Monday, July 22, 2013

Happy Belated Birthday to Dick Button: A Rumination of the Status of Figure Skating

On Thursday July 18, Dick Button turned 84. Button, a 2-time Olympic gold medalist and Emmy-award-winning skating commentator, has given much to the sport. Mr. Button gave the skating world its first Double Axel in competition, as well as the first performed triple jump of any kind: a Triple Loop. He also invented the spin the "Button Camel." Once Mr. Button's career as a skater ended, he embarked on an equally successful career as a skating commentator for ABC Sports.

Over the years, Mr. Button has given skating fans a great deal of astute critiques, peppered with wit, quips, enthusiasm, and enough name-dropping to make you feel like you know a lot more about history and culture than you actually do. It's a travesty that when figure skating coverage switched over to NBC, Dick Button was dropped from the commentary roster. While I do enjoy the commentary of Scott Hamilton and Sandra Bezik very much, it's just not the same without Mr. Button. He wasn't afraid to share what was on his mind. I learned what a "bad" layback and spiral position were, simply because Mr. Button wasn't afraid to say so during a live broadcast. So often today, bad positions go unmentioned. As much as I think Yu-Na Kim is brilliant, why has no one ever addressed the fact that she needs to work on her extension, the point of the toe, and turn her foot out during her spirals? Sure, people were all over Michelle Kwan like ants on a jelly donut if she didn't turn her foot out nicely during her layback, but no one says anything about Yu-Na's extension.

I often think while watching an event, "What would Dick Button say about this?" Such a same that he's still alive and well and no doubt, full of witty opinions, yet skating fans are deprived from hearing them. Luckily, YouTube features some video compilations of Mr. Button's finest moments:

A small sample of Dick Button's most infamous broadcast moments. Arguably the greatest American skater and commentator, his snarkiness, name-dropping ability, and enthusiasm have made him one of the sport's most celebrated figures. (Description taken from YouTube):

A few relatively recent examples of Dick Button's most memorable moments as a commentator, in which he becomes either overly loquacious or completely verklempt in reaction to great skating. (Description taken from YouTube):

On Friday, my sister and I attended the Liberty Skating Competition in Aston, PA. During the event, I kept thinking, "I wonder what Dick Button would think about the current state about figure skating after watching this?" And the answer was, "He wouldn't like it." Of course, I don't really know if Mr. Button would say that, but after having listened to him on a regular basis for over a decade, I feel that I know and understand his opinions. What I can say for sure though, is that I was not happy with the current state of figure skating after attending Liberty on Friday. Actually, for the first time in my life, I was almost uninterested in watching skating.

Where Should I begin? I suppose with the ladies short programs since I sat through nearly 40 of them on Friday. Halfway through, I asked my sister, "Do you get the feeling that we're listening to the same program over and over?" She replied, "We're watching the same program over and over." Herein lies the problem.

Not only is there virtually NO musical originality, the choreography looks virtually the same. No wonder it was easy to lose interest. And if a seasoned skating fan such as myself is losing interest, God forbid anyone new to the sport, watching for the first time, would be compelled to watch past more than two skaters.

The subject of musical overuse is one that needs to be addressed. And I wonder, if fans notice the overuse and literally roll their eyes when "Carmen" or "Oblivion" plays over the loudspeaker, then you wonder why the coaches and choreographers knowingly pick that music? They're the experts here. Why are they allowing their skater to become a number--one of the 10 to skate to a tango medley or Spanish-themed short program? "Oblivion" is a nice piece of music, but oh brother, I don't care if I ever hear it again after Friday. And are there no other short program themes than tangos?

Another example: Bizet's "Carmen," is a fantastic piece of music, but it does lose its novelty when it's been skated for the umpteenth time. Why not try something fresh, something never been done? Maybe it's viewed as an artistic risk, but honestly, isn't skating to an overused piece of music an artistic risk, too? On one hand, coaches and choreographers might choose the so-called "War Horses," such as Tosca, Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No.2, or Romeo and Juliet as winning pieces that will carry the skater through a performance, but on the other hand, that's the problem. On Friday, I often got the sense that even though the music was bold and majestic, such as Piano Concerto No.2, the actual skating and choreography was lackluster. I was almost tricked into liking a program because I loved the music so much, but look past that, and no, a piece of music cannot carry a skater, there has to be technique and artistic-sensibility behind it all.

