Alexey Zheleznyakov: It kills me when I see a seven year old girls skating to Carmen
Big interview with Alexey Zheleznyakov – choreographer of Eteri Tutberidze’s group.
by for business-gazeta.ru dd. 10th January, 2019
The interview is big, so the author made brief theses:
- According to Zheleznyakov, Tutberidze is a sensitive and vulnerable woman.
- Today, choreography has reached its peak of development. Modern programs are much more spectacular than retro.
- Valieva is a “kissed by God” girl. Zheleznyakov noticed her talent long before she joined Tutberidze’s group.
- Trusova understands that she has problems with choreography and asks for additional classes herself.
- Orser and Medvedeva did the right thing by returning to the lyrical style. The attempt to skate jazz was unsuccessful.
- The age eligibility is a fight against natural progress, but sometimes it is necessary to restrain development for the sake of athletes’ health.
- An excess of athletics physical training can have a negative effect on the skater’s plastic.
Alexey, in an interview you said that you wasn’t familiar with figure skating before meeting with Eteri. Can you tell me more?
– This is not entirely true. Before Eteri, I was well familiar with figure skating, just not with sports one. I worked in ice shows (more precisely, with a circus on ice), and for a long time. We spent six months in Hungary. We did a production there for a new show, performed in Russia. So I was in the industry before I met Eteri Georgievna. She gave me the opportunity to get closer to the sport of the highest achievements.
How long ago it was?
– If I’m not mistaken, 12 years ago. For so many years, Eteri Georgievna and I have been working together.
Then no one knew her, she just returned from the USA, right?
– By that time, she have been working In Chrystalny for about a year. Everything has already settled down. But in any case, this was only the beginning of a great coaching career, her becoming as a great coach. Polina Shelepen, Adian Pitkeev and Zhenechka Medvedeva, who was very small were then in the group.
I started to work with the veterans of the Eteri’s group and went with her through different stages. Many people changed, the team was constantly updated, Eteri was very scrupulous about this. She was constantly looking for suitable specialists to make the team work like a Swiss watch. Each person for her is the gear of a large mechanism that she has been collecting for so many years. And I went with Eteri Georgievna all this way hand in hand. There was everything: swears, hugs, and some life-changing experiences…
Did you work with skaters only on the floor from the very beginning?
– No. When we first started working with Eteri, we did programs on ice together. She did not have a permanent choreographer, then Eteri pulled everything herself. Our first joint work on ice was for Moris Kvitelashvili. The second is Charlie Chaplin for Evgenia Medvedeva.
It was fun, but when everything got to a serious level, the requirements became completely different. You need to work professionally, considering every little thing. Why should I interfere in it if I do not understand? When it’s necessary, ice-choreographer brings an athlete to me and asks me to polish the finished program. On the floor we work on specific elements.
Now you don’t do choreo on ice, do you?
– I decided that each of us should do his own job. The Tutberidze’s team has a wonderful choreographer – Daniil Gleikhengauz. He puts cool program, creative, Eteri herself comes up with cool ideas. And as a result – chic programs. Why should I interfere if there are people who will do the job much better? The mechanism should work correctly and in Tutberidze’s team each specialist has his own specific role. You can’t rearrange the gears, otherwise it won’t work.
I’m a pro in my field. Not skating at the proper level, I’d rather work with skaters on the floor. I understood this specificity on the up and up and still learning, trying to develop.
Do you consult with Daniil Gleikhengauz?
– Seldom. There are times when we discuss the details with him, but in general Daniil Markovich is a self-sufficient specialist, with his own vision. There is no reason for me to interfere into his work. If I notice something, I can come up and ask about a specific moment. Or if he needs help. Some transitions from my choreography are used in programs, however, mainly in exhibitions programs. Daniel sometimes comes to jazz classes and watches in what style athlete moves better, in order to understand which choreography is closer to the athlete.
What is your opinion on Eteri as a person?
– Many people think that she is a cruel and cold person. She creates such an impression of herself. When you look at her on TV, she seems like a snow queen. Not a single emotion. But in fact, behind this mask a storm of emotions boils. She is very good at restraining herself. Behind a strong character there’s a very vulnerable and sensitive woman. It will be difficult for some of her ill-wishers to believe this, but Eteri is a living person with a real soul. Usually, strong people are very vulnerable, they just never show it in public.
