I caught up with Stéphane Lambiel at the end of Skate America in Allen, Texas, where he accompanied his long-time student Deniss Vasiljevs.
Stéphane is also the coach and choreographer for reigning World Champion Shoma Uno and Japanese silver medalist Koshiro Shimada. We talked about his work with both skaters, as well as his recent collaborations with Satoko Miyahara and Guillaume Cizeron, the plans for his ice show next summer, and the type of skating he loves to see.
It was a disappointing competition for Deniss, who struggled with the quad salchow and triple axel in both programs and placed 9th. Deniss blamed his “excessively cerebral approach” and lack of mental preparation for the competition. Stéphane was thinking hard about how to help Deniss put aside his perfectionism and be more in the moment.
Let’s start with Deniss. I heard a couple of people say that this was their first time seeing him skate in person, and how much they appreciated his performances. So there was some benefit from this event, even with the struggle of coming to Texas and the small rink and jet lag.
Yes, it’s an opportunity, and he didn’t use it to his full potential. I will admit that the preparation going into this competition was not good. I think physically and technically he’s able to do the things that he wants. But mentally he is a bit confused. He’s just questioning himself, [asking questions] that don’t need to be answered. It just takes such a long time to figure it out, when the answer is actually there, he has it.
We will get out of this situation somehow. There are, of course, some worries, but it’s part of the process. It’s part of the sport, and we are only human beings. We are also fragile. So it’s our role to take care of him. And it’s his role now also to take responsibility. It’s good that we talk and communicate about everything, but it’s also important that he stops this questioning.
Skating with an open chest
I wanted to ask you about his Free Skate [to ‘Blues Deluxe’ by Joe Bonamassa] because it seems like such a challenging program. He’s had a couple of these programs with blues or rock music that aren’t the typical sort of composition structure, and that demand a certain looseness in body movement. It seems very difficult to embody that in a competitive program. But it reminded me of ‘Papa Was a Rolling Stone’ (2018-2019 Short Program) or ‘Lotus Feet’ (2019-2020 Free Skate). Do you see this program as returning to a theme?
I think the blues is definitely a style that fits Deniss. I saw yesterday in his attitude, there were some beautiful moments. He was kind of on and off throughout the whole performance, but I could see that he was getting there. I didn’t see that in Bratislava [at Nepela Trophy].
Why did I choose this piece for him? It’s because I see that he has the quality of movement to enjoy that looseness, that freedom in improvising. It’s a choreography that is set but…the great thing about Deniss is he interprets very well and he’s able to allow himself more than just executing things. So I think this program is really going through what he has in his guts. I saw that happening a few times yesterday, and it’s encouraging.
At the same time, I saw also that there are so many details that are not there yet. And even though we’ve been talking about it and we’ve been going through it, he’s still holding back, like he doesn’t trust himself for it. But again, it’s this mental process of questioning everything –
It’s a style where you have to be very in your body and in the moment.
Even in the short, these are programs that not everybody is able to skate with that kind of openness. It’s opening your chest –
Yeah, it’s quite literally open!
Yes, exactly! Also, that’s why we went for those two costumes because it’s so free. And he’s not there yet. I think we need to practice more until he is able to free himself and be grounded at the same time. A lot of work. I feel like it’s an infinity of work. If I start putting myself in his brain, I feel like those questions are coming to my mind too. But for me, it is very important that he keeps it simple. More simple, more to the point.
Yesterday, there were a few details that I was not super happy with. But at the same time now that I’m talking to you, I feel like maybe those details are not so important. Like maybe we should not even talk about it because it’s more a general aspect than those small details. Like we just said, the blues is really about that natural, authentic expression. So I think if we go into details, then it doesn’t get to the authenticity, so it’s tricky, it’s tricky.
Koshiro Shimada the actor
I want to ask about your other students and their different choreographies. You made Koshiro’s new Free Skate [to ‘Danse Macabre’]. It’s an interesting choice to have such a dark program because he is –
Such a bright person. That’s true.
Is that your idea, to challenge him into that intensity?
Koshiro is really into characters. Deniss is more of an emotional, charismatic, expressive person. Koshiro is more like an actor who loves to become a character. I really feel like he changes, when he’s doing ‘Sing Sing Sing’ [his short program, choreographed by Jeff Buttle], he’s like a bubbly Fred Astaire.
Then when I see him in ‘Danse Macabre’, I feel almost like we’re in Tim Burton’s movie, and everything becomes so dark. I like that about him. He also did One Piece on Ice and he really enjoyed being that character. I could feel in his attitude, that he really transformed into the character. So I love to create a world where he’s able to become a character.
