Saturday, 31 August 2013

Interview With John Mattatall


Since February, I have been interviewing skaters, choreographers, coaches, fans, historians and writers connected to figure skating from around the world. This time, I was fortunate enough to have chance to interview a skater from my own backyard! John Mattatall is from right here in Nova Scotia and is one of few skaters from this province to go on to compete on an international scale. Originally from Wallace, John skated competitively here in Nova Scotia for years as a singles skater and with his partner Lindsay Carruthers before going on to compete on the novice level with Renee Trumbley, on the junior and senior level with Terra Findlay and ultimately with Mylène Brodeur. After representing Canada at the Junior World Championships with Findlay, Mylène and John teamed up to form an immensely successful partnership. They won the bronze medal at the 2009 Canadian Championships, and placed in the top ten at the Four Continents Championships (3 times) and the World Championships as well, in addition to very high finishes at events such as Skate Canada, the NHK Trophy and Trophee Eric Bompard. They are also winners of the Ondrej Nepela Memorial competition, held in the Slovak Republic. I had chance to talk to John about his skating career, what he's doing now and skating here in Nova Scotia:

Q: During your skating career, you represented Canada at the World Championships, Four Continents Championships, Junior World Championships, Grand Prix events and other international competitions. What are your favourite moments and stories from your competitive skating days?

A: I think some of the first memories are the best, but I was so unbelievably fortunate to travel to so many places and with so many unbelievable people: Worlds in Los Angeles in 2009, Nationals in Halifax in 2007 and Junior Worlds in 2004 would have to make up the highlights.

Q: I actually remember seeing you skate at Provincials or Skate Dartmouth or something while skating in the same competitions. Early in your career, did you ever think that you'd be competing at the World Championships? How proud are you of your achievements?

A: I think being from a small community really helped keep me grounded with my skating. It wasn't until I was 16 that I had a taste of national success. This perhaps lit a fire in me but knowing that we had the chance to be 3rd in senior was the first time that success really seemed to be coming true. I had so much support from my friends and family, and the skating community where we were training that these achievements were truly not able to be made by myself. These memories will be with me forever and many of the friends I made I still get to see regularly.


Q: You're from right here in Nova Scotia. What do you think makes Nova Scotia's skating community unique and who are your favourite people you've met through skating here in the province?

A: What makes us unique is how hard we have to work to be recognized outside of our province. Being successful in Nova Scotia is one thing but making that jump to the national level is almost a whole new ball game. All of the skaters that I trained with have moved on to many other paths but again, I still manage to keep in contact with a few of them. The relationships that I've made with judges, officials, and volunteers have been so amazing though. Too many to mention.

Q: Until 2006, you were competing nationally as a singles skater. When and why did you decide to focus on pairs?

A: Honestly, I had made the decision to focus on pairs when I moved to Barrie in the summer of 2001 but kept up the singles to maintain and improve my jumping abilities. Some years were better than others with many great stories about singles training. The only other year that I truly put my focus on singles was in 2006, when my partner Terra and I split in the middle of the summer.


Q: What's one thing skating fans don't see on TV or when watching skating broadcasts online that you think would surprise a lot of people?

A: Not much! I think that Mylene and I portrayed our personalities pretty well when we skated and we trained very much like we competed - rarely perfect but always enjoying every experience. One quote I always remember from a coach was "you guys aren't the best team in the world but you definitely have the most fun and are the most enjoyable to work with".

Q: What kind of music do you listen to and what's your favourite song?

A: I have no favourite songs but I'm a rock kind of guy, I think they only celebrity I'd be starstruck with would be either Eddie Vedder, or the one and only Dave Grohl.


Q: You auditioned for the first season of Amazing Race Canada with Craig Buntin, who you used to compete against. What is your friendship like, what are your thoughts on the first season of Amazing Race Canada and will you be auditioning for season 2?

A: Craig and I met one sunny morning at the Hebert arena in St. Leo in June of 2005 and have been great friends ever since. One of my friends even said we perhaps were soul mates, if you believe in that stuff! Yes, we did submit a video and I have only watched 2 episodes of the show since it's premiere, however it's done extremely well. We are hoping that this means there will be another season put forward by CTV and if so definitely expect to see another video from the FIGURE SKATERS.


Q: Since you stopped competing internationally, where are you living, what is your involvement
in the sport now and how often are you on the ice these days?

A: I am pretty much involved in the sport daily, either coaching in Montreal were I spend my summers or in Nova Scotia where I'm attending Dalhousie University working on a Mineral Engineering Degree.
  
Q: Having competed under both the 6.0 and IJS systems, which do you prefer and do you think the way the sport is judged and promoted now has helped or hurt the skaters and fans of the sport?

A: The IJS system is by far the superior system for the skating community. It has pushed so many boundaries in the sport that just aren't able to be appreciated by the non-skating fans. However the 6.0 system was so much easier to understand for the first time viewer. Unfortunately, it was also much easier to manipulate and this hurt the sport greatly.


Q: Who are your favourite skaters of all time to watch?
  
A: Kurt is a god and Patrick Chan is probably the most impressive skater of all time. The tag team of Moir and Virtue and Charlie and Meryl rule the dance world and will be very hard to dethrone. Ryan Bradley's a show man beyond belief and I had the fortunate opportunity to train in the same center as Mr. Honda and Elvis. Watching them train daily was pretty unbelievable.

Q: What's one thing about you most people don't know?
  
A: I come from a talented musical family and grew up playing piano, guitar, drums, and singing in choirs... but don't tell anyone about the choir part!

Q: How do you see figure skating changing (for better or worse) over the next 10-20 years?

A: I think the sport will continue to evolve under the current system however I see a decline. Many clubs in the lower levels hope that more kids will become spark interest in this world of figure skating because the life lessons that it teaches you and the confidence, determination, and pride you can find in skating is incredible.

A wonderful interview with a great skater! Stay tuned to http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard and http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca for more skater interviews as well as articles, commentary and special features! You can also follow me on the Twitter at http://twitter.com/SkateGuardBlog for skating tweets and whatever else I've got on the go!

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

If You're Good To Robin, Robin's Good To You: Robin Cousins' Very Best Choreography For Other Skaters


In Lake Placid, New York, the Union Jack flew high and Robin Cousins was the man standing atop the podium. Much like John Curry, who won the Olympic title four years earlier in Innsbruck, Austria, Cousins was one of many Olympic Gold Medallists in men's figure skating who improved like a fine wine with age. After turning professional, his work as a choreographer and his skating developed to a whole different level. His expression of music, his sense of timing and the seemingly simplistic but oh so complex elements that he included in virtually every program provided a sense of theatre on ice that stood out and continues to stand out to this day as a lesson in GOOD SKATING. His carriage and line, skid spirals, soaring single and double axels, backflips, musicality and beautiful deep edges are only a few examples of the truly special and unique quality that he brought to the ice everytime he performed - or choreographed a program for another skater. Robin's own professional programs - "Falling In Love With You Again", "The Way We Were", "On The Frozen Pond", "Satan's L'il Lamb", "The Music Of The Night", "Satan Takes A Holiday" and so many others - deserve not only a blog article but probably an entire blog of their own but I wanted to take some time and look at the amazing choreography Robin has created for OTHER skaters. In each of these 6.0 memorable performances and moments Robin created for other skaters, you can clearly see those magical qualities that he brought to his own skating reflecting in and bettering the skaters he choreographed these programs for:

CRAIG HEATH AND CAST - COME WHAT MAY


This beautiful piece set to music from Moulin Rouge is choreographed by Robin Cousins and Cindy Stuart and is from the European tour of Holiday On Ice's 'Hollywood' show. Beginning with a stark and simplistic solo from Craig Heath that features a nice double axel and a double salchow, halfway through the piece he is joined by two pairs teams and then by a cast of exquisitely costumed skaters and beautiful photography, costuming, choreography and skating come together to provide for an aesthetically and artistically beautiful ending to the piece.

