Ice Network

Choreographer Ward creates pieces of art for Brown

'Holiday on Ice' principal skater explains process of building programs
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Influenced by his involvement in 'Holiday on Ice,' Rohene Ward makes it a point to emphasize the performance aspect of the programs he choreographs. -Stage Touring France/Olivier Brajon

"One day, he will be an iconic choreographer!" Kori Ade, Jason Brown's coach, had told icenetwork about her protégé's choreographer, Rohene Ward.

At the time, Brown had just finished third in the short program at Trophée Eric Bompard, en route to something he had not even dreamed about at the time: a silver medal at the 2014 U.S. Figure Skating Championships and participation in the Olympic Games in his first season in the senior ranks. In just one evening last November, the French skating audience had been taken by storm by the pure lines and bold presence of Brown on the ice as well as that exquisite choreography, which transcended his presence into a true present.  

A principal skater with Holiday on Ice, Ward is displaying his own talent as a skater in Paris, where the tour has stopped for 15 shows in front of capacity crowds in one of the bigger halls in Paris. Ward never goes unnoticed on the ice. In fact, he is stealing the show in Paris, skating in the most numbers, just like he did two years ago during the tour's last production.

As soon as he appears on the ice, you can tell immediately that Ward is both a true technician and a performer. That gives an immediate clue as to what he could bring to Brown in recent seasons. Ward is able to skate with ample movements, the most elegant and ample moves you will see on the ice, actually, in spite of the diminutive rink's size. His body is in perfect synchronization and unison to the music, which creates that emotion that carries the beauty of skating.

Ward agreed to reflect on Brown's incredible season and his own mission as a choreographer.

Icenetwork: How do you manage to both skate and teach?

Ward: When I am in the U.S., I teach full time, and when I am in Europe, I tour full time. We (Ward, Ade and her pupils) moved to Colorado Springs last April from Chicago, and I worked with the team until I left for Europe last October.

Icenetwork: You were known as a great and extremely talented skater yourself. (Ward participated in the U.S. championships in 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2008, when he retired from competitive skating.) How did you come to teach?

Ward: I have been teaching since I was 16 years old, back in 2001. I love teaching. I learned skating with one single coach, Page Lipe, in Minneapolis, who taught me for 18 years. I learned so much with her. I was very much into it, and I became quite a technician. I figured that the best way for me to thank her was to coach. I started choreographing for her students, so it all came very naturally.

Icenetwork: Is it not too difficult for you to leave your students for a good part of the year?

Ward: Sometimes I need to tell them, "Guys, this is my time to grow as an artist." In the first years, they would say, "Oh no, he is leaving us forever!" Now, they have understood that I will come back with renewed energy, skating and life experiences that will help me create new things. As a member of Holiday on Ice, I feel blessed to perform in a show that lets me be myself. I think I've really highlighted my qualities during these last seasons touring. That's what is so nice about it.

Icenetwork: How does it feel to teach a talent like Jason Brown?

Ward: When you have talented skaters -- and we had quite a group in Chicago -- you want to give the best for them to stand out. It's quite a challenge for you because you know you have to build something for them to be ahead of the pack.

We first teach kids to be athletes. They have to learn about sweating, crying, having pain. The second thing we teach them is to be artists. People sometimes forget that they are performers. I try to teach them to perform while competing. Performing is not just an extra. It shouldn't be like, "Oh, today I'm so tired because I had to perform on top of skating." You should always be performing because it's your job!

Performing is something I had within myself. It just helped my skating. As a teenager, I did not realize that I had a gift to perform. I always wanted to perform and be the focus of the show, so it was hard for me to focus on my athletic side. I did not have to be a technician to skate, since I was a performer.

Icenetwork: Yet you became one!

Ward: Yes, because I was so much into it. Practice was great; competition was awful. Let's say that I may be a performer and a technician, but I'm not a competitor. Although (he laughs) I'm competing every single day! I watched the Olympic men's free skate from my hotel room with a few friends. When Jason finished his program, I was so happy that I shouted, "I did something right!"

Icenetwork: How did you work with Jason throughout this season?

Ward: I went with him to all competitions he did during the [previous] summer. We had devised a strategic plan to go through for him to get ready because his free program was so challenging. We went from one stage to the next. After Skate America (where Brown ended second after the short program and fifth overall), we sat again together to update the plan before I left for Europe. Then Jason went to Paris for the Trophée Eric Bompard (where Brown ended up third overall, winning his first Grand Prix medal). I was performing in Germany at the time. I watched his program as if I were a regular spectator watching from outside. I also realized that they had fixed a little problem (something no one would even notice), in the middle of his combination spin, before the step sequence, in the transition between the backward and the forward edge sections. I was so happy!.

