Alexander Zhulin: champions shouldn’t have lifts that novice skaters can do
Translation of Elena Vaitsekhovskaya’s interview with Alexander Zhulin.
First she asked him to assess the results of the first half of this season.
– To put it bluntly, I see that the top five pairs can shuffle in any order now. Perhaps, I would point out only one pair – the Olympic champions of Vancouver Tessa Virtue / Scott Moir. They remained the same charismatic skaters, whom they’ve always been, proved by winning the Grand Prix final and the Four Continents Championships that they’re leaders of the season and this magic applies to everyone, including judges, so higher scores are deservedly throwed to Canadians.
Do you think that the matter is primarily in magic?
– Of course, not only in it. But here’s just one example: in the free program Canadian duo have a piece where Scott is skating on his two feet for forty seconds. But since it is Virtue / Moir, everyone closes their eyes to this. Although I’m more than sure: if any Russian coach choreograph something like that for his pair, he will be “buried” already at the test skates. If it suddenly “slips through”, then pair will be buried ar the first competition and this will be absolutely fair.
When we talked with you at the beginning of last season, you told almost the same about French duo Gabriella Papadakis – Guillaume Cizeron, about one of their lifts. In particular, that lift does not correspond to the fourth level of difficulty and would have never received it if it had been performed by a Russian pair.
– Actually, Papadakis / Cizeron remade that lift. Now, in their program, everything, as they say, corresponds to the letter of the law. But tell me, what is more difficult: to do a lift in the “spread eagle” which, of course, is difficult in its own way, beautiful and gets a “+3”, or to do an upside down lift, where Katya rotates with no hands? It is clear that such an element has less chances to be performed absolutely cleanly, because skaters risk. But the risk in this case is not encouraged by additional points, not assessed.
Why then is it needed?
– Well, it’s necessary somehow to move figure skating forward. Sometimes deliberately by going beyond the existing rules.
Like Zhenya Medvedeva does by jumping extra combinations in the free program?
– Exactly. Performing them, she seems to say: “Guys, let us do, let us go ahead!” The current rules are arranged in such a way that if one of the skaters starts to do a five-turn jump, it will not be evaluated. In order for such a jump to get in the list of allowed elements, the athlete must perform it at official competitions. But who will do it, knowing that he will not receive a proper marks?
If we talk about ice dance, I think that pairs who claim to win the championship should not have lifts that novice skaters can do easily. Champions should move their sport forward. Remember the lift that Meryl Davis and Charlie White did, when she flied on his shoulder without any visible effort? Everyone who saw this had a single reaction: “Wow!” This is definitely “+3”. If I were a judge, I would encourage those pairs who perform elements of such class.
When with Katya and Dima we started to come up with their current lifts, the judges were constantly telling us: look at Papadakis Cizeron: they perform all their elements so easily, that it’s impossible to give them any other mark than “+3”. To make a stronger impression, it is not enough for us to perform the same elements just as easily and cleanly. We need something that can also amaze the audience with complexity, risk, anything.
What prevents from doing it?
– The fact that in figure skating everything has already been invented. This is on the one hand. On the other hand, we missed three World Championships. Three! Each of them is a step backwards. After been injured in March 2014, Soloviev had to be treated for more than a year. When the guys started to perform again, they received a second marks of 7.50 – 7.75, while for the Olympic Games in Sochi they reached the level of 9.25 – 9.50. When we managed to go back to our former positions, a story with meldonium happened. Fortunately that didn’t lead to a serious consequences as long disqualification, but Katya and Dima missed the World Cup, where other couples continued to earn ratings and titles. And this season Virtue and Moir joined to the group of leaders.
Of course, we are working hard to break this situation. I know the shortcomings of the guys, I know their strengths, I try to pull out these strengths. After all we were able to win the short dance at the European Championships. So, it means something clicked in the heads of the judges? Although figure skating, of course, is largely a matter of taste.
I would not seriously look up to the result of a short dance. Still, this part of the program has never been Papadakis / Cizeron’s unequivocally strong side. And the world champions-2014 Anna Cappellini / Luca Lanotte lost to you only because they got a deduction.
