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Anguished artist Abbott joins 'Miserables' in Paris

Three-time U.S. champion lives Hugo's tale in real life, continues to pursue masterpiece on ice

American Jeremy Abbott labors through pain to produce art in the rink.
American Jeremy Abbott labors through pain to produce art in the rink. (Getty Images)

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By Jean-Christophe Berlot, special to icenetwork.com
(11/16/2012) - Watching Jeremy Abbott's practice session is like watching the making of an art masterpiece. You see a craftsman reassembling his tools and skills. The artist has two blades and a body to trace his figures, just like a sculptor; just like a painter, he holds a white page below him -- the ice. And space all around him to express his feelings and tell his story.

Today, the body of the artist hurts, you can tell. He tries to find alternatives to avoid pain. It's in his upper back. It's in his thigh.

"It's been miserable all month," Abbott commented afterward.

"Miserable," just like the music he is skating to.

"Yes," he added with a laugh, "I suppose that I am living my own story."

"We're touching on the fear factor," his coach, Yuka Sato, explained. "When Jeremy feels right, these jumps are easy for him, but then the fear to fall comes in."

At the end of his practice at Trophée Eric Bompard, Abbott spent about one hour stretching with the team's physiotherapist.

"After Skate America, I was worried that I'd have some serious back problems," he explained, "As I have had in the past. I was worried that I would have disc problems. Then the doctor told me that it was something else and that I was way too tight!

"I was relieved to know that it could be taken care of -- although it would take time. So now it's just having the wheel turning again. After all, this is just the start of the season.

"So, I am doing physio every day, as well as static and dynamic stretching," Abbott explained. "It's strengthening by stretching."

While Abbott was skating, though, you could feel the intimacy of the artist. Step after step, move after move, you could witness the masterpiece taking shape.

The quad is rough; the triple flip-triple toe that was placed because of the injury is gorgeous. The artist blushes under the effort. Every day, every second, every shape is to be reconstructed again. Nothing can ever be taken for granted: no step, no spin, no jump, of course. Each one has to find its true meaning and intention again.

"Each time I see Yuka skate," Abbott offered afterward, "I am impressed to see that every step has a purpose and every movement has a reason. I want to bring that into my skating. We try to tell a story without words, but with the flow of our blade edges.

"We just started to place steps together," Abbott continued. "Everyone does not have a meaning to the story in itself, but it has a meaning to the next move."

"It also has to do with transitions," Sato added. "Jeremy has the artistic and technical ability to transition from one element to the next and make up the whole story."

The creation of each of Abbott's programs is a process in itself.

"Yuka and I did the free program," Abbott explained. "Yet, it did not come up as it usually does. At the end of last season, I did Canada's Stars on Ice tour, and after that I took a three-week vacation.

"Usually, I have a very clear idea of what my programs for the next season are going to be. This time, I had nothing -- no concept, no idea, no vision. Even for the short program. I told Yuka and she suggested that we do Les Misérables.

"I had no idea that the movie was about to come out at the time," Sato explained with a smile. "Then I saw the ads. I thought it was suitable to skate. Also, Jeremy is mature enough to interpret it."

Abbott did not buy the idea right away, though.

"No, I answered," he recalled. "I love the music but I have heard it so many times before and it's not what I want to do. Then she handed me the DVD and asked me to study it with one idea in mind: 'Watch the emotion you can feel through the television,' she suggested, 'And think that you can take it through the ice.'

"I liked the concept. The idea was not to tell the story -- which I did not want to do. Just bring the emotion."

"Then we could not find any suitable musical piece, so we decided to have it orchestrated and composed," Abbott said. "We worked with a fascinating music arranger and composer, Steven Gamail. He arranged the piece and built more instrumental to make it go crescendo. The music alone gives me chills. I love when I get chills from a music piece I skate to."

Amazingly, the process Abbott described was precisely that of any masterpiece: find the right balance between the rules and the meaning.

"We had to define the right set-up for the program," he said. "Having the rules and not give up any choreographic detail is always a struggle for me. The challenge is always to get the levels and yet stick to the art. I am actually very stubborn. Then Yuka comes in and asks: 'Do you want a piece of art, or do you want to win?' So I have to step down from time to time. We compromise. (Sato laughs while listening to her pupil.)

"Again, my purpose in this piece is to bring the song's words into life. Longing for protection of those you love, and make sure that God is protecting them while you feel so powerless. You pray with everything you have. It's a little bit of despair, I suppose."

Did Abbott mention earlier that it was his own story these last weeks?

Abbott recognizes himself as "a spiritual, although not religious, person."

"I have had the amazing opportunity to work with some of the brightest members of the 'Academy of Skating'," Abbott said. "I worked with Janet Lynn, Yuka, Kurt Browning, Christopher Dean. I started skating because of Robin Cousins. Paul Wylie was my mentor. All these people skated.

"In the past four years, my pledge has been to bring back what skating was. I grew up loving skating as it used to be. I want it to be my legacy to bring it back."

Abbott is happy to be in Paris, a city of arts by itself.

"I love coming to France," he said. "I feel at peace here. Paris is very relaxing for me."

The fact that Les Misérables was written by French poet, novel writer, theatre master and politician Victor Hugo in Paris adds another connection to his art.

"I love this program," Abbott confirmed, "And this is my favorite city. I want to make it special for the French audience. I am excited about that connection between the city, the story and my own skating."

French impressionist Claude Monet painted dozens of paintings from the same Rouen cathedral; Paul Cézanne painted the same Sainte-Victoire mountain dozens of times. Each time Abbott skates, his season is like one new rendering from the same masterpiece. Hopefully, the Paris version of Les Misérables will be a great and rewarding one for him.

A practice session of Abbott is far more than that: It should be called "a practice session by Jeremy Abbott."

Good luck, Master. For now and forever.