Sunday, 5 July 2015

Interview With Robin Cousins


In the two plus years I've been authoring this little figure skating blog that could, I've interviewed hundreds of skaters from all around the world and one question I have asked in almost every single interview was "who are your three favourite skaters?" I find it extremely appropriate that the subject of THIS interview - which I intend to be the final standalone one as I focus the blog's attention strictly to researching figure skating history - is one of MY OWN three favourite skaters. Robin Cousins' credentials on paper are unquestionably impressive - Olympic Gold Medallist, three time World Medallist, European Champion, British Champion and World Professional Champion - but it is that undefinable sense of magic that he has created in every single one of his performances that makes him that 'skater's skater' that you just can't take your eyes off of. I want to thank my friend and former interview victim Doug Mattis for connecting Robin and I for this once in a lifetime chance to talk figure skating at length with a living legend. You're going to love this one! I guarantee it!

Q: I want to start by talking about your "amateur" career, which was nothing short of spectacular. You won four British titles, the free skate at three World Championships, the 1980 European title and of course, in 1980 the Olympic gold medal. Reflecting on it all now, what moments stand out as both the most challenging and the most cherished?

A: The beginning and the end! I remember standing on the podium as National novice champion when I was twelve. Even at that age, it was the sense of personal accomplishment I was most proud of. I didn't like 'competing' and couldn't bring myself to watch any of my competitor's skates so I had been taught to just compete against my last performance. It was never about beating someone else, but I was about 'pleasing' the audience and the judges and that never changed! The pressure coming into the World Championships in 1980 post-Europeans and Olympics was big but Carlo and Christa Fassi made sure I kept level headed and focused on the job at hand. I remember post-Olympics making a statement that, after the mistake (the triple loop) in Lake Placid, I wanted to go out with the perfect long. I already knew I would be done after Worlds. After Jan Hoffmann had skated, Carlo had done the calculations in his head and made the decision to tell me that I couldn't win. It was pure honesty and he knew me well enough to know I would be okay with that. He sent me off to start my long with the words "Give the audience what they came to see. Enjoy it." That's exactly what I did. I added jumps, got the standing ovation, another World medal and the reward of having done exactly what I set out to do a few weeks earlier!

Robin Cousins as Frank-N-Furter
Q: Since turning professional following the 1980 World Championships, your skating and career evolved from something fantastic into something fabulous. You set Guinness World Records, won a host of professional competitions, toured with your own performance company in the eighties, choreographed for an incredible range of shows, tours and skaters, commentated for BBC sport, starred in a range of theatre productions and acted as head judge on ITV's Dancing On Ice. What moments have been the most incredible to you since turning professional?

A: I have been incredibly blessed with the variety of work I have been able to do... so many great opportunities on and off the ice. I always knew there was going to be someone else after me who had an Olympic gold medal so I was never going to sit back and expect things to come my way. You have to allow yourself to be ready and available to try new things. No one could take away my history on the ice. Whilst the medal opened many doors, I was more than happy to either find the key and open a few more myself or be prepared to bang them down if necessary and then suffer the consequences! I love skating on theatre stages because they make you use your spatial awareness to be sparing with steps and movement with every piece of choreography serving a purpose, rules I have taken back onto larger ice surfaces. The intimacy of theatre after huge arenas is intoxicating and I think my comfort in the big spaces helped me transition to the theatre. Where two thousand seats freaks out an actor, it is intimate to me! My mantra for quite some time has been "All they can do is say 'no!'" My first real theatre audition was for Rogers and Hammerstein's "Cinderella" to be staged at the MUNY in St. Louis. Having got the job as ice choreographer, I was suddenly asked to sing for the director and there I was, my first time singing on stage and getting to skate as well, the dream combination. I could never have planned it. It paved the way for a future I couldn't resist. The cast were all Broadway superstars and my Dad in the show was played by Adolph Green who, with writing partner Betty Comden, had written "Singin' In The Rain" for Gene Kelly. You know, I was all over him for stories of his numerous times working with my hero! It was Adolph and his wife Phyllis Newman (who played my mother) who encouraged my to continue pursuing theatre work. I was asked to audition for CATS. I was in London, in front of the producers and full creative team. I had two options: freak out or embrace the fact I was getting an opportunity that many who have trained all their lives in musical theatre never have. I got 'the call' a day later and then spent three years on and off playing Munkustrap with that amazing show. It was my fist time as part of an ensemble and I loved it. I was happy to see the end of all the make-up only for my next part to be Frank-N-Furter in the London revival production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show! Another big highlight came in the summer of 2012, when I got spend my days at the Olympic Park as an Olympic Ambassador and mentor for Team Great Britain and at night was on stage as Billy Flynn in Chicago. It was pretty surreal!


Q: Just incredible! Speaking of incredible, how did you learn your incredible backflip?

