As a typical American female of a certain age, I’m a sucker for figure skating events at the Winter Olympics (though you can keep the summer counterpart -- gymnastics-- with the cringe-inducing contortions.) I know very little about the technical aspects of figure skating and couldn’t for the life of me distinguish a lutz from a salchow. Moreover, I like to think that I’m “patriotic” but not so jingoistic that I obsessively compare the medals won by my nation’s team to those earned by Olympians representing other countries. Nor am I a big fan of scandals, least of all the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan flap in 1994 in Lillehammer. And I ignore the controversy associated with the scoring process; since the combination of athleticism and artistry necessarily requires “subjective” scoring, the results of which occasionally generated fevered controversy over the years.
What appeals to me about figure skating is the aesthetic aspect: the balletic, gliding movement of arms, legs, and feet; the graceful lifts and leaps, and the powerful defiance of gravity when the only force preventing the skater from crashing down unto the hard, cold surface of the ice is a thin edge of a blade. All of these features are painstakingly choreographed within a strictly-timed performance -- or “program” as it’s called -- set against a carefully-selected passage of recorded music.
At times the specific musical accompaniment is moot, especially when the skater’s presentation is spectacular. Yet it would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of matching the right piece of music -– usually conventionally “classical” -- to the specific program. For long-time tv viewers of the Winter Olympics the most memorable examples of this are Torville and Dean, the winners of the gold medal in ice dancing at the 1980 winter games in Sarajevo. The British couple’s performance was a blend of technical perfection and emotionally spell-binding artistry, earning these ice dancers record-high scores from the judges . Part of the reason for Torville and Dean’s unprecedented success was their steamy interpretation of Ravel’s Boléro.
As I post this in February, 2014, the Winter Olympics are now playing in Sochi, a resort town in Russia, a country that is a homeland of a host of classical composers. But the ice skating events haven’t seemed to tap many Russian musical works, the usual suspects of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade and Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake notwithstanding.These “perennial favorites” (a charitable way of saying “old chestnuts”) still can be heard on the ice more often than the motor of a Zamboni. At least no participant (so far) has embraced the “Skater’s Waltz” cliché, though it plays in the background for a current local ad for a personal injury law firm–“If your neighbor fails to clear his sidewalk, and you fall on the ice, call us.” I guess that’s probably why we don’t hear Rhapsody in Blue playing behind Olympic ice skaters anymore –- United Airlines has copped it for its commercials.
This year one contingent of pairs skaters competing for Russia use music by Khatchuturian, but refreshingly, it’s his “Masquerade” and not “The Sabre Dance,” another familiar piece frequently put on the ice. This same duo scored high points by skating to excerpts from Jesus Christ Superstar.
That choice obviously worked for them, but seems incongruous in the host Olympic venue which happens to be homeland of great classical composers. It’s a generational thing that’s part of a trend for skaters to choreograph their programs to Broadway musical scores and movie soundtracks – the aforementioned Jesus Christ Superstar by a British composer, Les Misérables by a Frenchman, and the way-out-in-left-field, oddball but nonetheless amusing choice of The Addams Family, a movie soundtrack by an American, Marc Shaiman.
But I do wonder why the ice skaters – the Russians especially – don’t consider using excerpts from some of the great 20th century Russian composers: the bombastic brass of Shostakovich, the witty and accessible modernism of Prokoviev, or even the breathtaking –and irresistibly romantic–music of Rachmaninoff, such as “Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini.” That particular piece has some technical “degrees of difficulty” of its own, such as essentially flipping the main theme “upside down.” While I’m not suggesting that figure skaters contort themselves (like gymnasts), this piece might be just the one to be playing when they’re skating backwards!
Finally, I haven’t thought about this in years, but this personal anecdote dates way back to when I was impersonating a teacher. My students were young adults, some having recently arrived in this country. One young man originally hailed from Russia, but apparently he was learning the language relatively quickly, picking up colloquial expressions with ease. When I mentioned that he was undoubtedly proud of his home country because of all of its beautiful music, he replied “Nah. I hate that classical crap.”