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Skaters at an exhibition: The show must go on

Competitors detail differences, challenges in completing successful show programs

Former U.S. champion Ryan Bradley has found his groove on the show circuit.
Former U.S. champion Ryan Bradley has found his groove on the show circuit. (Sarah S. Brannen)

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By Sarah S. Brannen, special to icenetwork.com
(07/16/2013) - Competitive programs are analyzed, criticized, dissected and praised from the moment skaters announce their music. Knowledgeable audiences at competitions cheer for difficult jumps and innovative transitions. And then, after the competition -- and especially after the end of the season -- skaters take to the ice in galas, shows and benefits and show off their entertainment skills for enthusiastic, if less discerning, crowds.

What does it take to put together a successful show program? What tricks are sure to send a general audience into a delighted frenzy? Several skaters weighed in with their thoughts.

"Of course, it starts with the music, but this time it's all about what you want to skate to," Gracie Gold said. "I've always done more upbeat pieces -- they're fun for me and everyone else."

Adam Rippon often choreographs his own show programs, and he has started doing programs for other skaters, too.

"When I'm putting together a show program, I usually do have one of two goals," he said. "The first is, 'Do I want to branch out and try something new, with no risk involved?' or, 'Do I want to do something I do well but do it 150 percent?'

"I do like to do choreography. This summer, I did a show program for Ashley [Wagner], and I did two for Mirai [Nagasu]. I got lucky that my first experience doing choreography was for a national champion and a two-time national champion."

Many skaters choreograph their own show programs, but they may also turn to the same experienced choreographers they use for competition. Rohene Ward choreographed Jason Brown's highly entertaining M.C. Hammer program last season.

"Rohene and Kori [Ade] wanted to do something different, a side of me people don't see," Brown said. "We wanted to do something where a lot of people from different countries would know the music. No matter where I performed it, people would know the music and get into it."

Richard Dornbush choreographed his own very popular "Nerd" program, which he skated many times last year.

"My favorite programs are the ones that I'm involved with," he said. "When you have that inspiration, it's fun to run with it, especially when it's something comedic. I get good feedback with that program, and I've used it a lot. It depends on how well you hear the audience, though. I've had some where the audience sounded like crickets, and it's really hard that way."

Drew Meekins mentioned that, unlike a competition program, which almost always plays to the judges' side of the arena, a show program needs to reach out to the whole arena.

"There's a much greater emphasis on performing to an audience," Meekins said. "You also change to 360-degree projection when you don't have to come back to the judges' focus."

"It really is all about how you're going to connect with the audience," Gold said. "If you do something down in the corner, no one's going to see it. I always put the Russian split jump right in front of everyone."

An opportunity to stretch

Skaters don't just use show programs to entertain the audience; sometimes, they take advantage of the opportunity to challenge themselves. In the pre-season, a skater might include a new element like a triple Axel, a quad or -- for a pair -- a triple twist, to gain confidence doing the element under pressure. There might not be any judges watching, but they don't want to fall in front of a crowd.

"Sometimes I do different patterns or steps into the jumps if I'm working on something new," Brown said. "Almost every program I've ever done has double Axel and two triples. I've never done a loop in an exhibition, but I've done all the others."

"I've been trying to get myself to do other jumps," 2011 U.S. champion Ryan Bradley said. "I find myself doing Axels, toes, flips and Lutzes. So, I started doing triple loops last year, and I have a pipe dream of doing a triple Salchow sometime this year."

A show program can also be a chance for skaters to step outside their comfort zones and try some music they wouldn't ordinarily skate to. And sometimes, for various reasons, they are given music by the show organizer and have to adapt.

"I'm often put in positions a little uncomfortable for me," Bradley said. "I used to hate skating to slow music, for example, and I ended up doing it a lot last year. I didn't even know if I could do it, but now I really enjoy being able to stretch out and use lines."

"When I do show programs, it's all about growing and challenging myself," Rippon said. "Sometimes you find something really new for you that you never knew you had. You try different variations and see what really works for you. I think that's how I've found my own style, doing show numbers with Cindy Stuart and David Wilson."

"I like to shock people, get them on their toes," Dornbush said. "That's one thing I feel I did well with my 'Nerd' program last year to 'Lets Get It On.' When the music comes on, it's on the opposite end of the spectrum from what you expect when you see this nerdy guy in glasses. It's unpredictable; that's what makes a good show program.

"In competition, it's sort of the opposite: You want them to know where it's going."

"One time, we did 'Dude Looks Like a Lady,' where we made Simon [Shnapir] dress up like a girl," Shnapir's partner, Marissa Castelli, said. "That was a one-time deal."

Big tricks

Sure, there are no judges, and no international judging system, and no requirements. At the same time, skaters like to include some of the same challenging elements they do in competition.

"If I go out and I have zero risk in my program, I don't feel very fulfilled in the end," Bradley said. "If you hit a triple Axel in a show, that's a real emotion you're having, so a lot of other people will feel that as well."

"I know double Axels and triple Lutzes are jumps I can do with a lot of speed and a lot of power, and they look good," Gold said. "And the crowd always cheers extra loud for the back scratch spin with my arms over my head."