LUCINDA RUH - MERCY


Choreographed by Robin in April 2000, Lucinda Ruh's program to "Mercy" from "The Prayer Cycle" as performed by Alanis Morissette, is another very ethereal piece that really played to the skater's strengths. Showcasing Lucinda's awe inspiring spins as features as opposed to program elements, this program was performed everywhere from the Rockefeller Center to Harvard University to the outdoor rink in Sun Valley and at the 2000 World Professional Figure Skating Championships. The program earned Lucinda a 3rd place finish in that 2000 event, which was her first trip to the World Professional Championships, ahead of European champion Surya Bonaly and Olympic Gold Medallist Oksana Baiul.

DENISE BIELLMANN - ISTANBUL (NOT CONSTANTINOPLE)

From the pretty to the playful, Robin showed off his innate musicality and sense of timing in this masterpiece he created for Denise Biellmann for the 1997/1998 professional season. Set to Joe "Fingers" Carr's interpretation of Kennedy and Simon's "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)", this program was skated by Denise at the 1997 Ladies Professional Championships as well as both the U.S. and World Professional Figure Skating Championships the same year. Highlighting Denise's excellence in jumping, spinning and endurance was always an easy thing to do when developing a piece for her, but bringing out her playful, sexy and very musical side was something that didn't always happen, and this piece by Robin was a true example of another departure for a skater already known for departure after departure.

BRIAN ORSER - DEEPLY DIPPY



It's not often that a skater will choreograph work for their direct competition, but during the 1993/1994 season, Robin Cousins did just that in choreographing a piece to Right Said Fred's "Deeply Dippy" for Brian Orser. With big, showy choreography, triple jumps and a backflip, this program really brought out the best in Brian's style and served him well on that year's Stars On Ice tour, as well as in events like the World Professional Championships, Challenge Of Champions and the U.S. Open that year. Interestingly enough, Robin beat Brian at the World Professional Championships that year, finishing 2nd in a showdown of two programs that he had choreographed himself, with Brian 3rd.

LIZ MANLEY - THINK

After winning the free skate and the silver medal at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, it really wasn't until 1994 that Liz's professional career took off like it did. Between touring, TV specials and competitions, her early forays into the pro circuit were hit and miss. After a disastrous technical program at the 1990 World Professional Figure Skating Championships in Maryland, Liz rebounded with a fabulous performance to "Think" by Aretha Franklin, choreographed by Robin. This was really one of the first programs that played on Liz's bubbly personality and ability to cater to and really work an audience, and that started something fabulous that she became KNOWN for throughout the rest of her professional career - which continues to this day!

ROSALYNN SUMNERS - THE POWER OF LOVE


This exquisite program choreographed by Robin Cousins for Rosalynn was first skated in 1990 during Brian Boitano and Katarina Witt's 'Skating' tour but was revived for the 1994 USFSA (now U.S. Figure Skating) spring pro-am competition, the Hershey's Kisses Figure Skating Challenge. In one of her more technically difficult performances of her pro career, Rosalynn stole the show with not one - but two - of those double axels and finished 3rd. Again, Robin's choreography and the highlighting of Rosalynn's strengths in this piece to Jennifer Rush's ballad came together to create a memorable program that drew the crowd in and kept them there from start to finish.

Now, when we talk about the best choreographers factors that we always consider are their ability to make their programs relatable to audiences, to keep them current and fresh and to not recycle a style or keep on rehashing the same choreography and music choices again and again. Carmen anyone? Throughout his career as a choreographer, as illustrated through the programs featured here and countless others, Robin has brought out the best in other skaters and created magical and truly entertaining moments on ice where good skating and good music come together for a thrilling show. It's exactly this kind of choreographic skill that I can't wait to see translate into Jeremy Abbott's short program this season. I am a huge Jeremy Abbott fan and the comparisons and likeness between Robin and Jeremy's skating and style are going to make this program a dream I think. Can't wait to see it! Speaking of thrilling shows and great choreography, check out Robin's new project "The Ice" which will tour the United Kingdom from January to May 2014. The website for the show is http://www.robincousinsice.com and it is a series of shows you won't want to miss.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/p/contact.html.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Interview With Roy Blakey


I don't want to give all my secrets anyway, but in case you haven't figured it out from reading most of the content here on my blog, one of my biggest interests when it comes to skating is its history. I find history in general fascinating! Rudyard Kipling once said that "if history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten." I believe that wholeheartedly. In recent years, people like NISA historian Elaine Hooper (who I already had the pleasure of interviewing), the World Figure Skating Museum and Hall Of Fame, Keri Pickett, Carl Moseley, the late Janet Wright, Randy Gardner and the Pro Figure Skating Historical Association and Roy Blakey have done wonderful things in the area of preserving and sharing the sport's history, and I can only aspire to offer some small contribution and share whatever limited knowledge of the sport's history I may know or be able to research and offer insight upon. When it comes to a wealth of information about skating history, who better to look at then Roy Blakey. A collector of figure skating memorabilia for over 70 years, Roy curates the IceStage Archive, which is an online website that shares not only information on the history of theatrical skating but also countless show posters, programs and rare photographs that the casual skating fan would not even be privy to. Blakey's site chronicles everything from Jackson Haines to the Eis Ballett, ice carnivals and hotel and nightclub shows in the early 20th century to Sonja Henie to the Ice Theatre Of New York in the 21st Century. He talks about Ice Follies, a show that changed the history of show skating. My own mother recalls being a very young girl and being taken to go see Ice Follies at the Halifax Forum and watching actor/singer Gene Autry come out on a horse during intermission. Everyone who experienced figure skating's first golden era has a story about it. Roy has thousands. A former professional skater himself, Roy's insight and awe inspiring collection of skating artifacts and curios is a priceless one - and a step into an earlier time when skating was revered by the casual viewer and held a certain magic it has been fighting to reclaim for some time. Don't worry. It will. I had the absolute pleasure of talking with Roy on the telephone today and doing a brief interview and it is my utmost pleasure to share a little bit more of Roy's story and expose his life's work to even just a few more people than before if at all possible:

Q: I listened to Allison Manley's interview with you from September of last year this morning because I really didn't want to repeat myself and ask the same questions she had. In that interview, you talked about serving in the military and being stationed in Germany when you first had an opportunity to live your dream and skate professionally in the Casa Carioca show. What advice would you offer to a skater today hoping to get into show skating?

