Joining the long line of skaters (Patrick Chan, Mao Asada, Savchenko/Szolkowy, among others) dusting off old classics for the Olympic season, Yuzuru Hanyu has selected the music of Romeo and Juliet for his long program this season--albeit the Nino Rota version from the beloved 1986 Zeffirelli film instead of the Craig Armstrong score from Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet he used for the 2011-2012 season. The music is different, but the character Mr. Hanyu is attempting to portray is the same: Romeo, or something approximating him--you know, young lover, star-crossed romance, that whole enchilada.
In many ways, Mr. Hanyu's choice to revisit the character of Romeo for the Olympic season is a strategically valid one. The Olympic season is, after all, when skaters carefully aim for the lowest common denominator in the once-every-four-years-occasion when the rest of the world pretends to care about figure skating. In this climate, it is common for skaters to go for the familiar either in the form of a beaten-to-death musical warhorse or an accessible, audience-friendly concept (Rota's Romeo and Juliet helpfully fits both criteria). And why not? Nino Rota's music conveniently conjures up certain emotional cues even before any skating is involved, and doubtlessly many impressionable youths (and judges) will swoon over associating the character of Romeo and all the attendant peculiarities of romance with Mr. Hanyu, whose cherubic visage and sylphlike physique makes him a suitable target for such sentiments: sic oculos, sic ille manus, sic ora ferebat.
But there is a reason why nobody has ever made a Romeo and Juliet: Part Two in the countless adaptations of Shakespeare's play that seem to crop up with a dependable regularity every few years: the unaffected, uncomplicated hormonal conviction of first love only feels that way for, well, the first time. Romance is often dependent on timing, and Mr. Hanyu's choice of Romeo and Juliet for a long program in the 2011-2012 season exemplifies that fact splendidly. A major factor that made Romeo and Juliet so successful in 2011 was that Mr. Hanyu at seventeen was just about the right age to play Romeo: he not only looked the part, but embodied the character of Romeo in the freshness of his skating. There, Mr. Hanyu's slightly wild style with just the right amount of introspection meshed with what any respectable 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.
With two years passed and Romeo at the older (though perhaps not necessarily wiser) age of nineteen, what has changed? The music, obviously, as well as the choreography. The bone structure of Mr. Hanyu's new Romeo and Juliet (hereinafter, Romeo and Juliet 2.0) is highly reminiscent of Sasha Cohen's beautiful program from 2006 both in terms of choreography and music cuts (note similarities such as the positioning of the first combination spins to the same music cut, swap in the spiral sequence with the choreographic step sequence, etc), which isn't terribly surprising, given that the two programs share the same choreographer: David Wilson.
Aside from the been-there, done-that feeling, another problem is that Romeo and Juliet 2.0 pales in comparison with its spiritual predecessor. The first Romeo and Juliet was dynamic, following a classical A-B-A sonata form which seamlessly featured a gentle, introspective middle (the development) bookended by a fiery, passionate beginning and end (the exposition and recapitulation). The dynamic contrasts of the first Romeo and Juliet were exciting, and allowed Mr. Hanyu to reach out, draw in the audience and demonstrate his interpretive ability--note, for instance, how his arms and body language shifts between the dramatic beginning of the program and the introspective middle. Moreover, the elements of the first Romeo and Juliet were organically fitted into the program, purposefully placed to emphasize the shifts within the music.
The elements of Romeo and Juliet 2.0, on the other hand, while impressively difficult, have been placed within the program with a rather different, more numerically-minded goal in mind (more on that later). The issues that plagued Mr. Hanyu's skating two years ago--limp posture, sloppy lines--are still there and look like they've even worsened at times. Romeo and Juliet 2.0 starts off fast, relentless, packed with lots of elements, and it eventually develops into the famous Love Theme from Rota's score--but for what? The style and pace of choreography doesn't change much between the different musical moods. Mr. Hanyu's body language and movements stay the same throughout--as far as I can tell, his facial expressions get scrunchier during some of the louder and/or more sweeping moments of the music, but that's about it. Of course, this is not to say that Romeo and Juliet 2.0 is an eyesore--the choreography isn't particularly subtle or novel, but from time to time it does hit the emotional cues summoned up by the music well enough, e.g. the ina bauer at the climax of the famous Love Theme.
But does all that even really matter? Looking at the program from another perspective, Romeo and Juliet 2.0 is clearly choreographed to wring out every single point possible: the program opens with a 4S that will blow away the judges when/if Mr. Hanyu finally lands it. There are five jumping passes slotted in the back half of the program that will receive the second-half bonus, and two of them are jaw-dropping back-to-back triple axel combinations. Practically every single jump is stuffed with transitions. The spins are Level 4. The footwork is complex. It is the consummate IJS program. Romeo and Juliet 2.0 will score points, points and more points--in fact, the program has already scored a lot of points, enough points to accomplish what had previously been believed to be beyond the ken of mere mortals: defeating a virtually-clean Patrick Chan. So Romeo and Juliet 2.0 will score Mr. Hanyu 190158137518515183517 points. That's more points than there are stars in the Milky Way. And all those points will probably win Mr. Hanyu an Olympic medal--if not the Olympic gold medal--in less than a week. That's the most important thing, right?
There is nothing wrong with trying to maximize one's point total. After all, Mr. Hanyu is, well, a competitive figure skater. He is going out there to compete and to win. And aye, there's the rub--good skaters are capable of earning lots of points with their skating. But truly great skaters are capable of earning a lot of points and yet at the same time, transcend the mad dash towards higher levels, more transitions, harder jumps--put another way, they possess the ability to transcend the rules and restrictions of the IJS while nevertheless remaining within its parameters. The first Romeo and Juliet showed us that Yuzuru Hanyu is capable of being a great skater. Romeo and Juliet 2.0, however, makes him a merely good one.