She restrains herself for the sake of her athletes. They see confidence in her and behind her they are as safe as behind a stone wall. When the coach is nervous, it instantly transferres to the athlete. This steadiness comes with time, with experience. You need to be reborn from an athlete to a coach, and this is a long and difficult process.
Then Mishin looks as a softie.
– I would not say that. Aleksei Nikolaevich has life wisdom and he perceives any situation calmly, without emotions. He has already seen so many things in life that it is difficult to make him happy or upset. He perceives everything philosophically. I have great respect for him, it worth a lot to train high-level athletes at such a venerable age. I generally respect people of that era, they are tempered by life. People of our generation grew up in “greenhouse conditions”.
Did you watch figure skating in childhood?
– Of course. In Soviet times, there was nothing interesting on television. Figure skating competition on TV was like holiday. We watched all the time. I think the whole country was watching. I really liked it, I wanted to try. But at that time in our city there were neither coaches, nor skating rinks. There was nowhere to skate. If then the sport had been developed as now, I probably would have become a skater. Because I loved this sport. I really wanted to, but there was no opportunity.
Has figure skating changed dramatically over 15 years?
– The choreography has gone far forward. It became fashionable to engage in jazz modern, contemporary styles, children began to move better, more energetically. They began to take choreography more seriously, its role increased. And dancing skills affect both technique and gliding. Dances develop body coordination, which helps to perform complex jumps, to spin better, skate. You feel your body better.
Look at figure skating of 20 years ago: a few skaters could have presented themselves and show something cool on ice. There was no balance, there was a bias towards technique. A typical program of 2000th: stroking, entry pattern, jump, stroking. Waved, winkled – that’s the whole choreography. The main thing is to make the quadruple. Now in high-level competitions, almost everyone has the presentation skill. We see the most complex transitions, steps, the body works, hands, emotions. And such a program looks completely different. Figure skating cannot do without choreography.
At the same time, if you add to many choreography and transitions to the program, then it won’t be enough strength for complex jumps …
– I agree. Each athlete is individual. If the program is too complicated and the skater can’t cope with it, then it should be simplified. What is the need of too sophisticated choreography with innovative entry patterns if the skater fails all the jumps? There should be harmony, and a competent specialist always sees this. The choreographer, technical coach, head coach during the first skate should understand whether the athlete can skate such program or not. We can’t talk about high places if there are always mistakes.
It rare happens that an athlete, even if he feels a lack of strength, will tell the coach that he will not perform one or another element. Sport as an army, the coach decides. But there is responsibility on the coach. He must consider all factors. If the skater copes, make such a program so that everyone gasps. Not? Better let him skate an easier program, but clean.
Is there a balance now between presentation and technique?
– All individually. It’s different for everyone. Someone has it, someone lacks it. There are skaters who skate very gracefully, but cannot do ultra-si elements. Others have an athletic body. It’s easier for them to do quadruples, but the same athleticism does not allow them to glide softly and to show good choreography. And you can’t get anywhere from this, it’s nature. There could be no “one size fits all” approach.
Ok, let’s take two extremes. Jason Brown – he is considered one of the most component skaters of our time, but he has difficulties with quads. And the Chinese Boyan Jing – he has great technique of quadruples, while the choreography is practically absent. What is closer to you?
– Bad skating and choreography is not a sentence. Why can not a skater with excellent technique improve his choreography to become even stronger? Guys with too many muscles come to my classes to combine strength with plastic better. If you make the body more plastic and dancing, the technique will not break. On the other hand, if the skater is very plastic, but discoordinated and jumps don’t turn out, then work on “physics” is needed. To strength back, muscles. A good coach immediately sees how to help an athlete. This is the coaching talent.
Can you name programs that you remember most?
– I have seen so many different things for so many years. What really hooked … Probably, “Schindler’s List” by Julia Lipnitskaya. Although at that time it was very impressive, but now the choreography has stepped so far that you can already see some flaws. The artistic image could have been brighter, and the movements could have been more complex, meaningful. Music gives goosebumps, but the program itself does not reach modern standards. Therefore, it is difficult to remember something specific.
Gala programs are more memorable. There are no frames, artistic images are brighter, movements are more creative. More freedom for creativity. I love Browning’s “Singing in the Rain”, Javi Fernandez’s programs. I generally quickly forget sports programs; they do not remain in my memory as gala programs.