A: Make your own show since we don't have any! We need someone desperately with a huge imagination to make opportunities happen. It's tragic there are so few opportunities for all of those people who spent so much money and are wonderful skaters. Where are they going to go? That's the problem. No one seems to know that answer. To me, coming from those Nancy/Tonya years when skating was so accessible to everyone, the skaters in that time period were able make their own shows because the audience was there. There was a lot of access for people to make a living. Now, we've got Stars On Ice - with few dates in the U.S. and  Disney On Ice (which does offer a lot of opportunities to skaters), but not enough. Back then, things like professional competitions could prolong their careers without skaters having to tour and do multiple shows a day. Many became millionaires from those pro competitions Dick Button put on for years. Fortunately, Willy Bietak has all those shows on cruise ships. The ruling is they can only stay on for six months at a time and then he has to change the cast. He has to have a double cast for 6 months of the year. He has like 200 skaters on his roster although they aren't all working on one time. These are all really strong skaters though! They all have to have the jumps to even be in a show these days. When I was touring, the hardest jump I ever did in shows was a single axel. Now these cruise ship skaters have to do double axels or triple axels to even be in the show. What's also interesting that I learned that the woman that is the president of U.S. Figure Skating is from Minneapolis. She has 2 sisters who were show skaters. She told me that they have a competition every year for Theatre On Ice. They choreograph production numbers with props and costumes. It was held in Troy, Ohio this year but it was a like $700 round trip. I said I think I'll wait but she's going to keep me posted and I do want to see that. I think that with events like this, U.S. Figure Skating is trying to in a tiny way build more opportunities for professionals and show skating. That's what it seems to point towards. It's such a shame we don't have Tom Collins or Champions On Ice: things like that. All of that training needs an outlet.

Q: What is the "holy grail" of skating memorabilia that you haven't yet come into contact with? Of everything in your collection, what was the hardest to come by? 

A: Maybe eight years ago, I came across a program from the very first professional touring production of Ice Follies in 1936 on EBay. This program was from the very first stop on the very first Ice Follies tour in Tulsa, Oklahoma in November 1936. From what I could see on EBay, it looked like a 4 paged mimeographed program. I said "that's mine. I want that." I waited until the last minute because no one bid for first 5 days then 6 bids came in near the end. I put in $212 and someone topped me and got it. Everytime I go on EBay, I put that in for a search. There was a flu epidemic at that first Tulsa show so it's possible a lot of those programs may still be kicking around somewhere. I would love to have seen the face of the woman who put it up, probably thinking it would wasn't worth anything and then it went for over $200. That will encourage her to get out and find another one! The daughter of Harris Legg, a barrel jumper in Ice Follies told me at an Ice Follies reunion in San Francisco that she has an extra copy of this program but she's never found it. It may be a pipe dream. To name my favourite piece of memorabilia... it's like actually asking which of your children you treasure most. The last 2 years, I've had a young guy coming in helping me document everything in my collection. When I was on Antiques Roadshow, I was lucky to have the appraiser... I was already a fan and was just delighted with what I got. She gave me her card and was here a couple months ago for 3 days and appraised my entire collection. In preparation for that, we worked for 2 years documenting everything. It turned out that I have over 26,000 items in my collection. Among my favourites are some Sonja Henie 6 foot by 7 wide film posters - they are gorgeous, I just love them! I have 2 or 3 of those. To narrow it down to the top 5 would be impossible. I have some foreign posters that are very rare and materials from shows in 1915 and gorgeous programs for very early shows in New York City. They are from a big stage show with a German ice skating company with a young lady named Charlotte who was the star. I have a lot of the material from those things and even material from that German company's original shows in Berlin in 1911... beautiful hand-tinted postcards and photos. Those things are treasures. I have too many.

Q: What did the appraisal end up being?

A: After she appraised everything, she went back to her home in Washington, D.C. and got called to jury duty. She has not yet been able to sit down and finalize the appraisal yet. It's going to cost more money anyway, so I'm not in any rush.

Q: Who are your favourite skaters of all time? Your favourite skaters of today's generation?

A: That are still skating today, Kurt Browning and Dorothy Hamill. I went from Minneapolis down to Anaheim, California this year to see Stars On Ice because Dorothy and Kurt were the guest stars. It was worth every bit of the trouble of getting out there! Now I see Kurt is getting a tribute from the Ice Theatre in New York so I'm planning on going to that in October. Everyone should study Dorothy's skating. She has that gorgeous back and fabulous edges. Those two are my favourites of the current skaters. I loved Belita! The films I have of her! I saw her skate in person in the early 1970's I think when they had those SuperSkates and ProSkates events. She was 60 years old and did her solo. It was a little shaky but I did actually see her perform live. Between the U.S. and Europe, I also saw Sonja Henie skate live for 4 times. Another skater I really loved was Frankie Sawers. He was a Canadian guy who was a big star - a longtime Holiday On Ice skater. Like me, he wasn't a very tall man but he had the the teeniest little touch of what Toller Cranston had. He was very flamboyant, a beautiful skater and an all around great performer. Another skater I loved to watch was Jacqueline du Bief of France. She was the same artistic kind of a skater but she also had the technical as well. She was a World Champion.

Q: What I do is write a blog about figure skating. I focus a lot on artistic and professional skating but also do interviews with a wide range of people who have been involved in the sport and research and share stories about the sport's history. What is one untold story from skating's history (or something that most people don't know about) that would you like to see me write about next? Because I'll do it! 

A: I could care less about competition skating. The theatrical aspect has been so neglected. I'm about the only one who has really cared about the show skating. As for interesting stories, I went to Toronto to interview Sandra Bezic for Dance Magazine when Katarina Witt was training with her. I took some of my postcards from 1911-1913 of this incredible Germany group that was the first professional ice skating company. Imagine it! The very first. The costumes were mind boggling and gorgeous. I think it was mostly tableaux, storyline but there were strong skaters in the company. The corps de ballet was really just carrying costumes around. I showed them to Katarina. She had never heard of them. She had never heard of Charlotte. If Sandra Bezic and Katarina Witt - and Katarina's from Germany and was Olympic Champion - didn't know about Charlotte, that's been sadly neglected. More people need to know about that. Another is Willy Bietak and his wife Cathy. Cathy was a giant adagio star in Ice Capades in the 1950's and 1960's. He's from Austria, she's from Germany. They hadn't heard of Charlotte or this show or Charlotte either. Also, the fact that Holiday On Ice took skating all around the world. I worked for 7 years and went to 40 countries skating. I don't think skaters are aware of how extensive it was back then. We were rock stars in Bangkok. I didn't go on the tour of Africa, but it was the same. There, even the most educated people thought there were magnets under the ice making us do these things! Ice Follies took portable rinks to countries that had never even seen skating. That is an aspect of theatrical skating and skating in general that I think people aren't aware of.

Q: How can more people become involved in preserving and sharing skating's history?

A: A lot of skaters are writing their memoirs and that's a wonderful way to let people know a very personal approach to their stories. I don't think they are getting nearly as much distribution as if they were published by a big publishing company but it's definitely a step in the right direction. I get e-mails frequently from people who say that their relatives passed away and wanting to offer things that they'd just be throwing out otherwise and that's just terrifying to me... that people don't know the value and importance of this. I don't know how to let people in future generations know to KEEP that history. We need to inform people about the history of skating and get someone's imagination going to create a new kind of thing or show.

Q: Speaking of new shows, it sounds like Robin Cousins is trying to get something like that on the go over in England. I wish it was here!

A: Robin has been the leading light of the European Holiday On Ice show. They have had three companies touring simultaneously since the group in Holland purchased show. Robin has been a gold mine of bringing wonderful ideas to the Holiday On Ice show. I miss those shows so much - I haven't been to one for 3-4 years. Wonderful theatrical, artistic skating!

Q: I hate to ask someone how old they are because you just don't do that!...

A: I am 83. I'm old enough to be my own father! My mother lived to be 102 and my father was 92 so I think I've got a few good years left in me yet! My whole purpose in documenting and appraising my collection is that my ultimate goal is to donate everything to a university or a library or a museum but I first needed to find out what I've got. I will not sell it, I will leave everything so that this great history is somewhere safe and accessible to everyone. Ice skating shows broke all records for live entertainment. Whatever it takes to get a bunch of people into an arena watch an ice skating events again, that's what we need to figure out and DO.

