Source: Fantasia and Fugue (March 5, 2013)
by Jacquelyn Thayer
For London, Ontario dance instructor and choreographer Jennifer Swan, the experience of watching two-time World and Olympic champion ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir compete the work she’s created with them can sometimes be as nerve-wracking as it is for any devoted skating fan.
“It’s fun watching it,” she says. “I enjoy it tremendously, I love watching them skate. I find them to be quite breathtaking, actually, but I’m nervous when I wear the choreographic hat. I’m watching to see that things happen musically, and that certain things are as we intended. And so I think my breath is held to a certain extent,” she laughs, “and I’m always more excited, I think, when they’re finished than during.”
The competitive nature of ice dance may keep it from becoming a true art form, but even so, Swan considers the value of aesthetic achievement. “It’s not about winning as much as executing your intent,” she notes about the team’s aim for next week’s World Figure Skating Championships. It’s this more personally-directed focus, in turn, that she believes is the greater key to on-ice success.
Swan, who this year has received notice for her work on the team’s modern Carmen free dance, was initially approached to help construct both of Virtue and Moir’s season programs. Due to time constraints and Carmen’s particular intricacy, her efforts honed in on the free dance during the preseason and Grand Prix series. After December’s Grand Prix Final, where Virtue and Moir finished second, Swan and the team shifted their attention to reworking the short dance - a waltz and polka set to Sir Anthony Hopkins’ “And the Waltz Goes On” - which had received mixed reviews.
“The bottom line was it wasn’t reading as well as they wanted it to read,” she says. “And I think there was some inconsistency as to what the message behind it was, choreographically. The message for Carmen was very, very clear, and I think with anything, when we have clarity in what we’re trying to convey, we communicate it typically much better.”
The group worked to “redefine” the dance’s message over the Christmas holidays, and Swan is pleased with the outcome, including Virtue and Moir’s ability to move from the lighter expression of the short program to the darker modes of the free.
“I think that it’s important artistically that you can show contrast,” she observes, “and I think the strength of Scott and Tessa lies in the fact that they can truly approach their art through a variety of different characterizations and that those characterizations actually can find a home inside their body, their physicality.”
This ability, Swan notes, is especially prized in the traditional dance world, and she believes the couple’s strengths as dancers help set them apart from their immediate competitors.
“They are definitely more fluid on the ice,” she says. “They have a much more symbiotic relationship between the two of them that they capture, and I feel that ultimately they are stronger communicators on the ice.”
And Swan may be in a better position than many to assess them on such a level. The connection began in Virtue’s childhood, with the young dancer studying ballet at Swan’s London studio. It was Swan who encouraged her student to audition for the National Ballet of Canada, leading first to participation in the school’s summer program and subsequently a longer term offer that Virtue famously declined in favor of her on-ice partnership. As the partners progressed on the competitive scene and Virtue’s time commitment shifted ever more firmly to ice dance, Swan was herself tackling new endeavors. Her choreographic interests extended into body work and the science of dance and movement, leading to work with the University of Toronto’s programs in voice and opera studies.
Ironically, these new ventures would reunite them in 2009, after Virtue’s early struggles with Chronic Exertional Compartment Syndrome brought her back to London for a period. “When she was back,” says Swan, “she came to me for some physio, and it was during that time that we were speaking about her next piece, and she had said, ‘Would you be interested in working with Scott and I in the studio?’ So initially we did not work on ice. Initially, we worked in my dance studio, working on movement. And it was fabulous.”
Swan, along with Virtue and Moir and their coaching team, aimed to create something novel, distinct from the duo’s prior programs as well as the classical or theatrical approach common within the sport. “Pink Floyd certainly was the brainchild of the conception,” she says. “It was the one that we were going to take some risks with. I think we’ve taken more risks, ultimately, with Carmen, but the idea that we would just do something completely outside the box was exciting.” The goal behind the program was simple – “movement that developed a story,” a contrast to a more traditional narrative-first approach, and one that would use a relatively obscure musical selection.
Pleased with both product and experience, the group aimed to work together again in the future. Circumstances finally permitted a reunion last year, with Swan tapped in May to assist with the couple’s 2012-13 programs. After spending the early part of summer in her work with the Centre for Opera Studies in Italy, she joined the team in July, reworking the free dance that had been assembled so far.
Swan has nothing but praise for the process. “It is a team,” she says of her work with Virtue and Moir’s coaches Marina Zoueva, Johnny Johns, and Oleg Epstein. “So the whole team does look, and if we really feel ‘Oh, I’m not sure about that,’ we all stand at the boards and just chat, and we decide. That kind of collaborative work is just fabulous. You have a group of colleagues that are prepared to exchange and throw ideas out, and honest ideas that have integrity.”
The program’s development has presented many a challenge, particularly in its conflicts with the requirements and restrictions of a competitive senior free dance. Elements comprise the better part of a four-plus minute program. It has been Swan and the group’s goal to transform the effect of technical requirement into seamless dance.
