Ice Network

How to succeed as a young choreographer

Skaters share their personal journeys, offer advice in making transition
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Jonathan Cassar got some helpful counsel from noted choreographer David Wilson. -Jay Adeff

In the last couple of years, several figure skaters best known for their competitive careers have been trying out new careers as choreographers. Audiences will be able to see programs created by some very familiar names in the 2013-14 season.

Olympic silver medalist Tanith Belbin has choreographed new programs for Barbie Long, Stephen Carriere, and Britney Simpson and Matt Blackmer; Belbin also worked on Hannah Miller's programs.

"My first foray into choreography was for myself and Ben [Agosto] after we turned pro," Belbin said. "We had the need for a variety of show programs without a lot of time to prepare. With the confidence that gave me, I was able to believe there was some potential to go on and choreograph for other skaters as well."

World champion and Olympic bronze medalist Jeff Buttle has been making a mark as a brilliant choreographer since he retired in 2008. In the coming season, Daisuke Murakami, Kiira Korpi, Elizaveta Tuktamisheva and Artur Gachinski will be skating programs choreographed by Buttle. Patrick Chan and Yuzuru Hanyu will keep the short programs Buttle created for them last season.

"I just do what I enjoy, and right now it's bringing me a lot of pleasure," Buttle said.

It's not uncommon for skaters to try choreographing their own show programs during their competitive careers. Then they may move on to choreographing show programs for their friends or creating their own competitive programs.

"I was probably 16 or 17 when I did my first show program," Jonathan Cassar said. "I didn't realize how hard it was to choreograph on myself. I like to watch someone do something and I get a feeling for where we want to go. I had to ask my coach to watch me."

Cassar choreographed Courtney Hicks' new Evita program, as well as programs for junior lady Katarina Kulgeyko, and he worked with 2012 U.S. novice pairs champions Chelsea Liu and Devin Perrini.

Rachael Flatt says she has choreographed her own show programs for a couple of years, and she's interested in doing programs for other skaters.

"It's nice to be able to have that creative outlet, aside from competition," she said. "I did choreography for a juvenile girl up in Denver, a new long program. That was my first venture out."

As well as Flatt, several current competitors are very interested in becoming choreographers, although they are just beginning to do programs for themselves and other people. Joshua Farris choreographed his short program for the upcoming season to a piano version of Libertango. Jeremy Abbott created his own "Exogenesis" program, with coach Yuka Sato.

"I certainly have an interest in choreography, post-competition," Abbott said. "It's something that I enjoy, and having gone through this crazy journey, I hope I have some insight I could pass on to a younger generation. I helped out with one of Valentina Marchei's show programs. It was a fun process, and I got to create the idea and the atmosphere of the program. It was cool to work with someone besides myself."

Adam Rippon has done show numbers for Mirai Nagasu and Ashley Wagner, and he's eager to do more choreography. 

"It's always been a passion of mine to do choreography and create steps," Rippon said. "I've always been involved in my own choreography, and this year I really had a big part in my programs. I did a junior man's short program when I was in Toronto for Spencer Buchanan. He wanted something fun, so we put together a Star Wars program, and I think it's still famous in the Cricket Club for being over the top."

Different approaches

Several skaters known for their artistry have said they were inspired by the choreographers they worked with; the same choreographer in quite a few cases. Buttle, Belbin and Rippon all said they look up to David Wilson as their inspiration, guide and mentor as they develop their careers as choreographers.

"I turned to David Wilson, who is a wonderful person and friend," Belbin said. "I had dinner with him and asked him if he would mentor me. He was very excited and said, 'Of course! What does that mean?'"

"After working with David Wilson for a number of years, it piqued my interest," Buttle said. "I had never thought about it, but he brought the passion out in my skating and I became interested in it."

"I would love to be a choreographer and study more to be a great choreographer," Rippon said. "I've been lucky to work with some amazing people [as a skater]. I've seen what David Wilson does, what Tom Dickson does, what Nikoli Morozov does. I've been lucky to work with Cindy Stuart."

Choreographers work in different ways, and it takes time for young choreographers to develop their own process. First, it's important to understand the skater's own style.

"If it's someone I'm working with for the first time, I obviously watch video of them skating so I get a feel for how they skate," Buttle said.

Belbin noted that she was fortunate, in the beginning, to work with skaters she already knew well.

"The relationship makes it easier," she said. "When you don't know someone, you have to put a lot of effort into the relationship; else, how will you bring out what's organic?"

Next, nearly every choreographer starts with finding the right piece of music. Some welcome suggestions from the skaters, while others often find music they feel is perfect for their vision.

"When we get into music, I always want them to have some input, but I always want to have some input and make sure we're on the same page," Buttle said. "More often than not, it's a consensus."

At this point, methods differ. Some create a program in their heads, based on the music. Some get on the ice and lay out the program themselves before they meet with the skater. Some let the program grow and develop as they work with the skater.

