Thursday, March 1, 2012

Figuring Out the Problem

For my second blog post, I have decided to continue with the world of sports. This time, however, I want to look at a field that is more traditionally seen as inspiring creativity, but which has been somewhat lacking in recent years: Figure skating.

First, a little bit of history. At the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002, a rare event took place: 2 couples were awarded gold in the pairs figure skating competition, Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze of Russia, and Jamie Salé and David Pelletier of Canada. This was the result not of an actual tie, but of a scandal involving the French judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne who was pressured into voting for the Russians over the Canadians, in exchange for Russian votes for France in the later Ice Dance competition. The following video (though somewhat cheesy in the beginning) does provide a good account of the event:

As explained at the end of the video, the scandal led to a complete overhaul of the scoring system by the International Skating Union (ISU). The system in use during the 2002 Games is now generally referred to as the 6.0 system. The new system is significantly more complex, but the most important aspect here is that for each competition, ladies’, men’s, and pairs, competitors have a required set of elements they must perform in both the short and free programs. They are judged in part on how well they execute these necessary elements. Additionally, they are awarded extra points if they perform more difficult elements executed after the halfway point of the skate.  

The ISU implemented the new system in the hopes that it would cut down on cheating such as the 2002 scandal, and there has been some discussion over whether it actually does as intended. The real backlash comes, however, from the idea many people hold that, because of the added emphasis on technical ability and such a rigid set of requirements, skaters have less freedom to be creative with their programs. They are so worried about completing everything just right, that every sense of artistry is lost.

As an avid fan of figure skating, I am inclined to agree. Prior Vancouver 2010 Olympics I was looking forward to the various skating competitions immensely, as I do every year. But as I watched, I found myself less and less impressed. The routines seemed more contrived than I could ever recall, and it seemed, especially in the women’s competition, that the winners were decided before the event even began. There was no hope for repeat of 2006, when Shizuka Arakawa of Japan came out of nowhere to win gold; Kim Yu-Na was going to get gold, and she did, and silver and bronze played out much as expected, as well.

The only things that truly caught my attention were 2 of the performances in the men’s long program competition. The first was Florent Amodio. It was not just his incredible performance (one everyone should watch,especially fans of the film Amelie) that made me remember him, but a remark made by the commentators. They discussed that it was a shame he could not contend for a medal, because although his routine was a crowd favorite and very fun and artistic, it was not up to the same level technically as the rest of the men. He placed 12th overall because his artistry was not enough to carry him, where it once may have been even with a less technically challenging performance.

It seemed to me that the only one who was able to combine both extraordinary technical skill with a beautiful performance was Evan Lysacek. The 2009 World Champion, he was a front runner for gold from before the start of the Olympics, along with several others, including Evgeni Plushenko of Russia (the rest ended up claiming spots in the top 10, behind Lysacek and Plushenko). Controversy still abounds over the final result of the competition. Many believe that because he did a quadruple toe-loop, one of the hardest jumps in skating, Plushenko deserved to win, even though there were faults with other aspects of his program. However, many agreed that Lysacek had the more creative program. While both are technically strong skaters, some saying Plushenko more so, it was once again the artistic elements of the skaters on which the final judgment hinged. Although the quadruple jump was incredibly difficult to execute, professionals watching commented that Lysacek did not need it. Perhaps Lysacek puts it best himself. In an interview following the games, he said, “If it was a jumping competition, they’d give you 10 seconds to go do your best jump. But it’s about 4 minutes and 40 seconds of skating and performing from start to finish.That was my challenge tonight, and I feel like I did quite well.”

Following are the same routines he skated in the Olympics, though the video is from another competition. (I was especially excited to discover, upon re-watching these routines for this post, that he skates to Firebird by Stravinsky, who I am doing my presentation on, and Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov, the mentor of Stravinsky.)

What sets him apart from many competitors is that his choreography seems to fit within the music. Many performances I saw during the Olympics felt like watching someone skate around and do fancy technical moves, with music playing in the background, but there was very little connection between the two. Lysacek brings an amount of musicality to his routines that many others seem to lack. He hits all the right elements, even adding some that are not required that get him more points, but he does not seem to do it for the points. It is all part of telling the story of the music, not simply showcasing footwork. The only times such a case is seen regularly is either with competitors like Amodio, who are not in the running and can therefore afford to be more artistic, or in the exhibition routines, which are done after the competition is over and for fun rather than points.

That is what I love about all of Lysacek’s performances: Each one seems to be done for fun. While he remains one of the top figure skaters in the world, and I am sure certainly enjoys winning, there is a passion that can be felt from his performances that is so unique in at the senior level today.

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