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Interview With Sarah Kawahara

Photograph of Canadian figure skating choreographer Sarah Kawahara

Sarah Kawahara has lived more her in her life so far on the ice than most people could ever dream of. Her own skating career saw her train with legendary Canadian coach Osborne Colson, who also coached skating greats like Barbara Ann Scott, Donald Jackson and Patrick Chan. She toured with Ice Capades for years as a principal performer before turning to the world of choreography, her work earning her two Emmy Awards to date. She's choreographed the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the Winter Olympics and for the hit movie Blades Of Glory. She's choreographed television specials starring skating greats like Peggy Fleming, Michelle Kwan and Scott Hamilton, for skating tours Stars On Ice, Ice Capades, Champions On Ice, Holiday On Ice and Disney On Ice. She's choreographed for a who's who of the skating world including Olympic Gold Medallists Scott Hamilton, John Curry, Dorothy Hamill, Robin Cousins, Ilia Kulik, Kristi Yamaguchi, Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov, Oksana Baiul, Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko, Viktor Petrenko and skating legends like Michelle Kwan, Kurt Browning, Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, Surya Bonaly, Nancy Kerrigan, Lu Chen, Charlie Tickner and Christopher Bowman. The depth to her talent is really unknowing and the quality of the huge body of work she's produced over the years is immeasurable. It was my absolute privilege to interview Sarah and talk about her own skating career, choreography, working with John Curry and Toller Cranston and much, much more in this fantastic interview:

Q: Your body of work as a choreographer is nothing short of awe inspiring. You've won Emmy Awards for your work with Scott Hamilton's "Upside Down" TV special and choreography of the Opening Ceremonies at the 2002 Winter Olympics, have choreographed Stars On Ice, Ice Capades, Champions On Ice, Disney On Ice, Holiday On Ice, over half a dozen TV specials, the skating in the movie Blades Of Glory and have created masterpieces for everyone from Scott Hamilton and Kurt Browning to Michelle Kwan, Kristi Yamaguchi, Dorothy Hamill, John Curry, Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov, Ilia Kulik, Robin Cousins, Nancy Kerrigan, Christopher Bowman and a who's who of Olympic and World Champions. Looking back on everything you've done so far in skating, what were the most challenging moments and which came so, so easy?

A: At the beginning of my choreography career, the producer of Ice Capades, Bob Turk, challenged me with the fact that he thought my style of movement was so unique it would be difficult for me to translate my style to other skaters. Though that was a very good point, I felt I could overcome this challenge because I knew I had the ability to break it all down and teach my style. While doing that, I discovered I also had a good eye for working with and creating for different body types in ways that I could never do myself as a performer. My first choreographic break was to create a piece for Peggy Fleming when she was guest starring with the Ice Capades. Our styles as performers were of a similar lyrical vein. Peggy was very classical and I was more attuned to modern dance. It was a very natural and successful collaboration of styles. The most challenging moments in my career came when choreographing the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. I got to use all of my experience from my careers - arena and stage production work, choreography for TV cameras (40 cameras), working with stars and 1000 skaters from the surrounding community ages 7-75 years old. It was two years of my life with pre-production and the largest ice surface ever created outdoors. I could only rehearse half of the width of the ice size at a time in an indoor arena. It was the ultimate puzzle. The performance had to service a live audience of 60,000 and 45 million television viewers worldwide and we had one shot at it.

Scott Hamilton's "Walk This Way" program, choreographed by Sarah

Q: I've always just been floored not only the creativity and authenticity of your choreography over the years but also with the complexity. A lot of skaters when they turn professional or skate show programs tend to present more watered down choreography, and your work over the years has been nothing but. Where do you a lot of your inspirations and ideas come from and what programs stand out in your mind as being your most memorable work or the work you are proudest of?

A: My inspiration tends to come from nature. I am very aware of the patterns, color and texture one finds in nature and in 'slice of life' occurrences from which I draw my designs. Music orchestration is also something I try to breathe into my choreography to make it a symphony of movement. The complexity of my work really came into fruition through my production work. It first started with solo work, then pairs with Tai and Randy. However, creating for 32 skaters in the Chess production for the Ice Capades was really my first big statement. I had choreographed the Radio City Music Hall /Shipstad production show "Ice" for Peggy, Toller and Robin Cousins and a cast of 45 skaters prior to Ice Capades. That was my first large theatre stage (90 x 60) experience. I love the stage as much as the arena. They are two very different mediums to create in. When I got to work with Scott Hamilton, he was the complete polar opposite of my style. His strengths were his quickness in speed, footwork, athletic jumps and a strong ability to connect with the audience. I saw a way to push his performances to a new and more theatrical level. I am most proud of our body of work together which spanned 18 years through a wide range of choreography. Everything from an original rhythmic piece scored by Chick Corea, to "Mr. Bojangles", to Aerosmith's "Walk This Way". He was gifted at working with props and willing to work through the difficulties of mastering the use of the props throughout the program in conjunction with the technical Olympic caliber of his skating. Examples of this are the golf number from Tin Cup, the cap that velcroed to different parts of his body in "When I'm 64" and the Broadway On Ice pool cue choreography while performing the Harold Hill piece "Trouble" live on the ice theatre stage. Some production favourites are the chimney sweep production for Scott's TV special "Upside Down" (it was a very layered production piece for TV), Ice Capades' "Night On Bald Mountain", "Rhapsody In Blue" for Broadway On Ice, the "1812 Overture" for Champions On Ice and as for solo favourites, Dorothy Hamill's "One Rock N' Roll Too Many", Michelle Kwan's "Fields Of Gold" and Oksana Baiul's Massive Attack program.

