Ice Network

Péchalat and Bourzat: The little prince and his rose

French dance couple did intense planning for their Olympic-year programs
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Few, if any, skaters competing today put as much thought and care into their programs as Nathalie Péchalat and Fabian Bourzat do. -Getty Images

Nathalie Péchalat and Fabian Bourzat won European championships in 2011 and 2012 and the world bronze medal in 2012. After a superlative start to their 2012-13 season, their campaign nearly ended when Bourzat injured himself just a few days before Europeans. The duo had to withdraw from that competition and settled for a sixth-place finish at the subsequent world championships, far below their expectations. The team is now ready to start its first Grand Prix of the season in China. They agreed to discuss how the past season allowed them to devise their new Olympic programs and explained their content and their hopes.

Icenetwork: You have always insisted on the consistency you were looking for in devising your short dances. What about this one?

Péchalat: This year was a little bit easier, actually. As soon as we heard that we would have to skate a quickstep, we knew that we would not go to ballroom style. We wanted to get away from the "Ginger and Fred syndrome," so we started looking for something more exciting for us.

When I was a little girl, my family and I were often going to watch musicals; I have seen quite a number of them. I had always been willing to do something in that direction, so this was the opportunity. We have turned our quickstep into cabaret style. It's a rather lively dance, with a lot of tempo to it. "Sing, Sing, Sing" was a ready-made quickstep, so we did not have much to do to integrate it in our story.

Icenetwork: What about the free dance?

Bourzat: We were looking for a theme that would represent us completely and have an impact on the audience. We wondered: Which story could move people? The Little Prince appeared to be a great idea. It is French, although it was first published in New York (during World War II). Also, we are celebrating the book's 70th anniversary. Since then, it has been published in every country and language around the world.

Icenetwork: How did that idea come to you?

Bourzat: It was my idea, actually. We had thought of it during our flight to Cup of China last November. At that time, we were thinking of Le Cirque du Soleil, yet we had a problem: It had been used so many times already. And also, we like to skate to strong characters. We could not find anything really specific that would represent us enough. Two days later, I came up with the idea of The Little Prince.

Péchalat: I was not thrilled right away, actually. I was wondering, "Yes, it's a good idea, but then what do we do with it?"

Bourzat: (laughing) I suggested that she portrays the fox!

Péchalat: (laughing back) One of Fabian's ideas … That did not look too great to me, actually, as the fox is just the little prince's buddy. I wanted to be a bit more than that…

Bourzat: Then we had another problem: Of course, Nathalie would portray the rose, but the rose appears so little in the book.

Péchalat: I had to read the book over and over and finally realized that the rose was in fact the main line of the story. Whatever the Little Prince does, he does it for the rose. He is always in connection with her, all the time! Then it became the great idea we needed: The Little Prince is not just a children's book; it also tells the story of a communication between two persons. It's much simpler for us to skate to a story with strong characters who communicate, with intricate emotional statuses. Actually, we chose our musical pieces for their link to the atmosphere we wanted to project. None of them is connected to The Little Prince musical, for instance.

Icenetwork: How did you develop that program?

Péchalat: It was a great program to build, really, and that is already a great story in itself. It lasted from November 2012 to June 2013. I read the book over and over and cut the text to gather all the episodes where the rose is mentioned. Then I devised a storyboard with a sequence of tableaux, like for a real ballet. As are each of our free programs in the past, this one is intended to be a spectacle in itself.

Bourzat: That took place late January 2013, as we could not go to the European championships. We needed a lot of time to choose our music selection. We did that in January and February. The last piece was critical to us. Had we not found it, we would have had to give up the whole concept.

Icenetwork: The choreographer you mention, Julien Cottereau, is known as an actor rather than a professional choreographer. How is this possible?

Péchalat: We wanted that program to be choreographed by Julien Cottereau. He indeed is a renowned clown and actor in France. We had read The Little Prince book with him once, after I had the storyboard completed. Then in April, we had him read the text for us along the boards, while we were on the ice. Then he would comment what he was reading. For instance, he would say, "Here you see that funny little piece of grass, and you wonder what it is, so you come around it and sniff it to check and then start to pay attention to it…" Meanwhile, we were improvising to his words on the ice.

We have embedded the various styles we have danced to in the last few seasons: There is fantasy, as in our "Circus" number; originality, as in The Four Seasons; poetry, as in "Charlie Chaplin."

After that, we had all the technical work done with Igor [Shpilband] on the ice last May and June.

Never before, I think, had a program been built in such a way. We certainly did take a risk in doing so. But it is so much more fun to drive an artistic creation like this, from start to end, rather than saying, "OK, we are going to take such music and let's dance to it."

Bourzat: Technically, it is certainly our best program ever, and the one which renders our personalities best.

Icenetwork: So now the people you need to tame are the judges!

Péchalat: (laughing) Oh yes! For that, we are going to send the fox!

Icenetwork: Back in 1990, the organizers of the Winter Olympics in Albertville had also been willing to use the little prince as the Games mascot. Apparently, they never succeeded because of Saint-Exupéry's descendants. How did you do it yourselves?

Péchalat: One of my very good friends is also friends with the person who owns Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's rights. So, I could be introduced to him. There is no problem for us, I have to say, as we are not using any name or even music. I am really proud to present such a program.

Icenetwork: How did Igor accept your creation, since you had it done before you even knew that you would work with him?

Bourzat: We knew that we would have to comply with Igor's own technical choices. He did change our elements, and actually that was like a big flow of fresh air for us.

Péchalat: Igor knew right away what we needed to reach our objective. He is a real strategist and a very smart one. It was visible right from our first meeting. We showed him our programs, and he did not say a word about our choreography. Instead, he discussed the way our lifts were oriented and our position on the ice. We were striving at setting up something nice, while he was thinking about something efficient. He wanted things to be clearly visible for the judges; for instance, he set up our step sequence to make it more visual. I kept wondering what level it would get, and he would smile and tell me, "Nathalie, it's not a matter of levels, as it will get a Level 4. But what I want is a 2 or 3 GOE!"

He told us that he would not change anything on the artistic side. "I want to help you go beyond technically and physically," he added, "without changing the nature of your skating." We have deep respect for one another.

Bourzat: We have a great package: good programs, excellent coaches, interesting choreographies. We have faith in what we do. We spend a lot of time warming up and stretching. We train intensely, but not extensively, to preserve our bodies. Now we need to perform on the day it matters most.

Icenetwork: What day specifically?

Péchalat: Our goal is clearly an Olympic medal. It will be the best way for us to thank all those who have encouraged and supported us along our path.

It is just great to have the Games in Russia. That country has such a passion for figure skating. We have lived there for three years. Sasha [Zhulin], Anjelika [Krylova] (their former coaches), now Igor, my Russian family -- I feel really close to that country, and I miss them all. I can't wait to go back! It is a real pleasure for us to end our season there.

Icenetwork: Does it mean that you do not intend to go to worlds afterward?

Péchalat: No, we are positive about it. We figure that we will not be able to concentrate and focus again after the Games, whatever the outcome is. So we have only one last chance to medal, and it will be at the Olympics.