Q: What's next for you?

A: My niece Keri's documentary film "The Fabulous Ice Age" will be shown on each of the four days of the Napa Valley Film Festival in California on November 13, 14, 15, and 16. She and I are flying out to be there for the showings. The Film Festival organizers have asked that we present a live discussion at each showing. Keri is contacting some well known show skaters in that area to participate in them.

Roy showing his 83rd birthday made him jump for joy!

Roy's IceStage Archive is available online at http://www.icestagearchive.com and offers a glimpse into his massive collection, research and incredible knowledge base when it comes to show skating. I immensely enjoyed speaking with Roy and hope to have chance to speak to him more when researching specific writing about historical content in the future! If you enjoyed my interview with Roy, please give this blog a like on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard - I update the Facebook page regularly with all kinds of goodies and skating news not here on the blog, so it's definitely worth checking out. You can also find me on the Twitter at https://twitter.com/ohh_N. As always, I want to thank you so much for your continued support. Without people reading like you, this would just be one really cool diary.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Interview With Richard Swenning


With decades of experience in the sport wearing every hat from eligible skater, professional skater, coach, producer, husband and father, Richard Swenning has had a remarkable life in the skating world. He's toured with Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, produced events around the world with his company Ice Maxx Productions (www.icemaxxproductions.com) and currently serves as the Vice President of ProSkaters alongside professional skating greats like Adam Blake, Frank Sweiding, Gia Guddat, Craig Heath, Brian Boitano and Kristi Yamaguchi. In this interview, Richard shares his insights from decades in the skating world and is candidly honest with his opinions on the current state of skating and the judging system. We talked as well about his professional career, Torvill and Dean, coaching and more:

Q: You retired from competitive skating in 1987 and moved on to a professional career. What were your greatest accomplishments as an eligible skater and what are your thoughts on eligible skating in general and the way it is judged today?

A: It's a difficult question as it is very different now. I quit eligible skating to enjoy show skating and make a living . It was clear early to me I couldn't compete. I beat many famous skaters in figures so I know my foundation in edge technique is very good. Figures need to come back. It would separate the good edge skaters from the freestyle skaters... Too many average skaters passing moves tests. A skater needs to be realistic in the amateur world at some point... skating is however a lifelong sport if you want it to be. I improved more as a professional skater over the course of 20 years and grew tremendously. The way skating is judged today is good and fair but the new system has completely ruined the sport. There is no individuality. Everyone is doing the same program and we have created a pool of amazing skaters but we gave all the secrets away and therefore no coach or skater is unique! In the old days, everyone was unique. We have no stars and the popularity of the sport has dropped from the public interest but the sport has progressed like the world. Is it good or bad progression? Too much, too big, too many. It's like cars. So I don't really like the new system. You have a pool of great skaters whom also find it hard to have a pro career. There aren't many variety shows or a Tom Collins tour anymore. It's very sad. The stars from the 80's and 90's are still capitalizing, which is a bit off for me. It's become more like gymnastics. I don't want to be negative but what are we promoting to these kids?


Q: You are now married and a father. Do you think that married life and fatherhood have slowed you down or inspired you to be MORE involved in what you love?

A: Being a father is my ultimate dream of being a complete person. I am blessed to have a wife and child and I thank God everyday for that! It keeps me so grounded. If I wasn't married I would be married to skating, so it has definitely slowed me down for the better and diverted me as an artist. Realistically, you can skate till your 70 ! My wife and I skated together and fell in love. It just happened. We were lucky to find each other and have a child which leads to retirement. It's tough when you do a job for so long but a child is the ultimate gift, so your choices are to settle down, to be involved in skating in another way or get a real job. I do real life work, teach, produce, perform occasionally still at 45 and best of all I'm a Dad everyday! I wouldn't want to be traveling and skating in shows all year being alone anymore. Skating is one of those sports where you can get married to your job, because many love it that much. Skating is a relationship for me that I love. Skating is also a relationship I dislike at times for many other reasons. This could go on for hours but many skaters will relate to what I'm saying!

Q: You have produced theatrical skating events for Volkswagen, Hard Rock Theme Park, Sea World Entertainment Parks, Europa Park, Disneyland Paris, The Government of Singapore, The Cities of Chiasso and Lucarno, Switzerland and choreographed countless shows and events. How challenging has marketing skating as entertainment to big business been and what has the most rewarding part?

A: Well, it's very difficult to market skating and events because the popularity has dropped. Why? It's a loaded question. I blame the new system again for a lot of this. Those governing the sport do an amazing job but we need to rethink it. If you ask 90% of professional skaters I think they would all agree. It's all money. Big ice shows are gone. Ice Capades... Holiday On Ice does a few variety shows but has no big tour dates in America for star skaters. Again why? It takes money to put it all together. As a producer I've been fortunate to team up with other producers and do events. I've produced and choreographed my own projects. The most rewarding part is seeing the quality skating. The skaters get to perform and ENJOY SKATING and this is truly the culmination of years of amateur work. I was lucky to work for 20 + years in shows. There were many opportunities for me which I am grateful for. I hope I can provide a job here and there for skaters to perform and treat them well. This means they  re paid, get free accommodations and travel, see the world... This is my current goal. However, I will always promote education and real life work. Show skating is a chance to skate and enjoy skating, but is it a  lifelong career? The most rewarding part is the actual skating - the performance. The real question is... have you seen any good skating shows lately?


Q: As a skater and choreographer, you have worked for Torvill and Dean’s tour, Holiday On Ice, Ice Capades and other productions as well. When it comes to professional show skating, what aspects stand out as the biggest “culture shocks” to skaters coming from the “amateur” ranks? What have been the most interesting or bizarre experiences you’ve had while touring the world and skating?

A: The biggest culture shocks to amateurs coming to the show life are learning to skate on smaller ice, performing every day as opposed to once or twice a year, learning they don't know it all and this is a new journey. There is an order in show life and you really have to learn it... skating in a cast where you are not the only skater, you are one of 30 or 40... or 10... but you have to work together and be courteous. It's not all about YOU anymore... it's about your cast. I also think they are actually shocked at how much fun skating is. I've seen great skaters learn how to great performers and people as well. This is an art, so in a sense they really learn to perform in shows and be humble. Really, the most bizarre experiences are living in that show bubble. It's like a circus! I've seen stagehands fall out of the set and almost die and accidents on the ice. Bad things can happen while on tour. You really need to be aware of your surroundings and be safe. We used to travel in caravans in Holiday on Ice and it could happen that someone would roll their home over on a travel day on icy roads... so lots of crazy things. Life on the road is also a lot of fun, and I've seen skaters driving golf carts or cleaning machines in the buildings. We once had a bonfire in a hotel parking lot which got out of control and as it got bigger and bigger with these tumble weeds, the police came and you see a cast of skaters scatter like rats in New York back to their rooms... So definitely some funny stories. Honestly, seeing the different cities like Amsterdam and Paris or Hamburg, you see a lot of bizarre stuff just traveling in general.

Q: Speaking of Torvill and Dean’s tours, I have to say just how amazing and before their time shows like theirs were. What did you enjoy most about those shows and what are Jayne and Chris like to work with?