But there are cases when the program becomes heritage. For example Yagudin’s “Winter” at the 2002 Olympics.
– I think that’s because there was no such glut of figure skating then. They showed not many interesting things on TV, and Yagudin with his “Winter” was amazing. But if he had showed this program now, there wouldn’t have been such effect, because there are a lot of other things around. There are a lot of skaters and also good programs. This program is remembered simply because of nostalgia.
Urmanov’s programs cause me nostalgia. When I grew up, followed Plushenko. I really liked his Sex Bomb program. I dreamed of such a fiery performance.
Do you like such expressive programs?
– Of course. I am always for creativity. Exhibitions should be like a show. It is necessary to show everything that you can. How you move, show the artistic image. And this should be interesting to the audience. I can not stand it, when at the exhibitions the skater show a quickly made program wearing jeans and t-shirt. Mournful music, movements with no sense, the audience fell asleep … The easiest option is to skate last year’s modified program. This is potboiler, you can’t do that. After a good exhibition program, the viewer should scream with delight!
If you are a top athlete and the whole world is looking at you, you can’t show some kind of shame. Great attention is paid to competitive programs, but none to exhibition programs. As a result, you lose face, brand, coaching staff also works in the red. Eteri’s team is always trying to bring something creative, interesting to exhibitions. Therefore, the public loves them, they are invited to the shows. This is also work on the popularization of figure skating. Exhibitions have a much wider audience, with their help you can attract viewers to the stands.
If the program is being discussed, then is it successful?
– Not always. It happens that they discuss like “What was it?” Bad PR is also PR. You can make some nonsense and get hype, but let the world better discuss the exhibition program enthusiastically.
Tuktamysheva explained the choice of her unusual program to Toxic as a way of popularizing figure skating. Is it a good decision or bad PR?
– She got a good hype! But there should be measure in everything, culture and aesthetics. In this case, she slightly crossed the line. You can even do a program about putana or a stripper, but do it carefully, skillfully, without crossing the line. With her exhibition program Liza made almost the whole world talk about her. The idea itself is good, but the choreographer should have explained to Tuktamysheva how to execute it more elegant, to make it stylish.
Plushenko’s program with undressing turned out better?
– It had humor, it was comic. And everyone took it that way. If he had really undressed to G-string, the reaction of people would have been perplexing. But he had a foam costume with a mountain of muscles. That was funny. His program reminds me of Kurt Browning’s clown. You can not cross the line of vulgarity. If the idea of the program is erotic, then you need to present it with taste.
With whom is the most interesting for you to work with?
– As a choreographer, I enjoy working with those who move well. Because with them you can go crazy, in a good way, in the dance hall and do something extraordinary.
It is nice to work with veterans of Tutberidze’s group, whom I already know well. I have been working with them since childhood and have reached such a level that guys are a sight for sore eyes. They can dance absolutely in any style and pretty good. Of course you can’t compare them with professional dancers. But for skaters, they move very well. You can do a variety of programs for them, be creative in exhibitions.
I really liked working with Zhenya Medvedeva … It is a pity that she left us, but this is her choice. It’s fate. I will not discuss and condemn her decision. It is always interesting to work with Moris, to learn new styles.
All children are cool, they all have their own things. I try to approach the work individually. Any skater can have an interesting program. It is important that they are dancing, plastic. The basic work is done, now is the time of creativity.
When children start from scratch, training is hard. You need to invest strength, emotions, explain them basic things. For me as an artist, it’s not so interesting. I want to engage in a creative process that brings fun.
Was working with Lipnitskaya fun?
– Julia is a real nugget, however, she has not been with us for a long time and does not perform as an athlete. I am comfortable with those who have been training in our group for many years. But slowly, newcomers also improve.
For example, Kamila Valieva. She has gorgeous balletic preparation, I made an Adagio for her. Few athletes can cope with a choreography of this level. She would be easily taken to a dance school. With her body type she is born for ballet. Kamila is very soft, light, elegant. Kissed by God! Who knows, if not for figure skating, maybe we would have heard about her, as about the prima of the Mariinsky or the Bolshoi Theater. Mastery was given to her by higher powers, and this must be used. I like working with her in a classic style, but if you take modern movements, then she does not have enough fixation points, strength, explosive power.
