By Lois Elfman
So much of ice dance is about capturing the moment and making an impact with a program. In addition to powerful skating, deep edges, flow and execution of the required elements, the best programs transcend those elements and touch the viewers’ emotions.
In most seasons, coach and choreographer Marie-France Dubreuil has a process she goes through with her teams. She wants the teams she coaches to have a voice in program creation. She asks them to do a playlist of music they like or that triggers their emotions.
“Sometimes I get inspired by that,” Dubreuil said. “Or during the competitive season as I see things evolve, I plant a seed in my brain saying, ‘This team needs something like this for next season.’”
Dubreuil trusts her instincts for each couple. When she needs help having her creative vision take shape, she brings in her creative team. They work with a lot of off-ice dancers, who help each team explore body language in the dance studio. That way, the ice dancers can hear all the nuances of the music, she said, and experiment with different types of movement.
“It’s a good way to start a program,” Dubreuil said. “It doesn’t mean we always use everything they do, but at least they’ve experimented moving on the music and they’ve thought about what…emotion they want to put forward on that particular piece of music and what type of movement or style. It’s a nice platform to set the table.”
That was upended by COVID-19, so she and the couples she works with in Montreal, including the top three U.S. senior teams, had to get creative in the choreography process.
Dubreuil described the creative process for Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker’s free dance, set to “First Movement” by composer Phillip Glass and “Heart of Glass” by Blondie, as “very experimental.” At the beginning of the pandemic no one knew how long it was going to last. Shortly after the ISU World Figure Skating Championships 2020 were canceled, Hawayek and Baker grew concerned about their access to healthcare in Canada, so they returned to the United States and hunkered down at Hawayek’s family’s home in Buffalo, New York.
Hawayek confirmed that she and Baker will often present pieces of music to their choreographers—she’s the one who suggested “Saturday Night Fever” for their rhythm dance. Baker credited Shazam with being one of the best tools for finding music he’s ever experienced. Other sources of music are TV, movies, Instagram videos and dance performances.
“We always like to find music that moves us,” said Hawayek. “That’s how we feel connected to it from the very beginning.”
Since they began training in Montreal, they’ve worked with an acting coach who is part of the off-ice creative team. They also like to go into the dance studio and work on new elements.
“The choreographic process is really driven by the music that we find and how it speaks to us,” said Hawayek. “Before we actually start the choreographic process, we set our storyline. Whether that’s universal to the public or something more personal that we keep to ourselves and use to channel the emotion that the public sees, having a really engrained storyline from the very beginning is how we start our program.”
“We’re very creative people, so we oftentimes when we hear music…we automatically have an image where you can perceive making that music come to life,” said Baker. “Having an expectation to fulfill a program in a certain amount of days or time is absolutely doable, but I find that then you end up rushing the process of creating something very unique for yourself as opposed to a program.”
Away from their training base due to the pandemic, the three-time U.S. bronze medalists began tooling around in her family’s garage and having Zoom sessions with their choreography team, which included off-ice consultants. Hawayek and Baker were able to get ice time in Buffalo by mid-April and began bringing the choreography to the ice.
“Since Kaitlin and Jean-Luc have been doing their free dance choreography for the past two seasons, I was pretty confident that their artistic vision and with the help of our off-ice team, we could actually put together a program even if we were not in the same country,” said Dubreuil.
The Glass piece was music Baker had loved for a while that Dubreuil also had on her playlist. “When I listened to it, I saw the potential, but as a piece it was not enough,” she said. “Kaitlin, in her free time likes to deejay. She found this mix that was the Phillip Glass version mixed with Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass.’ Then it became a lot more possible to add some nuance.”
Given this season’s unusual dynamic, Hawayek and Baker spent a lot more time on their own, which gave them room to just experiment. U.S. Figure Skating provided them with a special camera so Dubreuil and the rest of the team could clearly see them skating.
Once they’d all figured out the technicalities of Zoom choreography, the program progressed. The context and theme, for which they collaborated, involved expanding the concept beyond the man/woman relationship to Hawayek depicting Mother Nature and Baker embodying the humanity that keeps trying to dominate and control.
“We developed something that was a higher purpose, and it fit really well with what’s going on in the world at the moment,” said Dubreuil.
Indeed, it was a season where innovation and inspiration were key. Thanks to Zoom and time in the garage, the storyline and intention of the free dance as well as some a significant amount of the movement were created.
“I’d say about 85% of it was choreographed on the floor in Kaitlin’s garage,” said Baker. “Then we translated it onto the ice. Then Marie-France, Sam Chouinard and the rest of our coaching staff altered things and made some tweaks, but the base root of all of that was choreographed on the floor.”
Dubreuil saw the pieces Hawayek and Baker had created and thought of them as puzzle pieces that she deftly assembled also sprinkling her ideas into it.
“It was really cool to see all of the little ideas and pieces of choreography that we had created then placed into a comprehensive four minutes,” Hawayek said. “It is like a melting pot of ideas. … We all put our flair and our little magic.”