Understanding Yuri!!! on ICE: Figure Skating 101!
October 26, 2016 11 Comments
After an incredibly strong start, the third episode of Yuri!!! on ICE generated some ambivalence—dare I even say, controversy. The spur-of-the-moment “Hasetsu on ICE!!” skate-off saw a quiet flawed program trump an exciting one with perfect jumps. Even I had to agree with a conversation on my Twitter timeline, which lamented how the animation had failed to convince us that Yūri had embodied the “eros” that Victor had demanded of him. Yurio’s monologue came across as a poorly-judged attempt to tell instead of show viewers exactly why he had lost. It simply wasn’t convincing at first glance.
The moment I rewatched the skates, however, I had to change my mind. Other fans—and even a former figure skater—have already elaborated on why Yuri’s skate was indeed better, and also how this was demonstrated through the animation. What I realised, however, is that there’s a fair amount of background knowledge that I draw upon to help me understand what’s going on. So I figured that viewers might appreciate a more in-depth primer about how the sport of figure skating works.
Yuri!!! on ICE offers a window into the figure skating world through the lens of the senior men’s competition. But as anyone who tunes into the Winter Olympics every four years—or who has seen Blades of Glory—would know, there are several other core disciplines: ladies singles, pairs and dance. Not surprisingly, what’s popular in each country depends on where their skaters are performing, so for a long time, the attention of Japanese skating fans was trained on the ladies, like Miki Andō and Mao Asada. The past few years, however, have seen the rise of the Japanese men, and an explosion of public interest in the sport as a result. Yuzuru Hanyu can arguably be credited for helping bring Yuri!!! on ICE to our screens.
|Asada and Hanyu, the current royalty of Japanese figure skating.|
There is a lot more to the sport of figure skating, however. Like all other high level endeavours, skaters spend years developing the skills they need at the highest levels. Besides the flashy jumps, they also have to practice spins and step sequences—along with lifts in pairs and dance—and generally polish their skating skills. All of these elements are the basic foundations of the programs that we see them perform on the ice. But before we even get a glimpse of these elements in competition, skaters will have spent years drilling them separately. Patrick Chan has noted that he’ll only incorporate the quad salchow into his programs when he’s landing them at least four out of five times in practice. And that’s not even dealing with the additional difficulty of having to perform the jump as one of many elements in a continuous program lasting up to four-and-a-half minutes!
Hence, there are two areas that skaters need to work on: skills and stamina. In terms of skills, it’s not enough to just stay on your feet. Judges will look for how well you execute each element: skating on one of the two edges of the blade, not kicking up too much ice on jump landings and other footwork, and so on and so forth. Yurio’s messy footwork in his step sequence at the end shows that he was not really in control of his skate; in contrast, Yūri’s final spin is still pristine, and his hand movements during it deliberate and precise. The judges also look at the complexity of the smaller pieces—such as spread eagles, cross-overs and twizzles—that skaters use to connect the elements. The more difficult these transitions are, the higher the points awarded. And of course, there are more subjective elements to consider, such as the composition of the programs and the interpretation of the music.1
|Yūri’s spread eagle, a reasonably difficult entry into his triple axel.|
The impact of stamina is less obvious, but arguably just as important. For the sake of comparison, short and long figure skating programs can probably be likened to short- and middle-distance events in athletics. Hence, skaters are often exhausted at the end of their programs—if you watch some of Yuzuru Hanyu’s free skates from a few years ago, he was often gasping for breath even as he acknowledged the audience for their support. This is significant for performance and interpretation, for, as dancers would know, it is incredibly hard to move deliberately and gracefully when one is fatigued. Given the greater difficulty of jumps, transitions and other skating elements as well as the longer length of the free program, it’s not unusual to see skaters take a few seasons to get accustomed to the demands of rising from one level to the next, as Yurio is doing in Yuri!!! on ICE.