A: Jayne and Chris... well I have to say, I love these two people. I am honored to have skated with them in my lifeteime. I love this on my resume too! They hired me and I was definetly a high point in my career. Their work ethic then and always was amazing. Chris at 40 then was and now still is incredibly fit... and their skating was still amazing. They did a tango number in Ice Adventure that is one of my favorite numbers of all time. It was in the opening segment of our show. I don't think many have seen this number but it was great! They used amazing lighting to tell the story... and raw skating in their performances which I think works in arena environments. They were incredibly flexible with us and worked with us on our unique abilities. We were treated very well. I'll never forget that. I also saw what great business people they were. I learned a lot from them. I can't say enough.


Q: In 2004, you won the artistic program at the Major League Figure Skating Championships, a professional event that is no longer held. I recently wrote some in depth features on the Jaca World Pro event, the U.S. Open… and the American Open, which you participated in as well. Do you think opportunities for exposure and artistic expression outside of show skating are in short supply for pro skaters now that events like these are no longer occurring? How can that change?

A: We need more. This is also an avenue that has been closed. We are trying with ProSkaters to have a pro skating competition soon. Why are there not more of these events? Dick Button was a huge endorser of these kind of events back in the day... somewhere where an Allen Schramm could compete against a Robin Cousins. I would like to see a Scott Hamilton or other Olympic names create events for pro athletes again as they have this kind of pull. I really feel we need to give back at this point...and the leaders of the past need to be on board. Where do all these great skaters skate and show their stuff nowadays?

Q: Speaking of change, what is one thing that you think we’ll see change dramatically in figure skating in the next 10 years?

A: I don't think much will change as we are accepting the new system... If anything there could be a rebellion back to the 6.0 system with modifications. This would be awesome. The public doesn't understand the new system. It's complicated. If we simplify it, it may bring popularity back. We need champions whom are the best to stay on top for at least a few years. Now, if a skater makes one mistake they are done so the public cant relate to anyone anymore. They relate to a football player who plays for the same team for many years.. We need to see a revival in skating. I hope so. Skates and blades are better, but we won't see quintuple jumps. It's gone as far jumping wise as it will. We may see a phenom who could do all quads in a program... I'm not really sure.


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

A: Probably that I invented the hitch kick-butterfly with Jeri Campbell back in the 90's. We are the inventors and I am the first to do that trick, So I will officially name it THE RICH KICK SWENNING BUTTERFLY now. It's a skating move combining a hitch kick and a arabian butterfly. You can see it on YouTube in one of my videos. Also, I've taught in Europe and the USA. I took a three year break from skating altogether and worked at a private golf club which was great! Also, I consider my family a famous skating family... one with deep roots and Olympic member Robert Swenning. I thank my Mom and Dad for a lot of great memories and respect their knowledge.


Q: What has been your motivation to stay involved in the sport so long and what advice would you offer to people thinking about getting into coaching, choreography or professional skating?

A: I'm motivated by show skating and performance. I like coaching and working with kids but I'm realistic. It has to be fun, you have to be talented and work hard... and its sad but I think skating is turning into a rich person's sport in most cases - it wasn't so much 30 years ago.so you do need money...My advice is that if you really love it, skate. Do it a lot, on public sessions if your not loaded, find a way to work your butt off... but do not ever disregard school and education. Stay grounded. It's a dog eat dog business. So... coaching... make sure you find the right facility! Be prepared if your qualified - that doesn't mean anything because ANYONE CAN TEACH skating unfortunately. The PSA and U.S. Figure Skating don't monitor who is actually teaching our sport. They just want membership and also many skaters are allowed to teach outside of their discipline. So there are issues out there... You have to be an entrepreneur to teach. You have to work it. It's not for everyone. I struggle with these issues and try and look at the postives as well. Teaching can be rewarding, but it is very difficult and competitive. When it comes to choreography, just do it, have fun and get started. Every piece of music is new and there are endless possibilities. As for pro skating in shows... improve, enjoy, travel, work hard, be on time, do your stuff! It's a great life and easy job! Fight for a good contract! Remember to keep it real and look at other career possibilities inside and outside of skating... Do it while you can but don't do it too long unless you really want to make it your life legacy.

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Thursday, 22 August 2013

Interview With Lynn Kriengkrairut And Logan Giulietti-Schmitt


Teaming up in 2006, Lynn Kriengkrairut and Logan Giulietti-Schmitt (or Lynn and Logan because it's just easier) are two skaters with everything going for them. Do you know who their skating reminds me of? That great choreography, presence and fabulous program choice thing they have going on almost reminds me of Kim Navarro and Brent Bommentre. At any rate, since teaming up Lynn and Logan have proved to be an immensely popular team with skating fans and judges alike. In 7 trips to the U.S. National Championships, they have finished among the top 5 teams the last three years. The last two years they have won the Ice Challenge international competition in Austria, beating internationally experienced teams from the Ukraine, Hungary, Great Britain, Italy, Switzerland, Australia and around the world. They have also competed internationally at events like the Junior World Championships, NHK Trophy, Skate America and Cup Of Russia. This year, they parted ways with long time coaches and choreographers Yaroslava Nechaeva and Yuri Chesnichenko and went to train with Igor Shpilband and are busier than ever preparing for this... the Olympic season. We talked about Shpilband, program choices, goals for this season, what it means to be a little different from the pack and more:

Q: You are coached by Igor Shpilband, who is certainly one of the most eminent ice dancing coaches and choreographers out there. What is the most valuable thing he has taught you?

A: He has really taught us how to own our skating and movement within our programs by allowing us to be part of the choreographic process. He wants us to be 100% comfortable with our steps so that we can be more confident in our performance, which is quite a bit different then what we were used to.

Q: It’s interesting that under the same sets of rules in ice dancing, you always have such great variety in what you are presenting. In such a competitive field, how do you stand out? What makes you different?

A: We’ve often thought hard about ways to be different, but sometimes the answer is right in front of us. On the first day with Igor, he had us improvise to whatever music he played. There were no rules. It was just the music and however it told us to move. For once, there was no right or wrong. Though technique and execution of the elements do matter, it’s the details in between that can make us unique. Interpreting the music as we genuinely feel it is our dialogue with the audience, so it’s important to truly love what you are skating to and execute movements as they naturally come to you. Dance is not necessarily about who’s the best but more about the dialogues between the dancers and the music, between the dancers themselves, and between the dancers and the audience.



Q: I can't tell you how much I have truly appreciated your music choices over the years. I'm a HUGE fan of Imelda May ("Pulling The Rug" is one of my favourites! - someone needs to skate to it - just sayin') and Adele as well and am very interested by the fact that you have gone in a more traditional direction musically this year and chosen "Spartacus" for your free dance. What can you share about your program development/theme and music selections this year?

A: We have explored a variety of themes for our programs over the past seven years and discovered our niche in contemporary music. However, we always strive to stretch our boundaries and wanted a whole new look for ourselves this year. We knew we wanted to explore something more traditional and we did some improvisation to a variety of more classical music selections and finally chose Spartacus because of its familiarity, its beauty, and its power. The music is so rich and evokes something so pure within, and that’s when you know you have found exactly what you were looking for. In contrast, we’ve selected something less traditional for our quickstep/Charleston short dance. It’s really fun and quirky. Over the years, we have developed an appreciation and connection with many different styles, so being able to have two completely opposite styles in our two programs this season is so much fun for us and shows our versatility as performers.

Q: Who are your favourite singers or bands of all time?

A from Lynn: Some of my favourites are Adele (of course), Jason Mraz, Jack Johnson, and the Beatles.

A from Logan: Some of my favourites range from Arcade Fire, Matt and Kim, Muse and Radiohead to Jay-Z, Common, and Chiddy Bang.



