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10.0: A Tribute To Brian Wright

Photograph of American figure skating choreographer Brian Wright

The world of figure skating choreography has been both blessed and cursed in recent years. On one hand, you have the world's top choreographers mathematically regurgitating the same programs to the same music with the same jumps, spins and contrived footwork sequences to satisfy the requirements of skating's current judging system. For this reason, the vast majority of the performances we are seeing in competition these days are not works of the art, and sadly that isn't the fault of the skaters or the choreographers creating them... but "it is what it is". On the other hand, you have the Ice Theatre Of New York, American Ice Theatre, Robin Cousins' upcoming show in Great Britain, Young Artists Showcase, the Grassroots To Champions Seminars. You have the Lorna Brown's, the Adam Blake's... you have ProSkaters... the Anita Hartshorn and Frank Sweiding's and Rory Flack Burghart's who are very much doing their part to keep professional, artistic skating alive. We're seeing people like Zabato Bebe, Garrett Kling, Kate McSwain, Jodi Porter... like Yebin Mok, Aerial Ice, Audrey Weisiger, Moira North, Cindy Stuart, Robin Cousins, Doug Mattis, Allison Scott, Jeremy Abbott, Jeffrey Buttle, Shawn Sawyer, Shae-Lynn Bourne... and so many others. These are positive people who through their involvement in the sport have contributed to keeping artistic skating alive despite what competitive skating has turned into. I'm not saying it's all bad, but is it artistic and aesthetic? Come on now.

In a different time not so long ago, things were so very different and I want to look at one man and his vision and choreography. The late Brian Wright was not someone I knew personally but the heartiness, theatre and complexity of the choreography he created honestly has to make him one of, if not my favourite choreographer ever. In this brief look at some of his best work, I'm not going to look at the gems he created for eligible skating. Although (for instance) the programs he created for skaters like Scott Davis and Michael Weiss were masterful programs that brought out the very best in these skaters, some of the work and choreography he created for professional skaters in his career is really some of the best choreography and true theatre brought to life that the sport has ever seen. Regarding Brian and his work, his dear friend and colleague Audrey Weisiger said, "Brian Wright's genius as a choreographer was that he could create programs that he himself loved, gave the performers a sense of expression and emotion in telling his story and we, the audience, were privileged to bear witness to the connection he created between his vision and the skater's performance. He was a larger than life personality, a force of nature, and it is evident from the response you get from people when his name is mentioned that he was, and still is, beloved." With regards to Young Artists Showcase, which was inspired by his work, Audrey went on to say "I have boxes of letters he wrote, as do many of his friends. He always wanted to do a one man show. This is as close as we have come," Audrey said of Young Artists Showcase. I thought it was only fitting with my blogs about Young Artists Showcase that I explored and shared some of the choreography by the man that inspired Audrey to create YAS and still inspire me and many others to this very day with their depth, drama and creativity. Instead of 6.0 great performances, in honor of Brian being a true professional, let's look at 10.0 instead:


We all work through emotions in different ways. Not long ago, I found out my roommate was moving, I got dumped by someone I adored and said goodbye to our family dog who passed away in the span of three days. To be honest (as I often do when things go wrong) I didn't deal with it well. I isolated myself a little, listened to a whole lot of Fiona Apple and Tracy Chapman, partied a little and ate my feelings. But like anything else, things get put in perspective when you step back and realize and see first hand the much harder things people go through in life. When the going got tough for Brian Wright, he used the emotion that came from the devastating news that he was HIV positive and created the piece "Sidestreets" for Scott Williams. As some of my closest friends are living with HIV and I have lost other friends over the years to HIV and AIDS, this piece really hits home as well. Skating with his shadow, Scott Williams breathed life into Brian's haunting choreographed and painted a picture on the ice that is truly unforgettable.


