Daniil Gleichengauz: We chose Phantom of the Opera and Carmen for Zagitova she is able to skate these pieces better than everyone else who have skated before
Interview with Daniil Gleichengauz in Moskow figure skater magazine #1 (53) 2019.
Daniil, as an athlete you have a unique experience of working first in single skating with such coaches as Natalya Dubinskaya, Viktor Kudryavtsev, Alla Belyaeva, and then a three-year period in ice dance with Alexander Zhulin. What of this experience inspired you to become a choreographer? After all, most of your sport career you did singles and to become a choreographer is a not a usual choice.
– Probably, because my mother was a ballet dancer at the Bolshoi Theater, from childhood she had been preparing me for a ballet career. I’ve been doing choreography as long as I can remember, so I didn’t have much choice.
Where did figure skating come from?
– You need to be 9 years old to go to the ballet school, in figure skating they took children from the age of 4. I was taken to a skating rink to get stronger, learn to skate, develop my coordination abilities. But when the time came, by the age of 9 I won too many competitions, and the coaches said that I was a promising boy. So when my mother thought of sending me to ballet school, I was against it. I was so much against this idea that mom gave up. Although choreography stayed in my life. Mom worked with me 24 hours a day.
How did you become a choreographer in Tutberidze’s group?
– Eteri Georgievna asked Ilia Averbukh to help her find a choreographer for the group. He recommended me.
How was the process of joining the team?
– Of course, at first they looked at me: how I find a common language with athletes, how I work on skating skills, how I work on jumps, what technique I have and so on, in order to understand whether we can come to something common. This was necessary because in our group there is no division of labor, that someone works on skating, someone on spins and someone on jumps. We are all completely interchangeable, three of us (and now four, including Sergei Rozanov) have an absolutely common elements technique and we all can tell the athlete at any time how and what to do. This is convenient in work, because any of us can go to competitions with athletes or, on the contrary, stay on the rink with a group and there will be no problems.
Were you hired to the group as a choreographer-tutor?
– Yes, at first I was polishing the programs, but in the process I began to offer something – music, ideas. Then for the first time I voiced my dream to do a program to “Swan Lake”. I suggested this idea to Yulia Lipnitskaya, but she refused. In the end I did this program for Alina zagitova in the Olympic season.
How did you grow up to a choreographer? How did this transformation happen?
– Rather, how I managed to prove Eteri Georgievna that I can do that. After all, before I came to her group, I have been doing programs for three years at the skating rink “Moskvich”. By that time I have already done about 80 programs. Plus, a month before coming to her (and it was September-October 2015), I just returned from Sochi, where I helped Averbukh to choreographed his show “Carmen”. So by that time I already had experience of working with both Olympic champions and small children. I didn’t have any fear or insecurity in my abilities. I was pretty sure of myself. It remained only to make her believe in me.
For whom did you do your first program?
– We had a very good contact with Adian Pitkeev, who told Eteri Georgievna that he wants me to do his programs. She agreed, although she already had an agreement with Marina Zueva to do Adian’s programs in USA. It was decided that Zueva would do his free program, and I would do short. This was my first big work. In the same year, at summer training camp in Novogorsk, I started to do programs for our guys, except Zhenya Medvedeva, whom Averbukh choreographed “I hear, I don’t hear” program.
It was a brilliant program. Is it a pity that Lipnitskaya refused to skate it?
– In our group, it’s happened more than once when someone refused and another athlete became a champion with this program. But lately no one refuses.
Daniil, agree, it’s one story, when the choreographer works as freelancer and work with an athlete on a particular program. And it is completely different when the choreographer works in a group and has to do two programs per season for each athlete. Tell us how you cope with this challenge, what do you get inspirations, where you take strength and so on.
– You are right, it’s easier to be a guest choreographer, because it is always an interesting creative work, because the athlete’s ambitions and his potential give the choreographer an opportunity for realization of the most daring ideas. It is much more difficult to find ideas, music for each athlete from season to season, and at a different levels. In our group, the choreographing period starts from the end of April, as soon as the last competition ends, and ends in September. The biggest difficulty is the number of programs, but we share this burden with Eteri Georgievna, who always participates in the choice of music and always on the ice during any choreographing process.
First, we do programs for the main athletes, then for juniors, and then for 9-10 years old children, whom we also have in the group. As usual, this happens at the training camp in Novogorsk, where we have four trainings a day – two for the older group and two for the younger one. From the inside, this process looks like this: we work on programs all day, in the evening we get together in the room to listen to music and think of some ideas. Therefore, training camps in Novogorsk require endurance and strength. But before that we all usually go on vacations and it helps. Although after the choreographing period, you still want to rest somewhere in a quiet place. But first competitions start from the end of August and we are entering the main season.
No more rest?