His best performance was at the U.S. championships. That was strange. I was again in my room and again watching him skate through my computer. I had goosebumps throughout. He was so good that I thought that I was myself in the building. I could feel the whole atmosphere.

Icenetwork: Then he qualified for the Olympics…

Ward: I was so thrilled! That phone call was so great. I was very proud of him.

Icenetwork: The way you designed Jason's Riverdance program has now become history…

Ward: I woke up one day and told him, "I had a dream: You're going to skate to Riverdance." Jason did not know the piece, so I said, "We're going to ask your mom." She answered, "Oh, I love Riverdance!" Jason Googled the music and came back the next day, saying, "It's great!"

Kori was in Italy at that time. She was not so enthusiastic at first, so I told her, "This is a good sign, Kori. Everything you have questioned so far has always proven to be the right choice." She fell in love with the program when she saw the footwork sequence we had just choreographed. As you may know, I started choreographing the footwork sequence because I thought it would be the highlight of the program. Then we went on to the end, and then back to the beginning.

Icenetwork: Never had a free program shown such explicit transitions to the audience. Through Riverdance, you can really appreciate what makes up great components scores. Was it a deliberate choice?

Ward: We knew that Jason did not have a quad in his program, so he needed to have a piece of art: not a program but a piece. You were asking earlier what I got from Holiday on Ice; this is one thing. In a show, you never call it "a program." It's "a number" or "a piece."

To be honest, when I choreograph a piece, I don't do it for competition; I choreograph for the piece, and I let the music tell me what to do.

Then I left the piece to them for a month. That's when Jason kept asking us, "Can't we take this and that away from the program?" I held strong. I told him, "You have until January to master it. If you can't do it in November, then you'll water down. Not until then."

Icenetwork: If we may take an example: In the second half of his program, Jason does a hydroblade and connects it immediately to a double Axel. How did such a transition come?

Ward: Originally, the double Axel was planned in a choreographic sequence at the end of the program. Judges then offered some critiques, saying that it was too confusing for them to mark the footwork and then risk to miss that double Axel while adjusting their mark for the footwork. I told them that I was not there to make their job easier! But at the end of the day, you want to acknowledge that their advice is important. So we decided to place that double Axel right after the hydroblade (as the latter is not marked as an element by the judges), which does not disturb the flow of the piece.

Icenetwork: How did you keep working with Jason and Kori from a distance?

Ward: Usually, Jason and I Skype regularly. Sometimes, Kori will connect me to the loudspeaker of the rink via her own computer so I can be in the rink and ask Jason to do such and such element!

I totally respect Kori, and she totally respects me. There is no head-bumping between us. We choose to agree, or not to agree, and then we trust each other. She was not a huge fan of Riverdance, as I mentioned, but she trusted me.

Icenetwork: You mentioned that you had a vision. Do you think that you need one as a choreographer?

Ward: Yes. Without a vision, you cannot create anything. An architect will need a vision. When you devise a piece of property, it's a piece of art! (Ward thinks a little, then laughs.) Oh yes, call me "the architect of the ice!"

Actually, this is not true. I do not have visions. I get them. For Jason's program of last season, I remember, it caught me at 4:30 a.m. I was in my bed, and I had to wake up in my sleep. Then, I switched the light on and quickly texted it. Otherwise, I would have forgotten it.

Sometimes I get requests like, "I need three programs; it would be nice to have them by Monday." This is just impossible. It has to come to me first! I will have to go to a room for four days and listen to music. All of a sudden, I'll say, "Oh my gosh, this is it!" Then, I will start to work.

Icenetwork: Was the standing ovation Jason got at the end of his free skate a part of the initial vision?

Ward: It was! I said in my head, "This is an Olympic year." In an Olympic year, you want to be special. You want people to say, "Whoa! This guy has skated his best!" People cannot relate to perfection because no one is perfect. People can relate to you if they feel that you have pushed yourself and done better than you even thought you could. The only way we could achieve such a result was to bring people standing on their feet at the end of this program. That was the year to do it.

Icenetwork: Jason's short program, set to "A Question of U" by Prince, is so different. How did you manage to devise a piece that would be so different from his style?

Ward: It is his style! He just needed to be exposed to it.

(Smiling) One good thing with Jason is that he does not say "no" very often. Every year, we always go to the total opposite direction of what we have done the previous year. He may have some resistance at first, but after a while, he'll say, "I can see it, let's do it." "A Question of U" was the biggest stretch he had experienced. I wanted to challenge him and push him. I wanted to pull things out of him, which he didn't know he could. It came across much better this season.

Icenetwork: Any vision for Jason's next season then?

Ward: The only thing I know is that I would like Jason to skate to something very dramatic, which will move people in a completely different way. That's all I know. When I hear the music, then I'll know.

Olivier Brajon contributed to this report.