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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Skater(s) appreciation: Nathalie Péchalat & Fabian Bourzat

I had hoped to put up this post to celebrate Nathalie Péchalat and Fabian Bourzat winning their third consecutive European title, but unfortunately, this is no longer a possibility. But they're still awesome, so I'll post this anyway. Good luck to Pernelle Carron and Lloyd Jones, Team France's lone ice dance entry in Zagreb, and best wishes for a speedy recovery to Fabian!

Nathalie Péchalat and Fabian Bourzat teamed up in 2000. Fabian had only ever done ice dance; Nathalie had had some singles experience, but decided to focus on dance at an early stage, as she “liked jumping, but not falling”. Already 16 and 19, respectively, when they teamed up, they aged out of juniors after two seasons together and without any podium finishes at either the JGPF or Junior Worlds. They then toiled in relative obscurity as a lower-ranked French team for the entire 2003-6 Olympic cycle, with their only podium finishes coming at the Winter Universiade. They were 20th in their Worlds debut in 2004, 18th at their first Olympics two years later.

In the current climate in which teams are expected to make it to the top quickly or else, a team like Péchalat and Bourzat might have split within a few years. Fortunately, they persevered, and in 2006-7, they were finally rewarded. Skating to a unique take on Four Seasons – not the Vivaldi version but one composed by Assen Merzouki – with Nathalie in her famous (or perhaps infamous) cotton ball dress, they skated to their first Grand Prix medal at the 2006 Skate America, and began to move up the standings in major events.

An exhibition version of the Four Seasons program, complete with cotton ball dress.

Coming in to 2008 Worlds, they were clearly a team on the rise, and it was at this point that they first came to my attention. I hadn't really followed ice dance for several years, but there was no ignoring their FD. Craziness is not a perfect program technically, and when I watch it now, I can see how much progress Péchalat and Bourzat have made in the years since. But it was dark and edgy, fascinating and very different from what I was used to seeing in ice dance – yet clearly it was dance. I was hooked.

On my list of most rewatched programs

Following the 2008 season, Péchalat and Bourzat left their longtime training base in Lyon to work with Alexander Zhulin in Moscow. Their season got off to a slow start and they did not qualify for the GPF. Their Circus free dance, however, was a joy to watch, and (on a more superficial note) Nathalie’s hairstyle and costumes were excellent. They made their first Worlds gala that season, a performance I find especially memorable because the announcer introduced them as classical and elegant – at which point they skated to... Andy

 Very classical and elegant (a better quality version, but without the introduction)

In the Olympic season, things went wrong. Péchalat and Bourzat were given some bad advice regarding the free dance – let us never speak of it again – and their original dance was not the best, either. They were also relegated to second team status, as Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder were back after missing more than a year. They rallied at the World Championships, but it was only enough for fourth place. 2010-11, however, was almost perfect, with a slew of wins for the team that had never stood atop an international podium. Sadly, a fall in the free dance at the World Championships once again left the two in fourth place. Even worse, or so it seemed at the time, they were forced to leave Zhulin and seek a new training situation due to various political concerns.

With current coaches Anjelika Krylova and Pasquale Camerlengo, Péchalat and Bourzat have met with even greater success. They are unquestionably the top European team and the only one within sight of the two Canton teams. I will admit, for all their success, that I sometimes miss
Péchalat and Bourzat's older free dances, when they weren’t as technically accomplished but seemed to be more artistically adventurous.

Nonetheless, here is why I like Péchalat and Bourzat so much: They have worked very hard to improve technically, but have put perhaps even a greater effort into coming up with diverse and original programs that showcase their strengths. They are both very good on-ice actors, Nathalie especially. Being creative and innovative is important to them. Their costumes are unique – never a Disney princess look or something that would be nice for a wedding party, but all sorts of fun and interesting things (much credit for that should go to their longtime costume designer, Marlène Weber).

Péchalat wears a dress apparently made of wrapping paper for the Finnstep, 2009

I like Péchalat and Bourzat because they love what they do and think about what they do. Because they do not skate to Carmen and ballroom and boring muzak. Because they didn’t get off to the most auspicious of starts in their career but kept at it anyway. Because they have been through any number of judging and scoring changes that required endless adjustments, but never lost sight of who they were and what they wanted to do. And so, for the last 6.0 dance team still competing, I hope for a happy Olympic ending a little over a year from now. I’ll miss them when they retire, and hope that they have inspired other young skaters to persevere and be true to who they are.

You can read more about Péchalat and Bourzat and their approach to ice dance, program construction and choreography here, here and here

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