Sunday, 21 December 2014

Putting The Soul In Solstice: Winter Solstice On Ice


Directed by Lawrence Jordan for Automatic Productions and A&E television in 1999, Winter Solstice On Ice hearkened back to the kind of artistically invigorating and truly meaningful work we saw in Toller Cranston's television specials, for instance. The show was hosted by musician Jim Brickman and featured a stellar cast of skaters from around the world interpreting winter and holiday themes from around the world with an array of both live and recorded music as backdrop.

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The show's skating cast consisted of Brian Boitano, Susanna Rahkamo and Petri Kokko, Margarita Drobiazko and Povilas Vanagas, Rory Flack, Alexander Abt, Yuka Sato and Jason Dungjen, Caryn Kadavy, The Ice Theatre Of New York and Mandy Wötzel and Ingo Steuer.

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One thing that stood out in particularly about this show to me is that there was great attention put into costuming. The cinematography by Rick Siegel was also just so on point and the dreamy outdoor settings just enhanced the moods of each of the pieces. The works skated themselves were a lesson in contrasts, from Rory Flack's "Esawayo" and Drobiazko and Vanagas' "Stars To Share" with music by Samite to softer pieces like Rahkamo and Kokko's performance to Johann Pachelbel's "Canon", each performance had its own distinct, standalone flavor and the sum of all parts contributed to a cohesive whole.

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Rahkamo and Kokko's creation to Mark Isham's "Mr. Moto's Penguin (Who'd Be An Eskimo's Wife?)" was full of whimsy and in direct contrast to Alexander Abt's softer "Winter" which was presented on the same snowy outdoor stage.


In my own humble and always outspoken opinion, I would love to see more skating like this on our television sets instead of the overproduced and rather kitschy holiday skating specials that we are accustomed to largely now. Winter Solstice On Ice was a prime example of the kind of true artistry that would give us all something meaningful to celebrate about figure skating if it returned.

Did you enjoy this blog? Be sure to always check back for more skater interviews and writing about everything under the sun in the skating world. There is also a Facebook page connected to the blog where all blog articles and interviews are shared - as well as current skating news, photos and videos of amazing skating. Give it a "like" at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard. You can also follow me on the Twitter at http://twitter.com/ohh_N. I love talking figure skating and would love to talk about the sport with you!

Friday, 19 December 2014

Move Over Père Noël, This Blog's About Per Thorén


Christmas may be creeping up on faster than a jolly Père Noël to a serving of milk and cookies, but unfortunately this blog's going to make the man with a bag take the back seat of the sleigh for a moment. The man at the reins of THIS sleigh is Per Thorén, a turn of the century Swedish skater who won a European title and medals at both the World Championships and Olympic Winter Games.

Per Ludvig Julius Thorén was born in Stockholm, Sweden on January 26, 1885 and although we don't know a lot about his career, we do know that his accomplishments as both a singles and pairs skater were considerable as was his most enduring contribution to skating: the half loop.

Keeping in mind that Swedish skaters like Ulrich Salchow and Richard Johansson would have certainly been formidable opponents for a skater like Thorén, he nevertheless literally carved his own niche in the ice in the first decade of the 1900's, winning the Swedish men's title in 1905 and 1907, four medals at the European Championships including gold in his final attempt at the singles crown in 1911 and two World medals (bronze in 1905 and silver in 1909). In 1908, he found himself smack dab in the middle of his teammate Ulrich Salchow's skirmish with Russia's Nikolay Panin at the Summer Olympics in London, England and with Salchow and Richard Johansson was one of three Swedish men who swept the podium in the men's event that year. Never mind that two of the five judges were Swedish. That said, Thorén's medal win at those Games was impressive moreso in the fact that he climbed from sixth place in the school figures to claim the bronze at a time in history where school figures obviously played a very prominent role in determination of the overall results. He was noted as a particularly high jumper.

After winning the 1911 European men's title in Russia, Thorén eyed a new challenge - pairs skating - and caught on very quickly. He teamed up with Elna Montgomery, a ladies skater who had been an Olympic teammate of his at the 1908 Summer Games and won the 1912 Swedish pairs title in Gothenburg followed by a second pairs title with a second partner, Elly Svensson, the following year in his hometown of Stockholm after which he retired from competition.

As mentioned earlier, Thorén's most notable contribution to skating is his invention of the Thorén (or "half loop") jump where a skater takes off as they would in a loop but instead lands on the opposite leg on a back inside edge, allowing them in a combination for instance to go right into a Salchow or flip jump.

After retiring from competitive skating, Thorén survived both World Wars and passed away on January 5, 1962. He is buried in the Northern Necropolis in Solna, Sweden. Richard Witt's book "A Lifetime of Training for Just Ten Seconds: Olympians in their own words" quotes a modest Thorén reflecting on his 1908 Olympic medal win: "I really lack the words to compliment myself today". Even if Thorén may have been modest of his Olympic medal win, we don't have to be. Way to go, Per and thanks for the half loop, wherever you are!

In order for this blog to reach a wider audience, I could sure use a little help. All you have to do is "LIKE" the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard for instant access to all of the new blog articles, features and interviews as they are made available. I also share daily updates and headlines from the skating world, videos and much more that's not here on the blog, so if you love figure skating as much I do, it would really be rude not to get on that inside edge! You can also follow all of the fun along on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ohh_N. If you know someone who loves skating, tell them! It's all about getting a dialogue going on! Fabulous skating is too fabulous to keep secret. Am I right or am I right?

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Interview With Jean Scott Brennan


When we think of ladies figure skating in the early seventies, several names obviously come to mind... Olympic Gold Medallists Trixi Schuba and Dorothy Hamill, World Champions Karen Magnussen, Gaby Seyfert and Christine Stüber-Errath and U.S. Champion Janet Lynn among them. However, another very talented ladies skater from Great Britain was also very much in the mix at that time as well. In 1973, Jean Scott Brennan won the silver medal at the European Figure Skating Championships in Cologne, West Germany and twice she finished in the top five at the World Championships. Also a two time British Champion, her story of overcoming injury to find success is an inspiration and her years of dedication to the sport as a coach have helped pave the way for a future generation of skaters in England to become their very best. It was my pleasure to speak with Jean about her competitive career, overcoming injuries sustained in a car accident to go on and win a European medal, coaching and much more in this fabulous interview:

Q: You had such an impressive skating career, winning two British titles, the European silver medal in 1973, medals at both Skate Canada and the Richmond Trophy and competing at the 1972 Winter Olympics and three World Championships. Looking back on it all now, what are your proudest moments or most special memories from your "amateur" career?

A: My proudest moments were representing Great Britain in the Europeans and Worlds and competing in the 1972 Olympics. Also, winning back my British title.


Q: During your career, you competed against some of skating's biggest legends including Janet Lynn and Dorothy Hamill. What  was your relationship with the skaters you competed against like - were the rivalries as 'bitter' back in those days?

