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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Bolero Test

A skating friend recently suggested to me that memorable programs can be judged against what he termed "The Bolero Test". The test originated in an attempt to understand what made Torvill and Dean's Bolero so memorable, but it can be applied to other performances, too.

Not surprisingly, Bolero passes the test

We considered six criteria, five of which were suggested by my friend:

A well-constructed program: this should be obvious. No stroke-stroke-jump, no 3 jumps to begin and five directly at the halfway mark, no afterthought spins, etc. The program should strike a good balance between the technical/athletic and the artistic aspects, so that each complements the other.

Skated brilliantly on the biggest stage: if your best skate was at the Cup of China, Skate Canada, the World Team Trophy or any other event that's not the Olympics or Worlds, it usually won't have the same effect. Consider, for instance, Yuna Kim's 2009-10 Olympic season: she started strong, but was truly at her peak when it counted most. Compare that with Nobunari Oda, who began that same season quite well (I should know, I was there) but went downhill from there, or Jeremy Abbott, who saved his best for US Nationals.

A program that is a standout, in one of two ways: either an interesting departure from the skaters' past work (such as Bolero) or the epitome of all that makes the skater in question great (such as Berezhnaya/Sikharulidze's Lady Caliph).

Skated by a storied skater/team/pair: while less famous skaters have also delivered strong performances over the years, it is usually programs skated by the greats that truly stand the test of time. We remember Lu Chen's Last Emperor more than, well, whatever Meissner won her world title with, or Stefan Lindemann's bronze medal performances at 2004 Worlds.

I have absolutely no recollection of this whatsoever.

Resulting in a notable record or an otherwise compelling narrative. Bolero, of course, had a string of 6.0s; Yagudin's performances at Salt Lake City were the culmination of the Yagudin-Plushenko rivalry and the high level of competition between the two.

Offering something distinctive compared to the rest of the field: this was my sole contribution to the list. There's a reason people don't usually talk about the most memorable CD performances - and I say this as someone who loved CDs and mourns their passing (shakes fist at the ISU and IOC). It's not enough to stand out in the execution, you have to have something that sets your program apart from the rest of the field. Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, for instance, do things that stand out technically (the throw 3S at the end) and artistically (Pina was a better dance program than many actual dance programs); Bolero was quite different from what was going on at the time in ice dance, and so on.

All these things can combine to create a narrative, so that it is not just the performance of the program that is compelling, but also the story of the performance, what made it special, admirable, and worthy of being remembered as great. Think of Shen and Zhao's first World title in 2003: their LP skate was brilliant and moving, and it is enhanced by the knowledge of how hard they had to work to get that point, coming from a country with no real pairs skating tradition. The performance cements their status not just as a great Chinese pair but as a great pair, period.

A memorable performance

As we were discussing our favorite programs and how they stack up in relation to these criteria, I realized that the IJS has probably made it more likely that a program would meet the well-constructed part of the test. After all, the very point of the current system is to have a well-balanced program and gain points for being strong in multiple areas. While there are drawbacks to the current approach, such as the previously mentioned tendency to stick a string of jumps at the halfway mark of a long program in order to gain the 10% bonus, it is also possible for the ISU to address various concerns as they become obvious; indeed, after too many skaters began their SPs with three consecutive jumping passes, the rules were changed, making it possible to receive the second half bonus in the SP as well. Skaters, their coaches and their choreographers know what it takes to craft a winning program, and they expend a considerable effort into putting together well-constructed programs that will score well across the board - and making sure that they can deliver it.

Paradoxically, it seems that for this same reason, the IJS (especially in its current form) also makes it less likely that we'll see as many distinctive programs. When the focus is on getting the points, creativity may be constrained to a point where there is only so much that can be done to set a skater apart through the program. Added to this, there are a small number of choreographers who seem to excel at putting together the most IJS-friendly programs, and familiarity often sets in. It is perhaps no coincidence that Savchenko and Szolkowy do not work with any of these choreographers, but rather with their coach Ingo Steuer, who in turn doesn't do much choreography for anyone else.

This is special; why couldn't they skate like this at Worlds?

For me, this trend toward well-constructed, technically accomplished, yet ultimately more-of-the-same programs is most obvious in the men's discipline, which is so competitive that skaters must get every last point out of their programs. Alas, there are only so many ways to do so, assuming one does not do three quads or some otherworldly spins. The skaters work on their PCS, of course, but everyone knows what needs to be done to get those up, and as a result, there is a greater likelihood of homogeneity. Conversely, the ladies are not currently involved in that sort of technical race, leaving the skaters more free to experiment and develop their personal style.

I can't help but wonder: is it possible, under the current version of the IJS, to check off all the points that I have mentioned - and maybe some others I hadn't considered - and deliver a truly special performance? Yuna Kim came close in 2010, although it is difficult to say if either program will stand the test of time. But there is a reason why so few programs are truly iconic; if there were more, the effect of the special ones would be diluted.

Next season will mark the 30th anniversary of Bolero, a program that remains memorable to fans and casual viewers alike. Is it possible for a program today to have that sort of impact? Will any of the skaters at the Sochi Olympics be able to deliver a program that will pass the Bolero test with flying colors?

I would like to thank ImaginaryPogue for providing inspiration and ideas for this post.

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