La Vie Bohème...

"Harlequin's Dream" and the Future of Figure Skating

by Eda Tseinyev

The question of art for art's sake has been debated throughout documented human history. Representation and deconstruction of cultural images and their significations is to some degree the distilling and crystallizing nature of art itself. An art historian sifts through what are essentially many mirrors' shards, attempting to assemble a tangible vision of the "other" while continually aware of one's own face staring back. And yet we all seek to look, to objectively understand, to integrate that "other" in order to enrich our own lives and broaden our perspectives.

What does this have to do with figure skating, you might ask? It is, simply put, this writer's excuse to take a theoretical tangent at the excuse of a simple four minute ice skating program, to attach cultural and historical significance to what can be taken at face value as an entertaining and athletic performance completely of the "here and now" (or then and now, since we watch video recordings of events from the recent and not-so-recent past). It is a liberty that is taken with the understanding that the mirror assembled will reflect a different visage to everyone who looks into it.

A figure skating program is a brief athletic event in which a miniature drama or, in the phrasing of the great Russian pairs skaters Artur Dmitriev and Natalya Mishkutyenok, a "symphony of emotions" is played out. The magical creation of this artificial environment, often by very young men and women, is what keeps the public's fascination with the sport alive. And yet figure skating, the most practically artistic and lyrical of sports, is also one of the most rule-bound and conservative in terms of movement, dress, carriage, and behavior. A battle about rules and what figure skating "should be" is continually waged, going back and forth between skaters, judges, fans, and Olympic committees. What is "artistry" and where does the thin line between "correct technique" and "artistic technique" fall? This warfare is to a great degree focused on defining the undefinable, the marks for artistic presentation. What is a sport that is half "artistry," where grace and balletic training are comparable with athletic finesse and consistent performance of difficult technical elements? Frequently, judges, commentators, and fans fall back upon established artistic forms as the "right way" to skate. These norms are based on classical ballet posture and a very rigid understanding of expression and musicality which stems in great part from an antiquated social structure that is still "played out" in the ice rinks.

Change comes very slowly in the world of ice skating. Its genteel roots now foster an often rigid conservatism and strictly defined images of what a male and female figure skater should and should not do and if they skate together, how they should interrelate. A few steps forward (Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay were ostracized for "Savage Rite" and criticized for "Mirror Image," but grudgingly accepted for "Missing II," one of their less innovative free dances) and then a few steps backward (Oksana Grishchuk and Yevgeni Platov, who capitalized on the enforcement, for all practical purposes, of traditional "ballroom" ice dancing themes despite their lack of technical proficiency or creativity). Exhibition performances and professional competitions should ideally include the artistic advances that amateur competition prohibits, but the skaters who proceed down this path are few and far between. More often, it appears that skaters are popular and thus well-paid when they stick to traditional forms of expression.

What, then, can we make of a skater who is a master of subtle subversion of this often stodgy, typically gender-stratified sport? That is, I believe, where the question of "art for art's sake" comes in, particularly in the case of an exhibition performance, supposedly the "open terrain" for figure skaters to explore, to celebrate, and to define themselves more individually for the public at large. Is it too self-serving to appreciate these programs as societal statements as well as "just a figure skating program," and are we by nature bound to interpret them to suit our best interests or prejudgements about the sport and the skater? Is there a place in this sport for pure freedom of movement?

The quality of freedom, in the sense of liberation as well as exuberance, is essential to the exhibition program "Harlequin's Dream," and indeed a common theme to Aleksei Urmanov's skating in general. His style is simply himself, there is no frantic assertion of particular social roles or overly gendered posturings. There is a sense of joy that the viewer cannot help but appreciate, as well as a body awareness that is both sensual and celebratory. And yet much of this has been subtle enough that many viewers do not see it for what it is. In skating, where themes and meanings have to be shouted across large arenas, loud enough to be heard over double this and triple this and counting rotations on spins, artistic subtleties are picked up only by those who are looking for it.
Copyright Photo by J. Barry Mittan

Although I fear reading too much into programs created for competition and to please a row of judges, I don't think it is too much to assert that a program created for the purpose of exhibition or "special performance" is by nature a statement about who that skater is and how they choose to define themselves. With that in mind, I think it does Aleksei great justice for his fans to pause and consider the theoretical complexity of what he gives to us, a "simple skater" doing a "simple program." But Aleksei is a very unique performer whose style can only be described as liberated in every sense of the word.

