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Star of TV, Broadway schools Davis, White in ballet

Four-time U.S. champions employ Alex Wong to assist with Giselle short dance

Meryl Davis and Charlie White received invaluable guidance from Alex Wong, a former soloist with the Miami City Ballet.
Meryl Davis and Charlie White received invaluable guidance from Alex Wong, a former soloist with the Miami City Ballet. (courtesy of twitter.com/alexdwong)

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By Sarah S. Brannen and Drew Meekins, special to icenetwork.com
(11/19/2012) - Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who started their season with superb performances and scores at Skate America in October, are trying to raise the level of their dancing even higher.

They recently spent three days working with Alex Wong, a former soloist with the Miami City Ballet and star of the TV show So You Think You Can Dance. Wong is well known for his expertise in a wide range of styles; he was the world junior champion in tap and showdance, and he won the 2004 Prix de Lausanne ballet competition. He recently completed a run on Broadway in Newsies.

"Charlie and I wanted to work with someone with a really strong dance background," Davis said. "Our agent came to us with the idea [of working with Wong]. He was incredible on the show So You Think You Can Dance. We love that show, and it was really exciting for us to get in contact with him.

"As always, when you're collaborating with someone who doesn't have a figure skating background, you don't know what to expect. From the first minute or two, he picked it up so quickly, and he was helpful from the first second."

Wong worked with Davis and White on both their short and free dances. Davis said that since the Giselle short dance is based on a ballet, they were looking for someone with a background in that area.

"We felt like both programs needed something," Davis said. "It's the little things that make a huge difference. In the free dance, it's wonderful because [Wong] also does modern and jazz and he has a great understanding of how to make your body evoke different emotions. It was fascinating to watch him show us what to do -- he was mesmerizing."

Working with a non-skating choreographer can be a challenge because the skaters have to take the choreographer's concepts and adapt them to fit the constraints of ice skating. In a way, the skater has to do a bit of self-choreographing.

For example, a skater can only glide directly forward or backward. On the floor, a dancer can side-step, slide and easily change between directions.

Also, the balance point on skates is different than on the floor, so some kinds of body articulations don't translate as well.

"This is actually my first time working with figure skaters," Wong said. "It's so exciting seeing dance steps translated on ice because on a normal floor, it's impossible to glide the way skaters can, so there's an unexpected speed to the movement that looks very gratifying and free."

Wong has a little bit of a skating background, having taken figure skating lessons between the ages of 5 and 7. (He also went to high school with Canadian bronze medalist Jeremy Ten).

"I did start skating lessons for a little bit before I started dance, so it's actually always been a love of mine," Wong said. "It's interesting how close the two forms can be. All the upper body should be the same and much of the lower body looks the same, with the exception of the skaters not being able to articulate their feet because of the physical skates -- I think that is replaced by detailed footwork, like skating on the inside/outside of the blade! However, I really don't feel the overall picture is much different."

Wong worked with Davis and White for three days. Since the time was short, they started on the ice rather than working in a studio.

"We get the best idea of where we are when we're on the ice," White said. "He could have been coaching skating his whole life, he was such a natural at it. He gave us a lot of advice on following through movements, what to do with our heads."

Davis and White said they had watched many different versions of Giselle to get a sense of the story and the characters they are portraying: Duke Albrecht and the peasant girl, Giselle.

"We wanted to do it justice: the characters, the general style," White said. "It's exciting to try to do that on the ice. It's fun to compare and contrast; we're always going to have our own little twist."

Wong and the skaters both said that they worked mostly on details.

"Everything comes into play, from obvious things like how your costume looks all the way to the placement of one finger," Wong said. "Little details like that are so important, and sometimes it takes a very trained eye to spot how to fix minor details which, in the end, amount to a much bigger picture."

The collaboration seems to have been very exciting for both skaters and dancer. Wong has gained legions of fans from his TV appearances and for his engaging personality, as well as his brilliant dancing.

Davis spoke of Wong with tremendous enthusiasm, and Wong reciprocated.

"We enjoyed not only working with him but getting to talk to him," Davis said. "He's really inspirational."

"On top of being extremely talented, Meryl and Charlie are such great people!" Wong said. "So humble and great to work with. Their attention to detail and work ethic are great. When I see them skate, the joy, energy and freedom that radiates through their bodies make me want to instantly run out there and skate with them, but I'd probably slip and break a few bones!"

Davis confirmed that, despite their many successes, she and White are always striving to increase their skills and reach greater heights.

"We're still trying to improve everything," Davis said. "That's what makes us true competitors. Every year after worlds, we look at what we have and where we are, and we want to make sure that the following year we take a step up. There's no foreseeable top; we can always be faster, we can always be more expressive.

"When we no longer have a desire to improve, that would be a problem."