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Jan 26, 2011

Recycling the Warhorse: A Tale of Two American Skaters

A major problem of using so-called warhorse music in figure skating is that we simply know it too well. Unsurprisingly, the relentless recycling of classics such as Carmen, Swan Lake, and Romeo and Juliet season after season brings on a litany of complaints, endless (often unfavorable) comparisons to past performances and the feeling of a certain dearth of creativity in the sport. Common sense appears to dictate that it is much wiser to dazzle with the bells and whistles of innovation, but novelty has its risks, with great potential to wear off quickly and--not least of all--is quite difficult to produce on command under the constraints of CoP. What results is that many figure skaters and their choreographers appear to aim for a combination of the two: reinterpreting a classic piece and making it better combines both the joy of something new together with the evocative emotions of the old.

At least, there goes that line of thinking in theory. In reality, however, what happens most of the time is that the endless recycling of warhorses produces programs so deriative and so utterly devoid of imagination in both choreography and execution such that a bleak, terrible sort of perfection is most unfortunately achieved. Bloodless choreography is excruciating, but all the more so when set to music repeated ad nauseum season after season. Exhibit A: Evan Lysacek. The man's musical repertoire reads like a CD of figure skating's most clichéd music: Tosca, Scheherazade, Carmen, Rhapsody in Blue, Romeo and Juliet, Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2...yet none of his programs have any discernable character, personality or shape. They could all have been performed by any skater, and the choreography is virtually interchangeable. Let us first examine his world title-winning long program from 2009, Rhapsody in Blue:

Then, watch his long program from the 2010 GPF, set to Scheherazade: 

Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue is a fun, jazzy piece, while Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade is an entirely different creature altogether, a sweeping work of Romantic orientalist music. Yet from the choreography and the way Mr. Lysacek performs the programs, who can tell the difference? Try the time-honored test of watching the programs with the sound muted. I will concede that Mr. Lysacek strokes himself a lot more in Scheherazade--which may or may not fit the music more, take your pick--but if most of Mr. Lysacek's other movements had any relationship to the music at all, they are like fourth cousins twice removed on the mother's side. Case in point: 3:37 of the Scheherazade video. There could have been A Moment if Mr. Lysacek had done something during the grand, arching crescendo--a spread eagle, an ina bauer, or even something as simple as raising his arms high over his head to the music--but he just skates right through it. Typical. 

On the other hand, however, recycling a warhorse can work, creating a program that is somehow instantly known but still strangely fresh. Sasha Cohen is perhaps the best example in this regard. Her figure skating repertoire rivals Mr. Lysacek’s in terms of sheer unoriginality when it comes to music selection, but Ms. Cohen firmly stamps her mark on many of the warhorses she uses and breathes some new life into tired old forms. Look at it this way: when one thinks of Dark Eyes, Rota's Romeo and Juliet and Malaguena in figure skating, which figure skater often comes up as the reference point? Ms. Cohen, and for good reason. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly how Ms. Cohen makes such music her own--is it the flexibility? The way she sometimes attacks her programs as if she was ready to murder someone? The way her choreography and performances appears to be actually cognizant of the music playing? I don't know--but if every skater skated to their warhorses à la Ms. Cohen, I suspect that we would have much fewer complaints whenever yet another skater announces that they are skating to Carmen.


(I have a strange sentimental attachment to this long program. Much like when George Bush stared into Vladimir Putin's eyes, this was the moment when I--watching Ms. Cohen's scared-doe expression, the way her legs crumpled beneath her along with her Olympic hopes in the first two jumping passes, the vulnerability of the way she skated--somehow realized that Ms. Cohen had a soul. End non sequitur.)


