gay people) and that the sport’s popularity is grounded in the combination of artistry and athleticism and that they didn’t want to alienate their fan base or see any reduction in artistry, just promote the athletic aspects to hopefully encourage sports-minded people to give it a try.  They also threw him under the bus and said he was not their spokesperson and didn’t represent the views of the leadership at Skate Canada.  Now THAT, was funny.

Some of the criticisms he had were entirely legitimate (like some really over the top, poorly made garrish costume decisions…which is a subject for another day) but he has a terrible  understanding of what artistry and musical interpretation are.  I’ve watched skating for many years and remember him skating at the Olympics, World Championships and such and I never liked his skating.  He did these gimmicky, martial arts “inspired” programs (or sometimes barbarian MAN programs) with heinous, unfulfilling choreography.  What he was known for was superb jumping (hey, even I’ll give credit where credit is due), widely respected for a consistent quadruple jump.  The problem is, a quadruple jump alone does not a skater make.  I think balletomanes (at least the smart ones) understand this better than anyone.  Do we gasp in awe when Ivan Vasiliev does a triple saut de basque?  Of course we do…but we know that there is more to him as a dancer then one move.  We always complain about those who obsess over quantity over quality (higher jumps/extensions or more pirouettes) because it encourages a world of robot technicians and void of artists.  Emphasis on difficulty has already ruined figure skating enough as it is and yet Stojko feels the quad is not worth enough.  The skaters he mentions as his favorites include Evgeni Plushenko, Brian Joubert and Tomas Verner, all of whom regularly land quads and if you’ve seen them skate, haven’t a shred of artistic ability.  They are among his picks for the medals for the upcoming Olympics and if you love dance, you’re going to wonder why.  (By the way, Joubert is from the same school of idiotic thought, as he threw a hissy fit when he lost the 2008 World title to Canadian Jeffrey Buttle, who is beloved for his artistry but did not perform a quadruple jump.  Nobody I know even likes Plushenko, Joubert, Verner, and Stojko.)

It’s ridiculous that Stojko would fail to recognize the importance of ballet’s influence on skating, not just from an artistic standpoint but also technical.  Jumps alone are more or less variations on tours en l’air and they always land in first arabesque.  The arabesque appears again as camel spins or the basic spiral position.  Or how about turnout?  A spread eagle is a gliding move with the legs turned out in second position and the Ina Bauer is a parallel gliding move with the legs in a turned out fourth position, the front leg in demi-plié.  Posture of the upper body, carriage of the arms (port de bras), movement of the head (épaulement), it’s all there.  Perhaps if Stojko understood this, his extension would have been better and he wouldn’t have looked so stumpy on the ice.  Stojko even had the nerve to say that Swiss skater Stéphane Lambiel is “on the cusp” for him because sometimes he is “too soft,” when Lambiel is easily one of, if not the best skater in the men’s field.  Lambiel has good flexibility, amazing spins and sees his sport as an art.  Check out this performance from the 2007 World Championships:

Note: I post this because I was there.  I’ve only attended a figure skating competition live once, and if you squint and look for an Asian in a black jacket with a blue/purple/gray/black striped scarf in the audience, that’s me!  By the way, this competition took place in Tokyo…

Another skater that TRUE skating fans are hopeful for in Vancouver is Daisuke Takahashi, who is a fine skater that blends the artistry and athleticism.  In this 2005 performance, he performed  a layback spin (cambré derrière with the leg in attitude), which men never do because it’s considered “feminine” but he does it well.  He does a beautiful interpretation of Rachmaninoff’s Concerto no.2, is lyrical, expressive, even does a “woman’s move” and yet I would hardly call his skating effeminate.  Takahashi skates with a lot of speed and power, which Stojko mentions as being “masculine,” which quite frankly is a stupid comment because speed and power is not synonymous with masculinity.  The women too, should skate with speed and power!

It really is ironic because both Lambiel and Takahashi can land quadruple jumps.  So take my advice and not Elvis’s and root for Lambiel and Takahashi as they will both compete in Vancouver and I don’t think either skate effeminately.  To me, masculinity is a quality that is much more ambiguous.  It’s like this saying in Taoism: “those who say they know the Tao, don’t.”  Likewise, those that describe themselves as masculine don’t come across that way.  Usually they come across as overcompensating morons because someone who is truly masculine doesn’t have to actually verbalize it to anyone…intelligent people will automatically see them that way.  It’s these people with arcane views on “masculinity” that make fun of boys in the ballet studio and could do with an education.  I know what I’m talking about…besides, he who has mullet has questionable taste, no?

To close, I shall end with a performance for the ages, from the 1976 Olympics.  This is the gold medal winning performance by John Curry, BELOVED by all skating fans (and if he’s not, they should be ashamed.  I’m not even joking.), famous for being a dancer on ice, and considered by many to be the greatest skater of all time.  In fact, when he was little, he wanted to be a dancer but his father disapproved of such activities for boys.  In a word, Curry was sublime…perfect skating skills and execution, amazing posture and beautiful lines.  He was even able to spin proficiently in both directions, which is virtually unheard of.  When he turned professional after the Olympics, he founded a skating company that performed very much like a dance company (and featured Katherine Healy, who I’ve discussed before), working with famous dance choreographers and doing dance inspired works (Afternoon of a Faun, Scheherazade, among others).  Curry was the ultimate skater, during a time when the sport had not advanced to the level of jumping that is performed today.  Surprise, nobody cares!  Coincidentally, nobody cared about Curry’s sexual orientation and nobody I know finds him effeminate either.  So suck it Stojko!  One need only listen to the music the legendary John Curry used and wonder…is this really not ballet?  Or in case a translation is needed: “really ain’t ballet?”