Ice Network

Papadakis, Cizeron created magic again and again

French ice dance duo left audiences speechless with Mozart free dance
  • Ice Network on Facebook
  • Ice Network on Twitter
After a season that saw them win their first career European and world titles, France's Gabrielle Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron are being compared to some of the greatest ice dance teams of all time. -Getty Images

Icenetwork will announce its choice for 2014-15 Person of the Year later this month. Here's one of the nominations for that honor from icenetwork contributor Jean-Christophe Berlot.

"Do you have special ambitions for this season?" I asked Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron last October, when the team returned from their new training base in Montreal to win the French Masters, their first competition of the season.

"For sure! We want to perform better than last year," Cizeron answered.

The team finished 13th in the world and 15th in Europe in its senior debut, a year after winning a silver medal at the world junior championships.

I had met them two seasons prior, at a time when they were just chasing after their first medal in the Junior Grand Prix (JGP).

"Our first Junior Grand Prix took place in Lake Placid, three seasons ago (2010). We ended last. The winners were Maia and Alex Shibutani, and we regarded them as living gods," Papadakis told me after they won their first JGP, in Courchevel, France, in 2013. "Now we are sitting at the spot that was theirs at the time. It feels strange."

Everyone who saw them dance then knew that they were watching "baby champions," as Marie-France Dubreuil, now one of the team's coaches in Montreal, told me last August. One day the team would be on the top of the world hierarchy -- but in an "ecosystem" as conservative as ice dance, how long would it take?

Well, ice dance was not so conservative this time around. After winning the French Masters last October, the couple embarked on one of the most stunning seasons a team may ever experience. Papadakis and Cizeron won the Skate Canada Autumn Classic in Barrie, Ontario, and then took the gold at their two Grand Prix events, Cup of China and Trophée Éric Bompard. They rallied to make the the podium at the Grand Prix Final, won their first French championship a week later and went on to win the European and world gold medals, each victory a greater surprise than the last.

"Do you like making surprises?" I asked Cizeron just after their gold medal at Europeans, in late January in Stockholm.

"I suppose that we like to make surprises, and also to get surprises!" he had answered with a smile.

The whole season was a huge surprise for the team, who admitted that the goals they had set for themselves were far below what they achieved.

"We keep ourselves being surprised, and it's a great feeling," Cizeron concluded.

I visited Papadakis and Cizeron in Montreal last summer, a few weeks after they started training there. At the time, they were trying to find their identity in their new country. They admitted later that their Montreal base provided them with a "bubble." There, they could train and refine what became one of the jewels of this season: their free program, crafted by Romain Haguenauer and Dubreuil after ballet dancer Angelin Preljocaj's "The Park."

Skating to the adagio movement from Mozart's "Piano Concerto No. 23," Papadakis and Cizeron offered a moment of eternity to the world.

"When I saw them skate their free program in Shanghai (at Cup of China), we had just lost Gilles Vandenbroeck (the ISU Ice Dance Technical Committee member from France)," one of the judges there said afterward. "I knew they were skating for him. It became so emotional to watch that program that I put my pen back on my table and I just watched."

That story I had heard a handful of times before: When a judge puts his or her pen down to watch, then the performance has to be magical. Judges have seen so many…

The magic did not happen only once this season; it repeated itself at competition after competition. This does not happen often in figure skating, where programs can age quickly -- you've seen them once, you've seen them forever. Watching Papadakis and Cizeron's 2014-15 free program, one never got a sense of "déjà vu." Each time they found the magic. Each time they shared it. Each time, as the two of them skated, the lucky ones sitting in the stands could hear the silence overwhelm the arena, live the music flowing in their blood, feel their own heartbeat follow the beat of the music. Each time they felt goosebumps sliding from wrists to elbows. Each time they felt tears invading their eyes at the end.

"The program was one of these unique moments in time," Cizeron himself conceded after the team's winning performance in Stockholm. "It lasted four minutes, but each second was unique in itself, even though we've been skating this program hundreds of times. It was a powerful moment, with a kind of poetry into it."

What made the magic? Where did it come from?

The skaters credit their unique connection to their maturity on the ice. Papadakis' mother, Catherine, formed and coached the team in their first years together.

"Gabriella was 10 and Guillaume 11 when I teamed them," she recalled. "Gabriella was already a silver medalist in her age category. Guillaume had started later, but he was so gifted. They have been magical right away. Guillaume had an exceptional skating. They rapidly found their style and placement on the ice together. When you watch videos from their early years, you will recognize their style right away."

Papadakis and Cizeron, indeed, have a unique way of gliding on the ice, flying from one move to the next.

"Their touch on the ice comes from the way they bend their knee," world and Olympic coach Alexander Zhulin confirmed.

"Also, their gestures are quite unique and loose, very ample, in a contemporary style," Catherine added. "Gabriella and Guillaume are able to mobilize their upper body more than anyone else. That is quite rare in ice dance. They can reach anywhere in space."

Starting moves from the upper body, rather than only from their feet, may also be a key to their unique style.

"Creating the magic owes nothing to magic itself," Papadakis explained later. "It's something you need inside of you that creates it. You need to be one -- one with your partner, one with your music, one with your audience, one with your judges, one with the ice. That leads a performance to give emotions to everybody. That's what creates the magic."

Former Cirque du Soleil performer Catherine Pinard coaches the team in the areas of interpretation and theatricality, and she further refined the team's approach.

"We are looking for what is sacred. I am not interested in their lives, but I want to know everything about their personal intimacy, their inner world," Pinard said. "What I would like is to lead them to their own beauty."

Papadakis recalled the team's answer to Pinard's first question when they came to her.

"She asked us what we wanted to achieve. We answered, 'We want to leave the audience speechless,'" he said. "We worked in that very direction."

Witnesses to the team's performances this season can testify that they achieved their goal: From Spain to Sweden, from China to Japan, their program left audiences speechless.

Incidentally, Pinard drove Canada's Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford to their first world gold medal as well (in pairs). These two teams have learned to give each of their performances a true meaning. They thrust their audience into a story, even into a belief, and in doing so, they may have opened a new door for the future of skating as a whole.

"We have learned to make every feeling right, and felt for real," Papadakis explained in the middle of the season. "Nothing is fake. We have the feeling that we strip ourselves naked as we skate. It certainly makes us more vulnerable at first, but it also gives us more strength. Once we have finished our skate, we feel really powerful."

Some have compared Papadakis and Cizeron to all-time ice dance greats Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean. Others liken them to Russia's Irina Moiseeva and Andrei Minenkov, a team that radiated emotion on the ice like no other.

"Maybe we are going to put a mark on our sport?" Cizeron wondered in his own humble way, talking with French daily newspaper L'Equipe after their world gold medal.

Already, they started the Olympic quadrennial just as Torvill and Dean started theirs: by winning their first European and world titles in the first year.

Will the team create another surprise next season?

"We are well aware that the more you win, the bigger the challenges you have," Papadakis recognized at the end of the season. "We will have a big challenge in selecting our next programs. The emotion that this season's free dance brought was really embedded into the program itself. We will need to find music that carries us as much as this one."

"You know, I listen to this music very often, and sometimes I find tears rolling from my eyes just listening to it," Cizeron admitted.

It may be difficult for the team to give up Mozart.

"He's become a friend!" Cizeron exclaimed.

Papadakis and Cizeron undoubtedly left their mark on this year in figure skating. Whether they manage to deepen that mark and push ice dance further, only time will tell. I feel honored to present them as the icenetwork People of the Year. This year, they and their unique free program were mine.