Q: Who do you think are the most underrated ice dancers of all time? What about the very best?

A: We have always been big fans of Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernyshev for their style, passion and connection with each other. We’ve also admired the Duchesnay’s for how ahead of their time and unique they were.

Q: Totally agree with you about the Duchesnay's! Having won the Ice Challenge in Graz, Austria the last three years and finished 4th at Skate America and 3rd at the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic last season, you are certainly at a point in your skating careers where you are making international judges TAKE NOTE. What do you love most about international competition as opposed to competing within your own country?

A: We love exposing ourselves to new environments and opportunities, so we’ve always enjoyed international competition. It creates more of a challenge to show people that may not have seen us skate before what we have to offer and this is extremely exciting for us.



Q: What is the one area of your skating you are focusing the most on improving right now?

A: We want to develop a new look to our skating and make an emotional and powerful impact on the audience.

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

A: We are both pretty big nerds at heart in different ways. Lynn loves biological sciences and neurology... Logan is fascinated by natural sciences and has a rock, coin, stamp, and baseball card collection.


Q: You are both university graduates - congratulations! How hard was finding the time to focus on your studies and skate on an elite level at the same time, while trying to have a personal life at the same time? What is your secret to time management?

A: It was definitely difficult, and honestly, the secret is that there is no secret. There are no shortcuts. Something that is hard to achieve is hard to achieve for a reason. Skating has taught us both to be very disciplined starting at a young age, and that discipline has carried over in other aspects of our lives as well. We know that skating takes a toll on our bodies (and our wallets) and we can’t keep doing it forever. Through our studies, we were able to engage in other fields of interests off the ice, and we know there will be many opportunities for us to explore when our skating career is over. It does help to genuinely love what you are doing (both on and off the ice). Even though things were not always easy, there were always times when we felt like the hard work wasn’t even hard work at all.

Q: What are your ultimate goals for this season and how do you plan on achieving them? What do you see as your long-term involvement in the figure skating world?

A: Our ultimate goal is to qualify for the World and Olympic teams. We have taken a new approach to this season and are excited about our programs. We enjoy working with so many different coaches with different areas of expertise. It’s this collaboration of efforts that makes the whole package come together and we really feel that we are developing a whole new look to our skating. Skating has been such a big part of our lives for so long, so we’re sure we will always be involved in it somehow, whether it be coaching, doing shows, skating recreationally or simply as audience members.

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Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Return To Open Pro Competitions (Part 3: The American Open Professional Figure Skating Championships)

The American Open Professional Figure Skating Championships®, like the U.S. Open Professional Figure Skating Championships and World Pro Championships in Jaca, Spain featured in part 1 and part 2 of this article, were yet another open professional competition that afforded skaters of all backgrounds and resumes the chance to artistically express themselves in a competitive setting and gain more exposure, some prize money and polish up their competitive resumes. Let's take a trip down memory lane and look at the importance, impact and relevance of the American Open event:


THE AMERICAN OPEN PROFESSIONAL FIGURE SKATING CHAMPIONSHIPS®

An idea conceived by Scott Williams and his former wife Charlene Wong (both national medallists in the U.S. and Canada respectively and professional champions), Scott and Charlene's goals when they first came up with the idea included "offering professional skaters the opportunity to win a title, audition for their industry, share their talents with the skating community, and promoting the many talented professional skaters in general." With the dozens of professional, invite only events taking place in the mid to late 90's, they recognized the fact that opportunities for lesser known skaters were limited and worked diligently to develop a competitive venue for these skaters. "I had benefited from the other pro competitions (World Pro in Jaca and U.S. Open) and felt that more skaters should have that type of opportunity," explained Scott Williams. "I also believed that amateur competition rewarded technical expertise heavily which was appropriate in that sporting environment, but there should be a venue that awarded entertainment value and mastery of the art of ice skating.  I don't believe that the first necessarily translates into the latter, but the best professional jobs went to the skaters that excelled in what was then amateur competition and some great performers, entertainers and artists often struggled because they did not receive adequate publicity." The decision to hold the event also had roots in his own love and respect for true professional skating. "In short, I enjoyed what I call 'professional' skating much more and also enjoyed watching it more. A true artistic and entertaining piece performed by a skater with a mastery of skating skills AND performance skills is the apex of the art of ice skating. The rules of competition shouldn't get in the way of the goal, and that was what I set as a standard for The American Open Professional Figure Skating Championships." Williams also very much had fairness and democracy in mind: "At the time I created the American Open there was also a good deal of discussion amongst professional skaters about organizing similarly to the ATP in tennis or PGA in golf. It was an exciting discussion but it never seemed to go anywhere. So, when I started the competition we simultaneously created the Professional Figure Skaters Cooperative (now ProSkaters) so that rules and judging would be handled and overseen by the competitors as members rather than by the producers. It was an effort to make the event as democratic as possible and to also help build interest in joining the pro skaters' organization which I felt was important to the industry."


Judging for this competition was a scoring system "on an individual basis", with specific judges assigned to categories such as jumps, twists, lifts and throws, rapport and timing, profiency and quality, spins, lifts and dance manuevers, footwork and connecting moves, originality and creativity and audience appreciation. Judges included Brian Wright, Oleg Vasiliev, David Santee and Natalie and Wayne Seybold. Technical and artistic programs were skated in addition to a qualifying round that determined which skaters would advance to the general competition. Williams explained that the qualifying round process was designed to be "simple and consistent. The top 3 or 4 skaters always advanced. In the qualifying round they performed just the artistic program. It was meant to be understandable and fair, and not subject to the whims of a panel decision." Prescribed elements were required for technical programs or in the case of ice dance, the rhythm dance and props were only allowed in the show act category and artistic programs.  More freedom (obviously) was given to the skaters in the technical programs than in ISU competition. For instance, instead of a double axel being strictly required in singles programs, skaters were given the option of performing a double axel, double lutz or double flip. Thrill elements like the backflip and adagio moves in pairs were permitted as well. In addition to Williams and Wong, many other people were involved in the organization, coordination and execution of an event of this caliber. "Through the process I had the pleasure of working with a number of passionate individuals and it was such a pleasure to see their enthusiasm. My family all participated substantially and I'm very grateful for their help! They did everything from scoring software to hospitality to legal counsel. Others who participated in major roles include  Susan Austin, Brian Klavano, Tony Kudrna, Ari Zakarian, Sylvia Froescher, Barbara Roles, Phil Valentine, Steve Disson, many fantastic skaters and judges, and skating fans," remembered Williams.


