Watching Olympic ice dancers glide, flip, and lift each another several feet off the ice makes you wonder how they manage those athletic feats while still looking graceful, balletic, and sometimes sexy. What many people don't realize is that, in addition to working with coaches, these athletes often get input from professional choreographers and dancers.
Ice dance is a production just like a ballet or musical. So, when the French pair Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron were planning their free dance program, they enlisted the help of Jeffrey Cirio, a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, to choreograph it.
Cirio had posted a clip on Instagram of a pas de deux that he choreographed for his company, Cirio Collective, when Cizeron slid into his DMs asking if he was open to working with ice dancers. "At first, I was just like, Uhh I don't know if I want to do that. I don't know if that's my thing," Cirio told Refinery29. Cirio explained that he didn't know anything about ice dancing, but Cizeron reassured him that wouldn't be an issue.
Ice dancers are scored based on the technical elements they complete (jumps, lifts, and turns), but they're also judged on their artistry. Cizeron and Papadakis had already planned through the elements of their routine with their coach, they just needed someone to fill in chunks of the choreography with movement, and help finesse the lifts. Most ice dancers have some experience with dance technique, but working intensely with a seasoned dancer like Cirio isn't something everyone does. "I applaud them," Cirio says. "Dance is like cross-training for them, so I think it's amazing."
Cirio took a chance, and said he was hoping his piece would stand out compared to others. Indeed, Cizeron and Papadakis took home a silver medal and The New York Times said their program was "as ethereal as ballet." (You can watch the program here.)
To learn more, we spoke with Cirio about the difference between choreographing for ice and land, and what he thinks about the "sexy" ice dance routines this year.
What was the training and rehearsal process like? Did you have to quickly learn everything there is to know about ice dancing?
"They had sort of pre-made lifts, but they were so open to changing anything. What I didn’t want to do was go and completely change everything; I wanted to learn something from them, and then help them with the flow of things. The more complicated the transition getting into the lift is, and the more interesting it looks, the more points they get.
"The thing is, they know so much about lifting each other because they work so much with each other, so it was super easy to be like, Try this. Okay, try that. It was a back and forth; more collaboration than me giving them the steps. Which I totally love doing."
How different is it choreographing for ice versus making work for land?
"The difference between land and ice was amazing. We try to teach dancers to soar and move, and have those qualities on [the dance floor]. What's amazing is that [ice dancers] can achieve those kind of soaring, nonstop movements on the ice. It goes so fast, and what amazes me is it's what we all want to achieve, and they can achieve that on ice. I found this huge inspiration in seeing the quality of how they move. Maybe I could translate that from the ice to land.
"I think I’ve learned more about myself and my choreography, and I think they did like me helping them with arm movements and artistic movements. So, it was such an exchange of experiences. I still am so honored to have worked with them."
It seems like there's been a lot of buzz this Olympics about the sexy, romantic routines the ice dancers perform. Do you think there's more of an expectation to have an edge or be daring with choreography?
"When talking to Gabriella and Guillaume about what they really wanted to achieve as ice dancers, I think they're trying to move ice dancing in a way. It used to be more artistic, but as the sport evolved I think it grew into this bravura. It's flashier and more sexy, which is totally fine, but I think some people are now learning that doesn’t last very long. Cleanliness, artistry, and technique really does go far, with presence on top of that.
"They really want to bring that kind of aspect back into ice dancing, and I think that is a beautiful thing, because that's what we try to achieve as ballet dancers. It's time for a change. They want to be more artistic; they want to explore different kind of movement."
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