Ice Network

Vipond works to keep creative vision in routines

Despite a restrictive IJS, choreographer aims for unique performances
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Choreographer Lance Vipond discussed a variety of figure skating topics. -courtesy of Lance Vipond

On paper, a choreographer's job can seem relatively straightforward: Envision a performance and its intended affect on an audience, and then take it to the ice. One of the greatest challenges a choreographer faces, however, is taking that visualization and making it a reality.

Lance Vipond is a former national and international competitor who struggles with the realities of this challenge every day. As a choreographer working with some of Canada's best skaters, Vipond works hard to keep his routines pure to his creative vision despite a restrictive international judging system.

Vipond feels that many of the sport's top routines miss out on their true potential because of an over emphasis on points, levels and Grade of Execution at the expense of the audience experience.

Despite a very busy schedule working with skaters like Canadian champion Kaetlyn Osmond and four-time Canadian pairs bronze medalists, Paige Lawrence and Rudi Swiegers, Vipond spoke to icenetwork about a wide range of figure skating topics.

Icenetwork: Lance, could you share with us your thoughts and impressions of the main event of this season, the Sochi Olympics?

Lance Vipond: I really enjoyed myself in Russia. The venues in the Olympic Park were spectacular, the hotel was very comfortable, and the volunteers were friendly and helpful. It was very cool to witness the emergence of new skating stars in all disciplines, but especially in the ladies event. And the inaugural team event was a lot of fun.

Icenetwork: How do you feel about the skaters' performances in the programs that you choreographed?

Vipond: I was very pleased with their performances. There was no expectation on my skaters to medal, so the emphasis, instead, was on achieving personal-best scores and just enjoying the overall Olympic experience. It was very fulfilling for me personally to see all of my skaters show such happiness out on the ice during their performances. To see them express how much it meant to them to actually be living out their dreams of competing on the Olympic stage, and to know that I had a hand in helping them get there, is something that I will never forget. The joy with which they competed was infectious to the audiences in the venue, and at home, and I'm so proud and thankful to each of them for sharing their hearts and souls with us.

Icenetwork: You have worked with Canadian champion Kaetlyn Osmand for many years. What has that been like?

Vipond: Kaetlyn is a dream to work with. She is an artist, an athlete and has a quiet confidence within that I have not seen in any other skater that I have worked with. Our relationship is choreographer/skater, but we are also close friends and I have gladly played the role of confidant during the many ups and downs of her career.

There has been a huge amount of growth and development for the both of us over the last eight years together, and I credit her with pushing me to become more creative in my choreography, and to raise the bar in terms of what I expect from all of my skaters. Her gifts are natural and numerous, and I have really had to push myself to come up with programs that are worthy of her talent. Kaetlyn is an inspiration to me as a person and as an artist. I am grateful to have her in my life

Icenetwork: How has it been to work with Paige Lawrence and Rudi Swiegers?

Vipond: Another dream relationship. I feel like I have been blessed to be given the opportunity to work with three of the nicest and more personable skaters in the country. I don't know how I got so lucky, but I am so very thankful. Paige and Rudi are brand new to me. They'd been among the top-three pair teams in the country for the past few years, and I was quite excited to get a call to work with them on a short program for the Olympic season. I was a fan of their skating and their dynamic performance style.

To my delight, they turned out to be funny, warm, genuine people with guts and determination to spare, and a drive to succeed that made working with them so fulfilling. They wanted to be pushed to be better than they had ever been and they were more than willing to put the hours in, even working through injury. The Olympics was the goal, and they achieved that. I am so proud of how hard we all worked to get there.

Icenetwork: I noticed a common theme among your students in that they are all very positive people with strong character. Also, they come from rural parts of Canada as opposed to big cities. Does this factor at all into their performances?