A: I became friendly with Janet Lynn. She is such a lovely and sincere person. Karen Magnussen was really nice to me too but her mother gave Janet such a hard time! Christine Errath and Karin Iten were also very nice,. Yes, there was quite a bit of rivalry even then but thankfully I was never involved.


Q: In 1972, after finishing sixth at the World Championships, you were actual involved in a serious car accident where you suffered both arm and leg injuries and really had to fight your way back into the physical condition you needed to be in. What can you share about this whole experience?

A: After my car accident, it was so difficult as I was told to stay off the ice for about three months. I was naughty and I didn't obey the orders although I concentrated mainly on figures as my upper arm had forty eight stitches inserted and was likely to burst open if I had fallen on it. The concentration both my coach (Margaret Vernal) and I gave to my figures paid off and we reaped the rewards afterwards.




Q: When you won the British ladies title in 1974, John Curry won the men's title. What are your memories of John both as a skater and as a person?

A: My second British title was actually in December 1973 after winning silver in Europeans and fifth in Worlds that year. I was very fond of John Curry. He and I became very close when we competed; he was a massive fan of my coach and my mother who just doted on him. John actually asked Frau (my pet name for my coach) to coach him in Sapporo as John Pierce was the team coach and with Haig (Oundjian) being his pupil also competing, I think John was a little concerned.


Q: After you retired from competitive skating in 1974, you turned to coaching and coached at the Magnum rink for twenty five years and earned the British Ice Teachers Association Coach Of The Year Award in 2002. What is your coaching philosophy and what is the biggest lesson that your skaters have taught YOU?

A: Coaching taught me lots of things including how temperaments differ and having to adjust technique to achieve the best from a pupil. When I was training a lot of the time I was on my own after various rinks closed in Scotland and Frau had a young family so it was at weekends when I had most of my lessons but because I had to think for myself it helped me a great deal when it came to coaching.

Q: This year, you were one of the baton holders as The Queen's baton made its journey from India to Scotland through seventy nations as part of the Queen's Baton Relay for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. What did the experience mean to you?

A: When I was selected as a baton bearer I was dreading it but it was a wonderful experience! I had so much support from family, friends, neighbours and ex-pupils.

Q: Who are your three favourite skaters of all time and why?

A: My favourite skaters in the past are John Curry for his grace and great technique and Janet Lynn for much the same as John. She was so lovely to watch even just skating around the rink without the jumps or spins. Katarina Witt, not for technique but for her all around personality.


Q: What's one thing most people don't know about you?

A: Most people who have got to know me are surprised at my lack of confidence. Even today, I'm quite a shy person although I tried very hard to hide that when competing.

Q: When you look back on all of your experiences and a life dedicated to skating... would you do it all again?

A: Yes, if I had my time again I would do it all again... but hopefully with more confidence.

If you enjoyed this interview with Jean Scott Brennan, I've gotta ask. Are you following Skate Guard on Facebook? Check out and like http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard or visit http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca for all of the latest articles, reviews, interviews and musings that are on the go. As well, you can also follow me on the Twitter at http://twitter.com/ohh_N. I tweet about figure skating a lot and am always happy to answer your questions and ask many of my own.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Ina Szenes-Bauer: Brigitte Bardot On Ice


Considered by many one of the most strikingly beautiful moves in the field figure skating boasts, the Ina Bauer is a variation on the spread eagle where one leg is bent deeply at the knee, the back and body bend backwards and the other leg traces a parallel line on a back inside edge. It's not an easy move to pull off with grace but when mastered most certainly adds a dramatic flair to choreography. Much like the Salchow, the Lutz or the Biellmann spin, the Ina Bauer too is named after a real skater who popularized the movement.

Born in 1941 in the midst of World War II, Ina Bauer made her first appearance on the senior level at the 1956 West German Figure Skating Championships in Cologne, where she finished second to Rosi Pettinger, the former rival of 1954 World Champion Gundi Busch. The following three years Ina would rise to prominence nationally, decisively winning the national title in West Germany in 1957, 1958 and 1959. She competed at a total of four European and World Championships, improving her results very quickly along the way - perhaps due to the fine training she was receiving overseas in Colorado Springs at the time. In 1958, she just missed the podium at the World Championships. The following year, she'd have the same luck when she finished fourth to two different Dutch skaters (Joan Haanappel and Sjoukje Dijkstra) at the European and World Championships. In 1960, she did not compete at her National Championships but did go on to the European Championships which were held in her home country at the Olympia-Kunsteisstadion arena in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. She however opted to withdraw after the compulsory figures and effectively ended her competitive career. I'm sure many a skater breathed a sigh of relief as she was at the time certainly considered an up and comer. In Allison Manley's 2013 Manleywoman SkateCast interview with Carol Heiss Jenkins (who won Olympic gold medal), when asked who she was most nervous to compete against Carol responded "probably the German girl, Ina Bauer, because she came in with the Bauer and she had flaming red hair."



After retiring from competition, Ina made her name as a professional skater touring with Ice Follies and actually starred in two movies in 1961: the comedies "Kauf dir einen bunten Luftballon" and "Ein Stern fällt vom Himmel". She appeared in both films alongside Austrian alpine skier Toni Sailer. "Kauf dir einen bunten Luftballon" is actually featured above in its entirety, and within the first ten minutes you get a chance to see Bauer skate! She was quite a popular show skater. A 1960 New York Times review wrote of Bauer's American debut in Ice Follies: "19-year-old Ina Bauer, three-time figure skating champion of West Germany has been called 'Brigitte Bardot on ice' and it's easy to see why."

As an interesting aside, when Shizuka Arakawa further popularized her own variation of the skating move named after Bauer and won Olympic gold in 2006 Asahi Breweries Ltd. in Japan filed an application for a patent to name an alcoholic drink 'the Ina Bauer'. They were categorically shut down by the Japanese patent office, who responded that "such behavior to capitalize on the fame of Ms. Arakawa would offend public order and morals". The patent office added that Bauer herself did not respond in approval of the proposal.

Having a skating move named after you is pretty freaking cool if you ask me and aside from Ulrich Salchow and Denise Biellmann for instance, a lot of the skaters who have this honor of being perpetually remembered for their contributions to skating aren't world or Olympic Champions. I think what that speaks to is that you don't have to be the BEST skater to be the most creative... and it is creativity that really gets you remembered in figure skating. Sadly, Ina Szenes-Bauer passed away on December 13, 2014 in Krefeld after contributing so much more than her trademark skating move to the sport. She founded the Ina Bauer Cup and worked tirelessly in her community and with the skating club she founded and will be remembered fondly.

"Like" this blog on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard for all of the new interviews and blogs as they get posted, pictures and news from the skating world and lots of great videos! You can also give me a follow on the Twitter at http://twitter.com/ohh_N. I love talking skating and would love to talk skating with you!