I believe it's more of an artistic risk to skate to a "War Horse" if it's been done magnificently before. What C-skater is going to be able to perform "Scheherezade" as well as John Curry, Michelle Kwan, or most recently--Evan Lysacek? Exactly. So then why not pick something completely different so that you, an up-and-coming skater, can make your own unique mark? Something fresh would make you stand out in a good way.

Further, some of these skaters, being in their early-to-mid teens, would be better suited to skate to something that actually appeals to their interests and age demographic. I'm sorry, but other than say, Yasmin Siraj, who is a classically-trained musician, I kind of doubt that a 14-year-old skater really wants to skate to a very serious, very heavy violin orchestration. That's certainly not the type of music that's on their i-pod. Frankly, it doesn't seem age appropriate, either. Young skaters should skate to something that they enjoy, and something uplifting. I'm not a fan of very heavy, dramatic pieces of music that seem to sap the joy out of a young skater's presentation (reminiscent of Mao Asada's "Bells of Moscow" program from the Olympic season. A very powerful piece of music, yes, but talk about dark, heavy, and uber -serious. I much prefer a lighter, whimsical Mao, ala her "Swan Lake" program from last season.) A good example of a fun, effervescent short program piece of music is when Jeremy Abbott skated to Carlos Santana's "Treat" during the 2007-2008 season.

There are so many fantastic pieces of music out there today. I wish skaters would tap into some of those possibilities. One of the best soundtracks I've heard is the "Tron" Soundtrack by Daft Punk. Reigning U.S. men's champion Max Aaron wisely took advantage of that musical choice this season, but no one else has jumped on board, yet. I'd highly recommend doing so, especially if you're a skater who wants music that is full of power, tension, and drive. (Actually, Keegan Messing would be a terrific candidate for using the Tron soundtrack. The intensity of the music would match the intensity of his skating brilliantly).

To further my point, take a few minutes to listen to my favorite track from the Tron soundtrack. Does this not have terrific skating music written all over it???

Listen here, to the wonderful "Adagio" track from the Tron soundtrack. Start listening at around 20:20. Would this not make for a fantastic slow-section of any skating program???

People can say what they want about how "hokey" it was when skaters in the 90s skated to film soundtracks, but I'm sorry, some of my favorite skating programs of all-time are skated to movie soundtracks. Paul Wylie's "Schindler's List," Elvis Stojko's "Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story," and "Dragonheart," Todd Eldredge's "First Knight" and "Lord of the Rings," Alexei Yagudin's "Gladiator" and "Man in the Iron Mask." Even at this past World Championships, the star of the event, silver-medalist Denis Ten skated both his short and long to the soundtrack from the film "The Artist." Ladies champion Yu-Na Kim skated to the soundtrack from "Les Miserables." Clearly movie soundtracks aren't poor choices. The music is often grand, epic, and recognizable in a way that audiences can get behind. Need I go on?

Moving on to choreography. Watch Michelle Kwan's "Salome" program from 1996:

I don't see a single catch-foot position. I understand that the IJS system wasn't in place then. But that's the point. IJS has never produced choreography of this caliber. And likely never will.

Now let's talk about costumes.

I hate to throw Ilia Kulik under the bus here, because I love him, but honestly, as bad as his Olympic costume was, some of the costumes I saw at Liberty make his yellow-cow-Rhapsody in Blue look like a Very Wang masterpiece. Let me just say that if you're a male figure skater who is wearing a mesh, gossamer, high-waisted shirt, you shouldn't wonder why people don't take you seriously. I don't want to sound disrespectful, and I don't want to blame the skaters, because many times I think they are just misguided. I wish costume designers would consider how a see-through flowy shirt impacts the way people view that skater? And what's more, why does a coach let their skater go out looking like that? I'm confused.

I vote for all-black streamlined costumes that allow viewers to appreciate the movement on the ice, rather than be distracted by the frills. Former U.S. competitor Wesley Campbell's costume here is one that I can really get behind:

Overall, my impressions of the Liberty even were that the majority of skaters didn't give any indication that they actually liked skating, liked their music, or liked their costumes. As a result, I felt that way, too.

Where's Dick Button's candor when you need it? At a time like this, figure skating needs to have some of that--"I'm sorry this hurts your feelings but you need to hear it"--type-commentary.

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