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The Avant Garde Trend In Ice Dancing

"Dance is everything. Movements with music - all music. Dance is free. You can't lock it up or block it. Today certain rules paralyze it... Many skaters skate, few create. They have to be taught curiosity, emotion." - Christopher Dean, "Patinage" magazine, 1990

"When Torvill and Dean moved on, word went out in skating that the far-out, avant garde routines in ice dancing were taboo and the rules would be enforced strictly." - Rob McCall, "The Toronto Star", February 25, 1988

Ask even the most casual ice dancing fan and they will tell you. Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean's "Bolero"... It changed the face of ice dance. Yet in the decade between that iconic Olympic gold medal winning free dance and their comeback at the 1994 Winter Olympic Games in Lillehammer, the discipline really struggled to come to terms with change. Perhaps one of the most interesting phenomenons in that era was a delightful shift towards a more avant garde style of ice dancing. 
Dean choreographed Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay's iconic "Savage Rites" free dance in 1988. Audiences went berserk; judges were at a loss to know what to do with them. Their effort veered so far from the traditional ballroom and fiery Soviet styles that were in vogue at the time that it was almost like showing up with a knife at a gunfight. Several North American coaches were quite vocal with their disdain. Ron Ludington remarked, "If we tried stuff like that in the U.S. we would be told to stop it at a very early level. That's why things stay traditional in the skating in our country." Roy Bradshaw said, "They broke the rules. That wasn't ice dancing, it was theatre."  As ice dancing become more avant garde, the International Skating Union pushed back... and the skaters pushed back again.

In 1987, the ISU's Ice Dance Technical Committee made some changes. Free dance regulations dropped any mention of changes of tempo in music but made clarifications about lifts, noting that the number of turns in any lift could not exceed one and a half, skaters couldn't turn on their knees or boots or perform other movements with their blades off the ice. Leg and back carries, such as when Christopher Dean flipped Jayne Torvill at the volcano in "Bolero" were out, as was balletic music that couldn't be measured by a metronome. Lying on the ice, too, was out of the question. As the rules stood that year, Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean couldn't have performed their innovative "Bolero" program at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. Worse still, the judges were at odds between what they were reading in their rulebooks and the skating they were seeing on the ice.

At the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, Natalia Bestemianova and Andrei Bukin won with an Igor Bobrin program that was every bit as much in the theatrical vein as the "Savage Rites" program choreographed by Dean and skated by the Duchesnay's, but when Isabelle and Paul invited the judges and referee to explain their reasoning behind placing them a lowly eighth at a press conference, not a single one showed up. Instead, in response the following year the ISU Congress introduced the costume deduction rule, calling for mandatory 0.1 to 0.2 deductions for 'inappropriate' costumes including 'bare chests' and 'sleeveless shirts'. This rule, at least partly, seemed a direct response to the Duchesnay's program. By the time Isabelle and Paul finally won a World title in 1991, the ISU was becoming more and more concerned about the interpretive direction ice dancing was taking. In a February 14, 1992 interview with the "Ottawa Citizen", former World Champion and ISU ice dance guru Lawrence Demmy said, ''We must be open minded. Just because we don't like it, we must appreciate it. That's the point I make to the judges.''

As was the case when the Duchesnay's first burst on to the scene guns glazing, there was a continued snap reflex - largely in North America actually - from those in the skating world that did not appreciate the road ice dancing was going down. "If something's not done, this sport will go tits up," worried Roy Bradshaw. Not everyone shared his sentiments. Analyzing the trend towards the avant garde in ice dance in her book "Figure Skating History: The Evolution Of Dance On Ice", Lynn Copley-Graves offered, "Those who take risks, who are willing to go out on a limb choreographically, thematically, musically, and in costuming - to stretch the rules, tread in unknown areas, or bring elements of other disciplines such as ballet, adagio, mime, gymnastics, even the circus to the medium of ice dance - achieve success, if they remain undaunted by early rejection and persistent in their view of all that ice dance can be."

