Apr 5, 2017
On Ecstatic Experience
To paraphrase David Foster Wallace, watching figure skating on a screen is to live figure skating pretty much as watching pornography is to the felt reality of human love. Nowhere have I been more reminded of this fact than when I witnessed* Yuzuru Hanyu skate his Hope and Legacy long program at the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships in Helsinki last week.
One key aspect of a live figure skating performance that cannot be translated onto the screen is that somewhat vague and underdefined criterion listed in the "Performance/Execution" component of the official Program Components Score explanations: "[t]he skater radiates energy resulting in an invisible connection with the audience." I would say that the "energy" and "invisible connection" parts imply that such a performance becomes more than the sum of its parts by presenting an invitation to participate in something that exceeds the fetters of our immediate experiences, but whatever that criterion means, Mr. Hanyu's performance of his long program at Helsinki last week undeniably embodied it, and embodied it in spades. I have been fortunate to witness a number of indelible figure skating performances in person through the years, but I don't think I've ever had an experience as an audience member quite like what transpired at Hartwall Arena during Mr. Hanyu's long program.
On screen, we can see the audience applaud and cheer, we can share in their obvious excitement despite being thousands of miles away, but that ineffable connection between skater and audience must be experienced in person. How do I even begin to describe what it felt like being in the audience during Mr. Hanyu's long program performance? It was, for the lack of a better word, entirely hypnotizing. The thing I remember most were those tingly moments when it felt like the 13,000-strong audience at the Hartwall Arena was living and breathing as a single, very large organism--for example, the silent, expectant tension that felt like the entire arena was collectively holding its breath when Mr. Hanyu was setting up for his second-half 4S-3T combination and the huge, collective roar and lapse back into regular breathing patterns when he landed it perfectly. The universally ecstatic, deafening applause breaking out when Mr. Hanyu landed his final jumping pass--the 3Lz--that continued unabated until he finally left the ice to enter the kiss-and-cry. Seeing the sheer happiness of the people all around me--Russian, Japanese, Finnish, American, whatever--wiping their eyes, hugging each other spontaneously, and letting out the occasional guttural roar or scream.
Given the attendant peculiarities of the particular context in which Mr. Hanyu skated his long program at Worlds (the fifth-place short program performance, the extremely high level of competition, the quest to regain a long-awaited world title), in retrospect, it's understandable why Mr. Hanyu's long program at Worlds was so spellbinding--simply put, it was one of those otherwordly, possibility-expanding moments in sports that allowed the audience to access certain registers of experience far removed from quotidian existence: exhilaration, beauty, intensity, awe, catharsis, greatness, greatness, and greatness.
*witnessed must be used here, because nobody simply saw that performance