"Harlequin's Dream" is a delightful amalgam of the various affects Aleksei typically displays in a competitive program, often with tongue in cheek. Aleksei is a skater who loves to play on non sequiturs and paradoxes, as in his charming Rossini long program. "Harlequin's Dream" is flamboyant and complex, subtle and silly, graceful and sexy. The superficial look and theme of the program is based on clever dualities and opposites...two pieces of music, two costumes, two sides to the cape, two sides to the program (comedy and tragedy). And when one chooses to look a little deeper, it would seem that almost everything in the program has its opposite or paradox turning up at another time.

The entire program can be read as a study in the blurring of lines. The character of the Pierrot/Petroushka is essentially a tragic one, albeit in clown costume, and this is an evident reference from the moment that Aleksei takes the ice. What does it mean that he has taken on this persona? In the face of this setting as the clown who is "sad underneath the make-up," the first half of the program mimics the "circus antics" of some of the wildly popular figure skaters of the current time, who have the screaming audiences of rock bands and the raucous attitude and narcissism to match. He lurches to the boards, and wiggles before the audience to work up more enthusiasm. And yet, the strange gestures and the awkward movements are also evocative of Aleksei's own choreographic leitmotifs.

The most complex and clever choreographic element in the program is the use and understanding of the cape. Figure skating costumes are generally static thematic devices that are not actively engaged in the elaboration of meaning or emotion beyond the qualities of certain fabrics and how they are draped to flow during movements such as spins. Using a costume as a "prop" is forbidden in ISU competitive programs and is relatively rare even in professional competitions. The most recent widely broadcast professional program to incorporate a costume prop was the ice dancers Sergei Ponomarenko and Marina Klimova's use of a large red cape in their "Bride of Dracula" program, which Sergei described as a "symbol of blood."

The cape in Aleksei's "Harlequin's Dream" program is used not only as an elaborative costume (worn to show that he is a clown in the first half of the program, and later as the cape that is part of a toreador's "costume"), but also as almost another character in the "symphony of emotions." It is held tenderly as a love object. It is what eventually takes the actor's life. In other words, at times in the program it takes on a life of its own, while at other times it is part of a costume. As a costume, furthermore, the cape is used to describe all the various "personages" that Aleksei takes on. Beyond clown and toreador, the cape paradoxically elaborates the standard of a very traditionally masculine persona, that of the toreador, but also resembles the swirling skirts of the (female) dancing gypsies.

This is one of the more profound subtleties of the program, one that quietly and nonchalantly seems to challenge the frenetic gender-schema of figure skating. What is more incontrovertibly "female" than the layback spin with the short skirts flying around the skater's thighs? The International Skating Union has required female skaters to perform the layback spin as one of the mandatory elements of the short program. The International Skating Union forbids women skaters to wear trousers or leggings rather than skirts. And so Aleksei's layback posture in the spin as he holds the cape to his thighs and lets it fly around him is unmistakably an image of femininity...but not a mocking gesture or even an overtly politicized one. The heart of the program is subtlety, tongue in cheek humor, a clever inversio and subversion of what a figure skating program is supposed to be.

Is Aleksei a male or a female character in this story? Is he both? Is the cape the "other partner"? Which role(s) does he have -- clown? Toreador? Carmen? Is he a protagonist? Subject? Object?

The point, of course, is that he is all of them and none of them. The genius of the program is that it is not meant to be deciphered, but simply enjoyed with all of its paradoxes and subversions alongside each other. The fan is treated to an entertaining routine that unassumingly challenges some of the "shadow lines" of figure skating in an unaffected, almost blasé manner. The theoretically minded can attribute political or cultural meaning to these inversions, but the end result, the actual performance, remains the same.

Would that other amateur figure skaters were so creative and invested in their choreography, so liberated in their body movements, and so unique in their presentation. Aleksei is a rare talent and his exhibition program a rare masterpiece of understated innovation. Let us hope that a broader audience will some day be able to appreciate the breadth of the artistic and interpretive abilities of our young Olympic champion.

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