Michelle Kwan skating to Sarah's choreography in "Fields Of Gold". One of MY all time favourite skating programs, period.

Q: During your own skating career, you studied with Osborne Colson in Toronto and at the National Ballet School Of Canada. What was your relationship with Mr. Colson like and what did he teach you that has resonated with you all of these years?

A: I studied with Mr. C. from six to fifty one years of age. He was my mentor and my friend. He introduced me to the idea that all the arts are related and that figure skating is also an art form. He molded my artistic vision. Never totally satisfied, he would be constantly changing my programs. My movements were in a continual state of evolution. He guided me through my amateur and professional career. Throughout his life I continued to share my personal life with him, as well as my professional career as a choreographer and director. We thought as one.

Q: You turned professional at the young age of seventeen and toured with Ice Capades for seven years as a principal skater. What did the touring life teach you about skating you hadn't known before?

A: I loved touring and performing with the show. It was like air to breathe and food to eat. I learned that I could reach out and touch the audience with my performance. I could take them with me if I cast the right spell.

Q: What's one thing most people don't know about you? 

A: I play the piano.

Photograph of Canadian figure skating choreographer Sarah Kawahara
Photo courtesy "Canadian Skater" magazine

Q: You starred in Toller Cranston's CBC specials "Strawberry Ice" and "A True Gift Of Christmas" and skated in John Curry's PBS special "Peter And The Wolf". What was working with John and Toller like and why is their skating so truly timeless and special in your eyes?

A: I choreographed and skated in Toller's "True Gift". I first performed with Toller in the Ice Capades and then later became his muse for "Strawberry Ice". He created with brush strokes heavy with color and texture as are his paintings. He was very driven by music, although the story always came first. Toller has a wonderful sense of humor and loves the absurd. I'll never forget when he wanted to have synchronized swimmers as shrimp in the tomato soup at the Christmas banquet in "A True Gift Of Christmas". It was an out of body experience for Jojo Starbuck and I to be poinsettia flowers with our heads as portions of the stamen and our arms, the petals. John Curry had a more contained, thoughtful process. He choreographed "Peter And The Wolf" and was rather nervous about it. He knew what he wanted and was very driven by the intricacies of the music. I was the bird and thank goodness I could do things on both side of my body. He wanted me to be very quick and fleeting and loved working me with short quick edges and on point with perfect balance and breath. I loved the experience. I feel privileged to have worked with both. They were both so completely different in style and approach. Skating needed both to shine to validate the depth and scope of what figure skating could offer as an art sport. They broadened the possibilities to the public's eye.

Q: Have there been ideas that you haven't translated to the ice yet that are still in there somewhere waiting to come to life?

A: I have been fortunate to have many dreams come true. I'm still dreaming...

Sarah's "Chicago" program for Oksana Baiul

Q: One skater that you created so much magic for was Oksana Baiul. If you look at a program like her "Chicago" program you just saw such a different skater that you saw in Lillehammer. What was your experience of working with Oksana like?

A: Oksana has so much talent. I really saw her as an entertainer. Unfortunately, she had many personal problems that interfered with her productivity. I truly believe she is one of the most talented, but there is something inside her that is self destructive. Some days she could could do anything - multi layered choreography with lots of detail to the technical execution and performance and then the next day, it was like skating had left her body. My biggest disappointment was that she did not do "Anastasia". I had choreographed a Feld Entertainment show with Oksana in mind for the lead. It would have been huge for her.

Q: I have to ask. The "current skating world" with its judging system and current crop of stars... What do you like and what would you change if it were up to you?

A: I think in some ways it has advanced the ice dancing discipline. The current stars of White and Davis and Virtue and Moir are fine examples of the growth of the field. There is more athleticism and crossover with spins and the movements are using the body in more versatile ways. I think the field has become more exciting to watch. In the singles discipline, it makes the composition more repetitive between individuals hitting the point requirements and the predictability of the composition in terms of points strategy. Pairs as well has become more obviously predictable in composition and therefore less exciting to watch overall.

Photograph of Canadian figure skating choreographer Sarah Kawahara with World Figure Skating Champion Karen Magnussen
Sarah Kawahara working with Karen Magnussen in 1973. Photo courtesy Toronto Public Library, from Toronto Star Photographic Archive. Reproduced for educational purposes under license permission.

Q: Who are your three favourite skaters of all time and why?

A: Scott Hamilton for his fearless versatility and tremendous sense of connecting with his audience. Toller Cranston for his unabashed showmanship and daring but always with intelligence behind his choices. Michelle Kwan for her trust in me to find new avenues with her performance in the TV specials that we did together. I loved helping her break loose.

Q: What is next for you in skating and what is next for you in life?

A: I'm in development for a new show and still working on my autobiography. I am enjoying my family.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating":