I recently saw the film “I, Tonya,” about the rather sordid life and times of former pro figure skater, Tonya Harding. It was a time when skating was all about grace and fluidity; femininity above athleticism. Nancy Kerrigan had that package all tied up with a big silver bow on top…while Tonya found herself maligned by judges again and again. Her costumes were too flashy. Her frame was too masculine. Her music was … gasp! … contemporary! Even after she became the first American woman to land a triple axel in international competition—second woman in the world.
I left the theatre pondering the irony that, had Tonya Harding been competing in 2018, she could have easily been a “darling” of the judges. Due to what some call the “Russianization” of the sport, there would seem to be a higher premium placed on athleticism over artistry. Just ask three-time national champion Ashley Wagner, who only rated a spot as alternate on the 2018 US Olympic figure skating team—some speculate—for exactly the above stated reasons. In other words, her program didn’t contain enough of the powerhouse jumps that her teammates are cranking out over and over again.
Now, I know virtually nothing about the world of figure skating— competitive or otherwise—so I can’t say for sure how valid the opinions of the judges or the skaters or the sports commentators are. What I do know is that true artistry is not easily come by. And, while the triple axel may be king now, there was a time when elegance reigned supreme and a beautifully skated—if uneventful—routine was the goal that every skater worked toward. That is the tone I was going for when I wrote an ice skating-inspired scene in Requiem, the final installment of my Reverie trilogy.
Cellist Julia is performing for a select audience at her big CD release party. Feeling awkward in the spotlight, she finds ways to retreat into the music—including an entirely imagined skating routine in her mind…
When I was fourteen years old, I became entranced by the winter Olympics. At the North Fork Children’s Home, I’d beg our housemother to let me stay up late to watch the figure skating. I didn’t see pretty costumes or romantic stories. I didn’t care about the athleticism or the difficulty of the programs. Watching the skaters was like seeing music in a physical manifestation. I could see the music. And I was enraptured by what I saw.
Now, from next to me, my accompanist starts the rippling undercurrent of Bach’s Prelude No.1 in C Major. The composer wrote it for piano. And then, nearly a century and a half later, a composer named Charles Gounod superimposed his own melody on top of Bach’s—his setting of the Ave Maria. It became known as the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria and it is the last piece that I will play tonight. It’s the encore that the audience has demanded of me and, with the heavy lifting of Vivaldi and Brahms behind me, I allow myself to be lost within this sublime music. I allow myself to skate.
In my mind, I glide effortlessly across the smooth, unmarred ice, stretching my arms and delicately turning my body so that it faces in the opposite direction even as it continues its forward trajectory. And then I slip into a spin. Not a blinding, blurring spiral, but the most delicate of circular motion before I fall back effortlessly to where I began. Up down. High low. My body flexes with the music, which flexes with my body.
As the piece starts to its climax, I see myself as a skater in the ‘spread eagle’ position, both feet on the ice, toes pointed outward in opposite directions, heels facing one another. My arms are outstretched, my chest laid open as if awaiting embrace. As the music builds, so does my speed, carrying me into a series of intricate jumps strung together. A toe loop, an axel, a camel spin. I can practically feel the gentle swoosh of air blowing through my hair as I sail effortlessly through the boundaries of gravity.
After much too short a time, I feel the Ave Maria coming to its inevitable conclusion. Even as I pull bow across strings, I am like a gold-medalist at the end of an emotionally powerful routine. I come out of one final, languid twist, sinking down and down and down, until my knees hit the glassy surface and I simply slide across the ice with eyes upturned toward heaven and arms open in welcoming adoration.
When I was writing this section, of course I listened to the piece—over and over and over again. And it helped … but it wasn’t quite right. I realized then, that I needed to see the music, the way Julia does. I needed to see it skated. A quick YouTube search brought me exactly what I was looking for—a skater known for her stunning beauty and artistry. A woman who still personifies elegance on ice some FIFTY years after her gold medal performance at the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble, France. Check out this clip of Peggy skating a tribute to her coach, Carlo Fassi, back in 1997 to—you guessed it—the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria:
I can’t say for sure that Tonya and Nancy would have fared any differently were they skating today. I can’t say for sure that Peggy Fleming would have been appreciated for the talent she is, were she skating in 2018 rather than 1968. The sport changes, as do the sportsmen and women—and the audiences who hang on every spin, spiral, lutz and loop.
What I can say for sure is that the music never changes. It is always there, a beautiful, anchoring constant in a world filled with ever-increasing expectations and demands. The music provides the lines that the skater brushes with color.
Are you a skating fan? Which musical selections have you loved most? Which have you hated? What would YOU skate to … if you could?