Oct 8, 2011
Interpretations of music vary widely. Such is especially the case for the more famous compositions: in figure skating's most well-abused music of choice, Bizet's Carmen, we have seen interpretations that run the gamut from childish exuberance (Mirai Nagasu), come-hither sensuality (Katarina Witt) to arrogant preening (Evgeni Plushenko). Given the ad nauseum use of Carmen among figure skating programs in all disciplines, such diversity of interpretation is welcome--it's bad enough that elite choreographers appear to be limited to the same few CDs, Beelzebub knows how anyone could survive if every program came at the music from exactly the same angle.
And so we have the second movement of Joaquín Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez, another favorite of choreographers clearly lacking in CDs. Patrick Chan is the latest elite skater to fall victim to such musical recycling, and discussion of the recent debut of his new long program to Aranjuez have inevitably led to comparison of other past programs set to the same music. In the sea of programs set to Aranjuez, Michelle Kwan's Aranjuez arguably stands the tallest in the minds of the figure skating cognoscenti. This is probably in part due to her enduring popularity as a skater, but Ms. Kwan's Aranjuez is a powerful program in its own right.
Ms. Kwan's interpretation of Aranjuez has a distinct flavor not quite matched by most other interpretations of the music. In choreographing this program for Ms. Kwan, Nikolai Morozov eschewed the melancholy original orchestration for Ikuko Kawai's rather more adrenaline-pumping violin remix. Whether this in itself was for better or for worse is a question best left to personal preferences to decide, but it is undeniable that the use of the remix was a well-suited choice for the new, firmly post-Nichol and post-Carroll Michelle Kwan. The 2002-2003 season was, after all, the season in which Ms. Kwan fully debuted her new formula to winning:
1) strip down the choreography
2) skate the most technically-ambitious jump layout that can be done cleanly
3) minimize contact with ice surface apart from skate blades
4) play some powerhouse music
5) sell the program like the rent is due tomorrow
The formula may have been simple, but it worked (well, at least it did under 6.0). The choreography was not as nuanced as it was in the past and the pieces of music used were more pedestrian, but such programs--simple but with everything done in the right place at the right time--showcased Ms. Kwan's power of audience projection magnificently and were brilliantly constructed to do exactly what they were designed to do. In this light, Ikuko Kawai's joyful and exuberant Aranjuez seems tailor-made for Ms. Kwan's triumphant and crowd-rousing spirals and footwork.
On the opposite side of the interpretation spectrum lies Takeshi Honda's version of Aranjuez. Mr. Honda's interpretation, choreographed by Lori Nichol when she still was in possession of her soul, is distinguished not by the power of its audience projection but by quality of the choreography--particularly, the originality of the in-between skating. Aside from the intricate entrances into the jumps, Mr. Honda's Aranjuez has transitions the way that they should be used: not merely as ends to themselves in the form of split-second entries into a jumping pass, but to accentuate the music and mood of the program. A particularly sublime moment in this regard is Mr. Honda's walley straight into a spread eagle perfectly done to the beat of the guitar's plucking.
Such choreography is much appreciated, but what I love best about Mr. Honda's Aranjuez, however, is the emotion of one particular performance--the night of the men's long program at the 2002 Olympics. Watching the simple elegance of Mr. Honda's movements, perfectly matching the quiet but palpable way the program builds to its emotional climax, and knowing the circumstances of Mr. Honda's performance at Salt Lake City--the way he draws his hand over his face at the end of the program like that!--I cannot help but think of a particular haiku by the Japanese poet Yosa Buson:
Not quite dark yet
and the stars shining
above the withered fields.
Michelle Kwan may have the gold medal and the lion's share of accolades from fans, but Takeshi Honda captures, better than any competitive version of Aranjuez that I can recall, that particular timbre of quiet but intense melancholy that is suffused throughout the original orchestration of Aranjuez's famous second movement. And as such, to me, every other program set to Aranjuez so far can only pale in comparison.