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Feb 19, 2012

Not Your Grandmother's Swan Lake

Special thanks goes to the Anon who suggested this idea from the original Romeo post.

Despite the decline of classical music's popularity, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's ballet Swan Lake nonetheless occupies a prominent place in the mainstream cultural zeitgeist. Everything from the ballet's music to its narrative themes are referenced constantly in different works across a wide range of media (a fairly recent and high-profile example being Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan). Unsurprisingly, the sport of figure skating has proved no less resistant to falling under the charms of mining Tchaikovsky's ballet for inspirational purposes: witness the programs of Kristi Yamaguchi (1989-1990), Oksana Baiul (1993-4), Alexei Urmanov (1994-5), Rudy Galindo (1995-6), Berezhnaya/Sikharulidze (1997-8), Maria Butyrskaya (1999-2000), Fumie Suguri (2002-3), Sasha Cohen (2003-4), Alissa Czisny (2004-5), Yukina Ota (2006-7), Carolina Kostner (2008)....among countless others.

While the skaters listed above generally demonstrated fidelity to the music (and perhaps a bit more loosely, the spirit) of the original ballet, others have opted for a rather different approach.

Daisuke Takahashi's 2007-2008 short program, while nominally still a Swan Lake program, uses a hip hop remix of Tchaikovsky's music that bears scant relation to the original ballet. Hence, the moniker Cyber Swan, appropriately suggestive of things much more contemporary. On paper, Mr. Takahashi's Cyber Swan is a program that could and perhaps should raise a less-than-laudatory eyebrow. Excessive front-loading of jumps, check. Loud remix of classical masterpiece that was already beautiful in its original form, check. Injudicious spreading of elements, check. Costume that looks like it got into a fight with a Vegas showgirl...and lost, check. Choreography by Nikolai Morozov, check.

But upon actually watching the program, all such reservations melt away: after all, there are many programs that are pleasant, even beautiful, but how many of them are truly as electrifying as Cyber Swan, exciting both old (Dick Button) and young (hordes of frenzied fangirls in video above) alike? Exactly.

Part of the reason lies, as it is wont to do, in context. There are certainly times when figure skating seems permanently stuck in a timewarp somewhere around the late 19th century or, at best, the mid-20th century. A brief perusal of the time-honored list of figure skating's musical warhorses confirms this: Bizet's Carmen (1875), Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 (1901), Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker (1892), Ravel's Bolero (1928), Puccini's Tosca (1900), Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue (1924), Rimsky-Korsakov's Sheherazade (1888)....etc., etc., with a few brief excursions into the brave new world of the future (e.g. Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera, 1986). The same temporal anomaly also appears to afflict the style of dance forms that most influences figure skating: i.e. the prevalence of ballet, particularly in ladies figure skating, but this influence is one that generally holds true across all disciplines.

This perhaps explains the near-universal acclaim that greeted Mr. Takahashi's Cyber Swan throughout the entire 2007-2008 season. The popularity of Cyber Swan among both audiences and judges alike (as indicated by both the frenzied screams and marks Mr. Takahashi received upon performing Cyber Swan) is enough to challenge common assumptions about figure skating judges being stodgy old stuck-in-timewarp bastards who prefer above all the familiar strains of skating's musical warhorses and the classical style that goes along with such music best. Of course, Cyber Swan's musical bone structure is that of an old classic--Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake ballet. But the great originality of Cyber Swan lies in the fresh-as-paint twist given to the whole thing: the infusion of hip hop in both style of music and dance used. In retrospect, it seems so simple and obvious: add hip hop, get the audiences and judges pumping, reap those PCS. If so, then why do so few skaters use more modern styles like hip hop or rock (even now, five long years after Cyber Swan was first performed) despite the mainstream presence of such styles as shown in television shows such as So You Think You Can Dance?

