Ice Network

This is it: Shibutanis prep final Jackson medley

Choreographer Walker, 'Shib Sibs' reflect on how program came to be
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U.S. bronze medalists Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani will skate their final Michael Jackson medley Friday night in Saitama. -Getty Images

On Friday night, Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani will skate their tribute to Michael Jackson in competition for the final time.

It is fitting that the program, more than a year in the making, will have its finale in Japan, where the late King of Pop enjoyed some of the greatest moments of his career, beginning with a sold-out Jackson Five tour in 1973 through his final appearance in Tokyo in 2007. Last May, Cirque du Soleil's production of Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour filled all 18,000 seats in Saitama's Super Arena, the site of these world championships.

Jackson was famous for his meticulous preparation, and the Shibutanis and Marina Zoueva, who coaches the skaters in Canton, Mich., embraced a similar approach when they asked Travis Payne and Stacy Walker, choreographers of Jackson's This Is It tour and two of the 10 choreographers for the Immortal production, to help create the free dance.

"We fully committed to it; we knew if we were going to do it, it needs to be really good and true to form," Alex said. "When we started working with Travis and Stacy, our eyes were open to how specific everything is, how exact things need to be. They have been involved in everything -- music, costumes, choreography."

Icenetwork caught up with Walker, who recently choreographed Korean pop group 2NE1's All or Nothing tour, via email.

Icenetwork: What were the two or three biggest keys to help Maia and Alex capture that MJ feeling and movement?

Walker: Travis and I exposed them to a wide array of Michael's choreography, far more than was actually used in the program. We started each session with a warm-up concentrating on isolations. Our goal was to teach Maia and Alex just like we taught the dancers on This Is It and give them as much history, insight and explanation as possible.

Alex: The most revealing moment I had was watching the This Is It documentary before we worked with them. So many incredible dancers were handpicked by Michael, Travis and Stacy in the audition process. It was these dancers' dream to work with [Jackson]. Then they got into rehearsals and they were all super enthusiastic, but even they weren't sure how to start.

Icenetwork: How difficult was it to teach the moves?

Walker: I didn't find it difficult to teach them any one move, really. It's far more difficult to teach someone how to "feel." We watched a lot of Michael's work to reference feeling, intention, performance.

Maia: After worlds (in 2013), we had a conference call to figure out cuts of music, and then at the end of April we worked with them for a week in L.A. After that, Travis and Stacy came to Canton, and Stacy visited Canton several times at strategic points during the season. We were always in touch. Our relationship grew and they got to know us as people, and they were able to push us more.

Icenetwork: How difficult was it for you to work with ice dancers, as your own background is dancing on the floor?

Walker: It was so interesting for me to see how the ice dancing world works. So many rules! I found myself wishing I had more of a skating background so I could have been more help. We all worked very well together. I enjoyed every minute of this experience. It was not difficult, just different.

Icenetwork: What quality of MJ did you most want to share?

Walker: The actual steps and choreography are very specific and quite precise, but I think what we most tried to get Maia and Alex to understand was that their performance, intention, acting, commitment is just as important, if not more important, than the movement.

Michael was always fully committed, and this is why, I believe: He was so loved. Often times, if you believe in what you are doing, others will too.

Icenetwork: What would you and Travis say to working with skaters in the future?

Walker: Yes, please!

The Shibutanis are still savoring their Olympic experience, where they placed ninth and, more importantly, gained memories to last a lifetime.

"We're going to look back five, 10 years from now -- or maybe even just next week -- and realize we're living a dream so many people hope for desperately and so few get to experience," Alex said in Sochi. "For the rest of our lives, it's going to push us further in everything we do."

"We really tried to take the time to stop, look around and say, 'We're here together,'" Maia said. "Just walking in next to Alex and everyone in Team USA was really special."

With their sights now set on delivering their programs in Saitama, the University of Michigan students have yet to announce whether they will compete next season.

"We'll have to reflect," Alex said after the free dance in Sochi. "[After the season], we always sit down with our coaches and then sit down as a family and talk about our desires going forward. We love the sport very much; it's given us so much, and we are trying to give something back."

"We focus on now, living in the moment," Maia said.