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Ice dancing: a dance form frozen in place by hostile rules.

In many ways Maia Usova and Alexander Zhulin's work routine has much in common with that of dancers. These longtime partners, whose dramatically contrasting looks and beautiful sculptural line lend an intensely romantic resonance to their performances, also take daily class; they diligently search through musical selections for inspiration for new material, work intensively with their choreographer, and inevitably leave audiences enraptured and cheering when they perform. As top competitors in the world of ice dancing, however, they look anxiously up to a scoreboard rather than bask in the applause. And when they reflect on 1994 and consider it a disappointment, it is primarily because of decimal-point statistics and a struggle with restrictive rules rather than purely artistic reasons.

Artists or athletes? Skaters who dance or dancers who skate? The debate rages on in figure skating publications and leaves audiences confused and frustrated. Ice dancing is the most perplexing, most frequently debated, least measurable, and most artistically rewarding discipline in figure skating. Sports-minded types eager for the rough-and-tumble of competition find ice dancing too mild and decorative; the ever-present triple jumps of singles and pairs skating events are not a factor, and hardly anyone ever comes crashing down to the ice. Dance aficionados, intrigued by the possibilities of choreography on ice, are mystified. Why do those couples who seem the most inventive or elegant or complete as artists sometimes fail to come out on top?

Ice dancing programs involve continuity, transitions, and overall structure rather than the exclamation point abruptness of sudden big moves that mark the other disciplines and make their judging and scoring easier to comprehend. The judges must take account of the finer points of skating technique (the use of edges, the intricacy of the footwork) while also considering more dancerly concerns, such as creativity, originality, and musicality. Dramatic interpretations of film scores, nostalgic evocations of ballroom elegance, and pristine interpretations of classical sonatas, among a wide range of programs, must somehow be judged in competition with each other (ideally without any subjective or political prejudices sneaking in).

The major competitions of 1994, culminating in the Lillehammer winter Olympic games, featured some of the most closely contested and most intriguing ice dancing events in recent memory, along with some of the most unexpected results. Usova and Zhulin, the heirs apparent in a field in which Soviet (and now Russian) competitors have dominated, with the sensational exception of Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean's 1984 triumph in Sarajevo, did not win a gold medal. The unlikely return to amateur competition of Torvill and Dean, now in their mid-thirties, and the spunky challenge from a newer Russian couple, Oksana Gritschuk and Evgeny Platov, who would traditionally have been expected to wait in line until the next Olympics, made expectations irrelevant. New rules that significantly limited the selection of music for the all-important free dance (the final, most substantial portion of the competition) and an entertainingly diverse range of styles and approaches made for extremely close competition and left the judges open to much second-guessing.

When the 1995 World Figure Skating Championships take place this month in Birmingham, England (NBC-TV plans national coverage on March 11), the ice dancing competion will have a different look, and some newer faces may get their shot at a medal [see box on page 48]. Usova and Zhulin, who took the silver medal at Lillehammer, barely edged out by Gritschuk and Platov, will not be there, having opted to sample the world of professional skating for this year. Torvill and Dean, whose comeback effort resulted in a disappointing bronze medal at the Olympics, have returned to the professional ranks, headlining their own tour.

Singles and pairs were accepted as part of international figure skating competition long before ice dancing; it was not included in the world championships until 1952 and did not become an Olympic event until 1976. There are three phases of ice dance competition. The first is the compulsory dance, in which each couple skates two predetermined short dances (at last year's Olympics, these were the Starlight Waltz and the Blues), but all use the same music and step sequences. The compulsory dance scores count for 20 percent of the total score. The second phase, the original set pattern dance, calls for all couples to skate to the same rhythm, announced in advance (last year it was the rumba, this year the quickstep), and allows them to choose their own two minutes of music and choreography. It counts for 30 percent of the final score. The final portion, worth 50 percent of the overall score, is the four-minute free dance. Theoretically, it allows the ice dancers the most freedom: they can choose the music, choreography, and costumes that display all their strengths.

There are, however, plenty of fine-print rules governing the free dance that restrict its freedom to a certain extent. These dictate how often, and for how long, the two dancers may separate; how long they may remain stationary; and how high the man may lift his partner. Restrictions on lifts are carefully spelled out to assure that ice dancing and pairs skating (in which the bigger and more daring lifts are required elements) remain separate disciplines. The numerous rules include specific restrictions ("at least one skate of each partner must remain on the ice at all times") and vaguer directives ("excessive repetition of nonskating movements such as sliding on one knee or toe steps must be avoided").

A major rule change that the International Skating Union (ISU) enacted in June 1993 considerably restricts the choice of music for the free dance. Acceptable music must have a rhythmic beat and a melody. Music must be arranged and orchestrated for use on the dance floor." It has created confusion and considerable unhappiness among ice dancers, their coaches, and their choreographers. The general consensus is that the rule, which essentially makes it impossible to create a free dance to classical music, represents the ISU's attempt to move ice dancing back toward a more innocent time, when it more closely resembled ballroom dancing, and the free dances were sprightly and charming rather than angst-laden and dramatic.

Torvill and Dean's groundbreaking 1984 Bolero free dance, with which they won the Olympic gold medal and scored perfect marks of 6.0 for artistic impression, is generally considered to have inaugurated a new phase in ice dancing's development. It probably broke a lot of rules, but it was so persuasive and convincingly performed that the judges found it valid. Audiences certainly loved it, and competitors felt challenged to find more innovative moves and dramatic concepts for their programs.