Held from May 30-June 1, 1997, the first American Open Professional Figure Skating Championships were held at the Pickwick Ice Arena in Burbank, California. Competititions were made available for mens, ladies, pairs, ice dancing and a new category, the "show act". On the importance of including a "show act" category, Scott Williams explained "To me, this was the most important distinction to the event and also a statement about what we valued:  entertainment. Ari Zakarian was instrumental in creating excitement and participation in this category and it was always my favorite. I am very proud that the competition helped advance the careers of some of the most entertaining acts of the last decade as that was exactly our goal." In the first "show act" competition ever held, two teams of ice acrobats battled for the top two spots and in the end, Russians Vladimir Besedin and Oleksiy Polishchuk edged Armenians Ari (Zakarian) and Akop (Manoukian) for the title. Also competing in the Show Act category were Doug Mattis, Debbie Park, Chika Maruta, Beth-Anne Duxbury and Lisa Clinton. In the ice dance event, 2 time U.S. Champions Renee Roca and Gorsha Sur earned a cumulative score of 100.06 to place ahead of former World University Games competitors Mimi Wacholder and Colin Sullivan and Tamara Kuchiki and Neale Smull. The pairs event was won by Beth-Anne Duxbury and her partner Byron Darden, who defeated Kim Fowler and Grey Johnson (former Ice-Castle co-owners and coaches) for the win. The men's and ladies competitions included qualifying rounds, where all skaters performed an artistic program and the top 7 skaters advanced to compete in the technical and artistic programs. Skating to Alannah Myles' "Song Instead Of A Kiss", Lisa-Marie Allen narrowly defeated Charlene Wong to win the first American Open ladies title. Finishing third was 1991 World Bronze Medallist in pairs Natasha Kuchiki, who skated to "Whoomp! There It Is!" by Tag Team. Also competing were Great Britain's Susan Jackson Wagner, Tracey Damigella, Natalie Shaby and Lisa Ware. Among the skaters competing in the qualifying rounds and not advancing that year were Amy Jaramillo, Bobbi Brown McRae and Edward Van Campen of Holland. The men who did advance proved to comprise a very strong field. Craig Heath, Axel Mederic, Aren Nielsen, Cameron Medhurst, Vadim Shebeco and Bobby Beauchamp were all within 5 points of the winner of the men's competition, Doug Mattis. With an overall score of 95.82, Doug's technical program "Shine On Your Shoes" featured a gorgeous double axel, double toe/triple toe, triple salchow, Cantilever, a backflip and Russian split jump and his artistic program "The History Of The World" was a tour de force that interpreted music telling the story of the world's evolution through its music. His artistic program, which like his technical program was choreographed by Chris Nolan, featured a a triple salchow, triple toe, double axel, double flip, double toe, delayed single axel, spread eagle into Cantilever, backflip and even a little Kristine W (who I love!). On the American Open experience, Doug stated "during a time when non-former World Team members like me and Rory Flack were fortunate enough to have breakthrough performances at the U.S. Open, Scott Williams' American Open provided me with one more opportunity to show my creativity and gain exposure that I might not otherwise have. I am deeply grateful to him. I owe much of my wonderful pro career to the U.S. Open - and the American Open and Scott Williams. Having that opportunity to be an unknown with a voice - that has inspired me to be dedicated to giving others a megaphone for THEIR voice whenever I can... including MK Young Artists Showcase 4."

Doug Mattis' winning artistic program in 1997


The next year, the competition moved from Burbank, California to the Fox Valley Ice Arena And Fitness Center in Geneva, illinois. The 1998 event was hosted by 1988 Olympic Gold Medallist Brian Boitano, and featured an incredibly deep field of competitors. In only their second performance together, former Olympians (for Italy and the United States with different partners) Lia Trovati and Russ Witherby captured the ice dance title with 68.2 points, edging out Andrea Barnova and Lyndon Johnson (who competed in pairs for Canada at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary), 1991 Canadian Champions Michelle McDonald-Wheeler and Martin Smith, Emmanuelle Balmori and Jean-Pierre Boyer, Laura Gayton and Colin Sullivan and Samantha Liegner and Jonathan Stine. The pairs event was won by 1994 World Champions Evgenia Shishkova and Vadim Naumov, who outranked Canadian adagio team Christine and Dion Beleznay, Rosanna Tovi and Andrew Naylor, Irina Grigorian and Mikhail Panin, Laurilee and Rosstyn Eduardo Gudiño and Kim Fowler and Grey Johnson. In the show act category, hula hooping Irina Grigorian defeated reigning
champions Vladimir Besedin and Oleksiy Polishchuk, her pairs partner Mikhail Panin, Akop Manoukian and Armen Sakien, Debbie Park, Lisa Clinton, Sergei Karelin and Boris Filipov and Greg Wittrock, who brought his drag persona Whorita to the ice. The men's competition was won by 1995 Canadian Champion Sebastien Britten. Placing 2nd through 7th were David Liu, Gzregorz Filipowski, Craig Heath, Petr Barna, Richard Swenning and Igor Lioutikov. Failing to advance from qualifying were Stansilav Jirov, Edward VanCampen, Shin Amano and Marc Alexander. After finishing 6th in the qualifying round, Chrisha Leann Gossard rebounded to win both the technical and artistic programs in the ladies events, placing ahead of Russian Champion Olga Markova, Susan Jackson Wagner, Suzanna Szwed, 1997 Champion Lisa-Marie Allen, Canadian Champion Tracey Wainman and Tracey Damigella. Failing to advance from qualifying were Jennifer Hunt-Nestelberger, Amy Jaramillo, Beth-Anne Duxbury, Larissa Zamotina, Nancy Pluta, Debbie Park, Jennifer Lyles, Natalie Luccaro, Elise Ostiguy, Alicia Narby and Tori Tinari.

Greg Wittrock performing in the Show Act category as Whorita, skating to Donna Summer's "Love To Love You Baby"

The American Open returned to Geneva, Illinois in 2000 with more "big name" skaters as well as many super talented skaters trying to achieve that name and title. The show act competition in 2000 was once again won by 1997 Champions Vladimir Besedin and Oleksiy Polishchuk, who defeated Dan Hollander, Gia Guddat, Violetta Afanassieva, Debbie Park, Akop Manoukian and Armen Sakien, Oksana Anichkina and Michael Kho for the title. The ladies event was won by U.S. Open Champion Rory Flack Burghart. Aimee Marissa Micu, Lisa Bell, Beth-Anne Duxbury, Elin Gardiner Schran, Katherine Healy, Colleen Maguire and Amy Jaramillo Lambert finished 2nd through 8th, respectively. The men's title in 2000 was won by Dan Hollander, who won both the technical and artistic programs to take the title, ahead of Craig Heath, 1994 World Bronze Medallist Viascheslav Zagorodniuk, Matt Kessinger, Shin Amano and Edward VanCampen of Holland. After the withdrawal of Darlin Baker and Andrzej Dostatni, Sarah Simpon and Nicholas Clowers became ice dance champions, and the pairs event was won by 1994 World Champion and her partner Jason Dungjen, who beat 1995 World Champions Radka Kovarikova and Rene Novotny and Svetlana Butova and Maxim Fomin.


