Nichol remains the class of choreography fieldWith another year of innovative programs, Canadian deserves POTY nod
"Finally, she made it!"
That was my reaction when I read that renowned coach and choreographer Lori Nichol had been elected to the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame this past February. As great as Nichol has been over her career, being elected to the WHOF is something that even the sport's greatest should not take for granted. This year, Oksana Grishuk and Evgeni Platov, Natalia Bestemianova and Andrei Bukin, and even Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner remained at the doorstep of getting in. Nichol, on the other hand, gathered the votes of more than 50 percent of the registered electors.
Several coaches have already been inducted to the WHOF (Nobuo Sato in 2010, Tatiana Tarasova in 2008, Frank Carroll in 2007, to name a few recent ones), but no pure choreographer had ever been selected before Nichol. This shows how influential she is in the world of figure skating today. That is why I nominate her as icenetwork's 2014 Person of the Year.
My relationship with Nichol is a strange one, and one may wonder why I have chosen to nominate her. Let me tell you, she was not my favorite person back in 1996, when Michelle Kwan won her first world title. To many, myself included, Lu Chen's delightful program to Rachmaninoff's second piano concerto, second movement, will remain as one of the most exquisite and most perfect programs in the history of figure skating. That year, in Edmonton, Kwan was still a young teenager. However, as I would soon to discover, she by no means performed like a teenager on the ice. Kwan skated the way she knew -- perfectly. Her Salome routine was packaged to make her look like a mature and emotional full-figured lady, if I may say. In a word, it was brilliantly choreographed.
"Lori says her job is to bring out the beauty in me when I'm skating," Kwan admitted later, quickly adding: "This is not an easy job!" That day, Kwan won the first of her five world gold medals. She was born to the world.
I finally met Nichol a few years later. She was in Paris for the Trophée Eric Bompard. It was late November, and Paris was shining in the rain. Leaves were falling off the huge trees around the Palais Omnisport arena, where the Trophée was being held. I was sitting, as usual, in the athletes' corner. If chance is nothing but "the way God has chosen to wander around without being noticed," as French writer and movie maker Jean Cocteau once wrote, I was blessed that day. The person sitting next to me was Lori Nichol.
"You are Lori Nichol?" I asked enthusiastically during a resurfacing break. I introduced myself, and we discussed the art of choreography. Before the next skater took the ice, I asked her if I could get an autograph. In such circumstances you expect a response along the lines of, "Sure!" with a broad smile. That was not to be the case.
I handed over the best thing I could find in my papers, and it happened to be a postcard. (I always carry postcards with me, just in case I need to write to someone while I am sitting in the metro. You have so much time in the metro of Paris.) That postcard happened to be a photo taken at the top of the Matterhorn, arguably Switzerland's most picturesque mountain top. "At least, this will be quite a dignified card to write on!" I thought: "One of the most famous tops of the Alps for one of the most renowned tops of ice choreography. Plus, the Matterhorn also is covered with ice." My card was not to be received the way I had hoped, however.
Nichol asked me why I wanted an autograph. She asked me what I would do with it. She asked me why I wanted her to sign on a postcard -- and why on this postcard specifically. The more she went on, the more embarrassed I felt, as if I was being interrogated by a lawyer. I obviously did not mean to bother her, and I certainly did not want her to suspect that I would sell it back on eBay or imitate her signature on a compromising note!
My embarrassment must have been enough for her: She took my card and pen without any more words, and wrote (in French): "A mon ami Jean-Christophe, meilleurs voeux, Lori Nichol" ("To my friend Jean-Christophe, best wishes"). I received my card back completely puzzled. How could she call me "my friend," not knowing me 15 minutes before, and after such a lengthy and suspicious interrogation? Regardless, it was then time to watch what she and I loved most: skating.
Nichol showed me two things that afternoon: First, that she was both a perfectionist and a real professional, spending endless time on the smallest details; and second, that she was an incredibly generous person altogether.
Nichol had entered into the world of elite skating via pure expertise and talent.
"One summer," Kwan recalled, "A skating teacher from Toronto named Lori Nichol brought a few of her students to Ice Castle (where Kwan was training at the time under Frank Carroll) for a couple of weeks. Her students were not great skaters, but their programs were choreographed so beautifully and perfectly for them that they all looked like great skaters. Frank was impressed and asked her how she did it. She seemed like a wonderful person who really cared about her students. Pretty soon they were good friends, and he asked her to do some choreography for me."