– Why? In our group, it is generally accepted that every time you are at competitions, you are on vacation.
How do you manage from year to year to deal with this amount of program? How do you avoid repeats? Avoid the temptation to pass on an already made program?
– As for the “pass the program on” – absolutely not, to such approach. It is disrespectful to athletes, audience, myself. Of course, doing thirty programs every season is difficult, energy-consuming, but there is no other way. Plus, I love it, I get pleasure from the process, and as long as I have strength and most importantly desire, I think everything will be alright. For me, there is nothing more pleasant than to spend time searching for music, inspiration, and then come to Eteri Georgievna with this and say “I came up with an idea”. And if I hear in response, yes, this is cool, then I have no greater joy. When then we all go on the ice, when everyone is excited, including an athlete, then we get the coolest and most interesting programs. I don’t really like the word “masterpieces”, but you can say that a special piece of work turns out.
Still, how does this all happen? A choreographer choose music and program for an athlete, or you choose an athlete for the particular idea of the program.
– I would say both. For example, I really wanted to do a Swan Lake so I was looking, waiting for an athlete for this idea. It was Alina Zagitova, because not every skater can be a black swan. But it also happens in a different way: you need to do a program for an athlete from the group, and you get his vibe, select the music and idea for him. For example, you look at Sasha Trusova and see such an energy, and the lyric program will hardly suit her. At the same time, Alena Kostornaia seems to be born for romantic programs. However, if this year each of them have programs in their style, this does not mean that the next season will be the same. Sasha can’t always skate some kind of action movie, just as Alena will not always be a “princess”. The task of the choreographer is to develop athletes, to expand the variety of their stylistic capabilities, which we do in training: we learn some kind of moves, we do some steps to different music, we dance in all sorts of styles etc.
This season, you chose famous music for your athletes: Alina Zagitova pskated to the Phantom of the Opera and Carmen, Alena Kostornaia to Romeo and Juliet, Alexandra Trusova to the OST Kill Bill and Fifth Element. Did you do this because this images are familiar and understandable for the viewers?
– I understand the question. You have named programs to the music that everyone knows, but for the Kostornaia, Shcherbakova, Usacheva, Valiyeva and others we took the music which is unidentified for many people, one can say we “discovered” it. Answering your question, I adhere to the 50/50 ratio. For one program we take a hit, for the other – an unknown piece. Sometimes we take famous music, but think of an unexpected artistic image. For example, once we did the program for Polina Tsurskaya to the “Game of Thrones” OST, but the idea of the program had nothing to do with the show. As for Alina and her two programs, we started from the fact that she is able to skate these pieces better than everyone else who have previously skated to the Phantom of the Opera and Carmen. It was my desire, because I’ve never choreographed to this music. The goal was to make such a programs for her, so that for another three or four years no one would take them, knowing that they couldno’t perform them better than Zagitova did.
Can the choreographer turn a program to an unknown music into a hit?
– Of course, this is the work of choreographer. But only under the condition that there is some unexpected idea or some interesting image or new choreography. In addition, it is important that the athlete has enough qualifications to show this program, otherwise there will be a complete failure. Although, I think it is even a bigger failure, when they do mediocre programs for weak skaters to a famous music.
At what point do you understand that this music piece can create a strong artistic image?
– Probably, at that moment, when you alone listen to music with headphones and come up with an idea, see an image, a program. But all these ideas have to pass the Eteri Georgievna check-control. If an idea is weak or too strange (sometimes it happens with me), then it will not pass. She can say: “It’s great, but without libretto no one will understand this, how will you explain the program to people?” Then we either correct the idea or refuse it. We make decisions together, because you can’t make mistakes there.
What programs are the best in your rating?
– I probably will not surprise anyone with my choice, because there are really the best programs of our time. I grew up on the programs Nikolai Morozov did for Alexei Yagudin – “Winter”, “The Man in the Iron Mask”. As a child I was so impressed by these programs that, going on the ice, I tried to do this steps and movements. Then were programs of Stephane Lambiel, all of which I liked madly, I watched them many times, tried to memorise. Today, when Lambiel became a coach, almost always you guess whom he did a program, because his chore is so unique. Another question that his style is not always suits the athlet. Next, I will probably name Patrik Chan, Shoma Uno, Yuzuru Hanyu and, of course, Nathan Chen.
Why Nathan Chen is interesting for you?
– He used to be criticized for programs with no transitions, but Chen works a lot and tries to transfer the choreography from the floor to ice, which is not typical for figure skating, because traditionally we are more into ballet. In his programs, I see that he is introducing a different choreo and soon he will show us both hip-hop and charismatic dances. This will be his style, you just need to give him time. He is harsh, rhythmic, explosive, no one will expect “Romeo and Juliet” or lyric programs from him. He has his own style, he is more firy, more aggressive, and the more he skates, the more we will see his “self”.