A Cornucopia Of Skating Miscellany


When it comes to interesting stories, the proverbial cup always runneth over... and this time of year is no exception. A lot of times when I am sifting through material looking for blog ideas, I come across some pretty interesting facts and stories that may not be "enough for a whole blog" but definitely deserve to be shared with all of you. I saved a handful of these very interesting factoids and stories to share with all of you as a little holiday gift of sorts. I hope you find these all as fascinating as I did:

SANDY HILL



Prior to marrying Nancy Kerrigan, Jerry Solomon was briefly married to Sandy Hill, the second American woman to to ascend the world's Seven Summits: Mount Everest, Aconcagua in The Andes, Mount McKinkley, Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanazania, Mount Elbrus in Russia's Caucasus Mountains, Mount Vinson in Antarctica, Puncak Jaya in Indonesia and Mount Kosciuszko in Australia. If you've read Jon Krakauer's best seller "Into Thin Air" about the 1996 Mount Everest disaster, you'll remember Sandy well... and if you haven't I highly recommend it. I read it on a really long bus ride to Ontario once (NEVER again!) and it was definitely a page turner.

WHEN HELL FREEZES OVER



It might be a little muggy... but who knows? Maybe in the year 4018, they'll be holding figure skating competitions on Mercury. In 1991, astronomers fired radar signals at Mercury's poles and their findings led them to believe there could be ice at both poles of the planet. This was further confirmed by 1999 measurements. In 2011, NASA confirmed that there was indeed ice at the planet's North Pole, a very curious fact considering the rest of the planet can reach temperatures as four hundred and twenty seven degrees Celsius. Just a tad balmy... but it gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "when hell freezes over".

HITLER'S SKATES?



Bridget Hitler, Adolf Hitler's sister-in-law penned a book in the thirties that was published in 1979 affer her death called "The Memoirs Of Bridget Hitler". The book, which has been widely dismissed by historians as a hoax written to cash in on his fame, claimed that Hitler actually briefly lived in England in 1912 to evade military service. Some claim that a pair of his skates were displayed behind glass at the Wavertree Ice Rink in Liverpool but much like the claims in the 1979 book, finding proof of this claim was an elusive task.

PRINCESS MARGARET OF CONNAUGHT



Princess Margaret of Connaught was the Crown Princess of Sweden and first wife of the future Swedish King Gustaf VI Adolf. Sadly, she passed away before her husband's ascension to the throne. Margaret, who was known as Margareta when she moved Sweden, not only took great interests in photography, gardening and painting, but was also an avid hockey player and ice skater. Her tragic and sudden death in 1920 due to an infection after an operation - while she pregnant with her sixth child - sent an entire country into mourning.

A GALLANT TRAGEDY


On December 6, 1901, Henry Albert Harper, well known journalist and personal friend of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, attended a skating party thrown on the Ottawa River below Rockcliffe by the Governor General, the Earl Of Minto. The ice gave way and Bessie Blair and Alex Creelman found themselves in the water. Creelman pulled himself to safety while Blair struggled in the water. Harper dove in to save Blair and both ended up drowning. It's all so sadly reminiscent of The Regent's Park Skating Tragedy, isn't it? There seems to be some debate as to whether his last words were indeed "What else can I do?" when friends tried to talk him out of attempting to save Blair. Some say he quoted Galahad's famous "If I love myself, I save myself" before gallantly diving to his ultimate death. King was very distraught over his friend and former roommate's death and arranged to fittingly have a statue of Galahad installed at the entrance to Parliament Hill in Ottawa, where it remains today.

THE GANGSTA GINGERBREAD MAN


After putting all of these together, I realized that this was turning into one DEPRESSING Christmas gift so I wanted to finish things off on a lighter note with yes, you guessed it, a little skating! From the wonderful world of YouTube, here's Jessica Jamieson skating to "The Gingerbread Man". I kind of think this is the best thing ever.

Was this your cup of tea? Well, don't just stand there! In order for this blog to reach a wider audience, I could sure use a little help. All you have to do is "LIKE" the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard for instant access to all of the new blog articles, features and interviews as they are made available. I also share daily updates and headlines from the skating world, videos and much more that's not here on the blog, so if you love figure skating as much I do, it would really be rude not to get on that inside edge! You can also follow all of the fun along on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ohh_N. If you know someone who loves skating, tell them! It's all about getting a dialogue going on! Fabulous skating is too fabulous to keep secret. Am I right or am I right?

Saturday, 13 December 2014

ISU GRAND PRIX: Skate Guard Grand Prix Final Coverage


I want to start this recap of the 2014 ISU Grand Prix Final by commenting on the amazing job that Spain did on hosting their first major international figure skating competition. The opening ceremonies were interesting, the event looked organized and the seats were packed with the most lively mix of figure skating fans that we have seen yet this season. Please keep in mind too that I'm recovering from a pretty rough dental surgery (double extraction of two molars after fourteen days of antibiotics) and as much as I enjoyed getting to rest in bed today and watching all of the skating interrupted from start to finish for the first time in forever on my laptop, I may be a bit of a cranky bear so forgive my bluntness at times. That said, the caliber of the event was so high that it was hard to find faults that weren't petty with many of the performances. This wasn't Susie Stepout and Tommy Twofoot... it was the creme de la creme and these skaters largely all skated to a high standard.

Before I talk skating, I want to again give a little disclaimer. Please keep in mind with all the coverage of any competition on Skate Guard as always I'll post videos of some of the most standout performances. Many of them might be geoblocked in your country, and for that I apologize. Around the time of major competitions, videos go up every minute and come down and get geoblocked just as fast. If you're unable to watch videos in your country, I've got some great advice for you. Go to YouTube, and under your search settings you can select 'Upload Date'. If you type in keywords for the competition or skater you want to see, you can narrow it down to 'Today' or 'This Week' and usually find just what you're looking for in minutes! And now, on to the event at hand...


I'm not going to really talk about the junior events but I will say that the skating was spectacular. Canada's Julianne Seguin and Charlie Bilodeau won the gold medal in the pairs competition with an impressive score of 175.57 with a ten point lead on their closest rivals. Shoma Uno of Japan won the men's event, Anna Yanovskaya and Sergey Mozgov the ice dance title and Evgenia Medvedeva of Russia the ladies crown. If this is the "future" of figure skating, it looks promising.