  1. I love this post, Morozombie. I'm with you about everything!
    I have the same feelings for Lysacek's programmes, interchangeable, unoriginal, mediocre. When watching his Tosca or his Scheherazade I actually felt like he didn't have any idea about the story behind the music. It was SO obvious! And I couldn't remember any part of his choreography. (and towards the end he was so arrogant, but that's another topic)
    I totally agree with you about Sasha, too, and when I listen to Malaguena or Dark Eyes, her movements and expressions pop up in my head, she was wonderful in every one of these programmes. Gosh I miss her so much:(

  2. Sasha could skate to Mary had a little lamb and make it look gorgeous!
    Lysacek wasted his money getting a new program every year because he just does the same exact program with different background music over and over again. You can predict his programs - if a crescendo is coming up, you know a 3-turn into a triple flip-double toe-double loop is next, if you see a spread eagle, the triple lutz-triple toe combination is coming up! If he skates around the corner does some shit presentation pose, then does a back 3-turn, it's gonna be a triple axel.

  3. We also mustn't forget the trademark SlSt at the end of every program that seems strangely familiar across all his programs no matter what the music.

    I must admit, however, I admire Lori Nichol for having the balls to charge Team Lysacek full price for such half-assed choreography.

  4. Given the stakes of winning and tough training regimen, why not minimize the risks towards a win. Why should all we nit-pickers pretend that assembling points for elements, and the rest, isn't a very deliberate effort to maximize a win. All the tougher for a tall guy. Anyone seeing Evan's recent Tango to Roxanne, the Climb, and the Firebird at Caesar's can see how felt, intense and interpretive. There are as many skating interpretations as there are skaters, but needing and wanting to win, and after training for decades why not try to win, is something that's a given.

  5. Anon at 12:34, I understand your point but I for one feel frustrated that Lysacek nonetheless receives PCS (particularly IN and CH) that are equal or higher than some of his competitors who clearly assemble points for elements yet still manage to provide actual interpretation and choreography in their programs that have something to do with the music playing in the background.

    Imagine if skaters such as Lambiel and Takahashi just decide to minimize the risk and go for the win à la Lysacek. Figure skating would probably be virtually unwatchable.

  6. Wow, watching those Lysacek programs side-by-side was horrible. It was the same program with the exception of a navy blue tux and bedazzled snakes. Here is my spread eagle into my first combination! Except I'll slightly bend my arms and legs to make it vaguely look like some sort of ethnic dancing! Bump my TR, please! It still pains me to realize that out of a such deep men's field at the 2010 Olympics--I could have seen almost all of the guys in the top 10 on top of the podium--Lysacek's team managed to bullshit the judges enough to eke a gold.
    Sasha's shorts were all fabulous. According to every commentator on earth, you could really see the Yagudin influence in her Malaguena/Piano Concerto no. 2 footwork. The voodoo worked well with that one.

  7. Is this a pro-Plushy site in disguise, or fans of other skaters refusing to attach any excellence to Lysacek's performances and interpretations. Attempting to put an asterisk on his win because of injury, perhaps career ending to do further, and not helpful marks to attempt Quads last Olympics. (He has completed beautiful Quads and exits before.) I don't think we want to go Plushenko's jump for off axis jump and talk maybe of over-scoring.

    That Evan turned in excellent after excellent training may have impressed, also.

  8. Excuse me, but what does this post have to do with Plushy? I believe it is about 2 American skaters who skated to overused music - and the blogger gives his opinion on who was successful and why they were successful. Did you even read the post?

  9. Dear Anon at 5:13, if you read my past posts about Plushenko, I think that it's quite clear that I am as fervent a fan of Plushenko as I am of Lysacek.

    Moreover, I deplore this false dichotomy--that someone who is not appreciative of Lysacek's skating must therefore somehow be a fan of Plushenko's (or vice versa). It is very much possible to dislike both. For the record, I thought both skaters were over-scored at the Olympics.

  10. I totally agree with your last comment, morozombie!:) I dislike both of them and thought they were overscored!!:D:D:D

  11. I hope they show it when they broadcast Riverdance on Ice: Sasha did an exquisite skate to spoken poetry.

    Your points are well taken about Sasha making warhorses hers, but I still find it much more exhilerating when skaters skate to something unusual.