I really like Yuja Wang’s interpretation of Danse Macabre with just a piano. It’s quite simple, but at the same time, so complex, with every note being so important and having such intensity. We made a couple of changes in the choreo sequence after Japan Open, and I’m super excited. It is something even more rhythmical and more intense. We were already happy before, and then we were so grateful to have the moment to develop that [further].
A ‘final bow’ for Shoma Uno?
For Shoma, this season you choreographed the short program, but you also chose the music for the free. How did you approach his direction this season? He has said that he wants to push himself artistically.
Usually, music is my first inspiration. The pieces that he is using for the short, I had them on my playlist before I saw the movie, “Everything Everywhere All at Once”. I didn’t even know that music was in the movie, but I really liked the [version of] Claire de Lune. I thought that this music reminded me of Shoma’s skating, smooth and beautiful and quiet, elegant movement.
And then I watched the movie, and I really loved the movie. It was quite crazy. I have to say I was a bit in shock when I saw it. But I enjoyed it and I really loved all the different images that were created, with the different characters, with the crazy daughter and the crazy mom. Not that the movie was related to my vision for Shoma, but I enjoyed the movie, and then I realized that the songs that I heard before were the songs of the movie.
It kind of haunted me, to the point that I thought okay, we need to use that Clair du Lune version. We need to use that ‘I love you’ repetition, and also that last part where it becomes very atmospheric and quite heavy, that was also something that I really enjoyed. So I started putting the pieces together and then we worked while we were in Japan together.
For the free, it took a long time until we put the pieces together. Right after Worlds we started to to listen to several pieces of music. And we were stuck on two choices. And he was not telling me which one he preferred. I was happy with both but not very decisive either. So we were kind of waiting and waiting and waiting and every time we were discussing the free we were coming back to those two pieces and swinging back and forth. Which one, which one, which one, which one?
And then I don’t know what made me go in another direction. Maybe after the short was done, it was clearer what I wanted. It was a quick decision to go for ‘Spiegel im Spiegel’, and even the “Time Lapse” that we took at the beginning.
I don’t know if this is his final season. But I wanted something that will allow him to close a chapter, and that ‘Spiegel im Spiegel’ had the sensation when I was listening to it, of a final bow. My feelings and the music and Shoma’s maturity together made me go for that. Before that final bow, I chose the music “Time Lapse” because, what I told him is, that the music gives me a sense of looking at a series of pictures. Just going backward through a diaporama [slideshow]. Like going through a photo album, that first part is really about those pictures of his career going by. And you see that it’s almost like a train. [Here Stéphane made a noise like train wheels clicking as if we are looking in the windows of a train going past – AGOE]. Yeah, seeing those images, and then, after that, time for the final bow.
It’s such an interesting structure to go for the slower piece of music after the faster piece of music. I like it, and it’s unusual.
It was really to interpret that final bow. He has had such a long career. He looks so young, but he’s one of the veterans of the circuit right now. Shoma and Deniss at Worlds were the most experienced skaters, with seven [world championships appearances].
Yes, I looked back, because I was thinking about how this was Deniss’ first time competing in the US since the 2016 Worlds in Boston. I realized that the only three skaters that were were at the Worlds in 2016 and are still competing are Deniss, Shoma, and Boyang Jin. I think of them as being new seniors still…
But they are the veterans and so yeah, that final section, being suspended like that, it is really to realize that bow. It has been a long career and to conclude that chapter.
It’s a lovely thought and I’m excited to see the program with that image in mind.
Satoko Miyahara’s Juliet
So, Satoko Miyahara isn’t really your student, but you were just with her at Japan Open, and you choreographed that free skate for her. You also have gotten to skate with her recently [reprising a program to Miss Saigon at Carnival on Ice] and she did a tribute program to your ‘Slave to the Music’. Say a little bit about your collaboration with her.
So I have worked with Satoko since…the first program that I did was Hernando’s Hideaway. That was, I want to say, seven years ago. I am not sure, but I remember she was so young. We kept working together for several programs, and we did some shows together and we skated together, too.
And then she mentioned that she’d decided to compete at Japan Open and I think she decided that while she was going to watch a Romeo and Juliet ballet. Deniss and I did Romeo and Juliet [2020-22 Free Skate] and then I thought, ‘You know what, maybe you should play Juliet.’ It was a good opportunity to do that, and she hadn’t skated Romeo and Juliet before. I love Romeo and Juliet, the story, the music. I love Tchaikovsky, I love Prokofiev, I love Nino Rota, I love all the themes – and I skated to ‘Un Giorno Per Noi’. So there were a lot of pieces from Romeo and Juliet that we started listening to.