The men's competition was full of surprises. After four less than stellar performances on the Grand Prix series, many including myself thought Olympic Gold Medallist Yuzuru Hanyu's qualification for this event had more to do with reputation than results. In the short program, Hanyu looked on the road to redemption, landing a beautiful quad toe-loop and triple axel but then proceeding to fall on the back end of his triple lutz/triple toe. All I could think of was Dick Button's infamous "and then a fall on the end of it, which was absolutely unnecessary and uncalled for" quote. You know, not a single one of the men in the short program delivered a clean performance, so I really don't think it's fair to beat a dead horse and go on and on about it but one comparison that I've heard tossed around more and more lately about Hanyu's scoring comes back to the same kind of scoring we've seen more than once dished out to Patrick Chan when he's faltered as well. A six point TES lead on Machida when they both landed the exact three same jumps? I don't know. Hanyu's very good but so are a lot of the men competing right now and I think in general you're starting to see a certain overwhelming level of generosity from the judges with him that's becoming alarming. All of that said, he went out in the free skate and showed us all what he's made of, looking in fabulous form with a quad toe, quad salchow and a whopping eight triple jumps including two beautiful triple axels. His only error an unfortunate fall on his final jump attempt, the triple lutz, ensured his commanding win here with a huge score of 288.16. To paraphrase Mark Twain's famous quote, it appears the rumors of Yuzuru Hanyu's demise have been greatly exaggerated. Good for him!


The pressure on Javier Fernandez at the first big ISU eligible figure skating competition in his home country (I say ISU eligible because the the World Professional Championships were indeed a big deal) had to have just been tremendous. When tickets are being sold based on your qualification before you've even qualified, you know the "hometown crowd" were certainly expecting something special. Like all of the men, Fernandez didn't have a great short program. In fact, it was pretty rough indeed. He fell on his quad salchow attempt, botched his combination and just managed to squeak out his triple axel to finish fifth out of six men in that part of the competition. He turned a challenge into an opportunity in his operatic free skate though, coming out very strong if not a little cautious at times but landing a great quad toe-loop to catapult himself up in the standings from fifth to second with a score of 253.90 and his cool confidence in doing so was just something to behold.


The bronze medal in the men's event went to Russia's Sergei Voronov. A two footed landing on his quad attempt in the short program left him in the fourth but a very strong free skate earned him a total event score of 244.53, just enough to move up onto the podium. As much of a grab bag of bad music edits as that free skate is, what I like about Voronov is that he's clearly having fun out there, selling what he is doing with a certain charismatic charm and that in terms of jumping, despite that step out on the opening quad, he's really quite fantastic. I think it's pretty to forget that Voronov's really been in the game since 2006 and has improved tremendously since then  in terms of the second mark, so good on him.


Rounding out the men's event were Voronov's teammate Maxim Kovtun, who was really rather unspectacular here in finishing fourth in my mind. He had some great moments technically in his free skate - and some not so good ones - but I find the bottom line with his skating unfortunately is just that the skating itself just has no pizazz or personality. I just feel like whether they've been doing singles, doubles, triples or quads, skating has seen so many men like Kovtun in its history and unfortunately, whether they've won medals or not they haven't ultimately been remembered. I hope he can turn that car around. Japan's Takahito Muta moved up from sixth to fifth with a score of 235.37 overall and unfortunately Tatsuki Machida kind of imploded in the free skate, dropping all of the way down from second to last place among the men overall with an overall score of 216.13. Ouch.


The ladies event seemed a wonderful preview for the Russian Nationals with four of the six ladies competing hailing from "Mother Russia" (I totally said that in a Boris and Natasha voice in my head) and unsurprisingly, the odds played out in one of those four ladies favour. Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, who has really been unstoppable this season, won her SIXTH international competition this season with a score of 203.58. In her free skate, she couldn't seem to put a foot wrong, landing seven triples including two triple lutzes and a triple toe/triple toe, even if the program itself was a bit "middle Eastern medley lite". She is a no frills kind of skater but the jumps are huge and the confidence with which she carries off her skating so convincing that you cannot help but say to yourself like a good nineties talk show gay "you go girl!"


The silver medal went to Russia's Elena Radionova. I'm sorry, but the short program was in my eyes a bit of a hot mess and my reaction to her PCS score of 31.26 in that portion of the competition as compared to Ashley Wagner's 30.40 was "that's rich!" The program itself was like watching a pre-juvenile skater go Barbie shopping at Giant Tiger - simply put, low end shit. My program with Radionova's skating is that she almost seems to FLAUNT her absolute disregard for musical interpretation and owness for that falls on both her as a young skater but on the coaches and choreographers that are putting her out there with material she just doesn't have the chops to pull off at this point in her skating career. Then you have the jumps. In the free skate, she whirled off a triple lutz/triple toe, triple lutz, triple loop/half loop/triple salchow and two other triples and makes you go, well... she DID land the jumps. I just find Radionova to be a poster child for the direction ladies skating is going and that scares the bejesus out of me. Her silver medal winning score was 198.74.


Ashley Wagner! Her outing in Barcelona was everything that makes for great television. In the short program, she faltered and found herself in last place with a score of 60.24 and all but written off in the eyes of many skating "fans". You know the Twitter drill... unfortunately we've all seen that foolishness. In the free skate, she rebounded with one of the FINEST performances I think we've ever seen from her. A clean one foot landing on the triple flip/triple toe and four other clean triples including her final jump, a triple lutz late in the program off a clean outside edge... what more can you ask for? I just can't revel enough in the crow Ashley delivered for supper here. The programs themselves are really developing more and more as well with every outing and her final score of 189.50 was enough to move her up from sixth to third place overall. Not bad "for a U.S. lady", now is it?


Russia's Anna Pogorilaya looked very stiff and flat in both programs here, I found and finished fourth overall with two hot and cold performances and a score of 180.29. Juxtaposed, I thought Julia Lipnitskaia was fabulous in the short program for a change. The spark and cool confidence belying her years seemed to be back and as usual, those Lucinda Ruh like spins were definitely an "OOO! AAA!" kind of moment. In the free skate, unfortunately, although she started very strongly with a triple lutz/triple toe she had a bit of a meltdown after that and dropped all the way from second to fifth with a score of 177.79. Growing pains... Rika Hongo of Japan rounded out the event in last with a score of 176.13. To me, Hongo has the body line of Zvetelina Abrasheva. If she didn't have the jumps, this wouldn't fly. I think she'd benefit greatly from working with someone like Carol Heiss Jenkins. She just needs to unhunch the shoulders, straighten her back and know what to do with her arms... and those are really the only differences between her and someone like Mao Asada.


If you're not a fan of Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, turn back now before it's too late... because holy shit, that was amazing! In the short program, they were flawless as anything, of course landing both the throw triple lutz and side by side triple lutzes with absolute ease... so much so, it's easy to really not think about the level of difficulty in their programs, not even just on the elements attempted but in the transitions and lifts. The free skate? Out of this world. Their only mistake a step out from Meagan on the side by side triple lutzes, they were in a completely different league than the rest of the competition, landing a gorgeous throw triple lutz, side by side triple toes in combination and of course, the biggest throw quad salchow in the business. Their score of 220.72 was not only enough for gold, but it outdistanced the reigning Olympic and World Silver Medallists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov by seven points. I'm just over the moon happy for these two. They keep pushing themselves harder and harder and the fact that you constantly see little improvements in their skating shows they aren't just resting on the difficulty of their content but are focused on always bettering themselves.


Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov are really the latest in a line of mechanical Russian pairs with fabulous speed and attack that have fared well in the last decade. They're no Ludmilla and Oleg Protopopov or Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov - that's for sure - but you have to admire their commanding presence and really strong technique. "Danse Mon Esmeralda" always gets me (I don't know why, it does) but if it wasn't for that gorgeous throw triple loop at the end of the program on the crescendo of the music, it wouldn't have had the same impact overall. As it was, this was just too meat and potatoes to even be beating Duhamel and Radford in the PCS department, which it did. I totally get Meagan and Eric are known for being strong skaters technically, but I think that even that small affordance being made in the results when really looking at the presentation of both programs was a little generous, although hardly highway robbery. Their silver medal winning score was 213.72.


Wenjing Sui and Cong Han were beautifully and maturely presented in their free skate but I think in terms of the technical content, the judges did get it right when they placed them fifth, even if it was enough for the bronze medal overall. The "Stray Cat Strut" short program came off as a little juniorish to me but I think it's just the music choice which I have this really big aversion to after seeing so many flimsy looking programs set to it. Of the three Chinese pairs, my favourite was probably Xiaoyu Yu and Yang Jin, who finished fifth just behind Cheng Peng and Hao Zhang. I have to say that both of their programs are really growing on me with each outing. Great musical choices both and that makes a big difference. A disaster of a short program left Russia's Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov simply too far behind the rest of the pack for anything less than a show stopping effort to move them up to the podium, and their free skate left them in sixth place overall with a score of 184.54. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger, they'll be back. I have no doubt in my mind.


Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje skated their paso doble like that bull owned them money and with a score of 71.34 had a healthy enough lead on the rest of the back heading into the free dance. There free dance was in a completely different league than all five of the other teams, a study in musical interpretation, carriage and impeccable timing. Nothing was contrived or phoned in, just beautiful, sincere skating. No disrespect meant, but I don't think trying to really invent a rivalry between them and Chock and Bates similar to that between Davis and White and Virtue and Moir is in any way really representative of the comparison of the two team's performance levels. Weaver and Poje's winning score in Barcelona was 181.14.


Finishing second with a score of 167.09 were Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates. Again, I have to be duly complimentary about this team's excellent speed and attack in their programs but unfortunately rather than these programs growing on me the more times I see them, they're starting to really grate on me. Just not my cup of tea, I'll leave it at that.


A lot of people, including an impassioned booing audience, didn't seem too thrilled with the French team of Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron's rise from fifth place to claim bronze. Sure, their rise in the standings this year has been meteoric but it's not like it's suspiciously meteoric at all. Their edge work, intricacy and just the class they're bringing to the table in that free dance absolutely does it for me. Their bronze medal winning score was 162.39... and you better check my temperature. I'm agreeing with a result from an ice dance panel with Alla Shekhovtseva as the Technical Controller. Perhaps I need a hug, but instead of from Alla, I'll take my hug from Cizeron. If he wants to make babies, that's okay too.


Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani were again lowballed on their TES score in the short dance and again delivered two beautifully scripted free dances, just missing the podium with a score of 158.94 after the judges really gave it to them in the free dance, placing them sixth in that segment of the event without any obvious deductions. I rewatched their free dance looking for anything that really stuck out in my mind but aside from some two foot skating from Alex, I didn't see anything to really justify such a drop in the standings. Maybe Adelina's not returning Alla's calls and she's just having a bad day... who knows?


Rounding out the ice dance event were Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier and Russians Elena Ilinykh and Ruslan Zhiganshin. I think I would have had them ahead of the Shibutani's in the free dance maybe? but not the French team. The free dance is starting to grow on me, which is a good sign! I think Ilinykh and Zhiganshin presented a pretty atypical mid range Russian drama, vodka and lipstick free dance. They continue to improve as a team and although this free dance lacks originality. there is definitely a connection between them. A fourth place in the free dance connection? Oh sweetie no...

If you enjoyed reading, the best advice I can give you is to take just a moment of your time and click through to this blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard and "like it" - you'll end up with daily figure skating news, videos and interesting articles right in your Facebook news feed, as well as new content and interviews on this blog as they happen. I'm also just in love with the Twitter - it's so fun! You can also tweet me at http://twitter.com/ohh_N anytime you feel like talking about skating... that's what I'm here for!

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Interview With Liz Manley


Every so often a rare opportunity comes along to interview one of my OWN skating heroes and so far I've been incredibly fortunate enough to interview several - people like Brian Orser, Anita Hartshorn, Denise Biellmann and countless others I grew up watching compete as professionals that inspired me to get on the ice at a later age than most and achieve my goals as a teenage skater. There are few out there that inspired me more than Olympic Silver Medallist Liz Manley. The first time I ever watched her AMAZING free skate from the Calgary Olympics probably would have been on Debbi Wilkes' Ice Time show or something like that, but I remember just being in awe... but I was even more gobsmacked by the work she did as a professional. An incredibly versatile and animated performer who always brought music, programs and costumes to the table that made people stand up and take notice, Liz was (and is) an incredibly successful chameleon on the ice and certainly a crowd pleaser in every sense of the expression. I remember seeing her perform on tour at the Halifax Metro Centre and just being like - THAT'S who I want to be like! I have to give huge thanks to Liz for taking the time to do this interview and to the equally fabulous PJ Kwong for hooking us up. Grab yourself a nice cup of coffee and get ready for a trip down memory lane with Canada's skating sweetheart! We talk about everything from Calgary to professional skating to bullying, teen mental health and reality cooking shows. You just can't go wrong and you know you're going to love it!:

Q: I hate to start by asking you a question you've been asked a million times before but I mean... countless professional titles, three Canadian titles, a silver medal at the World Championships, a silver medal at the Calgary Olympics, two books, a TV special, touring with Ice Capades, Tom Collins, Elvis Stojko's tour... you've just done SO much! What are your proudest moments and most special memories looking back now - in 2014?

A: I think the most memorable moments looking back are of course the Olympics but my life professionally was so much fun. I met so many amazing people and got to travel everywhere. I feel that the friendships I developed through the years... well let's say priceless!


Q: YOU are actually a huge part of the reason I started skating myself. Like many people, I was just glued to the TV watching all of these dozens of amazing professional competitions that cropped up after the whole Nancy/Tonya debacle. I remember seeing you skate in ONE competition to Luther Vandross' "The Impossible Dream", Natalie Cole's "This Can't Be Love" and 2Unlimited's "Are You Ready For This?" and absolutely NAILING each one of these programs which were completely different styles and having the audience completely in the palm of your hand. I knew that's what I wanted to do and it wasn't long after that I laced up. SO... I want to talk to you about your success as a professional skater mostly because that's one of the blog's main focuses - professional skating. First of all, how hard was transitioning from the "amateur" to the pro world for you?.

