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Jan 9, 2011

Generic Female Ballad

The generic female ballad is a disappointingly familiar phenomenon in ladies figure skating, ubiquitous enough to merit an acronym among fans ('GFB,' obviously). Like a particularly stubborn patch of weeds, the GFB crops up in senior, junior, amateur, and professional ranks alike--succinctly put, everywhere.

The components of a standard GFB are simple and easily identified, given the ad nauseam nature of its occurrence. The fundamental element of a GFB is the type of music chosen for the program. In this area, the GFB has two variations: classical and muzak. As its name suggests, the classical GFB draws its music from the classical repertoire--often ballet, due to its danceable rhythm--while the music of the muzak GFB is directly lifted from the speakers of elevators around the world. An example of the former would be the pas de deux from Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker, while anything ever composed by Raul di Blasio fulfills the requirements of the latter. Clearly, what unites the classical and the muzak versions of the GFB is the twinkly and unobtrusively pleasant nature of the music selected.

Other important elements of the GFB include the all-important costume (the GFB dictates that the lady must skate in a flowy, pastel-colored dress, with sequins being optional) and the particular character of the program (gentle, everything very pretty-pretty). GFBs tend to have a peculiar engineering that allows them to be virtually interchangeable in their many iterations, speaking with a calm, feminine voice that soothes and assuages any fears of seeing a moment of depth or daring in a figure skating program--in other words, a pretty face without a single feature of that face ever coming into focus.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with the GFB per se, nothing in it that frightens anyone away. The question with this type of skating is whether it has the heft necessary for a second viewing.

It was with these thoughts (and a dose of trepidation) that accompanied my first viewing of Mao Asada's debut of her Liebestraum long program at Japan Open last year. Upon even the swiftest perusal, Miss Asada's program clearly has all the makings of a standard GFB: the soft, pretty music, the entire mood and character of the program, even the pastel-colored dress (plus, post-Kwan Lori Nichol choreography). Suffice to say, I was none too impressed.

But wait, something happens at the 2010 Japanese National Championships. It was perhaps at that moment when I was sharply reminded of how figure skating is above all a kind of performance art that is never exactly quite the same across competitions. Indeed, Miss Asada's Liebestraum at her Nationals--with all the attendant peculiarities of emotion, aspirations, atmosphere--finally unfurled, breathed and burned off all the shadows of doubt....

Miss Asada's Liebestraum does not break new aesthetic ground, doesn't try to, and doesn't need to. For this GFB, beauty alone is sufficient.


  1. Ha! I saw the Reitmayerova Worlds performance live. It was the prettiest of the pretty (excepting that godawful fan spiral), the tinkliest of the tinkly. Nice to see her so proud of herself, though. And I think Mao's skating (when she's on, or at least halfway on) could make any music/zak bearable. I think her line and style are much better suited to the GFB than any other skater. Great post as usual.

  2. Thanks! Reitmayerova was actually the first skater who lept to my mind when I was thinking about GFBs...even her programs last season were GFBs, except that she daringly mixed it up in the SP by wearing a BLACK dress! Scandalous.

    As for Mao, I agree; it's difficult to disparage Mao for doing a GFB when she does it so beautifully, especially after the agony that was Bells of Moscow last season.

  3. I would have to agree with your comments about Mao. She just comes alive and skates to the music, unlike other skaters who just skate around looking pretty, but never really relate to the music playing in the background.

    That girl's fan spiral needs to go.

  4. Problem with Mao i, she is an amazing One dimensional skater.

    She is amazing when doing pretty/cute/pastel, but really can't do anything else convincingly.

    I am not sure whether she is musical either. Except to say her natural style is classical friendly rather than other way round. It was no accident the same program from her 1st performance always looks bad compares to the her later performances, when she finally were able to catch out the beat through practice. If she is truly musical, we would have felt it the first time.

  5. I agree with Anonymous who says Asada's a one dimensional skater. She's....ok when she skates to Chopin or Debussy, but she can't do anything else, in my opinion. And even when she skates to that kind of music, she does her routine just because she has to, that's the impression she gives me. She doesn't really feel the music, and her movements all look the same. In my opinion she doesn't come alive at all, on the contrary, she just looks like she's doing her homework.

  6. Ah, subjectivity in figure skating!

    I find Mao an exceptional Chopin/Debussy/GFB stle skater because it really brings out her best qualities (her excellent flow, positions, etc)--although GFBs are not exactly my taste, she makes them look beautiful (hence this post).