With the coaching of Audrey Weisiger and choreography of Brian Wright, Michael Weiss had the kind of competitive career many skaters dream of and few come to realize: 2 trips to the Olympics, 7 to the World Championships (2 of which he medalled at), Grand Prix and international wins, a U.S. junior title and 3 senior national titles. He also won the national title in compulsory figures. The program that really broke him into contender status came during the 1995/1996 season, when he skated to music from Carlos Santana's "Abraxas" choreographed by Brian Wright. He retained that program during the following season and went on to win his first U.S. senior medal. With powerful jumps, musicality and a strikingly masculine, athletic and sexy image on the ice, Michael's "Abraxas" program by Wright defied how male figure skating programs could come across. Brian Wright's choreography in this program helped create a star that still shines so brightly.


Until Brian's passing in 2003, Anita Hartshorn and Frank Sweiding's choreographer throughout their entire career was Brian. Without an "amateur" career together, it was Brian's brilliant choreography combined with Anita and Frank's amazing skating that made a dream team and led Hartshorn and Sweiding to wins at countless professional competitions and show appearances around the world. In the interview I did with Anita, she talked about their relationship with Brian: "Brian  was a genius! We would arrive with 2 choices of music and concepts and play them both for Brian, then he would select the choice he preferred. It was team process with us coming up with the music and concept, Brian doing the choreography, with costume designers from Los Angeles, and music editing done in San Diego. We had competitions such as the U.S. Open, World Professional Championships in Jaca, Spain, Miko Masters in Paris, Trophee Lalique, Legends Of Figure Skating Competition, Riders Cup and others to show off our work." At many of those competitions, one of the pieces that brought the house down was Anita and Frank's program to the soundtrack from the film "1492: Conquest Of Paradise" by Vangelis, choreographed by Brian. With Anita portraying the ship and Frank Christopher Columbus, the combination of larger than life choreography, amazing costuming, great skating and a prop came together to create one of my favourite skating programs to date.


Like Anita and Frank, Rory Flack Burghart was never a skater that her success as an eligible skater. It came later, and with those Russian split jumps, power ranger backflip, great spins and huge smile, Rory was a star as a professional in no time. One of her greatest earlier pieces as a professional was a program designed by Brian Wright to the iconic George Gershwin classic "Summertime". She performed it at the 1991 U.S. Open Professional Championships, advancing to the Masters from the Challenge Cup and finishing 3rd behind Rosalynn Sumners and Charlene Wong overall. On her transition from eligible to professional skating and relationship with Brian, Rory stated in my interview with her that "it was exciting to have a new goal in life. I still had that little bit of competitive feeling because you are transitioning from competitions to auditions. It is a different area of emotion and expression. For me I was excited to bring out more of my personality, and more of my own style to the surface. The greatest thing about being a performer is realizing that a choreographer does not create your style. I was so blessed to have found the greatest choreographer Brian Wright, who helped me bring out my own individual style." This beautiful Brian Wright program to "Summertime" exemplified the very, very best in Rory.


Surrounding the time of the 1994 U.S. National Figure Skating Championships, the talk of the rink was Nancy and Tonya, but they weren't the only U.S. figure skaters making their names headlines. Defending his title against a formidable challenge from 1988 Olympic Gold Medallist Brian Boitano, Scott Davis earned his second consecutive national title and a trip to the Lillehammer Olympics with a thrilling performance to "West Side Story" choreographed by none other than Brian Wright. Brian used the music and choreography to capitalize on Davis' strong technical skills, and that triple axel hit right on the music was a thriller, that's for sure... but so was the whole program!


Another Anita and Frank masterpiece choreographed by Brian was "Voices", another Vangelis piece that featured avant garde costuming and a torch as a prop. The introduction to the piece told the program's story: "This light burns as a symbol of the human spirit, with has and will prevail against all odds". The visual of the torch burning at center ice and the choreography almost conjured something almost post-apocalyptic right out of Margaret Atwood's "The Year Of The Flood"... burning oil drums and determination. Like in "1492" and every program Brian choreographed for Anita and Frank, the choreography and construction of the program played to the team's strengths (audience connection and thrilling adagio moves and tricks) and downplayed their weaknesses (they didn't have the more difficult side by side jumps or throws or a twist lift like the other pairs they competed against in pro competition). "Voices" painted a picture, built to the end and kept every audience on the edge of their seats.