A: I learned the backflip on the floor (in the back garden of the Wylie household pre-Olympics) with the help of my brother who was a sports coach. Being very gymnastic and loving to cartwheel and handspring helped! Taking it to the ice happened in Santa Rosa during one of Sparky's (Charles Schultz') ice shows with the help of the great Skippy Baxter. Being on the small ice meant there was no room for second thoughts. I had learned on the floor that tucking was not an option as I would feel like I was skating and unintentionally add rotation! The layout was the solution. As no one had even done it that way, it gave me even more a reason to try. Using my height and speed - lots of speed across the ice - it developed quickly and was in the show two days later.


Q: How did you come up with the concept and choreography for On The Frozen Pond? Your interpretation of music, expression, timing, slide spiral... I've got to be honest it just gives me chills.

A: Thank you for that. That's exactly what I wanted to elicit from the performance. I wanted to do something different and unique for my final season as a competitor at the World Professional Championships. I had made sure each year I was able to represent a different side to me as a performer and I think the various videos from my years in that event give a good overview of who I am. I have always said that you give the audience exactly what they want, just not in the way they would expect to get it! I had the idea and the part of the Wordsworth poem I wanted to use. After I had the base choreography set to a demo of the spoken words, I did the soundscape with Judd Miller (skater Lisa Carey's husband) and we let the words indicate what went where. I knew how the movement needed to flow. When I recorded the final words over the soundscape, I knew it would only take me a few hours to finish the choreography. It's still is one of my favourites too.


A: Speaking of favourites, if I had to pick just one of your performances as my absolute favourite, it would have to be your "Falling In Love With You Again" program. What programs both of yours and that you have choreographed with others are you proudest of?

A: My favourite was "Satan Takes A Holiday". I had no idea how taking it from the theatre stage to an arena setting would work and I certainly wasn't ready for the reaction. It's probably my most popular pro routine and again, needed to and did exactly what I wanted. In my show, it kicked off the finale. For other skaters, I very proud of taking a great skater, Denise Biellmann, out of her comfort zone with the aria from "La Wally". We had a wonderful few years building up a relationship that allowed her to grow and she was the most disciplined skater I have EVER worked with. I had to beg her not to do every jump and spin every time the music went on when we were creating programs!

Q: What do you think your coach Carlo Fassi would think of the state of figure skating today?

A: He loved to teach and had such passion for his students. I'd like to think he'd do what all the great coaches have done and that is to adapt to the times without compromising his basic coaching principles.


Q: What do YOU think of the current state of competitive skating and what would you change if it were up to you?

A: I'd get rid of the grey areas. Either you land on one foot backwards on a running edge or you don't. You stand up or fall over. I believe in rewarding and encouraging youngsters for 'having a go' at the juvenile and intermediate levels but you shouldn't be rewarded for 'having a go' at the Olympics. By all means, take the risk but the consequences need definition. Either you do it and get the credit or you don't do it and don't get credit. I worry that there's too much shorthand going on just to get the instant result. My words to anyone who loves and knows what the foundation of our sport is - and if you don't know, get out! - and that's to simply teach people to skate and know that the IJS is the system by which your students are judged. It's not the system you should use to teach! I hate when you ask a skater to do a left inside counter and they look blankly until you show them and they say "oh, I know that step!" Obviously you don't! They do things because they can and not because they know how. Teach them HOW and more importantly... WHY!

Q: If you could offer one piece of advice to all skaters, what would it be?

A: Trust your instincts and never do anything you wouldn't be happy to watch someone else doing. Learn by making mistakes. Just don't make the same one a second time!


Q: Earlier this year, the sport lost one of its greatest icons... your former competitor Toller Cranston. What is your favourite Toller story?

A: There are so many! A favourite Tollerism that was most often heard in rehearsals would have to be "Where's the coffee? Daddy needs fuel if he has to give birth to another double axel!"

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

A: Only three? Not fair! These picks are exceptional as I borrowed liberally from all three of them with no apology! John Curry, for showing the world why you should never be anything but yourself as a performer and not be pigeon holed into conformity. Toller Cranston, for putting a kaleidoscope of colour into the simplest of movements and for never leaving room for more! Janet Lynn... Oh, that half the skaters in the world could perform with such pure joy and natural emotion. Just thinking of her name has made me smile! But then there's Sergei Chetverukhin, Ron Shaver, Moiseeva and Minenkov, Torvill and Dean, Michelle Kwan, Scott Hamilton, Gordeeva and Grinkov... can I continue?

Q: You can do whatever you want! I do have another question though. What is one thing most people don't know about you?

A: I don't like team sports!


Q: What is the biggest life-lesson that figure skating has taught you?

A: A performance of any kind must never start in fear and end in relief.

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 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.

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