Ice Network

Barinova advocates artistry, age-appropriate music

Former dancer discusses working with top athletes, future of figure skating
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Galina Barinova has worked with some of the top names in figure skating, including Evan Lysacek and Mirai Nagasu. -Courtesy of Daria Podolsky

A former ballet dancer of the famous Bolshoi Theatre, Galina Barinova has contributed much to the national and international skating community for many years.

Barinova's long road to the world of the ballet elite began in the early 1980s at the Moscow State Ballet Academy. The training was extremely intense, leaving Barinova to often question her ability to successfully complete the Academy's program. It was her desire to succeed, however, that launched her to new heights.

In 1990, Barinova was invited to join Bolshoi Ballet's Grigorovich Company to perform and tour the world with a small group of elite dancers. She would eventually catch on with the main company of Bolshoi, but a career-threatening injury, coupled with political turmoil in the USSR and a volatile situation in the ballet company, contributed to her decision to remain in the United States.

The U.S. opened doors for Barinova, which allowed her to combine ballet with a lifelong passion for figure skating. She now teaches ballet at Southland Ballet Academy in California, and has been working with various skaters since 1999. Among her students are Timothy Goebel, Evan Lysacek, Mirai Nagasu, Kimmie Meissner, Caroline Zhang, Denis Ten, Takahiko Kozuka and Carolina Kostner.

Icenetwork spoke with Barinova about her interest in figure skating, teaching ballet classes and the love she has for her students.

Icenetwork: How did you become interested and involved in figure skating?

Galina Barinova: I've always loved figure skating and followed the sport as much as I could. At one point, I was teaching ballet at a local ballet studio, but having been raised as a goal-oriented professional, it was difficult for me to adjust to ballet as a recreational activity. When someone suggested I look into the figure skating world, I thought it would be a better fit for me.

I'll be forever grateful to Yuri Ovchinnikov, who nearly 20 years ago offered me the opportunity to start working with him in San Diego, California, and the many supportive coaches at that facility. Besides working with my students in the ballet studio on improving their posture, extension and flexibility, all while teaching them proper ballet positions, we started exploring the detailing and embellishment of their programs on the ice.

At first, we didn't even speak the same language, and I don't mean Russian versus English. Ice skating, like any other highly specialized occupation such as ballet, music or science, has its own language. I had to learn on the job to recognize and memorize the names of the jumps, edges and turns. The kids were amazingly patient with me, and little by little we started making progress. A few years later I was thrilled to join Mr. Frank Carroll and his team, which ultimately propelled my career.

Icenetwork: What are the most significant parallels you can draw between ballet and skating?

Barinova: When I teach an intro-seminar class or talk to a new student, I always try to remind him or her about the similarities between ballet and skating. The obvious parallels are that we're looking at a skater as we do a dancer, with the skater performing a technically difficult routine in front of an audience, while a dancer performs to a piece of music dressed in a beautiful costume.

Unlike skating, the history and appreciation of music, art history and acting are mandatory courses taught to all ballet dancers in the academy. In my opinion, the biggest challenge is the ability to deliver a story, character or emotion. In no other sport is it a requirement. 

Icenetwork: Many dancers say that ballet classes at Bolshoi can be compared to the drills used in the military because of their workload, intensity and difficulty. Do you agree with this comparison?

Barinova: You're absolutely correct to note the similarity in the intensity of the training. The difference is that this kind of training is introduced to children as young as 10 and continues into their teens. It almost feels like this method rewires your DNA according to the highest standard of excellence while building you up as a professional.

If you can't survive it and learn to strive for perfection while in the Academy, you won't enjoy it as a career. I can only speak for myself, but I believe it was instilled in us from Day One to think and treat any stage -- particularly the stage of the Bolshoi -- as something sacred, which allows you to develop great love and admiration for the art of ballet.

Icenetwork: Your list of students includes many prominent names. Could you tell us about the most memorable moments from your time with them?

Barinova: I've been very fortunate to work with the most amazing skaters, but my favorite memories are always with Timothy Goebel, Evan Lysacek and Mirai Nagasu. Tim was by far the biggest challenge at the time. He was an outstanding technician, the Quad King, but very reserved emotionally. His transformation was the most evident at the 2003 worlds when he brought his old program, set to American in Paris by Gershwin, and made it look alive and fresh after working on letting his emotions show.

Evan was the complete opposite in that he didn't hold back and was extremely driven and unstoppable in practice and competition. His world title in Los Angeles in 2009 and Olympic gold medal in 2010 were the ultimate sign he'd accomplished his goals.