    Looking at her competitive programs, I would say that she does seem like a one-dimensional skater...except that I've seen her exhibitions as well. Por una cabeza, Caprices, etc., are not GFBs but Mao pulls them off very well. What Mao needs, in my opinion, is to get away from the Tarasova and Nichol choreography: they either push her into ill-fitting directions or box her into the GFB style.

    As for truly musical skaters, I agree that they are a rare breed. In fact, I wouldn't say any of the current ladies skaters are truly that musical--for men, there is Stephane Lambiel :)

  7. Yeah, subjectivity...well that's why it's an amazing sport:)
    In my opinion, it's not about her positions, her flow, because she really has good flow and her spirals and everything are good and per se, beautiful. But her movements don't connect to the music, and that comes from the fact that she doesn't feel the music, I think. I read on the Japanese newspaper that she's studying with Tetsuya Kumakawa now, a ballet dancer that I really love, so I'm curious to see her improvements.
    Absolutely, Morozombie, musical skaters are extremely rare. In my opinion, these are the truly musical and artistic ones: Yagudin, Yu-Na Kim, Takahashi, Buttle, Lambiel, Michelle Kwan, Tessa Virtue (she's a real ballerina on ice) and Yukina Ohta (I miss her grace so much!). Shizuka Arakawa is amazingly unique too, and after Torino 2006 she's improving year by year, and there's also Sasha Cohen that I really find fantastic, she conveys all the passion she feels, but sometimes she looks a little robotic...Oh and I like Joannie Rochette too, she's uniquely elegant, has her own style and connects to the music very well.
    I thought they were rare but I actually managed to list more than ten skaters haha XD
    I hope I haven't forgotten anyone...anyway figure skating's a great sport because you can find all types of athletes, they're all so different from one another!

  8. Oh! I completely forgot to include Marina Anissina in my list of musical skaters and dancers! In Ice dance, my favourite couples are definitely Anissina/Peizerat and Virtue/Moir, but now I also love Davis/White.
    Sorry for spamming every article with my opinions and all, but I really LOVE talking about figure skating^^

  9. I agree, Morozombie- I think whoever choreographed Alissa's programs this season should work with Mao.

  10. I think a lot of girls get into skating because they want to do GFB-type programs, and I think a lot of girls still want to do them even if their skating is better suited to a different style. For me, Mao and Alissa are two of the few who can pull them off and still be interesting to watch.

  11. I have a problem with calling Liebestraum a GFB - it's neither generic (it's a classic), nor "female" (there are no vocals at all, and Liszt was male last time I checked), nor a ballad.

    Personally I believe that Mao's has great musicality and her programs were were interesting and diverse (Nocturne, Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra, Fantasie Impromptu, Por Una Cabeza, Sing (...),Caprice, Liebestraum. Only TAT's latest competetive programs didn't quite work for me, but not because they were skated badly - the booming, repetetive music and scary costumes just don't work very well for a lady of Mao's build. What's more, the choreography didn't take advantage of Mao's best points - great edgework and use of arms.

    I hope that next season Mao will keep TAT as the choreographer of her EX program(s), but try a new choreographer for her competetive programs; like Kenji Miyamoto, Sebastien Britten or Tom Dickson.

  12. Alissa Czisny's "from Winter to Spring" FS was choreographed by Pasquale Camerlengo, who also choreographed Takahashi's La Strada and the tango FS for this season as well as Akiko Suzuki's Fiddler on the Roof.
    Camerlemgo choreographed a FS program with Ocean Waves (from "from Winter to Spring") for Takahashi at the same he made La Strada, and Czisny saw it in Detroit. The Ocean Waves was eventually dropped in favor of La Stara, but she loved the music so much and chose this program for this season.

  13. The reason her first performances are usually not as good as her later ones is because she tends to make a lot of mistakes on her first outing. Even the great Kwan fails to inspire when she had bad skates. I also find it interesting that whenever criticism is aimed at a skater's artistic/musical side, it's the "skater fails to connect to the music". This is such a vague statement because sometimes it's stems from the fact that the viewers themselves do not connect with the music either because it's too generic or we're not too fond of the piece.
    I agree with those who said that Mao has more verstality than a lot of people give her credit for. What she needs is the right choreographers and programs to make that side of her come out. If one recalls, almost all of the known artistic skaters have had exceptional choreographers design programs that seemed tailor made to bring out their best qualities.