Irrelevant Information

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


  1. Wow, I was in Helsinki that night as well and did a write-up of the experience that sounds very similar to what you've just posted.

    I also used the words "witness", "collective", and "unified" to describe the whole experience. Even had the random hug with the fan next to me who I hadn't spoken a single word to the entire competition. We were all just that happy and excited, an unbelievable experience that still lingers with me days after it ended. Needless to say I've been in an incredibly good mood even after returning to work.

  2. Oh, you're back!

    This is an interesting post because I was watching it on screen and was absolutely bored by it except in that objective way of "Yes, he did something impressive, obviously." No one would ever accuse me of being a Chan fan, but I found his performance the most captivating of the men's event. Curious, curious... but at any rate I hope you'll post more, I've been missing your posts!

  3. I was there in the arena and it was the most amazing performance! The collective cheers and clapping all way from his last lutz and then the screams and cries that following it. I felt very lucky to be able to witness this in person. It has already been a week, and I'm sifting through youtube to find all the fancam.

  4. And a big THANK YOU for your post!!!

  5. @kiches
    I'm glad I'm not the only one who felt that way! It was probably THE most intense figure skating experience I've ever had. . . thank you for reading!

    TBH I think Mr. Hanyu's LP at the GPF was better interpretation-wise, but I felt his performance at Worlds was still spell-binding. I thought Chan performed very well as well, but the level of audience connection was not quite on the level of Mr. Hanyu's . . . it was much better in the SP. Strangely, I thought Chan's best performance of his LP this season, interpretation-wise, was also at the GPF. Thank you for reading!

    @Alia Jackson
    I felt that the most spine-tingling moment was the silence leading up to the 4S-3T combination in the second half. I swear, it felt like the entire arena was collectively holding its breath. I too feel so fortunate to have witnessed it in person--it was truly a performance for the ages. A big thank you to you for reading :)

  6. Thank you for your post. It has been quite a long time. Personally I did not like this program at first, but it has grown on me. I think at some point, top skaters have to challenge themselves with the kind of programs in which they do not portray any character or dance style but themselves. I have seen that with Hanyu and Patrick this season. It's like at some point of their maturity, they have to reach that. I like both of their programs this season.
    About Hanyu's Hope and Legacy, in my opinion, it's the most complex program of this season. Here is an analysis of every turn, step and transitions Hanyu did in his program:
    The writer is a Russian and it was translated carefully into English.
    It seems Hanyu only had like 19 crossovers in his entire program.

  7. Yes, it was certainly intense! I've watched Yuzuru's amazing SP live in Boston last season which was also close to breaking his world record. While I can say that Boston's SP was also filled with a sense of elation and mastery, it really didn't compare to the charged feeling in Helsinki during the free.