Interview With Lance Vipond

Photograph of Canadian figure skating choreographer Lance Vipond

Five years ago, I was going through a rough time in my life and decided to leave town and spend a year with good friends who lived in Ontario. Brantford, Ontario to be exact. Although the small city's claims to fame are being the birthplace of hockey legend Wayne Gretzky and hometown of telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell, I didn't exactly find it to be a happening spot. Coming from a city and province rich in culture, history and a flourishing arts scene, it was kind of a culture shock. That said, I met some amazing people and definitely had some good times. Little did I know when I was there, Brantford played host to one of Canadian skating's best kept secrets... choreographer Lance Vipond. A former national and international competitor himself and a talented musician, Vipond is currently the choreographer of Canadian National Champion Kaetlyn Osmond and has worked with a host of other very talented skaters over the years including Olympic and World Champions Jamie Sale and David Pelletier. Although he prefers being behind the scenes, Lance took the time to talk about his theatre and skating backgrounds, Kaetlyn Osmond and the good and not so good things going on in the sport right now:

Q: Looking at your own skating career, what were your proudest accomplishments? Your biggest frustrations?

A: My proudest accomplishments would have to be being named to the Canadian National team, representing my country at the 1991 World Junior Championships and winning the 1989 Oslo Piruetten, which was my very first international competition. These were all huge goals of mine as a kid growing up in Ontario. I had dreamed that achieving these things would open up a pathway to the world beyond my limited small town experiences and, indeed, they did turn out to be stepping stones to many exciting adventures and to finding myself as a person and as an artist. My biggest frustration was that my perfectionism, topped off with crippling anxiety and a huge fear of failure kept me from achieving my full potential as a competitive skater. I was a rock star in practice but could never actually put down the kind of performances that I wanted to in a competitive setting. In hindsight, I now know that I am just not a very competitive person and that my true love lies in the day to day work - the process, the creating - and that to me, the end result is not what ultimately motivates me.

Q: You studied music and theatre in Edmonton and England. How did your training in the performing arts make you look at figure skating with a different perspective than you had during your own skating career?

A: I learned so much... theatre school was were I really found myself and came to terms with the fact that I did, in fact, have something valuable to say as an artist. When I returned to skating it was from the perspective of an actor, a storyteller. I found that skating programs could become so much more richly textured and emotionally complex by keeping a character or storyline in mind while creating and performing the choreography. I find that playing a character allows the skater to be more daring, makes them feel less inhibited and can, perhaps, push them to do things that they may not feel comfortable or brave enough to do otherwise. I also realized that there should be no superfluous movement in a skating program... that every move should have a purpose in the telling of the story and in the expressing of the piece of music that the skater is using. To sum it up, I came back with the idea that competitive skating could be more than just a bunch of pretty moves connecting technical elements and could, in fact, be a way of telling stories and making human connections with the audience and the judges.

Q: As a choreographer, you have worked with Olympic Gold Medallists Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, Vaughn Chipeur, Joey Russell and of course, the reigning Canadian Ladies Champion Kaetlyn Osmond. What is your relationship with Kaetlyn like and how do you think she has really grown as a skater with her new programs this season?

A: Kaetlyn and I have a wonderful relationship. We laugh...a lot. We are friends, we are both artists, we both like to work hard and I think she knows that I am someone that she can confide in at any time for any reason. After 8 years together, we have a very easy and intuitive way of communicating on the ice. I know what works for her and what her strengths and weaknesses are as a skater and as a performer. We have a very strong bond built on mutual admiration and trust. She knows that I have her back and that I will always do whatever it takes to make sure she is comfortable and 100% ready to take her programs in front of an audience. Kaetlyn is so talented and has such a huge personality. We push each other to be better and I know that I have grown tremendously as a choreographer by having her as a student. This year has been challenging due to injuries and other setbacks, however I have recently noticed that her basic skating skills have greatly improved this year giving the programs more of an open and airy feel. There is a newfound ease to the way that she covers the ice. I think this makes this year's programs look less rushed and much more grounded, especially the long program. There is a new maturity that I see emerging in her attention to detail that I am very excited for people to see.

Kaetlyn's short program at the 2013 World Championships, choreographed by Lance 

Q: Who are your 3 favourite skaters of all time and why?

A: Gordeeva and Grinkov... they took me to another world when I watched them skate. The fluidity and the otherworldly qualities of their movement, not to mention the deep and real connection that they shared on the ice inspired me greatly. I remember trying to copy her double axel technique in my local rink after watching the '88 Olympics. They, to me, were the epitome of beauty and grace on ice and what I aspired to be. Kurt Browning... the iconic programs, the magic feet, the biggest, most authentic personality to ever grace our sport... he’s one of a kind and I never tire of watching him perform. John Curry... perfection, lines, musicality... fearless in the way he moved his body. He always looked so comfortable in his skin out on the ice... something that I always wished that I could be.

