Oct 31, 2014
"New and Improved"
While watching Samantha Cesario's Carmen at Skate America last week, I was suddenly aware of a plague that has befallen us. No, I'm not talking about Ebola, or the rash of (undoubtedly horrible) Phantom of the Opera programs that have infected the figure skating rank and file this season. No, I'm talking about the new and near-universally ghastly trend of figure skaters tinkering with and recycling old, beloved programs from the past. The intentions are good, but the results are more often than not disappointing. Why? Often, what makes a program so brilliant and beloved is a serendipitous confluence of music and choreography that falls into place with a certain undefinable je ne sais quoi. Tinker with one piece and the whole artifice comes crashing down. So, with clouded eyes and empty hearts, let's take a look back at some beautiful programs humbled by lesser imitations:
Carolina Kostner, Bolero
The original Bolero debuted by Carolina Kostner at the 2012-2013 Italian National Figure Skating Championships was a sensual transposition of Maurice Bejart's famous Bolero onto the ice. The main source of brilliance in Ms. Kostner's original program lay in the ending: basically, everything from the step sequence to the deceptively simple but perfectly-timed choreographic sequence and the final triple salchow right at the end of the program. It was, to borrow the parlance of basketball, simply a slam-dunk ending that had the inevitable effect of making the judges lunge for the high 8s and 9s when inputting their Program Components Scores.
Alas, the resurrected Bolero Ms. Kostner skated to next season after dropping her ill-fated Scheherezade program kept the spirit of the old Bolero, but altered the very thing that made it memorable: the ending. Of course, I understand why Lori Nichol changed the program. The last-minute triple salchow from the original Bolero was not at all solid and Ms. Kostner consistently botched the jumping pass whenever she skated the original Bolero during the 2012-2013 season. But moving the seventh jumping pass up earlier in the program necessitated shuffling around everything else, resulting in an attenuated choreographic sequence and a much more conventional spin to end the program that didn't quite capture the phrasing of the music the way the salchow did. J'aime bien, mais j'adore pas . . .
Samantha Cesario, Carmen
The program that sparked this post. Ms. Cesario's Carmen was my favorite ladies' long program last season, so I was rather disappointed to see the program changed for the worse. Ms. Cesario has not only changed the choreography, but also the music cuts for this year's iteration of Carmen--however, the new xylophone-esque music cuts don't carry quite the intensity and tension that the old music cuts had, though Ms. Cesario gamely keeps up the attitude and commitment to the choreography. The result is a much-diminished Carmen that is rather more conventionally flirty and coy than the angry, bestial "handmaid of Satan" that was so striking in the original. Well, at least we can be thankful that Ms. Cesario has kept the old choreographic sequence from last year, which is a great way to end the program.
What also should be mentioned is the fact that Ms. Cesario has been skating to some iteration of Bizet's Carmen since the 2010-2011 season, when she first used a version of Carmen for her short program. This is literally reaching Evan Lysacek levels of Espana Cani overuse, and is making Ms. Cesario's skating look more one-note than is necessary.
Mao Asada, Liebestraume
Technically, Mao Asada changed her Liebestraume program halfway through the 2010-2011 season, so it probably shouldn't count for the purposes of this post, but she did re-use the lesser version of the program for the 2011-2012 season, so there is some merit in its inclusion. Anyway, the original version of Ms. Asada's Liebestraume had a beautiful, affecting softness that exemplified the best of the strings-and-winds orchestration style that Ms. Asada's skating embodies. It was also notable for being consistently choreographed throughout the program--yes, even the spins mostly matched the phrasing of the music, which is sadly less usual than one would think. Unfortunately, Liebestraume is also criminally underrated, almost certainly because Ms. Asada's jumps were for the most part non-existent when she skated the original version of Liebestraume. To appreciate the greatness of this program, please bear with me. Unfortunately, Ms. Asada's best performance of Liebestraume was at the 2010-2011 Japanese Nationals, which is unfortunate because she fell behind the music towards the end of the program, which negates its brilliance somewhat. However, she skated a properly-timed version of the original Liebestraume ending as a encore during the exhibition at the 2010-2011 Japanese Nationals:
So, watch the competitive version posted above until 3:10 of the video, then jump to 5:30 of the exhibition video for the true ending of the original Liebestraume: note the step sequence which follows the ebb and flow of the music, the running steps that match the piano, the timing of the loop, and the placement of the final Biellman position in the closing spin. Perfection.
Ms. Asada skated the original version from the 2010 Grand Prix season to the 2010-2011 Japanese Nationals, until she suddenly debuted an altered version of the program at the 2011 Four Continents and kept the new version for the next season. The new Liebestraume was drastically altered in choreography--that is to say, the jumping passes were moved up earlier in the program in order to maximise the success rate of Ms. Asada's shaky jumps, which involved shifting around almost everything else, including changing the original choreographic spiral sequence into an anemic little arabesque spiral at the very end. Though its music cuts remained the same, the magic of the old Liebestraume was definitely gone.
Interestingly, however, the newer version of Ms. Asada's Nocturne in E-flat major short program was an improvement on the original, so perhaps bringing back new and improved versions of old programs isn't inevitably a doomed endeavor after all?