I also want to mention Javier Fernandez, who at the European Championships finished his brilliant career. His gala program was just incredible. So beautifully choreographed, there is so much interesting in it that you just can’t stop watching.
Interestingly, that you gave examples from men’s single skating. What about ladies?
– I don’t even know whom to name. For me, Yuna Kim, Mao Asada, Carolina Kostner always stood out with their programs. But it was Yulia Lipnitskaya’s programs that started so-called programs “with an idea”. Ilia Averbukh and Eteri Tutberidze did a lot of good programs for Yulia, which differed from other athletes’. This is not only the “Schindler’s List”, but also “Megapolis”, where she seemed to be running with a kite. And then there were programs for Zhenya Medvedeva, first “I hear — I don’t hear”, then a short program called “Farewell to Childhood”, then 9/11 program and others. These programs stood out against the general background.
Do other сoaches invite you to do a choreography for their skaters?
– I always will be happy to help everyone, provided that they will be pair skaters or ice dancers, since we are not competitors. I would be happy to help them win, because I want our athletes to be the best in any discipline in which we compete.
You are the choreographer of the strongest group of women’s single skaters in the world. Do you realize that you are setting some trends in this sport? When you start doing a program, what principles are you guided by, what tools do you use to make your athletes win?
– I will not say anything new here. Each athlete is strong in something: one jumps better, the other spins, the third one skates. My task is to help an athlete through the program to show the best version of himself. If he doesn’t do something very well, I will find a million options how to hide it in the program so that no one even guesses about it. We approach the program, as a scientist approach a formula – only the best will be in it. The program should capture the audience so that no one began to think that the athlete is not able to do something. Of course, this cannot be done in all programs and with all athletes, but we are trying.
Prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Theater, performing Odette-Odile, cannot change the choreography, no matter how difficult and inconvenient it is for her. A ballerina can either perform it and then she is a soloist, or she cannot and then she dances in the corps de ballet. In figure skating, the choreographer goes solely from the capabilities of the athlete, which is a kind of concession. Is it right?
– It can be said that since the choreography is not a constant, since it adapts to the level of the athlete, it is such a concession. But figure skating is a sport in which all the elements are rigidly prescribed, all the levels for each category and age are described, and if you do not meet these requirements, then you finish your sports career. There is no other alternative. But in the rest it’s really more freedom of action, and here it depends on the coach and the choreographer, how they will be able to present the ability of their athlete to perform these prescribed elements. Choreography is such a wide area of self-expression.
If an athlete brings you music and says: “I want to skate to it,” or offers to do something differently, how do you feel about that?
– I always welcome if an athlete offers something. If he works with us, that’s great! But this does not mean that we enthusiastically accept everything they offer. At the age of 14-16, not all boys and girls can bring an interesting idea for the program, choose music for themselves and so on. If a girl dreams of skating in a tutu and we see that she is not ballettic, then, of course, we will not let her. If we liked an offered music and the idea then as professionals we understand that you can win with this program. Everything is simple here.
So you limit your athletes in a freedom of choice?
– Here the question is not in freedom, but in professionalism. The coach sees the whole picture, he knows the athlete’s strength, his abilities, he monitors the trends in music, choreo, but at the same time he is looking for some innovative moves to make the program work for an athlete. This process, if the athlete wants to succeed, can not be lowered to the level of “I want – I do not want,” “I like – I do not like”.
Imagine if a player of a football team tells a coach that he does not want to adhere to the tactics developed for the game, that he will follow his tactics. Or the forward will say that he does not want to play in the attack, but wants to play as a goalkeeper. Here is the same. The coach chooses the optimal tactics for his athlete to show his best result. For us, the main thing is to lead our athlete to success, to help him in a particular season to achieve his maximum with the music and programs that we have offered and did for him.
I saw Camilla Valieva’s short program “Girl on the ball”. In my opinion, this program is worthy of being seen at the Olympics, not only at the local competitions. Don’t mind spending such ideas on children’s competitions?
– The idea itself belongs to Eteri Georgievna. She came with it when we sat in Novogorsk that evening and thought about the programs. We outlined in general how the program itself would look like, further we found music that could suit this idea. When we started to work on the ice, I realized that I wanted to add a bit of modernity to the movements, especially since Camilla is a very talented girl in terms of choreography, it is easy to work with her.
Yes, this program could probably be an Olympic program, but it’s not a fact that some other athlete would be able to skate it like Camilla did it this year in her 12 years of age. And it’s also not a fact that Camilla herself will be able to skate this program in 17-18 years. Therefore, if we feel a creative pulse, then we are not trying to hold onto something, save it for the future. Probably, someone will say that we are very wasteful of this, but we have faith that in the Olympic season we will be able to do something good, something memorable.