Q: What do you think was the greatest song ever written? The greatest movie ever made?

A: "Imagine" by John Lennon. Too many movies to mention! Brokeback Mountain kills me every time I watch it. Those shirts hanging in the closet... heart wrenching.

Q: Who would be your dream person to choreograph a program for and what would the music and theme of the program be?

A: Akiko Suzuki. She skates from her heart. She is a woman, not a girl. She has lived a life, and not an easy one. She brings these experiences and this knowing of the human condition onto the ice. She has a depth that the other skaters don’t have. I feel like she bares her soul every time she skates which I find to be brave and completely mesmerizing. I have an emotional experience when i watch her that I don’t get with any other skater of today's generation... with the exception of Kaetlyn of course. As far as the music and theme, that would be a collaboration between the two of us. She needs something that she can connect to and that speaks to what it is that she wants to share so it would be important that she has a ton of input.

Q: What do you perceive as the single biggest problem facing figure skating right now and how would you propose to solve it?

A: The lack of personalities. Where are the Katarina Witt's, the Kurt Browning's? I see the same handful of skaters over and over again all year long and the majority of them are so focused on adding up the points while they skate their programs that they never allow who they are to peek through. There's a disconnect for me as an audience member. I can appreciate that what they are doing is incredibly difficult but the lack of emotional connection leaves me cold. I want someone to get out there and bust through, grab me by the throat and demand that I watch. I want to know who these skaters are! It seems to me that most of them don't want to show me. I sit and watch people do amazing things with their bodies but in the end I just don’t care. I want the art to return... the artist to return... but I'm not sure if that could every happen again with the technical demands put upon the skaters of today.

Q: You've had the opportunity to judge YAS (Young Artists Showcase), which is having its Finals in less than a month. Of the four skaters who have qualified for the live finals, who impresses you the most? What do you think is so ultimately important about an event like this for young choreographers?

Q: Zabato impressed me a great deal... such creativity and talent! His pieces looked less like skating and more like performance art. So young and fresh and very innovative, he has a style that is completely his own and his work stays true to who he is. This contest and others like it are such amazing opportunities for young choreographers to get their names and their work out in to the public arena. It's tough to break in to the world of skating choreography. It takes talent, years of work and then a lucky break to get name recognition. It's great that these kids can use the internet to introduce themselves and their talents to the community. Hopefully, they get some work from the experience. I think that if the skaters of today had a larger pool of choreographers to draw from we would end up with less homogyny. Skaters today use a handful of the same choreographers and inevitably end up looking alike.

Q: You skated a lead role with the National Ice Theatre Of Canada, an ensemble group that was based in Edmonton in a musical play on ice that was performed in conjunction with the Edmonton International Fringe Festival. I've done a show here at the Atlantic Fringe Festival myself! It was over 10 years ago now but I know how important Fringe is in bringing new, interesting and fresh performance art to greater audiences. What ultimately became of this performance group and why don't you feel that the popularity of performance art skating such as in groups like the American Ice Theatre, Ice-Semble, The Ice Theatre Of New York and even YAS has become something that's really developed moreso here north of the border?

A: I think that the National Ice Theatre Of Canada (NITC) is still operating, although they may be in a dormant phase at the moment. I found my time with NITC and with ITNY to be very beneficial to me as a performer by expanding my perception of what skating could be and to get me thinking outside of the box. I think that there are not many people out there who have the means to put a group like this together. It takes a lot of work and a lot of passion... and then there have to be good ideas. Most of the skaters/ex-skaters that I know in Canada are busy in the competitive world, either coaching or judging. It seems to be the draw for most people. I greatly admire the few who have put themselves out there to put on skating events that fall outside of the box. It takes bravery and vision and I applaud them and hope that more of these talented people come forward in the future.

Q: Are you planning on making the trip to Sochi for the 2014 Winter Olympics?

A: Nope, but I'll be cheering everyone on from in front of the TV!

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

A: What I look like! I rarely go to competitions... in fact, I've only watched Kaetlyn compete live three times. This goes back to my preference of staying behind the scenes and my enjoyment of the day to day creative process over the final outcome. Over the last couple of years, my name has been mentioned more than ever before on television and in print but I'd be willing to bet that the majority of skating fans wouldn't be able to pick me out of a police line-up.

Q: Where do you see yourself in 10 years with relation to the sport?

A: I think I'll still be involved in some way. Who knows where the sport will be in 10 years? I hope that it is thriving and if I'm still needed, I'm sure I'll still be here sharing my creativity and helping skaters find and release their inner artists.

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