Alexei Zheleznyakov: “Gleikhengauz can do a lot of things, but he didn’t go through the versatile dancer’s path. We study a wide range of stylistics, while Daniil is an ice choreographer with certain limitations.”
Interview with choreographer of Tutberidze’s group Alexei Zheleznyakov.
source: RSport dd. 27th June 2023 by Svetlana Bonopartova
Choreographer Alexei Zheleznyakov has been working in the world of figure skating for over 15 years and is considered an integral part of Eteri Tutberidze’s team. In an interview, he discussed how dance has helped Alexandra Trusova, why it is not appropriate to criticize Danil Gleikhengauz’s choreography, and how Kamila Valieva experienced the Olympic scandal.
Many coaches recognize your unconventional approach and therefore choose to work with you. Why do they choose you?
Alexei Zheleznyakov: Athletes are unique individuals, and training in the rink and strength conditioning have a significant impact on their movement and emotions. Yes, many athletes have great flexibility and extension, but they don’t possess the microplastics and high coordination that dancers have. They often have stiff arms, tense fingers, and lack that magical fluidity. Over the years, you start noticing every detail that is essential for a figure skater. I know many secrets and interesting techniques, so the uniqueness lies precisely in this methodology.
Do figure skaters need the microplastics that dancers have?
Alexei Zheleznyakov: Of course, the ice surface doesn’t allow skaters to achieve as much as they can on the floor. However, when you possess high coordination, your brain works completely differently. It greatly influences technique. Athletes begin to instantly correct the mistakes pointed out by their coaches, they glide differently, and they feel their body in a different way. Everything in their mind flips 180 degrees. And, of course, dance adds emotionality; it allows a person to open up. Ultimately, all of this translates into higher components.
Why did coaches only recently start incorporating dance into the training process?
Alexei Zheleznyakov: The trend started with the Tutberidze group. Coaches realized that thanks to dance, figure skating took a big step forward. Without dance, a figure skater is just a person performing a set of elements. It’s not interesting. Everyone wants to see ballet on ice, creativity in programs, emotional performances, and at the same time, skaters executing ultra-c elements. And without danceability, an athlete simply cannot achieve that.
If someone doesn’t have natural plasticity, is it possible to learn it?
Alexei Zheleznyakov: There is an expression: you can even teach a bear to dance. It really works. If a teacher approaches their work with patience and responsibility, anything is possible. It just requires more time and patience. The exact amount depends on the individual. It’s all individual.
Many figure skaters, like Alexandra Trusova, are interested in Frame Up. Why do they choose this style?
Alexei Zheleznyakov: Dance should bring joy, be performed for the soul and psychological release. Figure skaters have a daily routine. You can even compare them to laborers who carry cement bags year after year. Figure skaters experience something similar: they constantly work on perfecting the same elements to bring them to an ideal level. And dance is about creativity and art.
So, figure skating is not considered a form of creativity?
Alexei Zheleznyakov: It is to some extent, for example, when creating a program. But mostly, it’s routine work. Many figure skaters are emotionally restricted; they have confined themselves to their own cages and don’t come out. Engaging in different dance styles helps release and loosen them up. Dance instills self-confidence, which is crucial for competitions because your inner state reflects on the ice. Everything is interconnected. That’s why I welcome figure skaters exploring different styles; it’s fantastic! Let them attend various masterclasses, try different coaches, and broaden their horizons.
Did Frame Up help Sasha (Alexandra) on the ice?
Alexei Zheleznyakov: I have always said that Sasha is an athletic type of skater. In my opinion, dance has helped her a lot. She became more feminine, her presentation changed. It’s about her inner state; she started searching for herself and began to unfold. Her feminine and feline essence awakened. There was a different presence on the ice, and everyone noticed it. Alina Gorbacheva, for example, is also an athletic skater, and dance is like air and water for her. We worked closely on her plasticity, choreography, musicality, and she genuinely improved a lot. That could be seen in her programs this year.
For example, Tamara Moskvina sees the development of pair skating in quadruple throws. Is it necessary to push for technical difficulty without significantly improving the choreography level of the skaters?
Alexei Zheleznyakov: It’s possible to work on both aspects, as seen in the Tutberidze group, for instance. We pay a lot of attention to the beauty of gliding, choreography, and the fluidity of hand movements. Just recall the beautiful arms of Kamila Valieva and the way Anna Shcherbakova works her core, with proper gliding and edges. And all of this doesn’t prevent us from studying ultra-c elements. There’s time for technique, and there’s time for beauty and components.
In your opinion, is it possible to execute five quadruple jumps while maintaining the program’s composition?
Alexei Zheleznyakov: Valieva has proven that it’s possible. Of course, the overall integrity of the program still suffers a bit because executing ultra-c elements requires a substantial buildup. If you fill that moment with a lot of choreography, you simply won’t be able to enter the jump properly. However, if your body is flexible, you hear the music, and you appropriately accentuate the movements, even a lengthy entry will look beautiful. But if you haven’t focused on these aspects, you’ll enter the quadruple jump stiffly, and there won’t be any beauty left.
Lately, there has been criticism towards Daniil Gleikhengauz for allegedly producing similar programs. Do you agree with this?
Alexei Zheleznyakov: The sense of similarity may arise because figure skating has a limited range of movement. There’s a specific set of steps that are interpreted differently. This limitation certainly affects the richness of choreography. Additionally, each athlete has their own specific style. If a skater naturally leans towards lyrical performances and you try to make them perform something creatively dynamic, they won’t be able to express it properly or execute the jumps. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel and force the skater into something that doesn’t suit them.