The truth is, transplanting more modern dance styles and music onto the ice is far from easy stuff. For one, the demands of CoP as it currently stands arguably does much to disincentive too much experimentation in music and style. When a minute error such as a bobbly turn or two on footwork could cost someone a couple levels and valuable points, a skater would understandably be more preoccupied with maximising the chance of successfully hitting the minutiae needed for maximum TES than taking risks with experimenting with different styles of music and movement. Then there is also the reality that translating modern dance styles into figure skating programs is very difficult and runs the risk of looking too much, and consequently, just plain awkward. When using (for example) hip hop music, there is little more disappointing that some half-assed effort with only a few token nods to the elements of hip-hop dancing--it is something one should not do lightly but instead, with utter conviction and attention to interpreting the music (thus making the technical requirements of the sport even more difficult) while accepting the risk of looking like it perhaps could be a little too over-the-top. For example, look at what Mr. Takahashi is doing right at the beginning of his straightline step sequence: he's stroking his body, bopping his head, snapping his fingers, pointing at and eyefucking the audience, doing toe-steppy movements, and twirling around...practically all at the same time. Without the music, or perhaps in the hands of a lesser skater, all that could look completely ridiculous....but with Mr. Takahashi, it doesn't. In fact, it looks perfectly convincing because all that movement fits in with the music and tenor of the program, and also because Mr. Takahashi is performing with absolute confidence. This takes a great deal of talent as well as practice on the part of the skater. Even Mr. Takahashi--whose understanding and expression of music and phrasing is unquestioned--spent months taking hip-hop lessons in New York in order to pull Cyber Swan off successfully.

Moreover, another reason why there are relatively few crossovers between more modern dance styles and skating may be because many elements of hip hop, etc do not lend themselves well to what is held to the ideals of good figure skating. For example, the locking, popping, tutting, etc., in hip hop does not quite square with the clean lines, flow and effortless speed that is prized in figure skating. As such, it takes a good deal with skill and effort on the part of both the choreographer and the skater to resolve these two contrasting tendencies. In this case, equal credit must be given to the skater (Mr. Takahashi) as well as the choreographer (Nikolai Morozov) for the success of Cyber Swan. Mr. Morozov may be producing more dross than gold these days, but he had the audacity and strength of vision to blend together two things as disparate as figure skating and hip hop....particularly when Mr. Takahashi himself was reportedly less-than-convinced by the whole idea in the beginning.

Of course, Cyber Swan is not without its flaws. The front-loading of jumps is most unfortunate and the spins could use some improvement. Then there is the question of why Cyber SWAN if there is minimal swanning or Swan Lake in the program as a whole? There are certain associations that come to mind when it comes to music as famous as Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, and one cannot help but think a purely hip hop/techno-ish piece of music would more than suffice as well. But even with such quibbles, Cyber Swan is a program that is more than the sum of its parts by virtue of being fresh, electrifying and seemingly new as it was almost five years ago when it was first performed and as such, it stands as precious proof that CoP has not completely suffocated creativity and all that made figure skating exciting.

Yuzuru Hanyu's Swan Lake short program from 2010-2011 (his first senior season) is an alternative arrangement of the original Tchaikovsky by Japanese violinist Ikuko Kawai. Mr. Hanyu's short program features a few nods to the ballet and a swannish concept via a few arm flaps and that crouching moment at 4:16 of the above video, but Mr. Hanyu's rendition of Swan Lake bears only a little more similarities to Tchaikovsky's ballet than Mr. Takahashi's Cyber Swan--which is to say, not much at all. As such, the concept and vision of Mr. Hanyu's Swan Lake is a bit unclear: he's obviously not Rothbart, but is he really the swan?

The achy, melancholy violin of this version of Swan Lake is both beneficial and detrimental for Mr. Hanyu. The good thing is that the music allows Mr. Hanyu to show off his flow and lines quite nicely: almost everything looks light, smooth and effortless. On the other hand, like the slow section of this season's Romeo and Juliet, the music also rather accentuates one of Mr. Hanyu's major weaknesses: his tendency to rush through the elements and choreography. The quality of Mr. Hanyu's movement--even something as simple as how he moves his arms--would look a bit less rote and more in tune with the emotion of the music if he held out his positions more and allowed everything to (for the lack of a better word) breathe.

