Mar 16, 2012
Chen + Cranston = Genius
Ask people to name a skating program by Lu Chen, and the responses are likely to mostly comprise of her Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 or Butterfly Lovers long programs. Fair enough: both of those programs are amazing and have by now ascended into the revered pantheon of classic figure skating programs.
While Sandra Bezic was admittedly able to bring out the Woman in Lu Chen with her choreography to great effect (in addition to the two aforementioned programs, see also Adios Nonino, Take Five, etc), I've always had a substantial soft spot for Ms. Chen's programs from the 1994-1995 season, both choreographed by Toller Cranston. The pairing of Mr. Cranston and Ms. Chen during this particular season produced two gems of superlative artistic merit that are often sadly overlooked as it is Ms. Bezic's work with Ms. Chen that persists in the collective consciousness in the skating world.
Given Mr. Cranston's substantial role in revolutionizing the way male figure skaters moved on the ice, he is clearly a man who understands music and how to pair it with the movements of the human body. His choreographic talents were on full display in the hands of a client like Ms. Chen, a skater who was primarily distinguished from her contemporaries by the sheer quality of her movement and her programs' elegance of construction. These two qualities are especially important when one remembers that Ms. Chen was directly up against the likes of Surya Bonaly et al. for much of her career.
Here is Mr. Cranston's short program for Ms. Chen for the 1994-5 season, set to Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto No. 1:
At first glance, this clear and clean program seems unlikely to have sprung from the mind of the famously flamboyant and dramatic Mr. Cranston, but its fluidity, elegance and irrepressibly joyful nature echo Mr. Cranston's style while accentuating Ms. Chen's best qualities. Yes, on the technical front the spins and spirals are kind of, well, typical Lu Chen and the jump combination is not the best, but there's such a sense of joy and freedom Ms. Chen brings to the music of Mendelssohn here. I especially love the beautifully crisp, clear and simple step sequence, which also serves as an astute reminder in our current era of complex plodding CoP step sequences that 'more complex' does not necessarily equate to 'better.'
Here is Ms. Chen's long program from the same season, set to the music of the film The Last Emperor:
I believe that The Last Emperor is truly one of the most memorable and original ladies programs ever performed. The Last Emperor is an odd, faceted beauty of a program, and it cannot have been an easy program to choreograph or perform: there are several rather disparate music cuts and corresponding moods, yet all the music and movement flow smoothly into each other and together, singing in harmony only through clever construction and a real understanding of how to phrase movement to music on the part of both skater and choreographer. Here, transitions and complexity in general are marshalled in service of a higher artistic goal: many of the jumps are indeed preceded/succeeded by transitions, but instead of randomly thrown in to score some points, they work with the music. See, for example, the last ten seconds or so of The Last Emperor: the split jump into the triple toe, double axel into the arabian, both jumps interestingly placed right at the end of the program and matching the phrasing of the tumultuous music. Also, note the artistic details throughout the program--the extensive use of arms without flailing, the way Ms. Chen uses her whole body to create interesting moments on the ice (e.g. the 'dance' sequence), the differences in how Ms. Chen carries herself through the shifts in music. Just incredible. Overall, The Last Emperor is a distinctive, unpretentious and arresting program, and worthy of just as much attention as Piano Concerto No. 2 and Butterfly Lovers.
Note: although according to Wikipedia, Ms. Chen's performance of The Last Emperor at the 1994 NHK Trophy was "better skated" than the version at the 1995 World Championships, I disagree. Though Ms. Chen did manage to land her second triple lutz at NHK, she was much more on point with the music and choreography at Worlds than at the earlier NHK Trophy (e.g. see how Ms. Chen was ahead of the music at the beginning of the step sequence at NHK) and as such, I feel that the Worlds performance is more artistically satisfying and the one that should be watched.