Nikita Starostin (GER) & choreographer Adam Solya pictured in a training session in 2022 @Tanja Flade
Once the Skater and his team have chosen the idea for the program and the music, the work with the choreographer starts. A Figure Skating program is more than just a sequence of elements such as jumps and spins. Who wants to be successful needs a high quality program and has to combine the technical and artistic aspects of the sport.
Many well-known Figure Skating choreographers are former Skaters, often Ice Dancers: Canadians Marie-France Dubreuil and Shae-Lynn Bourne or the Frenchmen Benoît Richaud and Romain Haguenauer to name a few. Bourne received the ISU Skating Award as best choreographer in 2020, Dubreuil was nominated as was Lori Nichol, another former Skater from Canada. Adam Solya is an up and coming choreographer, who has worked with ISU World silver medalist Loena Hendrickx (BEL) and many others. The Hungarian competed in Ice Dance at the international level before starting a career as a professional musical dancer and performer.
The busiest time for choreographers is after the end of the season in spring when Skaters make new programs. Solya has not counted them all – he has been working with many athletes, from the national to Olympic level. “This season, of course, was a bit busier than the previous years,” the former Ice Dancer shared. “Thanks to Loena's (Hendrickx) results I got more attention, my work was more in spotlight and I received many requests from many senior and Olympic level athletes as well. The challenge is to make everyone look different.”
The work for Solya starts with research, especially when he is working with a Skater for the first time. “I'm always asking for a bit of time to do the research of what kind of programs they have and who they work with and what kind of style they had. I search for what I can do, what I can add, or what's the difference and what's really their specialty, what I can put more the accent on, I am looking for a music choice or a kind of body language or style. And very often it's super very interesting because I'm surprising the skaters. I'm suggesting styles they never thought about.”
Then on the ice, it is about bringing the ideas to life. “For me, it's really important that the language, the motion, the movement I'm giving them, is not really 100% from myself,” Solya pointed out. “I'm thinking about creating the movement, but if I see that it is really breaking the flow or is uncomfortable, I really try to find a way that they feel 100% comfortable. The program has to be a second skin.”
This is really important as the Skaters are not only performing a program, but elements of highest difficulty at the same time.
“Choreography is essentially the recipe for your masterpiece,” ISU World Pairs Champion Alexa Knierim (USA) pointed out. ”Most world contenders can do the same elements in pair skating, but not all teams can interpret music the same way. The choreography is the base of which our souls perform and emote to.”
She and her partner Brandon Frazier fully rely on their choreographers and trust them to find the right movements for them. “We like the choreographer to have full freedom to create what they envision. When we interject it is to help an entry into an element keep the same space and speed we need to complete it to the best of our ability. Generally, we give them the order of which we would like the elements to be,” Knierim shared. Their Short Program for the upcoming season was created by Shae-Lynn Bourne. “We love her style and charisma. She brings energy and excitement to our movements.”
There are no jumps and throws in an Ice Dance program which makes choreography even more important. “Choreography for us is one of the most important aspects of creating a program. We both feel music in our core, and with the right choreography it enhances our creativity. It is part of art work and it is a very important part of building our own style and perspective as a team,” ISU Four Continents Ice Dance silver medalist Kana Muramoto (JPN) said.
“When building a program, we trust the choreographer's vision so we usually go with the choreographer’s idea, but as a team we can feel when the movement works or when it doesn’t feel right on the ice for us so we are very specific with that,” her partner Daisuke Takahashi noted. “We put the focus on how comfortable the movements are for the elements. Each person has a different style of movement in their own body and we are very detailed with how the movement visually looks on each other as well. We do take time looking at our own movements with our own eyes. Every moment is a building process when starting a choreography, so we try to work with many different angles. The process of (getting a) new choreography is the best time to explore our own style and movements,” he continued.
Muramoto/Takahashi are working with their team of coaches and choreographers, mainly with Marina Zueva and Ilia Tkachenko, but as well with dancers that dance on the floor and they add their own ideas.
“Every time we start a choreography, we first want to focus on how we can be creative and how the choreography can be memorable,” Muramoto explained. “However, the process of balancing out difficult elements, creating unique transitions and movements is very challenging and it takes time to find the right balance. We have many rules we need to understand, limited time to do all elements and transitions, and we need to be comfortable in transitions before performing difficult elements. So the more we take time and want to be creative the harder the challenge becomes,” she added. The Ice Dancers feel that not always the difficulty of an element is the key, but its quality.
Marie-France Dubreuil and her colleagues from the Ice Academy of Montreal including Romain Haguenauer, Sam Chouinard and others are responsible for choreographing many successful programs. In the past season, their students once again were at the top: Olympic Champions Gabriella Papadakis/Guillaume Cizeron (FRA), Olympic bronze medalists Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue (USA), World bronze medalists Madison Chock/Evan Bates (USA). Dubreuil as well choreographed for Olympic Champion Nathan Chen (USA).
Papadakis/Cizeron (FRA) celebrate with coaches Romain Haguenauer and Marie-France Dubreuil during the 2022 ISU World Figure Skating Championships @GettyImages
“All the skaters from my school are very different,” Dubreuil noted. “They all have different personalities. What my team and I are trying to do is actually make them shine in their brightest light with the qualities that they have.” The two-time ISU World Ice Dance silver medalist underlined that she likes to collaborate with different people. “I think it's in collaboration that you can find different flavors for everybody to be different in the school. It is also my mission that the teams don't start looking like one another, but they really can cultivate their own style and their own artistry.”
To be innovative and try something new and different is not always easy, but it often pays off. Dubreuil suggested to Papadakis/Cizeron to use the “whacking” dance style for their Rhythm Dance. “We were exploring different styles and different types of dances and then Marie-France told us about whacking as brother and sister style and we liked it right away,” Papadakis said. “We started taking classes with whacking specialists. She told us about all the movement and all the history and we both loved all the aspects of the dance, the cultural and historical one and the esthetical moves.”
Cizeron added: “We had a few weeks of training off ice just learning the technique. It is a lot of brainwork, because it is a lot of coordination and then you have to coordinate it with the steps that we're doing on the ice. Our goal was not just to have an influence of whacking, we wanted to be fully capable of actually dancing it. I wouldn't say that we're experts, but we got pretty good considering the amount of time we were given.”
The choreographers often find their inspiration by watching dance and ballet performances, movies, theatres, operas or musicals. “I'm still following what is happening in contemporary dance or in the ballet world, how it's evolving, and I'm trying to keep myself updated,” Solya said.
Once the programs are mounted, the work is not finished. The Skaters often consult their choreographers just before and during the season to refresh the program or adapt it. “Once we have the concept we add all the upper body features, the arm features, to make the program colorful. When they start to jump we sometimes have to adjust, to change transitions, change movements, because maybe it's not so comfortable before the jump or after the jump. But of course, I'm keeping my eye on the choreography,” Solya noted. “We try to polish the program every month, every two weeks, through video calls or we see each other somewhere. It's important to keep the programs alive.”
Now with the new season starting, there will be many new and exciting programs to discover.