Kwan was impressed by Nichol's work.
"You'd be amazed at the amount of work Lori puts into my program," she said. "The music should be a piece of music that reminds her of me. It should express some feeling about where I am in that particular moment of my constantly changing life."
Year after year, Kwan won again and again, each time with beautiful and original programs that underlined the best of her personality. Sometimes, when I imagine the exquisite Ms. Kwan wandering around the corridors of the White House and of the State Department, I wonder if her professional appearances have been inspired by her choreographer as well. She has become such an ambassador for figure skating worldwide!
I have never been able to meet Nichol since that first encounter in Paris, but I have always marveled at her work. Patrick Chan explained to me how he worked with her to create his free program to Joaquin Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez". Chan impressed me that day. He was able to explain the way the piece had been composed, and what circumstances led to its composition by the composer. Nichol was the one who told him that story. Nichol had taught him, also, that even though he would not interpret the author's emotions (Rodrigo composed his piece by sadness after his wife miscarried their first child), that the piece could inspire him to find his own emotions.
"This piece gave me goose bumps when I heard it," Chan explained. "It brings emotion by itself. My job is really to help the audience find their own physical or psychological emotion. While skating, I have my own emotions, and I give the audience a visual help for them to reach their own emotions, as emotions are so personal."
This year, Nichol could be spotted several times during the Winter Olympics, sitting beside her protégés. At a time when the international judging system is making many programs so similar and point-winning oriented, she has managed to offer the audience distinctive programs, emphasizing the strength of some of the most brilliant skaters this Olympiad has produced.
Take Carolina Kostner, from Italy. Early in the season, she decided that her short program needed to be changed. She and Nichol took one week at Christmas to choreograph Schubert's "Ave Maria," which will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the highlights of this year's Olympics. It was one of those programs that makes you kneel and say thanks for the beauty of life and the sport you love.
"It was not so convenient for me to change programs in the middle of an Olympic season," Kostner recognized afterwards. "But I took it as one extra opportunity to work with Lori and create a beautiful program again," she said.
Kostner has always been known for her interpretation of rarely heard pieces of music. She makes you listen to her pieces in a way you probably had never listened to them. She interpreted them more than she recited them. Take Shostakovich's "Piano Trio No. 2," for instance, to which Kostner skated in 2012. Kostner's skate made it sound harmonious, which was quite a feat for Shostakovich's music. Kostner managed to convey it through her body, from the ice to the sky.
"When Lori made me hear that music," Kostner recalled, "I did not quite understand it. I thought to myself: 'This is not music, it's noise!' Finally, I thought that it would be so much fun to choreograph it together. It was. When we were working at it, I saw little kids dancing to it spontaneously.
Figure skating is a sport where you can create something. This piece of music helped me find a new way of finding myself as a woman," she added.
There it is again: Bring out the beauty in a skater -- there was a lot to be found within Kostner, for sure!
Just like Kwan, Kostner was also impressed by Nichol's methods.
"Lori is just incredible," Kostner added. "For the choice of any musical piece, she will have 20 versions in store and will pick the best one in terms of sound, rhythm, interpretation. Before we even start to work on some specific moves to it, she starts by explaining to you the purpose of the music and what you can see in it. 'Listen to this,' she will tell me. 'When I hear it, this is what I feel and it gives me this kind of an idea.' We can spend days listening to music. Some music are fit for skating, some others are less. In this sport, you are looking for finesse and strength and energy all at once. Actually, this is what we may have achieved this season, with my two programs: One, the 'Ave Maria,' gives the best version of grace and tenderness. The other, the 'Bolero,' gives the best version of earth and sensuality."
I hope this has shown you that the things that initially made me reluctant to become a big fan of Nichol's are also the reasons why she eventually came to earn my respect as a top talent who gives endlessly to figure skating. Nichol is opening the path to all those choreographers who try to make figure skating the sport we love, with that unique blend of incredible athletic feats and creativity. May they be blessed for what they give to this world: A view of human beauty. Thank you so much, Ms. Nichol. Please keep creating -- for the best of skating and its athletes. This world needs beauty so much!
P.S. By the way, don't count on me to sell my Matterhorn top postcard, autographed by Dame Lori Nichol. I'll keep treasuring it!