Elena Maslennikova: Judges don’t want to grow, they don’t want to develop their worldview
Interview with choreographer Elena Maslennikova who did programs for Midori Ito, Margarita Drobiazko – Povilas Vanagas. The specialist explained why some coaches are afraid of innovative solutions for programs and suggested an artistic image for Alexandra Trusova.
by Elena Vaitsekhovskaya for russian.rt.com dd. 30th August 2020
For several years now, we can see how some choreographers take a well known theme that has been repeatedly used in figure skating instead of coming up with something new for their skaters. The question arises: is it necessary at all to strive for originality in programs?
Elena Maslennikova: I think it is necessary. But there is one difficult point here. I still work with many athletes as an invited choreographer and very often use the music they give me, not the one I would suggest myself. There is only one answer: “The coach will feel better if we take the undeniable music.”
What does “undeniable” mean?
Elena Maslennikova: Understandable. Popular. “Don Quixote”, “Romeo and Juliet”, “Bolero”, although it is difficult to venture it. I mean, think about it, what judge would dare to say that this is bad music? He will immediately run into the question: “Don’t you like classics?” One of the coaches with whom I worked this season took a very interesting and unusual arrangement of the classics for his skaters, and at the test skates the judges told him: “Why did you do that? Why don’t you take normal music and not show off.” And what should a person do in this situation? After all, these same people will then judge his skaters, the result directly depends on their perception of the programs.
So coaches are afraid to take risks. It is easier for them to put something extremely understandable so that no one has any complaints. Although the problem is in fact that judges simply do not want to grow, they do not want to develop their ears and worldview in general – to watch something new, listen, read.
Tatiana Tarasova at one time offered athletes musical themes that were quite difficult for them because she believed that in terms of choreography, this makes people grow very quickly.
Elena Maslennikova: Tarasova was an innovator in many things. She was one of the first to use movie soundtracks. Ilia Kulik had “Aladdin”, Alexei Yagudin had “The Man in the Iron Mask”. It all looked very progressive then. New music always requires new plastics, a new approach to choreography – it’s all incredibly interesting.
Turns out that the choice of rarely used, not too well-known music is a certain deed of the coach?
Elena Maslennikova: In general, yes. But not just a deed for deed’s sake, like in saying “To cut off one’s nose to spite one’s face.” This is a very thin line, which with experience you begin to feel more intuitively – will it work or not.
Why did you say that it is difficult to venture Bolero?
Elena Maslennikova: It’s powerful story. Music is constantly on the rise, not everyone is able to interpret it.
If we talk about the best “Bolero” in the history of figure skating is it the British Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean?
Elena Maslennikova: Certainly.
How did they do that?
Elena Maslennikova: Perhaps it’s all about the uniqueness of this pair. They went on the ice small, identical, without any presentability, especially hers. But they began to move – and suddenly they became a single organism, even without holding hands. Like the tentacles of an octopus: one flows into the other and inconceivably organic movements appear which is so mesmerizing that you cannot take you eye of that. It seems that people do not do anything special on the ice, but you constantly catch yourself thinking that you cannot guess what the next step will be. You think: well, now he will probably go to the left. And he goes to the right, conducts his partner somewhere under the elbow, takes her out from under the knee, and it doesn’t look like some specially invented trick, but the most natural movement in the world. It was amazing.
One choreographer explained to me that piano almost always sound good on rinks and drums almost always sound bad. And he doesn’t understand why coaches keep making the same mistake.
Elena Maslennikova: The drums are also different. Especially when they sound on their own, without any additional melody. For single skaters, by the way, it works very well. If the skater skates masterly, you can make a very impressive program with small, jewelry and very fast footwork. Lyosha Yagudin had such in our performance “Carmen”.
If think of the legendary Yagudin’s “Winter”, with which he won the Olympics in Salt Lake City, there, the wow effect was also achieved primarily with the step sequence, where each step was ideally into the musical accent.
Elena Maslennikova: Lyosha still skates this step sequence in some shows. Sometimes in parts, sometimes the whole sequence. Although, if he performed it in competitions under the current rules, he would have received a zero level with zero GEO. Before you could work on impressions without calculating every turn. And now I do the program for one talented girl and I clearly know that there should be two blocks of turns on one leg, that all these turns should be different. After all, the judges are watching and marking everything. When Yagudin skated, there was nothing of the kind.
If such a skater as Alexandra Trusova fell into your hands, who does not hide that she does not like choreography, but prefers only to jump, what artistic image would you suggest her?
Elena Maslennikova: Firstly, I would not break her. It makes no sense to force a skater to be a swan if he is not one. For Trusova, I would rather put some “Mulan”. She’s a fighting girl.
Trusova is going to be Juliet this season.
Elena Maslennikova: I don’t know what kind of music they took for Sasha, but I would be interested to see her in something ultra-modern.
Like the rock swan Daisuke Takahashi? Juliet rocker?