As the Duchesnay's worked their way onto podiums, other ice dance teams followed that shift in consciousness. There were whistles, bells, gunshots and garden warblers schirping. There were even alien spaceship sounds. Swiss ice dancer Jörg Kienzle composed his own music for his free dances with partner Valérie Le Tensorer. Allison MacLean and Konrad Schaub showed up at the 1990 Canadian Championships in Sudbury, Ontario with a futuristic free dance set to music from "Back To The Future", "Antarctica" and "Golden Child". They wore tattered, torn costumes and stressed the importance of communicating their abstract theme to the judges. Interviewed for an article in "The Edmonton Journal" on February 1, 1990, Schaub announced, "Ice dancing is definitely going away from tradition." Fellow Canadians Jacqueline Petr and Mark Janoschak skated to the soundtrack from "Pee-Wee Herman's Big Adventure". Frank Nowosad, writing for "Tracings" magazine noted of the Canadian team's efforts, "That the choreography was credited to Ellen Burka and Toller Cranston might be an indication of how far the free dance has departed from a ballroom vocabulary." French coach Daniele Marotel remarked, "TV stations and the public no longer care for the old-fashioned ballroom style. For the free style, let creation explode."

After the 1992 season, the ISU again amended its rules, stating that "other music such as symphonic, opera and other classical music not originally written for the dance floor must be reorchestrated" to have a rhythmic beat. The allowance for innovation, applauded in the work of the Duchesnay's and in that of Finland's Susanna Rahkamo and Petri Kokko's parody of ice dance itself and Elizabeth Punsalan and Jerod Swallow's race car program, was out of favour with the ISU.

Not everyone agreed with the ISU's sentiments. I may be a bit of a contrarian with a taste for the zany but I feel the narrative that the zany was a bad thing and that the alternative was indeed progress was more exhausted than a toddler who managed to stay awake three hours past their bedtime. Toller Cranston, in his 2002 book "Ice Cream", agreed: "After the Duchesnay's left the scene, ice dance declined dramatically. Today it has become low-level schlock. Its future is in jeopardy." I don't think Toller's assessment at the time was the least bit over the top. After all, the result of these rule changes resulted in perhaps the least memorable of any Olympic gold medal winning free dances, Oksana Grishuk and Evgeny Platov's rock and roll shtick, winning in 1994 while Rahkamo and Kokko's ingenious "La Strada" free dance kept them off the podium. In turn, the Finn's - with a rich repertoire of creative work - earned their only world medal in 1995 with a Beatles medley that was every bit as unmemorable as the Duchesnay's more conformist "West Side Story" free dance in 1992. In the case of both teams, their more theatrical pieces remain the ones people remember and revisit. Perhaps most telling was the fact that in contrast to the largely forgettable amateur free dances we saw in the years that preceded the rule changes, some of the finest ice dancing the world has ever seen emerged in the professional competitions during the era that followed that rule change.

Those who took issue with the work of the Duchesnay's have historically taken great pleasure in criticizing their two footed skating and the fact that Paul was a stronger skater than Isabelle.
However, looking at the bigger picture of the inspiration that they and Torvill and Dean gave other teams to push the envelope and stretch the possibilities that ice dancing could allow, their role in the sport's development is one to be applauded. Ultimately, in the most ironic of plot twists, it was the Duchesnay's that largely put the very shift they had started to bed when they showed up at the Albertville Olympics in 1992 with a conservative free dance to - of all things - "West Side Story". If you look at how ice dancing has evolved in the years since then, we have continued to see plenty of avant garde performances and interestingly, not since that decade between "Bolero" and "Let's The Face The Music And Dance" has their ever been so much controversy about teams pushing the envelope. Someone always has to get in the pool first before everyone else is willing to get themselves a little wet. I don't know about you, but I say more avant garde performances are still what ice dancing needs. Symbolism is underrated.

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