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Jan 10, 2012

Romeo, oh Romeo

The character of Romeo from William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is one of the most famous and instantly recognisable characters from the English literary canon. Indeed, the name Romeo has at this point become more or less synonymous with the word lover, whether star-crossed or in a more general sense. The fame of the character of Romeo is a reflection of the widespread popularity of Shakespeare's play, one of the most famous and frequently performed plays even in Shakespeare's own lifetime. As such, it is not surprising that the enduring popularity of Romeo and Juliet has also extended to other media, including music (Tchaikovsky, Berlioz, Rota, etc), ballet (Prokofiev, among others), film (Zeffirelli, Luhrmann and countless others), and finally, figure skating.

With such a famous plotline built-in and a vast array of music choices to choose from, it is easy to see why the Romeo and Juliet theme has become a popular choice within all disciplines of figure skating. Romance, passion and angst are fashionable subjects to portray in skating and a Romeo and Juliet-themed program offers plenty of opportunities to indulge in such emotions. Rather tellingly, all three of the top Japanese men this season have used an incarnation of Romeo and Juliet sometime in their careers, to very different results.

Daisuke Takahashi's Romeo and Juliet draws from Tchaikovsky's famous and well-loved symphonic poem of the same name. Mr. Takahashi performed what still stands as his highest scoring free skate at 2008 Four Continents with this particular program, setting a world record that not only allowed him to crush eventual 2008 world champion and second-place finisher Jeffrey Buttle by over thirty points (!!!) but also stood for three years until 2011 Worlds in Moscow. With 2 quadruple jumps and 2 triple axels, Romeo and Juliet was the program that saw Mr. Takahashi at the peak of his jumping abilities.

Unfortunately, the program itself is pure pablum. Not only are the music cuts typical and uninspired, but they are slapped together in an incredibly lazy way--notice how both step sequences use the exact same cuts of music? In terms of choreography, there's nothing particularly interesting going on between the elements (or really, anything much at all), nor does the posing use the music in a particularly effective way. The bone structure--or so to speak--underlying the program is more reflective of Nikolai Morozov's choreographic style than of the music or the story of Romeo and Juliet. 

Moreover, despite Mr. Takahashi's staggering interpretative abilities, Romeo and Juliet never seemed quite a comfortable or natural fit for him, and he never really made the music his own. Even at 2008 Four Continents, Mr. Takahashi had much more command and conviction during his Cyber Swan short program than with Romeo and Juliet. Part of the reason may be because that while Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet is a very classical piece ideally suited for skaters with those perfect classical lines, Mr. Takahashi is not by any stretch of the imagination a classical sort of skater. For the lack of a better word, he's more....modern in his style and aesthetic, and when he tries to play the classical card as straight as he does in Romeo and Juliet with such mediocre choreography...the result is not very memorable outside of the impressive arsenal of jumps.

Also, what a terrible costume.

Takahiko Kozuka tried his hand as Romeo with Nino Rota's equally famous and well-loved music to Franco Zefferelli's film in what looks sort of like a tracksuit without a zipper and racing stripes. Mr. Kozuka used the music of Romeo and Juliet during the 2008-2009 season, a breakout season of sorts for him as he won his first Grand Prix and ISU championship medals that season.

Mr. Kozuka's version of Romeo and Juliet deserves credit for being more adventurous with its use of some less-used parts of Rota's score--i.e. practically every music cut except the overdone and very famous Love Theme, which Mr. Kozuka saves for his program's climax and end. Compared to Mr. Takahashi's version, Mr. Kozuka's is superior by virtue of actually having some choreography and transitions between the elements (e.g. that very beautiful long, held-out spread eagle) and the program has more of a discernible arc as a whole.

What hobbles Mr. Kozuka's Romeo and Juliet is unfortunately Mr. Kozuka himself. Simply put, Mr. Kozuka performs the program with the passion and emotion of Mitt Romney, with little attention paid to the program's phrasing or the meaning of the music's notes and color. Mr. Kozuka's Romeo and Juliet combines together many aspects of Rota's score, from turmoil (around 1:40) to the bright and sprightly bit used during the ball where Romeo and Juliet meet in Zefferelli's film (3:20) to the grand, sweeping love theme (4:20) but Mr. Kozuka's body language and carriage does not tangibly react to such changes in the mood or music. Moreover, Mr. Kozuka's movements seem almost perfunctory at times (e.g. when he raises his arms at 4:07) and there's quite a bit of time spent looking down at the ice. If Mr. Kozuka is trying to be Romeo, his portrayal most matches the time when Romeo thinks that Juliet has died and is walking around Mantua in a sort of dazed, grief-induced stupor.

Nice edges, though.

Yuzuru Hanyu is currently using Craig Armstrong's music to Baz Luhrmann's film Romeo + Juliet in his long program this season, which is turning out to be a sort of breakout season for him as well as Mr. Hanyu has won his first GP event, made his first GPF and landed on the podium of Japanese Nationals for the first time so far.

To me, Mr. Hanyu has the best Romeo and Juliet-themed program among the Japanese men overall, taking into account specifically the criteria of program construction, interpretation and fidelity to not only the music but also the character of Romeo himself. Mr. Hanyu's program, above all, encapsulates best what Romeo should be: bold, impetuous, passionate, prone to intense bouts of emotion to the point of recklessness but also capable of tender and profound love. The beginning and end of Mr. Hanyu's Romeo and Juliet represent the former, while the softer, lyrical middle captures the emotion of the latter. The choreography for the most part is quite decent and the music cuts appropriate, but it's truly Mr. Hanyu's sheer dedication to his performance throughout (especially during the bold, passionate parts) that goes a long way towards drawing out the emotion of the music and giving a great portrayal of Romeo. Though his movements in the slower section are often a bit rushed and could benefit from more softness and refinement, Mr. Hanyu listens and moves to the music quite well and the choreography and program is overall a great vehicle for Mr. Hanyu's youthful and slightly out of control style. As Mr. Hanyu is young with all the fervor of youth, he is perhaps at the ideal age with the ideal style for a figure skating Romeo--now is the time for the violence, recklessness and ecstasy of adolescent emotions. The maturity and polish (as well as programs of utter seriousness and solemn probity) should and will come later.


  1. This was a highly quotable post - A+ yet again. I'm happy you discussed not just the structure of the programs but also the skaters' take on the character. Too many fans these days get fixated on transitions and forget the rest. Of course I am always up for some love for Yuzuru, and agree with much of your take on the other two Romeos as well.

    Can we have a comparison of the not Swan Lake SPs done by Takahashi and Hanyu next?

  2. Not Swan Lake SPs? Hahahaha, am loving this..
    In retrospect, Dai's Romeo was also a non Romeo. In fact it a was a nothing in terms of artistic or choreographic content. Im so glad he moved on from Morozov..
    My fav quote from this marvellous post:
    "If Mr. Kozuka is trying to be Romeo, his portrayal most matches the time when Romeo thinks that Juliet has died and is walking around Mantua in a sort of dazed, grief-induced stupor."
    Hahahaha! Loved it..

  3. "Can we have a comparison of the not Swan Lake SPs done by Takahashi and Hanyu next?" This is a great idea, and will definitely go into my queue of future posts!

    Anon at 4AM: Mr. Takahashi's R and J is probably my least favorite program of his, and it was very cathartic writing this post.

    Thanks y'all for reading.

  4. Lovely post!! I like Hanyu's R&J best, too!!^__^