Many say that Anna Shcherbakova has become a hostage to a single style.
Alexei Zheleznyakov: That’s not true, and I completely disagree. You know what the best indicator is? If the audience gets goosebumps when she performs her program, then it’s working. Of course, you can attempt to convey a completely opposite image, but it’s better to initially do it in exhibition programs. If it resonates well, then you can incorporate something similar into the main program the following year. But if a coach understands that a skater is like a fish in the water when it comes to lyrical performances, why change anything? Let it be a year, two, or three of lyrical programs; as long as the results are effective.
Anna actually had a situation where they initially gave her “The East” program for the Olympic season, but then changed it.
Alexei Zheleznyakov: Well, if it didn’t work out, it means there were some aissues. Perhaps she was solely focused on the choreography and was losing her jumps as a result. The coach can see and feel that. An athlete becomes accustomed to developing one thing for years, and suddenly they’re forced to do something completely different. Naturally, everything starts to fall apart. What’s the point if the main goal is the podium and a medal? After all, it’s a sport.
What are figure skaters currently lacking in their programs? Has everyone grown tired of the classics?
Alexei Zheleznyakov: Of course, as a choreographer, I would like to see more diversity. But having worked in figure skating for so many years, I understand that transitioning to something else would be very challenging. If I were an official in the federation, I would create a third discipline where you can do whatever you want.
Like a show program tournament?
Alexei Zheleznyakov: That’s the right direction, but I would specifically create a third program within the competitive process. And there, skaters could showcase all their dance skills without solely relying on jumps, elements, and technique. They could be more creative. Yes, I believe that figure skating needs a breath of fresh air and new trends. People demand spectacle; they’ve grown tired of the same old thing.
Kamila mentioned that she would love to see new styles using fir the programs. Can modern dance styles fit organically into figure skating?
Alexei Zheleznyakov: They can, absolutely. But it’s not given to everyone. I think Valieva would handle such a task well because she dances wonderfully on the floor. She masters all dance styles: hip-hop, voguing — whatever you want. But it’s essential to consider whether that style suits figure skating. Experimentation is possible and necessary.
Will Daniil Gleichengauz be able to create something like that?
Alexei Zheleznyakov: Daniil can do a lot of things and has many capabilities, but he didn’t go through the versatile dancer’s path like us, choreographers on the floor. We study a wide range of stylistics, while Daniil is an ice choreographer with certain limitations. If he struggles with a particular task, he can bring in an external choreographer, like me or someone else.
We already mentioned Kamila Valieva. Elena Vaytsekhovskaya wrote this season, “Kamila was so good in her first senior season that now all her programs look like an attempt to catch up with a certain image that has passed, and in this race, Kamila is losing.” Did the doping scandal affect her as a skater? Did Valieva lose her magic?
Alexei Zheleznyakov: Of course, the situation affected her. Who wouldn’t be affected by such pressure? She was deeply upset, and it was evident during the first few months. She withdrew into herself, became reserved, and changed as a person. But some people break under such circumstances, while others go through this path, chew on it, and spit it out, which is what she did. She let it go. And she didn’t lose her charm. She simply matured; puberty started, she grew taller and gained weight, making it more challenging to coordinate her body because it was changing. A girl goes through transformations, and it’s a normal process. It may have seemed like she lost something because of that. But her work ethic hasn’t changed; she started working even harder and more fiercely to regain that form. However, it’s extremely difficult, almost unreal. You have to transform your body in a different way.
Can we say that she dedicated this season to getting accustomed to her body?
Alexei Zheleznyakov: Not just “can,” but “must,” that’s exactly it.
When it comes to the phenomenon of Valieva, what is it? Innate talent? Training? Intuition?
Alexei Zheleznyakov: Both. She is a heaven-kissed girl, an enormous talent. But Kamila is also very hardworking, which is rare to find in people. Typically, highly talented children tend to be lazy. They have a subconscious belief that there’s no need to work hard because they can accomplish everything effortlessly. But when hard work and talent come together, you get individuals like Kamila Valieva.
Will there be someone who can be as creative on the ice as she?
Alexei Zheleznyakov: I believe someone will appear. In the past, we had Yulia Lipnitskaya, who performed incredible spins, and then Evgenia Medvedeva appeared. Now, Kamila Valieva shines. Of course, athletes of that caliber will continue to emerge. These cases will be rare, but they will happen.
Do you believe Kamila will be able to avoid disqualification?
Alexei Zheleznyakov: Due to the political situation, I can’t predict anything. We’re just sitting and waiting, whatever happens, happens.
So she is prepared for all possible outcomes?
Alexei Zheleznyakov: I think, like any person, she hopes for the best, that it will all pass us by, but perhaps she is also preparing for the possibility of the opposite. Kamila is a very strong-willed girl, and she will get through all of this, but it’s a heavy blow.
This season, Alexandra Trusova and Anna Shcherbakova are not included in the main team. Do you think they will return to the ice?
Alexei Zheleznyakov: It all depends on the girls. If they want to come back, they will have to work twice as hard because young athletes are stepping on their heels. If I were in Sasha’s or Anna’s shoes, I probably wouldn’t return. Especially since Anna became an Olympic champion. There is nothing higher than that. I would dedicate myself to other things. They have a very fulfilling life right now, and it’s very difficult to go back to the routine. Plus, no one guarantees what the result will be: whether you can land quads again or if you’ll just break yourself in the training process. Do they need it?
Wakaba Higuchi: “The word “recharge” perfectly described it. I feel like I’m able to practice in a really good way.”