Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Art of Figure Skating and the Olympics

By Elaine Meinel Supkis

Why do Russians dominate figure skating? I would suggest it is cultural. Russia has a long and amazing history of loving dancers. The love of the fine arts intertwines with athleticism to create some of the most amazing works of art in many mediums. If we want to be better than them, we must stop hating high culture.

Once again, the Russians are dominating figure skating at nearly every level. Many people expected the Russians to falter when the Soviet Union fell but far from it, they have gotten better, if anything. Americans have to ask themselves why this is so. Aside from many individual factors, I would suggest, based purely on my own opinion and what I have learned in the past, hanging out at skating rinks, learning ice dancing for therapy when I had to recover from a very disasterous pregnancy (the baby did just great, I was the one in trouble), I noticed the culture which Olympic skaters live in, for I skated at rinks in the Northeast that hosted quite a few Olypmic skaters.

Russia and America have very different histories when it comes to the fine art of dancing. Several hundred years ago, under the fierce influence of the Spanish Court, dancing was very severe and sere. With precise footwork and arms used with stiffness due to the stiff court gowns, the arms unable to go higher than the shoulder, dance began to wither on the vine. In all eras, there is always tension between the estatic and the formal and when the two combine miraculously, we get great art.

So, in France, a ballerina stepped delicately on stage, on the tips of her toes, at the beginning of the Romantic Revolution, and as she drifted across the stage in the dim gaslight, her shimmering white gown drifting about her pulsating legs, a mania gripped the audience and she was not just swept off her feet by the male lead dancer, she was lifted high by society. Over the years, the fragile nymph became hardened and even overworked. She now has to prove her tremendous power by overwhelming us with her vast strength and so the art is lost even as the skills are mastered.
The toe shoes are harder, the body less forgiving, a hard, diamond surface, this is the modern dancer trying to recreate the miracle of the first Sylphide.

As ballet became crasser and shallower in France and the rest of Europe, it was not even allowed to exist in America being considered "degenerate". As today, we sneered at the fine arts. But in Russia, the ballet found some of the greatest composers, designers and choreographers working with what has to be some of the most amazing dancers, people who swam in the sea of dance like dophins, swans or Venus emerging from the frothy waves.

The very first modern dancers in the world all came from America. These were individual women who, fleeing the closed minds, cultural indifference, moved to Europe and these refugees brought in something ballet needed badly, for it tends towards harsh disciplinarian coldness. This great Pandorian gift was Dionysian joy.

The source of energy is in the upper chest and extends through the arms and outwards, like the sun shining. Even lying on the ground, one can lift upwards to the heavens with only a gesture of the hand. When Isadora Duncan and Loie Fuller stormed Europe, shaking the dance world to the roots, the one country that eagerly not only embraced them but drank up the lessons they taught was Russia.

Instead of mechanically moving the arms and legs from postion A to pose B, they figured out that breathing in and out and moving with the lungs rather than the legs changes everything. Try exhaling while raising an arm to the sky. It is wearisome. Inhaling while rasing the arm and then exhaling at the apex gives body and flow as well as strength to the movement.

Once ballet and the Duncan style of dance were merged and remolded, Russia was ready to reconquer the dance world.

Which takes us to Russian ice dancers. The long reign of the Russians began with the amazing Ludmila and Oleg Protopopov, inventors of more than one move used by all skaters today, the most famous being the "death spiral". I watched them do this back in the beginning. It was incredible. Today, it is common, but when it is performed as they did it, the beauty returns.

The special "skill" they used was to make it look fragile even as it took great strength and daring to perform. Most women, in the death spiral today, hold themselves stiff as a board, often the head is held at an ackward angle as if she is calculating how many inches seperate her skull from the rock hard ice. This is why it jars the nerves to watch.

When the Protopopovs (love the "proto-" prefix!) did the death spiral, I believe I was watching ABC's Wide World of Sports when I saw it, as Oleg began to drop Ludmila down, she hung her head as if she were swooning and as they rotated at a high speed, her head nearly touched the ice and they sighed in unison and then he pulled her back towards himself, and she carried through her entire body, the energy of the spiral which set her into motion in a new direction, all he had to do was release her hand and off, she flew, a bird set free from a trap.

I had tears in my eyes, watching a tape of them doing this back then still moves me to tears.

Not all forces of exciting dance comes from the Russians, occasionally, others find the same style and energy, for example, the English ice dancers, Torvill and Dean, who brought real dance, real feeling to something that was increasingly vulgar. Using classical music, just like the Protopopovs did, they did what is still, today, the greatest ice dance performance ever, when they skated to Ravel's Bolero. Every move, every time an ice skate struck the glassy surface, the energy from it electrified both dancers who breathed in unison as they molded the air, the wind and the steel of their blades to become something special: a unity, a completeness of purpose yet filled with life and longing, a fragility, again, that very elusive thing, to be strong yet weak simultaneously.

It was one of the few times those deadly, annoying commentators shut up. They didn't yap away and break the spell. For the magic of that particular dance gripped everyone who watched. Sometimes, the Gods allow only one such moment in life and for the two Brits, this was such a moment. Indeed, being allowed even one such moment is a glorious thing, a laurel one never loses, not even a hundred years later.

If Americans want to win more medals in this art form, they have to change attitude. It pleases me that some are learning or come from the ballet world but that isn't enough! One has to tap into Isadora Duncan. And one has to become weak before one becomes strong.

Such contridictions shine more clearly within classical music. And this is what I miss when I watch American skaters. The music is (how to be diplomatic here) limited to only sappy popular tunes or Carmen and I will melt the ice if I hear one more "Carmen".

I once made a parody of that, dressed as a Spanish cat, crooning, "How I'd love to eat a mouse," while my son careened wildly around me dressed as a mouse.
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