A: The transition at first was very hard because I wasn't used to the gruelling travel schedule and the thousands of shows but once I got used to it and got to skate to fun music and themes I fell in love with it. My greatest job and memory was playing Cinderella for Dorothy Hamill's Ice Capades. I loved playing a role and I can truly say it was my most favourite time as a professional.

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Q: I mentioned just a few of your many great programs but there are so many that I remember watching that I loved - "I Love You, Goodbye", "Cats", "Yebo", "Uninvited", "Legends Of The Fall"... I could go on and probably would. What program would you love to revise and skate to again, what program would you never skate again even if they paid you the big bucks and what program had a lot of potential that never really got realized?

A: I loved my "Legends Of The Fall" number. It was the passion I felt for the music and I matured so much with my artistry with this number. "Are You Ready For This?" Never again. I still watch the tapes and wonder how the hell did I ever get through that?! There isn't really any number that I felt could have been better. My choreographer David Gravatt did wonders with all them and I loved them all.


Q: Do you ever think we'll see professional competitions make a comeback? Should they?

A: (laughing) I think the pro competitions are tough to have today because there really isn't anything real about being pro anymore. Skaters do so many competitions and shows now they do not have to turn pro! I feel with all the events that exist now it would be tough to sell unfortunately.

Q: What I think is so cool is that after being the spokesperson for Herbal Magic and getting asked for cooking advice all of the time, you ended up on a cooking show. I remember flipping channels and being like "hold my drink! Liz Manley's on a cooking show with those cute Property Brothers...We're stopping everything and watching Extreme Potluck!". What would be on the menu at a fabulous dinner party at your house and would you be down for all figure skater version of Come Dine With Me Canada?

A: Oh my God, I would love that! Bring it on! I'm in! I love cooking. If I was to have a big dinner I would do a Manley favourite with a great roast, veggies and fruit tarts for dessert. Thanks for watching that show. It was SO much fun to do!

Q: Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford had told me that when they came to do your show, they were treated like absolute rock stars - like the complete star treatment, limo and all. I love that! Where did the idea of putting together Elizabeth Manley And Friends first come from and what have been the most rewarding aspects of doing these events?

A: It means a lot to hear that. I developed the event to raise funds for mental health. I'm passionate about this cause (especially for teen mental health) and this was an event I really wanted to do. It's been so wonderful to do and my friends in skating have been so incredibly gracious at participating in it and helping the cause. Having suffered from depression as a teen myself and understanding the need for help has made me realize the need for more awareness and the reducing of stigma with mental health.

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Q: What can you tell me about the third Elizabeth Manley And Friends show you have coming up in Ottawa?

A: Years of support from the city is the backbone of my success. Without the support I got from Ottawa I may not have ever accomplished my dreams. Because of this, I'm at a time in my life where my passion is to give back to my incredible city and that is why I have created these shows, along with my husband Brent Theobald. The February event will be a star studded event with Olympic and world class skaters, aerial and acrobatic stars and the amazing Alan Frew of Glass of Tiger will be performing live along with performing live to some of the skaters. The cast has Elvis Stojko, Javier Fernandez, Shawn Sawyer, Kimmie Meissner, Gladys Orozco, Sara Hurtado and Adria Diaz, aerialist Emmanuelle Balmori, Alan Frew, Violetta Afanasieva and Pete Dack and myself. It's a two day event with an amazing gala dinner at Brookstreet Hotel on February 13 and then one performance show at 7:30 at the new TD Place on February 14. Portions of proceeds will be given to Do It For Daron courtesy of The Ottawa Senators Foundation and YSB (the Youth Services Bureau Of Ottawa. The director is David Rosen and Randy Gardner is choreographing. Presenting sponsors of this great event are TD, BDO and Accora Village. Very excited to have them support me and this great cause!

Q: Speaking Of Do It For Daron, I have to really stand up and applaud you for all of the great work you do in going to schools and talking to kids about issues like depression and bullying. I listened to your interview with PJ Kwong and am just so inspired by your candor and passion when it comes to talking about these important issues and really showing some humanity to people that are going through really hard times, of which I know you've had your fair share. I wrote a series of articles during the Sochi Olympics called "Getting Up And Saying No" that quite bluntly addressed the bullying of figure skaters in social media by "fans" and media and to be honest with you, it is an issue I am very passionate about myself. What are your thoughts on social media and bullying and what are some things athletes can do to address this?

A: It's such a passionate subject for me too and my advice to athletes is to do their best and to ignore what's said or written. It's SO hard to do but the greatest saying I carried with me was "whether they are talking about you - bad or good - at least your worth talking about!" That's my advice for the skaters who feel the bullying or pressure through media.


Q: I have to give you mad props for coming back and getting yourself in the shape you are in and skating again. You need to get on the Stars On Ice tour as far as I'm concerned... just sayin. How difficult was fighting through some injuries and returning to the ice? How has training been going?

A: (laughing) It's been very difficult as I get older but I'm hanging in there. I obviously am not the skater I used to be but I try my best. I unfortunately fractured my back in three places last spring during rehearsals and it's been a tough recovery but I'm back doing okay now!

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Q: Who are your three favourite skaters of all time and why?

A: That's a tough one but definitely Scott Hamilton because I loved his many characters and styles and that's what I wanted to be as a pro. Robin Cousins... I studied him for years and I wanted to jump just like him. He was the one I idolized when I competed. Last has to be Barbara Ann Scott. I grew up wanting to be her. She was a princess in my eyes.


Q: What's one thing most people don't know about you?

A: (laughing) I think everyone knows everything about me but I'm a NFL fanatic and love to golf.


 

Q: What is the best advice you can offer to someone who's really struggling - whether it's with skating, depression, bullying, life... anything?

A: NEVER let anyone tell you you can't or you're not good enough! Believe!

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Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Interview With François-Xavier Ouellette


If you want to talk about breakout skaters, this season's Most Improved Skaters trophy would definitely go to the ice dance duo of Élisabeth Paradis and François-Xavier Ouellette. After competing against each other for two years in the junior ranks, the Quebec team teamed up and made their first appearance at the Canadian Championships TOGETHER in 2011. Four top ten finishes (two as juniors and two as seniors) later, this talented team made their senior Grand Prix debut at Skate America International in October and finished an incredible fourth. Following that result up with a seventh place finish at Skate Canada in Kelowna, they look poised to move up from an eighth place finish last year and make a big impact at Canada's Nationals in January in Kingston. Xavier took the time to talk to me about his life in skating and partnership, working with Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon, his favourite skaters and much more in this fantastic interview:

Q: This season has really been a breakout one for you and your partner Elisabeth Paradis. After finishing fifth and sixth at the junior level at the Canadian Championships in 2011 and 2012, you moved up to the senior ranks and earned a seventh place finish in 2013 and an eighth place finish last year. What can you share about your journey leading into this season? What moments were most special - and most frustrating?