“What we have tried to do, and I think what is exciting and what people are responding to,” she notes, “is that we have not focused on the elements, but rather the connective tissue between the elements. The connective tissue meaning, when other teams perhaps may be skating from element to element, our focus has been that we’re actually dancing through and we happen to have elements.”
This approach means transitioning to those required elements with what Swan refers to as “strong choreographic moments,” rendering the program uniquely challenging in a way not reflected in the technical marks.
“Let’s take it in gymnastics, for example,” she says. “It’s one thing to show a back walkover. It’s another thing to be turning and spinning and doing an intricate arm pattern just before the back walkover, and it doesn’t change the element of the back walkover, but it certainly changes your ability to move into it.”
Although both short and free dance have remained unchanged since February’s Four Continents Championships, a number of even basic adjustments have been necessary over each piece’s evolution. “You need to be able to respond to when movement becomes easier and speed changes,” she says, “and how you fill that time. So sometimes a program accelerates on its own and all of those things have to continue to be revamped.” And this can create its own issues: “Any time you tweak it, something else presents itself. So we would just be ensuring that anything that we’ve modified hasn’t presented a new challenge.”
Too, Swan as a studio choreographer has confronted some new challenges in this arena - literally.
“Things that we were falling in love with [on the floor] and thought would just be spectacular have absolutely no impact,” she observes. “The other thing, too, is that where they skate it in the round – that’s challenging. But although it’s in the round, the judges all sit in one direction. That’s a really interesting choreographic problem. So I’m always impressed when I see the layout, the format, other people have chosen, because I appreciate that they’ve probably gone through some intellectual struggle to figure out what would be the best, and I think that’s probably a bit of a crapshoot, if you will.”
Yet the challenges that can limit possibilities can also, in Swan’s view, expand them. “Although it can be frustrating from time to time, you certainly are pushed artistically to still be able to find an artistic way to get your point across with some of the obvious restrictions in place guiding you. And that’s fun!”
But for as much as the group has aimed to challenge the sport’s current boundaries with Carmen, Swan also recognizes the potential pitfalls of avoiding the safe route.
“When you don’t play it safe,” she says, “you’re taking risks, and the response to the risk is different. It’s a very traditional world that they skate in, with long historical roots with things being done a certain way, so I think whenever you want to be the cutting edge, then that plays out two ways. Some people are thrilled by that, just thrilled to be taken down a different path, and other people are nervous about where that direction goes.”
For the time being, Swan thinks the risks have paid off for much of the audience. But she takes issue with certain other responses to the program.
“I think that some of the press has misconstrued what audiences are interpreting with Carmen,” she says. “I think it’s easy to suggest that it’s sexy and steamy. But I think it’s unfortunate that the press have stopped at such a shallow point and really have not been able to capture in their critiques what it is they’re watching. And I don’t think it’s because it hasn’t been conveyed – I think it has been conveyed. I think that’s just a quick, glib soundbite. You know, ‘they’re older and they’re really sexy.’”
While the risks and rewards of her work so far have led Swan to a greater interest in ice dance, she’s chosen to focus primarily on Virtue and Moir’s efforts while still in the process of refining their programs. At January’s Canadian Figure Skating Championships in Mississauga, however, she did take notice of positive trends among other couples.
“You can certainly see that there is an intent to create, I think, more complex, more interesting stories and I think some teams were certainly more successful than not with that,” she says. “One of the elements that I love is how woven the music is for Scott and Tessa, and the couple that placed fourth [Alexandra Paul and Mitchell Islam] – they had some beautiful music, and what I enjoy is when we stick with the same genre of music and find those musical moments in a piece as opposed to three different soundbites that are all different,” she notes. “They definitely have a stronger dance flow, I would say, than others. Without question.”
Swan sees room for artistic growth among the Canadian teams, noting a reliance for some on that use of disparate musical cuts and a greater focus on technical elements than overall effect. She also, however, thinks there’s great potential to see that progress realized. “[Paul and Islam] were a team that stood out to me as sort of challenging some of those traditional elements, and I felt that they had a good energy between the two of them. But they all had a lot of merit and I think there’s a tremendous amount of talent.”
Given her attraction to the particular artistic challenges presented by ice dance, Swan hopes to extend her work in the sport.
“Marina has asked me to work with a few others on her team,” she notes, a process for which she’s beginning to prepare. “And I would be very open to working in this venue, in the future, again, with other people. I’m interested in working with people who are interested in dancing their skating programs, essentially. Who are interested in imbuing their skating programs with dance and communicating messages.”
But she is also excited to continue her work with Virtue and Moir into the Olympic season – though she’ll have to remain mum for now on any program details.
“It’s lovely to win another Olympic medal, and that’s a goal,” she remarks. “But beyond that, they want to be ambassadors for their sport, for their craft, and I think they’re very passionate about speaking to what they think is an exciting element, the essence of what they do. So I think people can play things safe and ensure their place, but that is not what they want to do. They are young, they’re enthusiastic, they are talented, and they have voices.”