Have you heard of Valieva before she joined Eteri’s group?
– I taught at Moskvich skating rink and noticed Kamila at one of the trainings. I noticed the girl on the first movements. As a choreographer I have an eye for that, I can immediately see a talented child. Kamila is eye-catching from an early age. Then I did not work with her yet, but I followed her career. It was evident that the girl had a great future. She’s lucky. But it’s not enough to have talent, you still need character. In sports, the most important thing is to work hard.
Did Eteri Georgievna ask you for a review of Kamila when she came to Chrystalny for a try out?
– Eteri is so experienced that she does not need reviews from other people. She sees everything: both technique and choreography. There is nothing supernatural for a professional here. Tutberidze does not need to ask the team for an opinion, she herself understands when she meets talent. Eteri has an eye for such things, she finds such a unique talents!
Kamila is jumping quads now. So, is she the best example of a balance of technique and grace?
– Maybe. But Kamila moves well in a classic way, she has perfectly plastic movements. You can give her a lyrical jazz modern. But she won’t cope with something more dynamic, aggressive. Then the jumps will fall apart, there will not be enough functional training, athleticism like Sasha Trusova has. Therefore, do not jump above your head. You need to understand what style is closer to the skater, you shouldn’t break him and go against nature. It’s better to develop what he has and gradually try something new.
Is Kostornaia closer to Valieva’s type?
– I think yes. But Alena can perform dynamic movements and show powerful choreography. Kostornaia is a universal skater, but there are a lot of similarities between them.
Did it happened that it was difficult to explain to the athlete the need of work on choreography?
– I still often face this. Even some coaches do not understand why they need to work on dances, give jazz-modern for their athletes, think that classic dance is enough. This is an erroneous belief, because any athlete needs coordination. Very often you have to argue with children and their parents, who from the first training instilled a focus on jumps. They absorbed all this, and it is very difficult to explain then the necessity of dance training. I give arguments that better coordination will be only an advantage for technique.
Do you have to explain Trusova the need of work on choreography?
– I have no problems with Sasha. When she skated in Volkov’s group, I noticed how her natural athleticism does not allow her to spin and glide as well as more plastic children do. But there was no need to explain her the need of dance training. On the contrary, Sasha’s mother herself brought her to individual training. There is an understanding of the problem and a desire to solve it. And we see the result, Sasha is more dancing and plastic now.
So, considering Sasha’s technical advantage, how to motivate her to work on components?
– You have to be a fool to not understand what kind of points the quads give her. Both parents and coaches understand. Therefore, she focuses on technique. There should be choreography, but according to the content. It is impossible to enter the quadruple jump from the most difficult steps, and show unbelievable movements. There won’t be strength for quads. And Sasha has four or five quads in the program! There should be a balance.
And remember that she is still young. When she becomes older, there will be a better understanding of her artistic image, meaningful movements and Trusova’s program will look different. It takes time for a person to mature for complex choreography. Sasha understands her weaknesses and works on them, moves forward. When she was small, she has too much muscelse, but now plastic is already visible, every year everything just gets better.
At the same time, Gleichengauz noted that Trusova is ready to work on jumps for hours. But it’s very difficult to make her repeat step sequence or spins…
– This is human psychology. What works best is what we want to do. It’s even more noticeable with children. They don’t want to work on what doesn’t work out from the first time. You need to force yourself, to overcome. This is the task of the coach and choreographer, to direct his athlete. He doesn’t want to – we’ll force. Doesn’t know how, we will teach. Sasha understands that she needs to work on plastic, but it is very difficult to force herself. Do not blame her for this, because almost any person will behave this way.
There is a common expression “Russian style” in figure skating. What does it mean?
– First of all, it’s a work on choreography. Athletes from Europe often come to my studio and they are sorely lacking dancing movements, plasticity and aesthetics. In Russia, they treat this much more serious than in the West. Top athletes are developing, but actually you need to do choreography since childhood, not when you got into the national team. We see a lack of good choreographers, dance training.
We have a system and all conditions have been created. Each major sports school has its own full-time choreographer. I will not talk about their level, there are cool ones, there are intermediate levels, but at least they are. In Europe, you will not see this, there are no choreographers in groups, and athletes have to go to training camps abroad. I say this not because I want to look like a patriot, but because I see the situation both here and abroad. This is evident from the performances. Tops still uphold a reputation and can show interesting movements, but children and juniors are much inferior to ours.