A: The most special moment for me was when Elisabeth and I learned that we were going to do Skate Canada. It was so unexpected that when our friends called to tell us, we were jumping everywhere and couldn't believe them. I was feeling so lucky to be able to live this big event! I think the most frustrating part of our journey was when we were junior and didn't get any Junior Grand Prix in those two years. We didn't get the chance to show what we were able to do internationally but at the same time, it was probably the best lesson we could have to never give up and fight for what we want. We finally got our first international last year and I think we enjoyed it even more.


Q: When you finished fourth in your senior Grand Prix DEBUT at Skate America in Chicago in October, that was actually only your third international competition. What do you think has been the key to your success so far this season? Is it moreso the strength of your programs, an improvement in your skating skills or both?

A: I think that Marie-France and Patrice did an amazing job with our choreography this year. They are really unique and we connect a lot with the stories. I think that it did help a lot this year! At the same time, we worked a lot on our skating skills and interpretation in the off season and it's starting to show, although there is still room for improvement. So I think we could say that it's a little bit of both.

Q: Obviously with Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir not competing this year, the field in Canadian ice dance has opened up a little bit more, but there's still such depth in the field right now. What are your goals for the Canadian Championships in Kingston in January and looking beyond?

A: Yes, I agree that dance is stronger than ever in Canada and I think this is what pushes everybody to be even better. Our goal for Nationals this year is to get on the national team and maybe get a podium. In the long term, our goal is to get to the 2018 Olympics.



Q: As you mentioned before, you train in Montreal with five time Canadian Champions and two time World Medallists Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon as well as Pascal Denis and Romain Haguenauer. That's quite the talented coaching team. How does each member of your team push you to be better than you were the day before?

A: Each of our coaches brings their own little thing, which is the reason why our school here in Montreal is so complete. Marie-France is the artist of the group. She always looks at the choreography as a whole to make sure a story is told and every movement makes sense. The complete opposite is Patrice, the technician. He makes sure we get the maximum technical score and also he is the one who organizes the schedules and everything. Romain is so meticulous on every little detail and he also has so much experience in international coaching to help us getting ready for the biggest events. Pascal is my very first ice dance coach. He is the one who made me love that sport so much. He helps me a lot mentally and also knows how to make the connections work on the ice. Finally, what makes the school special is not only the skating coaches, but also the rest of the team. We work with a fantastic ballroom teacher, Ginette Cournoyer and a theater coach, Catherine Pinard, for interpretation. We also have our trainers, Paul Gagné and Scott Berish, and our ballet teacher, Daria Kruszel.

Q: Who are your three favourite skaters of all time and why?

A: Patrice is definitely one of them! Scott Moir is also there. Both of them have this special thing which is that they skate not only with their partner, but mostly for her so that she always looks at her best. They are also, of course, great individual skaters. The third one, I would say is Kurt Browning for his amazing footworks and entertaining and original programs.

Q: What's one thing most people don't know about you?

A: That I used to be a hockey player and still love that sport a lot. Also, I am a huge movie fan, I watch a movie or part of a movie almost every day.

Q: What advice would you give to someone who wanted to be a competitive ice dancer?

A: You need a lot of patience and perseverance. I know it's a classic but I sincerely believe it is the key to success. I still tell it to myself everyday. It might not work today or tomorrow, but if you keep working it will pay off at one point.

 In order for this blog to reach a wider audience, I could sure use a little help. All you have to do is "LIKE" the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard for instant access to all of the new blog articles, features and interviews as they are made available. I also share daily updates and headlines from the skating world, videos and much more that's not here on the blog, so if you love figure skating as much I do, it would really be rude not to get on that inside edge! You can also follow all of the fun along on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ohh_N. If you know someone who loves skating, tell them! It's all about getting a dialogue going on! Fabulous skating is too fabulous to keep secret. Am I right or am I right?

Sunday, 7 December 2014

The True Gift Of Christmas: Folklore And Fabulous Skating


An otherworldly adventure from start to finish, Toller Cranston's 1985 CBC special "The True Gift Of Christmas" is at turns whimsical, dark and inspiring but never managed to be anything less than spellbinding. Full of the same imaginative dream like archetypes and choreographic concepts that made Strawberry Ice such a roaring success, "The True Gift Of Christmas" is compelling not only in its writing and performance but also in the folklore represented in the underlying story.


The story opens with a young runaway named Chris (played by child actor David Hebert) stumbling upon a ceremonial rite portrayed on ice by an ensemble cast including 1980 Olympic Gold Medallist Robin Cousins and 1984 Olympic Silver Medallists Kitty Carruthers. Wearing elaborate theatrical masks and bearing torches, the eerie scene pays tribute to the first Christmas tree which according to folklore came to be in the eighth century A.D. when St. Boniface was converting Germanic tribes to Christianity. These tribes worshipped oak trees and decorated them in celebration of the Winter Solstice. St. Boniface is storied to have cut down one an enormous oak tree that was central to the tribe's worship and instead, a fir tree grew in its place. The evergreen was then seen as a symbol of Christianity and the converted Germans decorated the tree in celebration of Christmas.

In the dreamlike fog, Chris meets and befriends a woman named Befana (played by Gemini award winning actress Martha Gibson) and quickly learns that she is stuck in a kind of limbo or "purgatory" where every year from midnight on Christmas Eve until dawn she roams this dreamland in search of a "true gift". Her character and back story is elaborated on and we learn that Befana is THE Befana of Italian folklore and holiday tradition. Her story is well explained on the website Italian-Link: "Legend has it that on the 12th night of Christmas (January 5th) the 3 Wise Men, on their search for the baby Jesus, asked 'La Befana' to join them in their quest. She initially declined, stating she had too much housework to do. She later changed her mind and went looking for the 3 Wise Men and the baby Jesus, but was unable to find them. Therefore, every year, on the night of January 5th, 'La Befana', will travel on her magic broom, to every house in Italy in search of the baby Jesus bringing gifts. Climbing down the chimneys, she brings candy (“caramele”) or fruit to the children that were good and black coal ('carbone'), onions or garlic to the children that were naughty. The children will leave out their stockings, and even their shoes, hoping to awake on the morning of January 6th to some 'caramele'. Similar to the Santa Claus tradition, many of the children will write notes to 'La Befana' and even leave out food and wine for her (sausages and broccoli in some parts of Italy). It is a tradition that is still strong in Italy with many stores selling stockings, mostly red, but sometimes even sand-colored, for the children to leave out for 'La Befana'. It is a fairy-tale story of the good witch/bad witch, depending on how you behaved during the past year. After her arrival, there are many parties and Italians will celebrate going from house to house celebrating the bonds of family and friends." Befana's freedom from this limbo (and we soon learn Chris' as well) hinges of Befana's ability to find and give a "true gift" and the various characters they meet along the way all seem to provide a piece of to the puzzle of what "a true gift" means, although Chris is much more adept at picking up on (or choosing to hear) the not so subtle clues along the way. Noting the mystique of their dreamlike environment, Befana exclaims "once you end up here, time and place don't mean anything". Their goal is to find the three wise men and 'the child king' and give them this "true gift".