The final time the American Open was held was from December 4-5, 2001 in Philadelphia, Pennyslvania. When asked how the event grew from the first year to the last year, Scott Williams explained "It started as just my crazy idea while performing at Charles Schulz's wonderful Santa Rosa Show in December of 1996. It was a steep learning curve and a lot of work to get going and such a relief when skaters actually showed up. It took a lot of encouragement to get them to participate but I think everyone had a good time and that helped the event continue. The depth of skaters increased every year and it was very competitive! We started at Pickwick Ice Arena in Burbank, California and then we went to the Fox Valley Ice Arena in Geneva, Illinois for the next two events. In 2001, Steve Disson helped the event expand and move to the Comcast Arena in Philadelphia and get coverage on Comcast CN8." Sponsored by Motrin in its final year and again hosted by Brian Boitano, the format changed slightly. With more higher profile skaters added to the roster of competitors, not all skaters were required to compete in the mens and ladies qualifying rounds. Instead, the top 3 in each of these rounds advanced to compete against invited skaters. The show act category was once again hugely popular, and Vladimir Besedin and Oleksiy Polishchuk won their third and final title here. Violetta Afanasieva and her future husband Pete Dack finished 2nd, followed by Victor Baryshevtsev, Dan Hollander, Debbie and Lee Park and Gia Guddat. With programs to "Dr. Zhivago" and "Last Of The Mohicans", World Champions Angelika Krylova and Oleg Ovsiannikovv easily won the ice dance competition ahead of the team of Jones and ortogero. Skating to music from Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" and Ravel's "Bolero", World Professional Champions Elena Leonova and Andrei Khvalko placed ahead of Canadian medallists Jodeyne Higgins and Sean Rice and Rosanna Tovi and Andrei Bannikov to win the pairs event. Among the men, it was 1994 Olympic Gold Medallist who won the overall competition, skating to "Georgian Variations" and "Prince Of Egypt". Winning the artistic program and finishing second was Steven Cousins. Also competing were Craig Heath, Viascheslav Zagorodniuk, David Liu, Evgeny Martynov, Dan Hollander and Masakazu Kagiyama of Japan. Failing to advance from qualifying were Shin Amano, Sergei Minaev and Edward VanCampen. Failing to advance among the ladies were Roselle Sousanna, Katherine Healy, Amy Jaramillo Lambert, Amber Leigh Anderson and Miriam Gelfand Pereira. Additionally, Hanae Yokoya, Lisa Bell, Donna Lewandowski, Joy Thomas all withdrew prior to the competition. 9 ladies ultimately competed in the ladies event and there was certainly a great deal of depth to the field. Despite not winning either the technical or artistic program, the fabulous Nicole Bobek proved the most consistent overall of the competitors and won the ladies title, with programs to "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" and a Beatles medley. Winning the artistic program but hampered by a 5th place finish in the technical program, Rory Flack Burghart finished 2nd overall, followed by Lucinda Ruh, Josee Chouinard, Caryn Kadavy, Junko Yaginuma, 1995 World Champion Lu Chen, Charlene Wong and Yukiko Kawasaki.



After the 2001 event, Scott Williams and Turtle Island Productions found it was not financially possible to continue with the event. "I'd love to hold the event again, but since our last American Open in December of 2001 have not found a financially viable environment for it," explained Williams. He also explained that he believes many factors explain why professional skating is in the position it's in today. "I miss the good professional competitions and shows and I think that with an audience they could have continued to evolve into better and better entertainment but there are many factors which make it unlikely that we'll ever see a separate professional competitive arena for skating again. I think the elimination of 'amateur' skating also killed the best of 'professional' skating. Without professional competitions there is less motivation for professional skaters to reach their potential and create new and interesting programs. But to me that should only be one aspect of skating entertainment, as a solo can only go so far. We have been far outpaced by the world of dance and hopefully in time we will wake up as an industry and understand that doing the same thing over and over is not interesting.  Professional skating used to be innovative and exciting. That is missing now and I hope it can happen again in the future even if pro competitions do not." When asked to recall his favourite performance over the years at the American Open, Scott Williams could not pick just one: "There are quite a few for me: Vladimir and Oleksiy going head-to-head with Ari and Akop in the first Show Act event in 1997. Doug Mattis and Craig Heath competing so strongly for that same year's title. Seeing Elena & Andrei perform their Bolero program in 2001 was amazing, as well as Rory skating to Aretha that year. I was very impressed with Sebastien Britten's winning performance, and Lisa-Marie Allen was always one of my favorites. Irina Grigorian was fantastic to have in the event and always a showstopper." After reading the first two parts to this blog on open pro competitions, Scott talked about the main differences between the Jaca World Pro, the U.S. Open and the American Open events, he himself having won the titles in Jaca and at the U.S. Open previously and created this event. He explained that there was no real connection between the U.S. Open and the American Open beginning. "It was just that the era of professional skating competitions was ending and we were doing our best to keep it alive." He had great admiration for the other two events: "I was an admirer of what Pablo did for professional skaters by holding the World Pro in Jaca.  I also appreciated the U.S. Open and its excellent success here in the States. I tried to emulate what I thought worked best, but create an even more 'open' atmosphere that empowered the participants. As a professional skater I was very ambitious and these were the only competitive options available to me at first and doing well at them made it possible for me to participate in other competitions. That was the motivation to create another opportunity with the American Open and to give other skaters the opportunity I enjoyed. For that reason I tend to see more similarities in the important aspects than differences in some details."

Once again I would like to offer very special thanks to P.J. Kwong, Doug Mattis, Carole Shulman, Scott Williams, Simone Grigorescu-Alexander, Lorna Brown, Anita Hartshorn, Debi Gold, Craig Heath, Georgene Troseth, Pedro Lamelas from Hielo Español, Peter Morrissey from British Ice Teachers Association, Naya Zamborain Mason and others who made these articles and research possible!

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Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Interview With Nanoha Sato


A former competitor at the Japanese National Championships, Nanoha Sato is a professional skater and university student based in Japan and is one of the very popular competitors in the fourth edition of Young Artists Showcase 4. I was fortunate enough to have chance to interview Nanoha about her accomplishments, choreography, opportunities in Japan, YAS and more:

Q: Where are you currently living and working and how did you first hear of Young Artists Showcase?

A: I am currently in Tokyo, Japan. I am a student at International Christian University. I heard of YAS from Grassroots To Champions summer camp 3 years ago. 

Q: What do you consider your greatest achievement as a skater/choreographer?

A: My greatest successful memory was the competition in Finland after a recovery from pneumonia. I do not work as a choreographer yet. I do help out many skaters, and I always feel achieved and grateful when other coaches ask me to choreograph their student's programs.


Q: What made you personally decide to participate in YAS (Young Artists Showcase)?

A: I do not have choreography opportunities in Tokyo. This was one chance I could do some skating choreography.

Q: What makes YAS so important to figure skating right now? What can it help do to evolve the sport?

A: YAS is important because it gives choreography opportunities for people who does not have many opportunities. Also, critiques help because once being professional, I do not think there are very many opportunities to get advice from people.


Q: When it comes to creating choreography, what components of creating a new piece do you find to be the most fun and the most challenging?

A: It depends on the type of choreography. After entering YAS, I realized choreography could be very different depending on the type of choreography. Competition programs are the most challenging to make it special, because many people skate to similar music and similar choreography in order to do their jumps. For ice shows, you have to be able to make programs that attract any kind of audience. However, this choreography contest, we must concentrate in telling a story, either abstract or directly. I learned that it is all about doing the atypical skating, not about fitting and doing the best for the general public. In other words, you have to take a lot more risk.

Q: If you were to create an original piece of choreography for any 3 skaters in the world, who would they be, what would the piece be about and what would you choose as your music and costumes for the skaters?

A: Without considering time, I would love to choreograph for Yuka Sato, since she has been my idol and my choreographer. I would love to also choreograph for Yuna Kim. However, there are many skating friends I would love to choreograph for, since while skating with them every day, I sometimes imagine the most suitable program for them.


Q: Who do you believe are the greatest or most inspiring choreographers that figure skating has ever seen? What about the greatest or most inspiring skaters?

A: I was always inspired by Pasquale. I loved watching him choreograph Daisuke Takahashi's program when I trained in Detroit.

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

A: Most people do not know that I was seriously into skiing before I started skating.


Q: What are your favourite book and your favourite song?

A: My favourite author is Sidney Sheldon. I don't have a favourite song... Longest favourite artist is probably Ingrid Michaelson. Favourite poem is "Fiddler Jones" by Edgar Lee Masters

Q: If you could pick just one word to describe yourself, what would it be and why?

A: Vivid. All of its meanings fit me. I love bright orange. I am often told to be very lively and spontaneous. I feel like anything I think or feel is very strong.

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