If we take top specialists ours and Western ones, is there parity between them?
– Yes. Ours are in no way inferior to the Western ones, somewhere they will even surpass. But such comparisons are not entirely correct. As a colleague, I do not have the right to discuss the work of other specialists. I will say that the level is about the same, the difference in approach. Each cool choreographer has his own individual style of work, which is visible from the first movements. Each Averbukh’s program is recognizable. Each Gleichengauz’s program is recognizable. It happened that I saw the program, but did not know who the choreographer was. Sometimes a minute is enough for me to understand who did this program.
This season, Medvedeva had an interesting situation: a short program by Ilia Averbukh, free program by Shae-Lynn Bourne. Two different styles for one athlete.
– I think that her team worked competently in this case. Most importantly, they stopped doing strange experiments with Zhenya. Both short and free program are lyrical, which Zhenya always shows best. Before leaving Eteri, she almost always skated in that style. And then, as soon as she left, they tried to give her playful jazz. And the program did not go well. Then Misha Ge did her elegant lyrical program and miracle happened – Zhenya started to do the elements! Everything is obvious: do not break a working system. Perhaps the jazz program was good, but it did not suit Zhenya.
On the other hand, if the skater is constantly skating in the same style, where is the development? Sometimes it’s worth leaving the comfort zone.
– It is necessary to develop a skater so that he is versatile. But again, this development should be gradual and not harmful for the result. Tried – it didn’t work out, then leave it for the next year. Tried again – now it’s good. Now you can do the program in a new style. When an athlete has dancing preparation, functionally well prepared, there are no problems with technique, then you can experiment. But when a person is not ready, it looks like an attempt to jump above his head.
Talks about “mature female skating” is it about the development of athlete’s choreographic abilities?
– The difference in choreography between children and adults in complexity. With small children, I start with the basics. When they become older, you can give more vivid movements, complex artistic images that they begin to understand. There are images that can be conveyed only at a mentally mature age. It kills me when I see seven year old girls skating to Argentine tango or Carmen. They take adult themes that need to be performed at a mature age. Otherwise, it looks stupid.
In an interview, Evgenia Medvedeva said that she have had the idea of performing to the Memoirs of a Geisha for several years. But she became mentally ready for it only now. Turns out that she waited for the right moment?
– By the way, I remember these conversations, A couple of seasons ago Zhenya considered the option of skating to the Memoirs of a Geisha. Then they refused it, because Zhenya herself and the coaches decided that she was not ready yet. And they did it right. Now she is a mature girl, she understands and feels what she is showing on ice. It is not possible to skate “Memoirs of a Geisha” well in adolescence when there is still no understanding of the whole tragedy of the story. Now she is ready, and so the program looks gorgeous.
In this regard, there is a lot of talks and suggestions to raise the age of eligibility in ladies’ single skating. What is your opinion?
– I talked about images, I am against the age limit. How to stop progress? Figure skating, as well as rhythmic gymnastics is a sport for young people. So why artificially prevent athletes from developing? Sometimes it’s worth keeping a fervor not to injure athletes. But our coaches are literate people, they try ultra-c elements only with those children who are ready for this. And if the child is ready, then why should he be forbidden to compete with seniors and do difficult jumps? These are artificial barriers.
Ladies’ single skating is now developing rapidly. The train goes full speed and raising the age is like pulling the stop crane. The train will simply collapse. Most likely, these ideas come from ISU and our competitors. Obviously, everyone was already fed up with the dominance of Russia in figure skating, and sports officials are thinking how to change this.
Anya Shcherbakova this season has a difficult image for her age – to the music from the movie “Perfumer”. It turns out that she is mentally ready to show this story?
– Anya is not so small. I think she watched the movie, read the book and understood everything. Children catch everything quickly now. Here the line wasn’t crossed when the image does not correspond to age. Shcherbakova has an excellent program, and she greatly shows the idea of this program on ice. Perhaps at twenty she would have skated it even better. All comes with experience.
Sometimes skaters go to other choreographers to work on choreography. Is this a good solution?