Anyone that knows me really well knows one thing about me. I'm probably the biggest Annie Lennox fan out there. I have one of those old school wooden music posters of Annie Lennox hanging in my bedroom, know every single song she's ever done with the Eurythmics or solo, listen to her all the time and even impersonated her hundreds of times (no exaggeration) in drag shows. In short, I'm a bit of an Annie Lennox fan. Brian Wright's "Primitive" program that he choreographed for Jeri Campbell is an absolute TREAT to watch. It won her the Challenge Cup at the 1994 U.S. Open Professional Figure Skating Championships and was beautifully constructed with sweeping arm movements and attention to detail and the message of the song. "Primitive" is the kind of song you close your eyes and get lost in, and this program is one in the same. You forget the fact she rails off 2 huge double axels, a triple toe, a double lutz and a single axel in this performance and focus on the "in-betweens" and the pattern of her movements. It's a magical piece.


Much like Jeri's "Primitive" program and all of the programs mentioned above, Craig Heath's "Old Friends" program choreographed for Brian and skated at the American Open Pro Championships is a lesson in musicality and musical interpretation. There's an innate sense of connection between the elements and a reason for each movement. The presentation of the connecting moves in the program is almost vaguely reminiscent of Toller Cranston - there's a rhyme and reason to each step. Forget the triple jumps, the Ronnie Robertson-like spins, the single axel into the double axel and even where the arms are in a simple three turn are given the same reverance. Another lovely piece.


Like in the "Sidestreets" piece mentioned earlier, the vision and attention to detail in Scott Williams' "Bolero" program that Brian choreographed are phenomenal. In the wake of Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean's iconic "Bolero", Ravel's score from Ten is almost skating suicide usually because every program set to this music is inevitably going to be critiqued as a comparison. This didn't fall short and it DID have something completely different from Jayne and Chris' piece. It's actually really interesting that Scott skated to this music as he really made his mark as a pro while touring with the two. What I like about this program is that it finishes stronger than he started, the entries to the jumps are incredibly difficult (they come out of nowhere) and there is this angular and almost "against the grain" movement going on throughout the program. The final minute of the program with that variation jump into a flying spin is just spectacular.


The final program I'm going to rave about that Brian choreographed is his "Sadness" Enigma piece that won Anita Hartshorn and Frank Sweiding professional competitions and fans around the world. Using such driving, dark and mysterious music, the good/evil white and black costumes and very sharp movements, this program will go down in history as one of the most striking, DIFFERENT things that I've ever seen on the ice. You stop, you watch and you are mesmerized from start to finish. This kind of program and choreography paints a picture on the ice that draws in the viewer and makes them excited to see what will happen next. And that's the beauty of all of these programs - with Brian's work you WEREN'T able to see what that was going to be. This was absolute MAGIC, as was the similar but very different "Mea Culpa" piece he created for them as well along the same artistic vein. I recommend watching both.

Unlike Audrey and all of these fantastic skaters, I didn't know Brian Wright personally. I would have loved to. I did learn a little bit about his vision and his passion for good skating through each of these programs... and dozens more. He so obviously cared about putting together choreography that benefited both skaters and audiences, that was innovative, fresh and interesting. I can't think of a more fitting tribute than to develop a competition like Young Artists Showcase (YAS) in his honor. As a fan of Brian's work and YAS both, I can only hope more skating fans and members of the skating community take the time to watch and to celebrate artistic skating for what it is. We can't say the sport is dying. The way the eligible competitive skating system is may be killing it, but if we pay attention to the good that's happening in the sport right now and nurture the skaters, choreographers, coaches, writers, photographers, parents, judges and fans that clearly give a damn - we might just give artistic and professional skating the attention that it richly deserves and skating more of a future. I tend to think that would make Brian very, very happy.

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