Figure skating is generally thought of as an Olympic sport in which the men crank off quadruple jump after quadruple jump, and the pairs perform gravity-defying lifts, but some skaters, especially those participating in the discipline of ice dance, use their routines to make artistic statements about political or cultural concepts, as if the ice was a painter’s canvas or a theatre’s stage. Two well-known ice dance teams who have done this are the 2002 Olympic champions Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat, and the 1991 world champions Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay.
Although Anissina and Peizerat competed for France, the events of September 11, 2001 inspired them to base their theme on American freedom for their 2002 Olympic free dance, titled “Liberty.” The team skated to instrumental music, interspersed with voiceovers from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. There were some Americans, including NBC commentator Tom Hammond, who thought that the inclusion of the voiceovers was disrespectful to Americans. However, Anissina and Peizerat did a fairly good job illustrating the concept of American freedom despite their overt symbolism seeming slightly cliché at times. During the program, Gwendal represented humanity oppressed, while Marina represented freedom. Highlights throughout the program included both dancers taking the Statue of Liberty’s pose, raising their arms and breaking free of their chains and oppression rocking freedom as one would rock a baby.
This program, while well executed technically and in terms of its theme, was somewhat underwhelming when it came to both depth and originality. The theme was rather commonplace for the time period (2002 Olympic silver medalists Irina Lobacheva and Ilia Averbukh performed a free dance with a similar theme), and there was no need to look beneath the surface to understand the program’s meaning; all of the symbolism was right in one’s face. For the casual fan, this may have been a good thing, but for those who appreciate figure skating as an aesthetic discipline, and take pleasure in figuring out the meaning of aesthetic works, it likely was not.
One set of programs that also illustrated political concepts, but was not as simplistic as Anissina and Peizerat’s routine was the set of “Missing” programs performed by Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay, also competing for France. In 1990, the Duchesnays introduced their “Missing I” free dance as a tribute to people who disappeared (and likely became political prisoners) during the age of military dictatorships in South America. The title, minus the “I”, was borrowed from a 1982 film that focused on events during the Cold War. The brother and sister team skated to traditional South American pan flute music, and the program represented a time when many South Americans were still under dictatorship rule and trying to break free. The music was skillfully used to show the couple’s struggle. It started off slowly, with a sad tone, and then became fast and frenetic, creating a mood of anger and frustration. As the music sped up, the couple’s movements became more aggressive. While the Duchesnays didn’t use symbolism in as obvious a manner as Anissina and Peizerat did, their movements intentionally lacked calmness and smoothness so that their struggle would be effectively depicted. Isabelle did end in an obvious pose of liberty at the end, which represented the idea that the pair had broken free.
Making an artistic statement about political or cultural matters on ice is an arduous task. Dancers skate together in holds throughout most of the program, limiting their available range of expression. Along with their artistic elements, they must also fit difficult technical elements into their routines to receive high scores from the judges. Occasionally, when watching a program, it’s difficult to tell whether a certain move is a required element or a symbolic artistic element. However, the biggest mistake skaters can make is trying to express a political or cultural sentiment that they’re ignorant about. While there are masterpieces like “Missing I” there are also programs like Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin’s original dance of 2010 in which the dance team didn’t necessarily intend to express a political sentiment through their program, but in the minds of many viewers, they did.
Domnina and Shabalin were originally supposed to portray Australian Aboriginals, but their portrayal was anything but accurate. At various competitions, they showed up on the ice in garish red, green and white costumes that bore little resemblance to what Australian Aboriginals actually wore, and engaged in exaggerated facial expressions, tacky sexual moves and other offensive gestures. As well, for the first few competitions of the 2009-10 season, Shabalin was dressed in a costume that made his white skin appear brown, which he eventually got rid of before the Olympics due to public offense. Intentionally or not, this team managed to make a political statement, which was perceived as racist, through their art. In conversation with the critical press, they and their coach were wishy-washy as to whether they meant to represent Australian Aboriginals specifically, or just meant to represent generic early humans (their original claim was that they were to represent the former).
The 2014 Winter Olympics are still a few months away yet there’s already political unrest surrounding these Games in regards to the negative perception and questionable treatment of homosexuals in Russia. We’ll have to wait and see what happens on the ice, and whether dancers will choose to make political or cultural statements with their programs or play it safe.
Do you think ice dancing should be kept purely as an Olympic sport (with the dancers focusing solely on executing the required elements in an attractive manner), or do you think there is room for the expression of political and cultural views?
Image 1: By MA Peltier
Image 2: By David W. Carmichael (Creative Commons BY-SA), via Wikimedia Commons