– Why not? I support such decisions, but they must be agreed with the head coach. It happens that an athlete goes to a choreographer to do a program, but that choreographer, although he’s very cool, with a world-famous name, does not know the character or specificity of the skater’s body. And he can do a program that will fall apart from the first element. Choreographer should work under the supervision of the head coach, otherwise the experiments will bring nothing good. I have seen this very often.
The coach who leads the athlete for many years knows exactly what his skater is capable of. What is his stamina, style, functionality. Therefore, by the way, the results first fall after the change of coach. Because a specialist needs to learn a new skater from scratch.
Has such a story just happened in Mishin’s group – choreographers did programs that were alien to the skaters, so they abandoned them?
– Maybe. Mishin is a very wise and competent person. He probably saw that the program didn’t go well, and told the guys that it needed to be changed. Otherwise, there will be no result, there will be only failures. Most often, when you have a cool choreographer in your group, you don’t have to go anywhere. Eteri Georgievna did so. The rest is stupid show-offs, they go and tell everyone that they did the program with great choreographer. So what? First show how your new program looks at competitions.
Again, the strength of the Eteri’s group is in its team. There are all the components of success, the cogs of the mechanism and everyone is doing his own task. A wonderful technical specialist, choreographer, choreographer on the floor, coach of juniors. And everything is under the control of Eteri herself, who controls the overall process. She, as a leader, gathered the best in their field, and she herself knows everything. And no one needs to go to other choreographers and also pay a lot of money for it.
Mishin’s team tried to combine the choreography of Shae-Lynn Bourne with their own developments. Is such an option possible – take the movements and skate them to a different music?
– No, such a decision is not clear to me as a choreographer. There are certain rules that are not worth breaking. Shae-Lynn has talent and she puts movement under specific musical accents. Therefore, it is impossible just to make them to other music, this makes no sense. From the very beginning, choreographer sees the general image, with a different music it’s lost.
I haven’t worked in Mishin’s group and I can’t say for sure what was happening there. But we see that eventually they decided to return to the original music. And since this gave a result, then the decision was right. They admitted their mistakes in time.
Training skaters from different disciplines do you give them different exercises?
– There are general standards of dance movements that I give for ice dancers, pair skaters and singles. But sometimes there are specific tasks. For example, a pair comes to me, where the partners just started to skate together. And it is necessary to make them closer. I give them the Argentine tango to feel each other better, start interacting, work together. In a good dance you merge with a partner into a single whole. My task is to teach them this synthesis, so that in the future they will transfer it on ice.
Most often, the choreographer is more interested in working with ice dancers. Is it true?
– I would not say that. It happens that a single skater is much more plastic and you can give him more creative movements than a cool dancer. You just need to see the strengths of the skater and develop them.
You said that modern dance classes can replace classical physical training. Is it possible to abandon the gym completely?
– You misunderstood me. In no case do I suggest refusing of physical trainings. In my opinion, any athlete should monitor his body and have physical trainings, especially figure skaters. The loads in figure skating are very serious and you need to prepare for them, develop endurance.
The thing is that many coaches give athletic physical trainings, not adapted for the skater.Their athletes have too much muscles and look like weightlifters-judokas. Where will the grace come from if you make a body-builder? The skater is associated with art, ballet. And when the athlete has too much muscles, not a single choreographer will do anything for him and there will be no grace. Physical trainings needs to be turned into special physical training developed for skaters. Many coaches invite specialists from athletics to work on physical trainings. And such a specialist begins to give the exercises used in athletics. Most of the physical trainings needs to be adapted to a specific sport.
In the Eteri group, they don’t give up physical trainings?
– She does not have exhausting, hard athletic physical trainings, athletes are given exercises adapted for figure skating. Eteri had a sad experience when she invited a specialist from atheletics, who began to load the children. As a result, not only technique fell apart, but injuries increased. Back, knees hurt, because it’s against the rules. Therefore, Eteri Georgievna adapted the general physical preparation to the specifics of our sport. There are jump ropes, elastic bands, loads on legs, balls. And so it should be in any sport, in Russia this is a massive problem. It’s the easiest way to call specialist from athletics and give basic exercises from last century. But the sport is moving forward.
Everyone is talking about terrible puberty, but a good coach prepares his athlete for it in advance. If the girl has too much muscles, then after growing up muscle mass becomes two to three times bigger. And the girl turns into a square, unable to move normally on the ice.