"You start thinking while you're editing the music," Buttle said. "You want to make sure the program is a little bit strategic. A jump just after the second half, etc. Then I like to get on the ice with the skater and map it out, have a plan of where the elements are going to fall. And then the rest of the work is more organic; I like to play with the skater a little, see what works, see what doesn't. It's a little trial and error."

"Before I do any choreography, I'm on the ice myself with the music," Belbin said. "It has to be natural for them, but it has to be natural for me. I do a little improvisational work to see what happens when the music reaches me."

As an exercise, Belbin has her skaters listen to the music and write down what emotions they feel in different places. She says she emphasizes the storyline of the program.

"I like to take a psychological approach to conceptualizing the theme of the program," she said.

Cassar, quoting famed dance choreographer Twyla Tharp, said, "Sometimes choreography has a story, sometimes it has a mood, and sometimes it's just movement for the sake of movement, motion with the absence of emotion."

Yebin Mok has been moving into choreography after several years as a professional show skater.

"For me, choreography is like sculpting," Mok said. "You have this clay and you sort of sculpt it, carve out a little more, and as you dive into the piece, you create more details that you didn't even think of in the first draft. There's a point when it reveals something I couldn't even think about."

Choreographers agree that it's necessary to be flexible. If something isn't working, they readily change it. 

"I often will have an idea in my head, a vision of what a certain move will look like, and sometimes it pans out, but sometimes you have to be lenient enough to recognize that it wouldn't look good and try something else," Buttle said.

"Sometimes my first attempt doesn't work," Belbin said. "I've learned not to become too attached to a piece of choreography. If it doesn't look right the first one or two tries, I'll change it. With a younger skater, I might have them try it for a couple of weeks and see how it goes."

"Sometimes it doesn't work and you have to roll with it," Cassar said. "Some people are a little more open-minded, and with other kids, it takes more time. You have to make the kids feel comfortable. You want them to have an opinion. If you're constantly coaching them to do movement, it's not helping them develop their own voice."

"That's one of the things Lori [Nichol] taught me," Flatt said. "When you're able to incorporate your own feeling into a program, it puts your own personal stamp on it and it makes your program your own. It's much easier, when you're involved, to put the emotion into the programs."

Young Artists' Showcase

The currently ongoing choreography competition, MK Blades Young Artists' Showcase (YAS), has motivated more than one skater to take further steps to a career as a choreographer. Bebe Liang, Eliot Halverson and Mok were all popular competitors; Liang competed in YAS last year and Halverson and Mok are competing this year.

"For the last couple of years when I was competing, I worked with Braden Overett, or Renee Roca," Liang said. "They would let me have a lot of my own input, so that's where I got started. I liked the idea of creating things for other people. Right after I was done competing, I did a few programs for some local skaters."

Kate McSwain is competing in YAS for the second time, and she says the competition was crucial in her development as a professional choreographer.

"YAS was the launch pad," McSwain said. "It gave me the courage and the opportunity and platform to prove to myself that I was capable of creating works in a limited time frame, with different skaters and in different styles. And it gave me a lot of exposure. I worked with Jeremy Abbott, and a couple of his programs got out there enough that I got contacted by coaches."

McSwain mostly choreographs for younger skaters, but she did junior man Andrew Nagode's 2013-14 short program.

The Austrian show skater and choreographer Zabato Bebe is dominating the competition so far. Bebe's competitive career was somewhat undistinguished, but his work as a choreographer has captured a lot of attention.

"Competing was not always easy, and I knew I wanted to pursue skating in a more creative way," Bebe said. "My goal is to bring something new and thought-provoking onto the ice. I believe this competition is one of the most wonderful things that is happening in the professional figure skating world right now."

Building a career

As they make the transition from their own competitive careers, young choreographers draw on their lifetime of experience as they face new challenges.

"The main thing that's different is you have a habit of choreographing to your abilities, and what looks good on you might not look good on someone else," Buttle said. "Sometimes I even have to take my skates off so I'm forced to watch them do it and figure out what works best for them."

"It's a different feeling when one of my kids does their program beautifully," Mok said. "It's very, very nice, and you get a lot of satisfaction."

There's no easy way to break into the choreography business. McSwain laid out five steps she thinks young choreographers should follow. She recommends aspiring choreographers to get a dance or theater degree, to give them credibility. Then they should choreograph pieces for themselves and their friends and post them online. They also need a website so people can find them easily.

"Fourth, there are a lot of educational opportunities, like online classes for skating choreographers at," McSwain went on. "Last, it's all about networking. Be present at events: regionals, nationals, Skate America, Skate for Hope, Evening on Ice, G2C Supercamp. Being there is crucial. You never know when you might meet a coach who might want to work with you."

"I remember one time I spoke with David Wilson about this," Cassar said. "I said, 'Is it difficult to get work?' He said, 'You build a reputation and then people come to you.' It will take time. No one is going to have success immediately. I hope skaters will continue to come and I'll get the opportunity to work with them. It's really wonderful, and it's a dream."