May 4, 2011
Tribute to Claudia Leistner
Ladies' figure skating, like fashion and music, reached a certain level of excess and bombast in the 1980s: the hair was big, the costumes were floofy and glittery, programs were stuffed chock-full of music cuts and the duo of Jutta Müller and Katarina Witt were stomping all over the field.
As such, it is not terribly surprising that one of my favorite guilty pleasure skaters was the product of this particular period of time. Although few remember Claudia Leistner as well as her East German counterpart Katarina Witt these days, Ms. Leistner managed to worm her way into my heart by consistently being an obstinate, wrong-headed, ridiculous and absolutely wonderful hot mess. It is certainly no mean feat to outdo Jutta Müller when it comes to bizarre choreography, but Ms. Leistner (and whoever her choreographer was) managed to do exactly that, bless her soul.
Ms. Leistner first broke into the upper echelons of the senior scene by winning a silver medal at the 1983 World Championships, but the most illustrious moments of her career came after that. One of her most memorable programs was her long program at the 1988 Olympics. It is also emblematic of many of the worst trends present in 1980s ladies figure skating.
Despite skating to the music of Lawrence of Arabia (well, for part of the program, at least), Ms. Leistner garbed herself in hot pink and silver sequins. The big hair and the packaging that made her look a well-preserved 43, give or take a few years, was of course de rigueur.
However, the construction and choreography of the program itself actually exceeded the cognitive dissonance caused by Ms. Leistner's costume and what was ostensibly the theme of her program. Like any self-respecting program from the 1980s, Ms. Leistner's LP had multiple music cuts, but the sheer amount of different music cuts crammed into the program was probably unprecedented. The program started out with the familiar and sweeping main theme of Lawrence of Arabia....then some of the lesser-known parts of what I assume was still the score of Lawrence of Arabia....then modulated into something that sounded vaguely Spanish...then....I have no idea. All that can be discerned is that if the music cuts in the latter half of her program had any relation to those in the first half, they are surely at most fourth cousins twice removed from their mother's side.
Then there was the choreography. It is difficult to describe in words what exactly Ms. Leistner is doing but parts of it (e.g. at 1:10-1:27) look vaguely Egyptian--that is, Egyptian by way of Edward Said's conception of Orientalism. Perhaps Ms. Leistner and her choreographer have confused Egypt with Saudi Arabia? There are so many amazing moments in this program: the arm-pumping at 2:42 (probably pretending to ride a camel or something), the movements leading up to and out of her layback....truly, I am in awe. Not even Jutta Müller can come up with something like this. Rather alarmingly, the judges--with the exception of the British judge (possibly the esteemed Vanessa Riley, or at least someone channeling Ms. Riley)--awarded this hot mess with presentation marks ranging from 5.4 to 5.6. But then again, we must remember that this was also the era when Ms. Witt was showered with 5.8s and 5.9s for standing on the ice and swivelling her hips.
However, the moment of Ms. Leistner's greatest artistic triumph came with her Flashdance exhibition from the 1989 World Championships. In a span of a few minutes, it encapsulates everything that was so wrong and wonderful about the 1980s in one fell swoop. Indeed, Ms. Leistner's skating may be bizarre and can offend those with delicate aesthetic sensibilities, but it was never boring--something that cannot be said for many of the ladies skating today.