– I have already told you and can repeat that I admire the French pair. I see some kind of other-worldly magic in this duo. Guillaume has an amazing choreographic preparation that any ballet dancer could be envy, plus he has an amazing feeling of a pose. When he skates, the quality of this skating overlaps any shortcomings of his partner. And no matter how much I would like to think otherwise, it’s completely impossible to “make Cizeron” of any other skater. Therefore, at the European level we try to follow their example, not to some other duet.
I agree, but let me ask a more “practical” question: when Bobrova and Soloviev in their free dance get second level for the step sequence, not third, do you, as a coach, understand where exactly the judges found fault with?
– When the skaters perform the step sequence at high speed, it is almost impossible to understand this. If you want, you can find fault with every step. Especially brackets. I myself skated “figures” and I know that to do a bracket absolutely correctly possible only on a small speed.
In other words, there is no way to polish the step sequence so that judges won’t have any chance to find faults?
– I think no. You can choreograph such step sequence. You can even polish it to such a state that any visiting technical expert will say that it’s not just the third level, but almost fourth. It’s just a daunting task to achieve the equally perfect execution of the steps by both partners at the right time. It’s enough for one partner to slightly under turn a foot on a single step and that’s all. So it turns out that step sequence is the most “expensive” element of the ice dance program, but at the same time this is also the most “easy-to-kill” element.
Speaking at the beginning of our conversation about the top five duets, whom exactly did you mean besides Virtue / Moir and Papadakis / Cizeron?
– My personal choice is Bobrova / Soloviev, Maia and Alex Shibutani and Madison Chok / Evan Bates.
Why Chok / Bates, not Weaver / Poje, for example?
– Just visually I started to like the second Canadian duo less. But this is not an assessment, just personal impressions. To be honest, I have never been a supporter of discussing the work of my colleagues, looking for shortcomings in it, I always pay much more attention to the pross. I constantly try to see what others do that we don’t do.
What qualities of your rivals do you usually point out?
– I like how Cizeron’s knees work. I like how in the pair Virtue / Moir the “man-woman” relationship works. I like the clarity of Shibutani’s elements, every movement is brought to an absolute perfection. I can’t say something special about others duos. I can’t admire what I see as a spectator, because they always lack something.
Commenting on the performance of Bobrova and Soloviev at the European Championships in Ostrava, you called both skates ideal. Do you really think so?
– Well, I had to say something to your colleagues in the mixed zone. The drawbacks certainly were, but why to talk about it at such moment? The main thing is that we know them and understand where we have a reserve for growth.
And is there a reserve?
– If there were not, we would not have lost to Papadakis and Cizeron only four points this year. I say “only”, because last season we lost 20 points to them and frankly, I thought that we are not fated in our life to catch up with the French. Regarding to the European Championships, I can say that as a coach I was amazed at how easily Katya and Dima skated both programs. Without internal strain, despite very tough competition. Now we just work. We are trying to make sure that the programs will be even more powerful, deeper for the World Championships. In principle, everything turns out.
Many already think about programs of the Olympic season.
– We are not an exception. We have the music, have an idea, I can not say anything more, maybe we will bring a new choreographer to work.
Don’t you afraid to give the pair in other’s hands in the Olympic season?
– Anyway, I’ll do the skating part. But as for the image and its choreographic expression, it may be only for the best tochange the “hand” of choreographer.
Doesn’t work in the “Ice age” hamper the creative search for new ideas? Isn’t there a feeling that choreographic templates of the TV project begin to limit your mind concerning professional sport?
– Quite the contrary. The moves which most coaches use for choreography tasks in our sport are rather limited and monotonous. Many are simply afraid to take any new themes. “Ice Age” is good because it gives an opportunity not only to try anything, but also to understand how some image can be expressed on the ice.
But what about the famous theory that if you direct creative energy in one direction, it certainly won’t be enough somewhere else?
– There is an interesting point. On the one hand, working in sports and shows, you are really sprayed, but at the same time it disciplines a lot. Frankly speaking, it’s certainly not enough creativity in sport for me. If it was my will, I would make not one, but two free programs for ice dancers, although I know that many coaches would not agree with me on this.