Let’s turn now an overview of what’s involved in figure skating choreography. Depending on the level of skating (novice => junior => senior), the competitive season spans from August/September through to March/April. During each season, each individual or pair/dance couple performs one short program and one long program in the competitions they enter. Occasionally, they will rework a program they’ve used before, but most of the time, they work with their coaches and choreographers to develop something new. These two programs are usually pretty rough around the edges at the start of the season, but the broad aim is to polish them up and peak for the World Championships in late March.
As I mentioned in a previous post, many choreographers are themselves former skaters, who bring their own understanding of and experience in the competitive figure skating world to their work. Most of them aren’t attached to any particular skater, but will instead work with the elites (and ice-show producers and stars) who reach out to them. Hence, famous international choreographers like Shae-Lynn Bourne and Jeffrey Buttle have worked with numerous skaters over their careers, and are apt to choreograph for multiple individuals and pairs each season.
|It’s not all that unusual for a skater to become a choreographer or coach.
What’s unusual is how (and possibly why) Victor did it…
There are several parts to choreographing each program. First, and arguably the most important, is what music to use. For senior men, the short program has a maximum length of 2 minutes and 50 seconds, whilst the free program has to be 4 and a half minutes, give or take 10 seconds. Most musical pieces aren’t of such precise lengths, but they can be trimmed and edited to for the requirements. Musically-inclined skaters will sometimes have music that they want to use, but choreographers also make suggestions based on a theme and style that they think will fit. There are also specific requirements in terms of the jumping passes, spins and step sequences, which you can read about here if you understand skating terminology. In any case, choreographers usually start working on these programs even as the previous season is still underway.2 This is so that the overall choreography will be ready in April or thereabouts, just in time for the start of the off-season.
April or May then marks the start of the next phase. This is when skaters and coaches (and occasionally, the choreographers as well) start working together more closely to develop these programs and tailor them specifically for the former. Needless to say, it helps when choreographers already have a good idea about what skaters (or pair/dance couples) are capable of. For that reason, the process of developing a program is often easier from the second year onwards, after choreographer and skater have had a chance to build a relationship with each other.3 But the payoff can be incredible; one choreographer has even described working with Hanyu as akin to “playing a video game with a skater,” because he just does whatever you ask of him.
|The pain they endure in pursuit of perfection…!|
That is why Victor had to ask Yūri what jumps he was capable of. As I mentioned above, skaters often practice these jumps for years before trying them in competition. That Yūri had yet to successfully land a quad salchow in competition despite doing so in practice is not unusual. So Victor asking him to do basic practice—jumps, spins and edge work—whilst he taught Yurio his program makes sense to me. It’s not that Yūri can’t execute the jump; rather, Victor wanted to make sure that confidence was really the main issue. By contrast, since he had been training alongside Yurio under Yakov, he already knew exactly what Yurio could do. Teaching Yurio his choreography first was pretty much common sense.
And next on Yuri!!! on ICE…?
This week’s episode will cover, amongst other things, Yūri working with Victor to develop his free program. I can’t wait to see what they come up with! And after that, I assume we’ll be plunging headlong into the Grand Prix Final series, the second competition of which (Skate Canada) is taking place this weekend in real life. I really can’t wait, both for the episode and to see where Yuzu’s at now—can you?
- You can read more about the current ISU Judging System here, but let me give a short overview. There are two marks awarded for each program—a Technical mark based on the level of the jumps, spins and skating sequences attempted, and a Performance/Program Components mark based on overall skating skills, transitions, performance/execution, the composition of the program, and interpretation of the music. Until recently, the maximum scores for each mark was roughly equal for all the disciplines, but the quad fest in recent years has seen technical scores outstrip component ones by up to 20% in the men’s competition. ↩
- For example, according to this video interview, dance pair Maia and Alex Shibutani brought up their idea for their free program (or free dance) this year with coach and choreographer Marina Zoueva back in December. ↩
- If you want to know a bit more about the process, here are a couple of interviews with David Wilson (2) and Shae-Lynn Bourne, speaking about working with Yuna Kim and Hanyu respectively. I’ve yet to see a publicly available interview with Miyamoto Kenji for Yuri!!! on ICE, but there is one coming out soon that I will endeavour to get my hands on. ↩