She spent the whole summer in Champery. She came right after Fantasy on Ice, and then she stayed until, I want to say, mid-August, so it was a long time together. We were able to create that program, to put the pieces together, to work on jumps, to work on interpretation. She also did summer camp where she was performing at our showcase. So we spent a really nice summer together. Working together is such a pleasure and doing shows with her and spending time with her feels so natural. It almost feels like she’s my family, and it has always been like that since the first day we started working together.
Watching her program, I could almost picture her doing a duet with Deniss – even though they skated to different versions of Romeo and Juliet, and have different styles, in the final death scenes, they bring similar energy.
It would be nice, actually, to see them perform a version of Romeo and Juliet together. Maybe that will happen.
A creative experiment with Guillaume Cizeron
I also love the performance that you did with Guillaume Cizeron, and the little bits of it that we’ve seen from On Ice Perspectives. Tell me a little bit about how that came about.
That was also quite instinctive, in the sense that Guillaume and I spent some time together on tour and we love to share about skating and other things. We worked together when Gabi and Guillaume asked me to choreograph one of their free programs [in the 2018/2019 season]. Ever since, we stayed in contact and we did some shows together. We saw each other at most of the competitions. And then while we were touring, there was this wish to create the number together. We didn’t have a proper objective for it. But it was more like, let’s meet somewhere, and put ourselves into a creation mode and see what comes out of it.
So that was our first dream, and then we were in contact to find dates that worked for both of us. I told him that August would be good for me because I’m at home, I don’t have so much to do, we have enough ice, and the camps are done. And we still had Khoudia [Touré] who choreographed ‘This Bitter Earth’ for me, and she choreographed a few things for other skaters. She was there and I thought maybe we could benefit from her perspective to get into that creation mode. And it worked with Guillaume’s schedule, and then he invited Jordan [Cowan, from On Ice Perspectives] – I didn’t know Jordan before, but it got together naturally.
When we started working, we only had three days together. They were so intense. We worked off the ice trying to understand each other, trying to understand what we wanted from each other and what we wanted from this experience. So it was a lot of body awareness and movement and trying to connect with each other. It was very interesting… it was really experimenting with each other, allowing ourselves to be creative.
Before we started working, we didn’t even know what kind of music we wanted, or where are we going to perform it. We were not worried about those questions. And then after those three days we had so much material, and that material took form! It was so unbelievable, in such a short time to be able to condense – and I think that was also Khoudia’s beauty. Even with my students, she was able to create a whole performance during the summer camp, where she gave each group and each character something to do and she could puzzle that together. And it became such a great piece, a great number.
It felt very similar with Guillaume in the sense that we were putting we were putting pieces out there, and then suddenly we were putting them together and it started to make sense. She’s magical. Really putting things there and then seeing how we can create a story out of it, that makes sense to what we are living right now.
I think the objective was to be creative and we managed to have our mission accomplished. So it was a very good moment for both of us. I don’t know if we will perform that piece together, but at least we have that project done and we have it on video and we enjoyed it and we experimented with something that is definitely inspiring for us and hopefully inspiring for others.
I think seeing something that is in the process of creation like that is amazing. It gives it a sort of vulnerability, to see the raw edges, something different than if you were seeing a final product in a show. So I was very grateful to have that on the video.
I hope we can finalize the product and have it performed somewhere, but for now, we don’t have any plans.
Building a magic world in Champéry
You’ve announced that next August, you’ll be holding a new show in Champéry as part of the Rencontres Musicales, with the pianist Béatrice Berrut, and will perform the long version of your program to Mahler’s Symphony no 5. Can you say anything else at this point about what that show is going to be like?
The theme of the show is magic. There will be a kid that portrays a young man going through his education and while he’s learning, he’s discovering a magic world. He tries to learn about magic and he meets exceptional personalities. So throughout his life and his growth, you will see different people, different skaters. We’re finalizing the cast. We already have the playlist, the different songs that Béatrice will play. And so all characters will be rather magical, or at least from a world of fantasy.
We want simple but elegant with just the piano. Also, we will try to create from the Palladium, which is a very sporty complex, a more neutral and elegant setting so we can really focus on the skating and the classical music.
There will be some pieces that are less classical but still just piano. Béatrice is very creative. She of course is a fantastic piano player but she’s also a great composer, and she loves to rearrange pieces. All her ideas were very interesting and I think will match well with skaters’ abilities and also the skating community. Even though she has not lived in the skating world, her ideas were interesting for us.