Elena Maslennikova: Why not? Now choreographers have the opportunity to collaborate with people who have their own unique set of plastic solutions. It is not even necessary to put a program with such a person. But you can come to his class, dance, learn some moves, something unusual for your body. And only then, with small parts, all this will perfectly fit into this or that program, will help add colors to the overall picture. It seems to me that even for experienced choreographers there is nothing wrong with using the knowledge of other specialists.
At the same time, there are coaches who prefer to work exclusively with “their” choreographer. How would you explain such a desire?
Elena Maslennikova: Very often people simply do not want to break the usual pattern. It’s like in business: if the work gives a result, then there is no need to come up with something else. If I were a successful coach, I would probably reason this way. Another’s hands are always a certain risk. You start to change something – what if something breaks in this gear, which starts the entire system? And then what? After all, figure skating is primarily a sport, and only then an art.
Have you ever faced coaching jealousy?
Elena Maslennikova: To some extent, yes. But I’m a very moderate person by nature, so as soon as I begin to notice that some conflict is arising, I try to get away from it. If I see that something worries a coach, I offer him another version of the program, even if mine seemed more suitable to me. I understand that he will work with such a program with greater pleasure, and this will give the best result. And then, if the coach still has the feeling that something is wrong, he will change everything himself. This is a rather complex topic.
When you put on one program, and the result is completely different?
Elena Maslennikova: It also happens, especially when the choreographer puts the program, but then does not work with the skater. Skater starts to skate it with the elements, with jumps, and whims arise: “Here I am a little uncomfortable, I need a wider arc.” “Okay, take this step away.” “And here this strong accent takes all my strength, and I can’t get myself together for the last jump.” “Okay, don’t wave your arms and legs, just get into a beautiful pose, rest, and then you will jump.” And so it slowly crawls, crawls, you see this program after a while, and you no longer want to put your signature on it. This happens all the time.
I know that Ilia Averbukh also ran into similar situations many times. He came back with square eyes: “I put completely different.” It is pointless to make any claims in this regard: you did not stay with the coach, you were paid for the work and it no longer belongs to you.
It caused a great resonance when Elizaveta Tuktamysheva showed at the beginning of last season the program choreographed by Shae-Lynn Bourne, but at the insistence of the coach to a different music. True, the original version was quickly returned.
Elena Maslennikova: For me, such things are unacceptable, especially knowing how Shae-Lynn works on programs. She is a very musical person, she puts every movement, even the smallest one, in a certain rhythm that she feels in music. I would say that this is her main feature – in musicality and showing these nuances on ice. She thinks about the transitions very carefully. And then – bang!
Speaking about Chinese pairs, Maxim Trankov once answered: “Their strength lies in Lori Nichol’s programs.” Do you understand this phrase?
Elena Maslennikova: Yes of course. Lori always finds very extraordinary solutions, and it’s incredibly difficult to push pair skaters to do something new. They get used to very definite patterns. You can slightly knock the athletes off their inner rhythm and the element may be spoiled, and you will feel guilty because the program turned out to be uncomfortable. Nichol manages to lead the skaters to the work on choreo in such a way that they do the elements, and everything turns out very original and unusual. For this, it seems to me, the skater must unconditionally trust the choreographer.
I think the reason is different: all Asian people for centuries have been accustomed to thoroughly fulfill the task given by the teacher. And if a specialist is paid money, they want to get the absolute maximum from him.
Elena Maslennikova: This is true. I haven’t worked with the Chinese, but I worked a lot with the Japanese. Including, you will not believe, Midori Ito. It was Ito’s last Olympics, and we went to Japan several times with Viktor Ryzhkin for long training camps. Midori came with her coach Yamada-san, and we put both programs for her: the free program to the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff, and the short one had a paso doble with tango – a strange combination, but she really wanted such a program. We worked first on the floor, then on the ice, we had to go to the rink at night. At that time I noted that the Japanese are very executive, both children and adults. They catch your every word. Say “No, I won’t do it!” it is simply unthinkable for them.
What’s your favorite program?
Elena Maslennikova: Probably Rita and Povilas” Phantom of the Opera. A lot of things was put into that program and at that time it turned out to be quite progressive. I really loved the program I did for Elena Radionova to the music of Rachmaninoff in the most successful season for her. I like her “Fifth Element” – Lena was 11 years old then. In general, I have some kind of inner creative connection with this skater.
Don’t you think that there is a certain paradox: the more distinctive and expressive an athlete becomes with age, the less chance that she will remain competitive?
Elena Maslennikova: Oh, this is such a seditious topic now… If you look at the problem globally, I also believe that a girl enters that period and into that body that can be called an adult, at 17, not earlier. But at this age, she has very little chance of competing with 15-year-olds. On the one hand, the sporting principle is fully preserved. The same Eteri Tutberidze can say: “No matter what someone likes or doesn’t like, I have a wonderful fifteen-year old who will reach her peak by the Olympics and according to all the ISU rules will have the right to compete there. What now, artificially slow down the athlete?” As a coach, I understand her perfectly. But I often think, maybe it is worth making separate prestigious and well-known competitions for this fifteen-year-olds? Let them enter the Guinness Book of Records, especially since they deserve it in every possible way, but you cannot end your career in figure skating at the age of 17.
Related topics: Alexandra Trusova