Vipond: I think it does play a part. They all have very supportive, close-knit, down-to-earth families. They have had to really work through some adversity to achieve their Olympic dreams. Paige and Rudi had to train in an arena with no heat in -30 degree weather in their hometown (at) Manitoba arena. They certainly were not spoiled by big-city amenities. That shows me that they must have really wanted to skate for all the right reasons, to be able to train in such extreme conditions.

That had to have played a hand in developing the strong work ethic and toughness that they have today. I think you can see how much they appreciate being able to do what they do when you watch them perform. I don't think that they take skating for granted.  

Icenetwork: As a choreographer, do you believe that the current international judging system stifles a skater's creativity? Some believe that the present rules force skaters into movements that score high points but are not aesthetic.

Vipond: I certainly think that choreography has become more about packing as much choreographic content as you can in order to adequately fulfill the requirements of the component marks. I find it to be more mathematical, more rigid in what you have to put in, in terms of turns and transitions. I don't work as organically as I did in the old system. I put much more thought into making sure that what I am doing will be enough to get top marks in all of the columns.

Of course, I try to do this (in) as unique and creative way as possible, but it certainly is all built around trying to get points. It's a challenge to come up with original ways to show the same basic skating moves that the judges are looking for from everyone and then to also make this list of requirements fit to music in a way that make sense. I find that with all of the skaters basically doing the same technical elements and there being only so many specific things that judges look for in terms of components, that programs all tend to look alike in their basic outlines, and there is very little room for spontaneous moments of surprise or whimsy.   

Icenetwork: Last year you stated in an interivew that one of figure skating's biggest problems is a lack of personalities among the skaters. Do you still think this is the case and, if so, how do you think figure skating should address this issue?

Vipond: Yes, I still think so, although I think that things are changing. With social media, you are seeing a lot more of the skaters' personalities making their ways into the public consciousness. So proud of Ashley Wagner for speaking her mind on the gay rights issues prior to the Games, when others wouldn't, and of other skaters stepping up and questioning what they perceive as unfair and predetermined judging. 

I love when people are 100 percent themselves and aren't afraid to show it to the world. Maé-Bérénice Méité is another example. She looks like she is taking control and ownership of who she is and what she has to offer the skating world as a performer. It comes across to me as fresh, exciting and alive. It stands out quite dramatically in a field of skaters who are not able to or not willing to do that. Skating needs more of these types of people.

Icenetwork: What else would you like to see change in the world of figure skating?

Vipond: I feel like with all of the details that the judging panel has to look after while they are watching a program that there is no way for them to actually be able to assess if the skater has created something magical out on the ice. I think you need to be able to sit there and take it all in: the feeling, the mood, the emotion.

If you are constantly coming in and out of the performance to make notes and judge elements, how can you be 100 percent invested in what you are watching? And if you are not 100 percent invested in what you are watching, then you are bound to miss things. I think a lot of very special performances go undermarked because the judges miss out on being able to fully take in what makes it special. The audience gets to sit and enjoy. This might explain why there is often a discrepancy between the audience favorites and the judges' favorites.   

Icenetwork: What is your opinion about how the ladies podium ended up at the Sochi Olympics?

Vipond: I think that there are things that need to change in the sport, but I would like to focus on the positives. We saw a lot of very good performances, especially from the very young up-and-comers, and that is encouraging. The last group of skaters really skated their hearts out and fought hard for those podium spots, which made for a very enjoyable event. Not everyone is going to be happy with the outcome at all times, but there were a lot of very special, very memorable moments created by some amazing ladies that we should all be thankful to have witnessed.

Icenetwork: Where do you see skating choreography heading in the future and how will its role evolve?

Vipond: I hope that we see skaters taking more risks, working outside of their comfort zones in terms of the music/costumes that they choose and the ways that they choose to express themselves. I'd like to see more genuine personalities. Times are changing; society is changing. Art is always changing and evolving.

I think in order to keep figure skating alive and thriving, we need to encourage skaters to break out of the boxes that we've expected them to exist in for so many generations now and to let them show us who they really are -- to express what they truly want to say as people and as artists, and to shake things up a bit, or a lot even.