Mirai has a special place in my heart as well. I was thrilled for her when she won the "best performance" award (given by the Professional Skaters Association) for her Pirates of the Caribbean short program at the 2010 nationals and qualified for her first Olympics. We spent countless hours detailing the program, making it fit the music to the smallest note and working on the nuances of it.

She also did amazingly well in the 2011 Four Continents Championships, placing third. In 2014, we were devastated when Mirai placed third at nationals but was not nominated for the Olympic team. It was heart-wrenching, but we had to agree with the decision of the federation.

Icenetwork: Can you tell us more about your work with 2010 Olympic champion Evan Lysacek?

Barinova: Let me start by taking a step back and drawing another parallel between skating and ballet: It takes a team of people to deliver a skater or a dancer to his ultimate performance, and I was only a small part of one of those teams, as Frank and Lori Nichol were extremely gracious to welcome my input. Just like with any other student, I was applying Stanislavski's acting method to help Evan fill the movement with meaning and emotion by using his body language and facial expression, which made his program authentic and real. 

Icenetwork: Which performances of your current students were the most successful this season and why?

Most of my students now come from Tammy Gambill -- Vincent Zhou, Karen Chen and Hannah Miller -- and from Peter Oppegard and Anna Baram, who are raising the next generation of skaters. I love working with them. Celebrating small victories, such as Level 4 footwork or the highest component score in a competition for a novice- or junior-level skater brings me as much pride as celebrating a Grand Prix medal with a senior. Every journey starts with a single step.

Icenetwork: In recent years, senior skating has become very technically strong among the younger skaters, yet some specialists say it's difficult for those youngsters to interpret the general sense and emotions of a serious program. What do you think about that and how do you work on this issue with your students?

Barinova: I do agree with this observation, as it's very difficult for a young skater to have an emotional maturity and interpret the complexity of a serious musical piece without having had any major life experiences. It's a challenge for a very young skater to represent the emotionally charged score and subject matter of a selection from Carmen, Giselle or Romeo and Juliet. There is a disconnect between the maturity of the piece and the age of the skater.

In my opinion, everything starts with choosing age-appropriate music. Once the music has been selected, I always suggest that my students find out as much as possible about their music choice and the character or emotion they will be portraying. Quite often there is a lot of choreography and movement without any purpose or clear direction, unfortunately. As a spectator, I quickly become disengaged from that kind of performance because training of the body should not supersede training of the mind.

Icenetwork: In your opinion, in what direction is the artistic portion of figure skating headed and what purpose will it serve in the sport?

Barinova: I'm an optimist, but with the current emphasis on technical difficulty, it's very likely that artistry will become more and more secondary. "Jump first, act later" has been the motto for some time now, but ultimately we're talking about figure skating and not figure jumping. There's rarely any time left for beautifully mesmerizing edges, curves and patterns when one has to land three quads and two triple axels, all while performing many other jumps, spins and steps to fulfill the technical requirements of a winning program.

Icenetwork: Skating judges have a mark called "Interpretation." Doesn't it presuppose that the person on the judging panel should be familiar with music and its theme performed on the ice? If so, how can judges become familiar with dozens of pieces of music that they hear during competitions?

Barinova: It's difficult for any judge to be an expert in both technical and artistic fields. In order to assist the judging panel with technical aspects of the program, there is a technical panel that identifies and assigns levels of difficulty to the executed elements.

There needs to be an artistic panel, which could possibly include a ballet dancer, ice dancer and former choreographer to help the judges with musicality, choreography, composition, interpretation and execution marks. It wouldn't be realistic to expect the judges using the present rules to undergo any kind of formal training in music history.

To further complicate things, television viewers, spectators in the arena and judges don't have the luxury of having a synopsis in front of them, and therefore they can only guess what the skater is trying to express.

Icenetwork: What area(s) of figure skating would you like to see changed?

Barinova: As I mentioned earlier, the athleticism is definitely on the rise, which brings up another important topic.

I often see many skaters that are over-trained and/or injured due to grueling training schedules. Should we keep pushing the boundaries or let the skaters grow and mature at their own pace? Shouldn't we teach them how to skate first? Wouldn't that naturally deliver them to a greater success rate with jumps? It's probably not a very popular opinion, but wouldn't restoring compulsory figures for skaters as a result make them better performers as well?

Icenetwork: As a former top dancer of the Bolshoi Ballet, what would be your main advice for figure skaters regarding the artistic part of our sport be?

Barinova: My biggest advice to all the skaters out there is to never stop learning, exploring and experiencing. Try ballet, ballroom, jazz and hip hop. Watch a ballet performance, an old movie without distracting special effects, or visit a museum. Read. Think. Feel. And let it show.