On the other hand, thrilling elements that would be illegal in a competition add excitement in a show. Pairs have a whole array of high-flying moves that draw gasps and cheers. No. 1 on the list is the bounce spin, or "headbanger," in which the man swings his partner around by her feet, raising and lowering her body so she flies high and then swoops down, her head and chest barely missing the ice.

It never fails to have a big effect.

"No one wants to watch a side-by side-spin for 20 minutes," Castelli said. "Pairs skating is so exciting to watch, and you have the opportunity to do all these cool, illegal lifts you can't do in competition."

Backflips are another perennial favorite. Dornbush recently learned a backflip for his show performances.

"My goal is always to entertain and make people feel like they've taken something away from the show," Dornbush said. "In a show program, people are always going to clap more for a backflip than a triple Axel."

"If I showed up at shows without a backflip, I'd probably be in trouble," Bradley added.

"There are certain tricks that work," Dornbush went on. "Biellmanns always go down well in shows. Cantilevers are great; I always try to put one in there. It's not about content but also appearance. People who do really fast blur spins at the end of their program, it really gets the crowd going."

"A general audience wants to see something that they know," Meekins said. "Sometimes it isn't a jump. Sometimes they go wild for a spiral or a layback or a death spiral; it's a very iconic element, and it's exciting."

Spotlights

One thing most shows have in common is that the skaters perform in the dark, under spotlights. This presents a whole new set of challenges.

"Spotlights are hard," Gold said. "I actually really hate jumping in them. I have a lot of anxiety about ice shows. It's sort of like a strobe light effect. Because you rotate so quickly, it's kind of blinding light and then darkness, and I can't see the ice. When I look at the audience, I don't see anything. All I see is light and dark, light and dark."

"You don't realize that when it's dark and the light is only on you, you literally cannot see anything," Rippon said. "The trick I learned is that you ask them to point the spots at your feet. As soon as you're going to jump, you look down right in front of you. It's really scary when you're spinning in the air, and you can get dizzy."

"I skate without my glasses," Brown said. "Having no glasses, and then the light in my face, I'm almost totally blind. I'll stop at the wrong side of the rink, or I'll do both jumps on the same side, because I can't tell where I am. There were times when I accidentally exited from the wrong side of the rink."

"I find that I telegraph a little in shows because I'm waiting for the spotlight to find me," Gold added. "It's a totally weird skill set to have."

The challenge is even greater for pairs skaters, who can't improvise if they get lost in the spotlights.

"You have to know where your partner is," Meekins said. "You can't communicate telepathically, and you don't have time to talk about it during the moment. I would often lose Julia [Vlassov] in a pair spin. When there's a spotlight, you have no bearings, you don't know where the short board is, you don't know where the long board is, and sometimes you come out the wrong way and it's a really funny challenge."

"There's been a couple of times when we were coming out of a death spiral and I would have no clue where I was for literally 10 seconds," Castelli said.

"The problem is that the spotlights come from multiple directions," Meekins said. "It makes the background dark. It's a really small radius. When all you see is the circle of light, you don't know where you are. Pair girls have trouble with throws a lot; they can't see their partner."

"With the throws, I find a focal point, and I just go," Castelli said.

Trees and Feathers

It should come as no surprise that things go badly awry more often in shows than in the carefully controlled environment of a competition. Everyone has a story of coping with something unexpected.

"My advice to competitors would be, take a year, go do a tour," professional ice dancer Brent Bommentre said. "You'll skate under the most varied range of conditions: things falling off the ceiling, ice melting, holes in the ice, things getting stuck in the ice. There are so many variables that if we went back and competed, we'd think, 'This is a piece of cake.' It's such a great experience about learning how to cope when things aren't perfect."

"My first year with Stars On Ice, I closed the show doing a backflip," Bradley said. "I was skating into my backflip and my blade fell off. The heel was completely unattached. It's the most bizarre feeling I ever had in my life. I'm stalling, doing one-foot swizzles, waving and smiling, trying to sell that footwork."

"It's always amazing when there are things on the ice like Christmas trees," Rippon said. "Or feathers. Sometimes the snow on the ice is so thick, you think snails and woodland creatures are going to crawl out of it. When I go out, I shuffle my feet and get a feel for how hard or soft the ice is."

"Just recently, the sound system just would not play my CDs," Gold said. "We couldn't get any of my "Girl on Fire" CDs to play, so we used someone's iPhone. But, I forgot there was an extra minute of music in the song that we had cut, and I had to improvise an extra spiral sequence, an extra spin and an extra ending."

"At Four Continents, we didn't get to warm up our show program," Castelli said. "Simon turns to me 10 seconds before we got on the ice and he said he was going to face one way, and I said, 'No, we're supposed to face the other way,' and we stood by the boards and argued about it. And I was like, 'Well, good luck!'"

"I did an outdoor show where there were 40 mile-per-hour wind gusts and the ice melted, so there were two inches of water on it," Dornbush said. "Every time I jumped, I felt like the wind was blowing me over. I didn't skate too well in that show -- maybe I should have practiced jumping in the wind more."