They are first interrupted by Krampus, a beast-like creature who in Austrian folklore is said to reward good children but punish bad ones by putting them in his sack, carrying them back to his lair and having them for supper. They don't screw around over there, do they? Like the first story depicted on ice, Krampus also has his roots in early Germanic tribal culture. Before long, Chris (who being a runaway is 'bad') is saved by a Danish elf played by Sarah Kawahara and Befana and Chris continue on their not so merry way. 

They next encounter "The Spirit Of Christmas", a recurring narrator like character played by Toller Cranston who is very reminiscent of Pan from A Midsummer Night's Dream in a way and speaks in cryptic rhymes illustrating the lessons to be learned about what a "true gift" is along the way. They then meet these psychedelic optical illusion skating canes and Saint Nicholas and his companion Black Peter (Zwarte Piet). In Charles Truehart's 1999 Washington Post article "Dutch Question St. Nick's Sidekick", he explains the Black Peter tradition in the Netherlands: "Black Peter has for centuries terrified Dutch children as the ultimate boogeyman of nightmares and parental threats. He is Sinterklaas's dark alter ego, his enforcer and his bagman. If you have been a good child, Black Peter will give you goodies from his bag. If you have been a naughty child, Black Peter will put you in his sack and take you away - to Spain!"    


The unlikely duo of Chris and Befana next face a scene of British soldiers and Befana explains that the scene depicts a two hundred year period in British history when as a result of Oliver Cromwell's rule Christmas was in fact prohibited. The Cromwell Association elaborates and explains that this isn't exactly the whole story: ""It is a common myth that Cromwell personally ‘banned’ Christmas during the mid seventeenth century. Instead, it was the broader Godly or parliamentary party, working through and within the elected parliament, which in the 1640s clamped down on the celebration of Christmas and other saints’ and holy days, a prohibition which remained in force on paper and more fitfully in practice until the Restoration of 1660. There is no sign that Cromwell personally played a particularly large or prominent role in formulating or advancing the various pieces of legislation and other documents which restricted the celebration of Christmas, though from what we know of his faith and beliefs it is likely that he was sympathetic towards and supported such measures, and as Lord Protector from December 1653 until his death in September 1658 he supported the enforcement of the existing measures... Although in theory and on paper the celebration of Christmas had been abolished, in practice it seems that many people continued to mark 25 December as a day of religious significance and as a secular holiday. Semi-clandestine religious services marking Christ’s nativity continued to be held on 25 December, and the secular elements of the day also continued to occur – on 25 December 1656 MPs were unhappy because they had got little sleep the previous night through the noise of their neighbours’ ‘preparations for this foolish day’s solemnity’ and because as they walked in that morning they had seen ‘not a shop open, nor a creature stirring’ in London. During the late 1640s attempts to prevent public celebrations and to force shops and businesses to stay open had led to violent confrontations between supporters and opponents of Christmas in many towns, including London, Canterbury, Bury St Edmunds and Norwich. Many writers continued to argue in print (usually anonymously) that it was proper to mark Christ’s birth on 25 December and that the secular government had no right to interfere, and it is likely that in practice many people in mid seventeenth century England and Wales continued to mark both the religious and the secular aspects of the Christmas holiday. At the Restoration not only the Directory of Public Worship but also all the other legislation of the period 1642-60 was declared null and void and swept away, and both the religious and the secular elements of the full Twelve Days of Christmas could once again be celebrated openly, in public and with renewed exuberance and wide popular support. The attack on Christmas had failed." Lightening the mood significantly in perhaps one of the more memorable scenes in the entire production, Befana and Chris meet two British merrymakers who sing and skate to a nonsensical song about food and Christmas meals called "Nothing Matters". It is comical, truly bizarre and absolutely unforgettable.


A brief scene develops with these beautiful faceless skating poinsettias! Sarah Kawahara talked about this scene in my March 2014 interview with her: "It was an out of body experience for Jojo Starbuck and I to be poinsettia flowers with our heads as portions of the stamen and our arms, the petals." It's truly just beautiful. In the final main scene before a storm stirred up by Toller's Pan-like character, we are taken to an early Russian Christmas scene with some beautiful skating by Kitty and Peter Carruthers and Kawahara. In this storm, Befana loses her bag of gifts that she's been almost obsessive over collecting in search of a "true gift" to give "the child King" and Befana and Chris encounter a frozen girl who Chris recognizes as The Little Match Girl. "The Little Match Girl", a story written by Danish children's author Hans Christian Andersen, tells the tale of a poor girl selling matches in the street who is already suffering from early hypothermia but is afraid to go home because her father will beat her for not selling any matches. She lights the matches to warm herself and as she slowly dies, sees many Christmas related visions and finally her deceased grandmother. She strikes match after match to keep the vision of her grandmother alive for as long as possible until her grandmother takes her soul to heaven. Passersby take pity on the poor girl when they find her dead in a nook the following morning. Drawing from this city, Chris finally gets through to Befana that a "true gift" is one given unselfishly without one expected in return and she wraps her shawl around the frozen girl who comes to life and skates brilliantly. 

A final banquet scene set to "O Holy Night" features Chris, Befana and the entire skating cast - Cranston, Cousins, Kawahara, the Carruthers', Starbuck and partner Ken Shelley, Norbert Schramm, Simone Grigorescu-Alexander and Shelley MacLeod and John S. Rait. The skating itself in this scene is wonderfully choreographed by Cranston and Kawahara and brings a joyous conclusion to an at times dark but wonderfully told plot line. Kawahara looked back fondly on Cranston's vision for the production: "He was very driven by music, although the story always came first. Toller has a wonderful sense of humor and loves the absurd. I'll never forget when he wanted to have synchronized swimmers as shrimp in the tomato soup at the Christmas banquet". Following the final scene, as Befana has given her "true gift" she is freed from her holiday limbo and Chris awakens in the bedroom that he ran away from in wonder and no doubt more appreciation for what the real holiday spirit is all about.

It's no secret I am a huge fan of Toller's body of work as a skater and artist, but I'm hardly the only one. In Kelli Lawrence's book "Skating On Air: The Broadcast History Of An Olympic Marquee Sport", even Kurt Browning talks about the impact of Toller's early TV specials: "My mother and I enjoyed watching his specials and were amazed by everything about them. They were an adventure in skating!" With cinematography, choreography and concepts far beyond their time and creatively far superior to the majority of televised holiday figure skating fare that hits our televisions these days, "The True Gift Of Christmas" was an absolute treasure and is one worth taking the time to revisit and celebrate. It's a gift in itself!

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