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Saturday, December 22, 2012

Defining artistry

When people think of Stephane Lambiel, "artistic" is one of the first descriptions that usually comes to mind. Jeremy Abbott, I believe, has said that his goal as a skater is to be both an athlete and an artist. Michelle Kwan was, and still is, lauded for her artistry - which probably compensated for her often having a less complete technical arsenal than some of her contemporaries. Over the course of their careers, we often see skaters try to develop their interpretation and expression and win acclaim for their artistry. But what, exactly, is artistry in skating?

I'll start with a cop out and say that artistry is really subjective - not just who is more artistic, but what aspects of skating should fall under the artistry umbrella. Some questions and points to consider, in that respect:

Musicality is important - but should this be innate musicality or learned, more effortful musicality - or perhaps both? Should there be extra consideration for tackling difficult music choices, like Carolina Kostner's (brilliant) 2011-12 SP? Or for making a common choice seem unique and fresh, as Daisuke Takahashi did last season with Blues for Klook? Do we want to see if a skater is able to interpret and perform to a variety of musical styles, as Savchenko/Szolkowy, Stephane Lambiel, and Alexander Abt have done, or is musical interpretation within a more limited range, as we saw from Alexei Yagudin and Anissina/Peizerat, also acceptable?

 I never thought I'd have good things to say about a Blues for Klook program 

But what other than musicality? Is originality of the concept an indication of artistry? The gracefulness of a skater's movement? How about the ability to tell a story on the ice and not just skate to the music? I'm thinking of skaters like Pechalat/Bourzat, the Kerrs and Faiella/Scali, all very good actors and/or storytellers. At the other end, it sometimes seems like there's a default choice in ice dance and to a lesser extent ladies - classical/older music and a girl in a pretty dress. This might be beautiful and graceful, but to me it shows a lack of imagination. Show me something new!

One can also consider what skaters focus on - even by their own admission. Are they trying to challenge themselves artistically, even if it doesn't pay off? Are they more oriented toward maximizing points and improving their technical skills? Interestingly, a skater who has tried to challenge himself artistically in recent years, at times to the detriment of his technical performance, is Brian Joubert. The judges were not having any of it, and so eventually we saw a return to techno and The Matrix.

 Raise your hand if you thought Brian Joubert would some day skate to Beethoven.

Perhaps artistry is the ability to evoke emotion in the audience and perform something that feels like it is more than the sum of its parts. This, however, is as subjective as you can get in skating. One fan might be moved to tears by an understated performance such as Patrick Chan's Elegie, while another will find a dramatic skate such as Davis/White's Phantom of the Opera free dance more to her liking, or a light-hearted effort like Savchenko/Szolkowy's Pink Panther.

I'll add what, in my opinion, artistry is not. It is not speed, ice coverage, skating skills, or transitions. These things are important, and they can serve a skater's artistry; as in many artistic pursuits, the better your technical skill, the more you can do and experiment. But they are a means to an end, in my opinion. Thus, I really don't like it when people refer to PCS as artistry because 1. that's not how it's defined and 2. much of what is scored under it is not directly related to artistry.

I would love to see more skaters challenge themselves artistically. I think if this is something one hopes for, you have to accept that sometimes artistic risks will not pay off (remember when Jeremy Abbott decided to try Flamenco?) or will not be your cup of tea (I am not fond of Virtue and Moir's mature Carmen - but they are challenging themselves, which is good). Added to that, a better balance between rewarding the artistic and the technical would also help; as it is, we have components that are mostly technical and skaters who are pushed by the judges into specific niches. But perhaps that could be changed so that the skaters and their choreographers would have greater incentive to push the artistic limits - and there would be more interesting and diverse programs for fans to enjoy.

What is your definition of artistry in skating? Do you think it should be a major part of evaluating competitive programs?

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