Things apparently got a little too creative for some people, who are now trying to rein in ice dancing and return to a more traditional look. Dick Button, 1948 and 1952 Olympic gold medalist and now a skating commentator for ABC Sports, sounds frustrated but resigned when he discusses the topic: "Ice dancing is ruled by a technical committee of the ISU, and they have it in their minds that ice dancing should be ballroom dancing on ice, and that's what it's going to be. There are more rules regarding this event than all the rest of skating put together. The ice dancers are all choreographing by the rule book now, and that's not the way to be creative. The powers that be don't want that kind of creativity."

It is ironic that the rule change came along just in time for Torvill and Dean's return. Their 1994 free dance, set to a commissioned arrangement of Irving Berlin's "Let's Face the Music and Dance," certainly had a ballroom look and was far removed from the twisting, kneeling, intertwined moves of Bolero. They apparently were trying hard to prove that they could, in their much-heralded return to amateur competition, follow the rules dutifully. On a recent PBS documentary following the couple's preparation for the Olympics, Torvill, reflecting after all their efforts had resulted in a disappointing third-place finish, said stonily, "I guess we're still not doing what the ISU wants." Their program, she implied, was not what they would have come up with if they'd followed their personal preferences. It contained intricate, deft footwork but had a rather stolid overall look and a bland presentation in a competition where the other leading couples displayed more distinctive personalities.

Usova and Zhulin, who have created memorable and distinctive free dance programs to Vivaldi, Paganini, and other classical scores in the past, were also unhappy about the new rules. Speaking during a recent stay in New York, where he and Usova stirred the crowd at the Angels on Ice" benefit with a passionate program skated to a Mozart piano sonata, Zhulin explains, "We had an idea for a program to Rachmaninoff, a beautiful piece of music, but the rules changed, and we tried to do something else. That's why we left the amateur career, because the classical style is our style, and the rule change created a big problem." He speculates that the rule change is partly aimed at cooling the Russian dominance of ice dancing: except for Torvill and Dean, all the world and Olympic ice-dance champions have been Soviet or Russian. The 1992 Olympic gold medalists, Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko, won with an intensely dramatic program set to Bach.

Usova, thirty, and Zhulin, thirty-one, settled on music composed by Nino Rota for Fellini films and, working with their regular choreographer, Giuseppe Arena (from La Scala), and longtime coach Natalia Dubova, created a program that was more playful than passionate. Their beautiful long lines and exceptional flow were still evident, but they imposed a coyness that did not come naturally to them. Later, after Zhulin watched a videotape of their performance, he found that to the judges' eyes it may have appeared easier technically than it actually was. The final results, when all the extremely close scoring was sorted out, left Usova and Zhulin just short of first place; they had their second Olympic medal, a silver after their 1992 bronze.

They are spending this year on the professional circuit, performing exhibition programs on tours and taking part in some of the growing number of professional competitions, where the rules are less restrictive. For the first time since the late 1980s, they were free during the winter months, when the national, European, and world championships take place.

Zhulin says they were using that time to prepare a new program: "We work eight to ten hours a day for several weeks, both on the ice and in the studio. Our choreographer says it's very important to work with the mirror. Sometimes we'll create very interesting, beautiful moves on the floor, but when we try them on the ice, it's impossible. For amateur competition, sometimes Giuseppe would come up with something great, but I would have to say, `Sorry, it's impossible because of the rules.' For professional competitions, much more is possible because the rules are less strict, and we have many ideas."

After outlining the basic choreography for a program with Arena, they find that at a certain point it is better for them to shape and polish it with Dubova, who understands the intricacies of the ice in ways that a ballet choreographer cannot. After several months Arena will return and make some final changes.

Usova and Zhulin's base of operations since September 1992 has been in Lake Placid, New York, where Dubova directs the International School of Ice Dancing at the invitation of the state Olympic Development Authority. She coaches and trains ice dance couples from the U.S. and other countries, among them Elisaveta Stekolnikova and Dmitriuy Kazarlyga of Kazakhstan, who are starting to make their mark at international competitions. Dubova brings twenty-five years of experience in Russia (she coached Klimova and Ponomarenko and worked with Gritschuk and Platov for several years), a firm belief in ballet training as an integral part of her skaters' daily routine, and a robust optimism that American ice dancers will in time start appearing more often on the medal podiums, once the training at her school has had more time to develop them.

American ice dancing opportunities have also been enriched by the arrival in Newark, Delaware, last June of Natalia Linnichuk, who, along with her current husband, Gennady Karponosov, took the gold medal in ice dancing at the 1980 Olympics, and who coached Gritschuk and Platov to their 1994 triumphs. The University of Delaware brought her there to develop an ice dance training program. She currently is the coach for three icedance duos who are likely to be prominent at the world championships: Gritschuk and Platov (she smiles serenely and says that she wants to keep the music for their 1995 free dance a "big secret" until they perform it), Ukrainians Irina Romanova and Igor Yaroshenko, and Krylova and Ovsiannikov, whom she matched up in the middle of last year and has already guided to a medal at the International ProAm in Philadelphia last November. Linnichuk is also working with seven American couples in Delaware, preparing them for regional competitions.

So it would seem that just as the identity and creativity of ice dancing at the international level are at risk of being stymied by overregulation, the scene is being set at the grass-roots level for ice dancing talent to blossom in this country. The general hope is that the rules will soon be changed again; skaters and coaches are chafing under the unnecessary restrictions, and feel that the rules will not benefi the sport.

"They tell us it must be exactly like ballroom dancing," says Dubova, who has been involved with ice dance long enough to have seen how the cycles of change occur. "I don't agree. It's impossible to have it be like something else. If it's dance on ice. we need to improve specific things. It must be a style that is different from classical ballet, different from ballroom. "It must be ice dance."
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Author:Reiter, Susan
Publication:Dance Magazine
Date:Mar 1, 1995
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