An assessment of Mr. Hanyu's choreography is similarly mixed. Mr. Hanyu's Swan Lake is not the most content-laden program out there, nor is it terribly original or ground-breaking, but for the most part, it works with simplicity of main melodic line of the solo violin. However, Mr. Hanyu's Swan Lake nevertheless does suffer from two common afflictions that affect the typical CoP program: spins that don't work particularly well with the music and a draggy, meandering footwork sequence that feels more than a bit overlong. As such, though Mr. Hanyu's Swan Lake is for the most part inoffensive, it lacks that extra something to make up for its shortcomings and consequently should be regarded as bland and unremarkable overall.


  1. It was my idea! Glad to see it turned into a post.

    Full disclosure: I was not a fan of the Cyberswan program - I agree with you that it present a challenge for the performer and the choreographer, but I don't feel that Dai and Morozov fully lived up to that challenge. The SL step sequence in particular seemed so jerky and disjointed, and while I understand that this may have been the intention, I didn't like it.

    OTOH, other skaters who have attempted to go in a more contemporary direction have done worse (e.g. V/T's SP this year). It really is a difficult thing to translate to the ice.

    As for Hanyu, I love the way he uses his arms and hands - really how he moves, period. I agree that he needs to work on looking less rushed. I consider Yuzuru a work in progress, but already quite advanced.

    1. Thank you for the idea!

      Full disclosure on my part: Prior to writing the part on Cyber Swan, I did some Youtube research and watched how other skaters attempted to translate the style on the ice. After watching, say, Tomas Verner's hip hop Carmina Burana, that may have influenced my opinion somewhat because Cyber Swan just looks 10x better. It's definitely not perfect, but it's probably the most convincing and successful attempt thus far.

      Yuzuru Hanyu: I agree that he is already quite advanced. Mr. Hanyu is quite possibly the most talented 17-year-old male skater I can recall off the top of my head right now. I just find it sort of funny that I completely dismissed him as a threat by 2014 just last season and privately referred to him as a 'wet noodle.' How times have changed....

  2. Oh, I'd forgotten Verner's Carmina Burana. Or perhaps "repressed all memory of it" would be more accurate? Really, I don't know what he was thinking.

    I was on the Hanyu bandwagon earlier than you - I thought he was the most promising 14 year old I'd seen, back in his junior days. But I didn't expect him to progress this fast.

    1. You were on the Hanyu bandwagon early! My feelings toward Mr. Hanyu can be summed up as thus through the years:

      2009-2010: Oh, what cute little widdle skater child is this? (I often don't take junior skaters that seriously, especially if they are skating with ruffles and mushroom cut hair)

      2010-2011: the boy can jump, but such blah choreography and he's floppy as a wet noodle on the ice. Should be more palatable around 2014...

      Summer 2011, after seeing Romeo and Juliet in The Ice: WHO IS THIS SKATER AND WHERE HAS HE BEEN ALL MY LIFE?! HE IS GLORIOUS, AMAZING, ETC

      2011-2012: infatuation

      Thank goodness for The Ice and all those Japanese skating shows, or I'd probably never have glommed onto Mr. Hanyu's skating like I did last summer. Somehow, watching that show version of Romeo and Juliet at the Ice--with the show lighting, that music, those jumps--was such an electrifying moment of clarity for me. Talk about complete paradigm shift.

  3. 2009 JW: I'd never seen or heard of Hanyu before, and here was this kid who was going for the 3A, doing an Ina Bauer and good spins and actually paying attention to his music. I was *very* unhappy with his PCS - lower than Kevin Reynolds, what were they thinking?! So that LP got my attention, and afterward I kept an eye on his scores and programs.

    Hanyu's summer 2011 appearances were impressive for sure. I think he did something like 60 shows in just a few months; I'm sure that, and learning from some of the other Japanese skaters (e.g. Dai) has helped him develop his own skating.

    Speaking of column ideas - the paradigm shift thing could be interesting, if there's more than one example.

    1. You are extremely prescient, Another Anonymous, as there is indeed a post about paradigm shifts regarding certain skaters in my queue of future posts.

  4. what does CoP mean?