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Thursday, February 18, 2016

My problem with Schindler's List programs

At first glance, it makes sense. A well-regarded, Oscar-winning movie. A beautiful and haunting score that lends itself to interpretation. It's easy to understand why so many skaters and choreographers have used the Schindler's List score for programs. I wish some of them hadn't.

Not a season goes by without a Schindler or two at the elite level. We've seen them from ladies and men, in ice dance and in pairs. But unlike true skating warhorses, which are at worst repetitive and boring, a bad Schindler's List feels like the Holocaust is being trivialized, becoming a backdrop for on-ice drama.

Of course, nobody sets out to do something so offensive. Here, for instance, is what Charlène Guignard and Marco Fabbri had to say about the Schindler's List free dance that they're doing this season:

Schindler's List was our first option for the free dance for the Olympic season, but then we discovered that another Italian couple, who was fighting with us for an Olympic spot at the time, had already chosen to skate to Jewish music and to represent the drama of the Holocaust. That's the reason why, in the end, we decided to select another piece (Romeo and Juliet) with a story of struggle but one that was completely different from that one.
The reason why we had such a strong will to represent this drama is because, although many years have passed since those events, they are still deeply felt by us. Our grandparents lived through World War II and told us many stories about that period, about the fears, about the sufferings…and our choreographer, Corrado Giordani, is from Trieste, Italy, a city where [the Nazi concentration camp Risiera di San Sabba] is located and where you can still see many signs of the pain left by the war. 

Guignard and Fabbri are very capable ice dancers, and I find their short dance quite enjoyable. But their free dance for me is a failure, and I think this interview gives some insight as to why. The Holocaust is not a drama. It is not a struggle that is conceptually similar to Romeo and Juliet. What your relatives experienced is not what the people whose story is depicted in Schindler's List went through.

This is not just about Guignard and Fabbri's program, much as I dislike it. It is also not to say that a Schindler's List program categorically cannot work. Israeli skaters have managed it, and I found Julia Lipnitskaya's version quite decent as well. But this is a subject that calls for a careful approach, and not everyone can manage it.

One of the better takes on Schindler's List

Skating performances can be profoundly moving, and skaters have used programs to explore some difficult issues. But some Schindler's List programs seem surface-deep, less tribute and more of an opportunity to bring the drama - ice dancers seem especially prone to this. This is the failure mode of such programs, and it's distasteful if not downright offensive. When an ice dancer wears something meant to look like a concentration camp uniform, it's not brave, it's insensitive. If a Schindler's List program ends with a skater being "shot" and "killed", that is not original or powerful; it's offensive and tone-deaf.

I'm not in a position to tell skaters what to do, and besides, I doubt any will be reading this. But I wish people would think more about what those programs can and should convey. If you choose to skate to Schindler's List, be thoughtful, subtle, and respectful of the memory of those you try to represent in your skating. If you can't do that, consider a fictional tragedy instead.


  1. I totally agree with the argument you make in this post. I think the use of Schindler's list in figure skating is just a part of how the Holocaust is perceived and recepted nowadays. I have been to concentration camp sites, it is difficult to find an approach to the whole tragedy and the immense gravity of the matter. Seeing busses full of people carried to those sites to visitand take in the immense magnitude of atrocities, and afterwars going to a klezmer performance to have a "little diversion" from these "terrible experiences" (we're talking the visitors here) is very hard to take in. I wish this whole thing wasn't as commercially and medial exploited as it is. We're loosing the real connection to things here. It's is better to aim for a little less but to be authentic instead.

    1. Thanks, Anon - this is not something I ever expected to get into on a skating blog, but I guess it was one Schindler's List too many for me.

      I can understand why people would need a change of pace after visiting camps; it's such a difficult experience even as a mere visitor, and perhaps too much for some people to handle without some kind of break for lighter things. I'm not sure there's one right way to approach the Holocaust - in the media, in the arts or on the ice, but some ways certainly come across to me as more wrong than others.