We’ll have mostly skaters that I work with, and that I’m close to. It will be a rather small cast and not a long show. But yes, something quite unique. And also to give Champéry, which is so small, the occasion to see something different.
A direction for the judging system
I was talking to Ondrej Hotarek yesterday about the challenge of bringing artistry into skating right now. He brought up Deniss as an example of a skater who makes him wish that the rules were different so that Deniss could be more recognized.
On the other hand, Deniss just told me that yes, maybe the rules should be different, but he wants to succeed within the current competition strictures too. So, I guess my question for you is: do you think the system needs to change so that there are more possibilities for skaters who have that kind of unique artistic vision to also do well in competition?
So it’s such a complex question because you can go any direction with this question.
Personally, I don’t care so much about the system. Once I accept to play your game, I need to accept the rules. So this is number one. Doesn’t matter which system I’m in. If at the end of the day, I want to play the game, I go with the rules of that game. If I fail, it’s my responsibility to adjust so I will succeed [next time]. That’s the beginning.
Yes, the system should be improved. Because in my perspective, skating is suffering from it.
I feel we’re not emphasizing performance enough, but rather the content, with a list of things to do. The more we get into into those details, the further we are going away from the performance and I feel sorry for the judges, and for the technical panel, because they are not able to enjoy the performance. They have to look at details that I feel don’t matter so much. I feel the more we go into those details, the less we have people appreciating the performance.
I remember one time a judge, back when we had the previous system judging system, told me something like, “It was such a great performance, that while you were performing, I forgot what I had to do, and I stopped taking notes.” And I feel like with this system, we’re not allowed to do that. A judge needs to just press buttons, press buttons, and press buttons from the beginning until the end without really judging what’s done. Just press a button, knowing the rules that I have in my mind, and not really taking the time to look at what’s going on.
So to conclude, I think for the sport to be healthier, the system should be less detailed.
For me, it’s completely stupid to have so many levels and so many marks that we can get on a jump, if it is on the edge or not on the edge or exclamation point or under or Q or downgrade. We just go into so much information that is not very relevant, because in the end, it is the judge who needs to judge the quality of the jump. So maybe [the technical committee] can put a “be careful” mark. The judge needs to look again if the technical panel sees that something is not exactly how it should be.
I would not want the technical panel to judge the base value of an element but more to say, “Be careful, that element was not properly done according to the rules or the technique.” And then the judge needs to give the mark for if it was well-executed or not well-executed. I feel right now, the panel says something, and the judge needs to follow what the panel says, and then it’s almost like no one has the freedom to do something. It doesn’t show what really happened.
And the skaters, they don’t care about performing. They just care about getting all the points in the boxes. It’s points, points, points, points, points, points, points, and it’s not so much about from the beginning until the end, creating something that will actually make the audience vibrate, you know.
Yeah, it’s hard to think of that bigger picture.
It’s tricks. Right now, it’s very tricks, tricks, tricks, tricks, tricks. And if you get those tricks, of course, there will be some excitement because the tricks were done. But was it artistic enough? Was it emotional enough? Was it deep enough? Was it honest? Was it authentic? Was it personal? I don’t think so.
I think there will never be a perfect system because we are humans. And we have our opinions, and some people will like this, some people will like that, and we try to find something measurable within this system. What is hard to measure is when you see a performance and you like it, how do you measure how much you like it? This is very difficult. And right now I feel we’re not able to do that. And we’re trying to replace that with details, details of the content, which doesn’t fix the problem, in my opinion. But it is pretty clear, that if you want the points, you need to clear the boxes.
This is why I resist actually learning the ice dance rules, though I probably should know more than I do. Because the more that I learn, the less I enjoy the overall performance.
I also don’t understand much about the rules, but I love watching them and am always amazed at how they are able to create an atmosphere, like I was watching Madison and Evan do their free dance in practice. It’s just amazing what they’re able to create. You forget the boxes [that need to be checked].
I would love to have a performance where I don’t count the revs of the spin, I don’t count the levels. I want to remove those stupid thoughts that don’t allow me to appreciate. I don’t know where to start, but –
You know where you want to go.
Exactly! I want to see a performance, and at the end to see it’s already over, and I don’t even remember what happened!
Stéphane will have a busy Grand Prix season, with Shoma, Koshiro, and Deniss participating in five of the six stages. We wish him all the best and I look forward to seeing his next creative endeavors!