Ice Network

Hubbell, Donohue devote themselves fully to dance

U.S. ice dancers say they enjoy being involved in choreographic process
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Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue feel their love of improvisation is what distinguishes them from lots of other teams. -Getty Images

Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue have had a painful year, after she underwent surgery on her labrum this past summer. The team is back on the ice with the elegant and dense programs that have become their trademark. They came to Bordeaux with a renewed confidence, and new ambitions. They are in third place after the short dance, four points behind the leaders, Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France, and 1.70 behind second-ranked Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier of Canada. They talked to icenetwork about how they view their sport and how they want to make their mark on it.

Icenetwork: You stand in third place here in Bordeaux, but this new season, as a whole, seems quite open. How do you see it?

Hubbell: A new quad is always interesting. It's interesting to see the build for the next four years. People were skeptical about the future of ice dancing, with so many great teams leaving the eligible ranks after the Olympics: Meryl [Davis] and Charlie [White], Tessa [Virtue] and Scott [Moir], Nath [Péchalat] and Fab [Bourzat]. They were worried that the interest in ice dancing would drop. I think it's exactly the reverse. We miss those three tremendously, but the interest is rising constantly. Each one of us out there has been going through our ups and downs, and no one can predict who will win eventually. That appeals a lot!

Icenetwork: Do you feel ready to win yourselves?

Hubbell: Oh, yes!

Donohue: We are always working in that direction: to win.

Hubbell: We've had a later start to our season, but skating well at Skate Canada really gave me the confidence I was missing last season. Our programs here will show that we've improved more than people expect.

Icenetwork: How did you live through Madison's injury, Zachary?

Donohue: It gave me a new respect for her. I did not realize how good she was at hiding how much she was suffering. By the way, I don't think I would have endured it the same way myself.

Then there was nothing I could do to help her. I couldn't lift her higher. All I could do was push her and feel bad about it. It always hurts to feel powerless. All that proved was how great a skater Madison is.

Icenetwork: What about you, Madison?

Hubbell: Last season I think I did a good job leaving my emotions out of it. I adopted the attitude of feeling this was my job and I had to do it.

It's only after surgery that I realized how different I was with my skating. A labrum injury is one of those things that gets worse and worse every day. You suffer but don't notice it. After a while, I had finally told myself that Zachary was just more powerful than I was, and that I could not push so hard. That was it.

Now, after the surgery and the rehabilitation process, I realized that I was not the tired one anymore. So I'm falling in love with my training, and with my sport again.

Icenetwork: Were you able to take advantage of that "off-ice" period to create new programs?

Hubbell: Both Zachary and I love off-ice dance.

Donohue: We love pop, modern and jazz, in particular.

Hubbell: If we were not ice dancing, we would be floor dancing. We did a lot of off-ice work and tried to be creative during that period of time, but that was quite a challenge, really.

Then we struggled to be ready for Skate Canada. We had done run-throughs for just a few weeks before. Since then, we have been skating five sessions a day. Our life is dancing; well, skating is all day, and physiotherapy is all night! (She laughs.)

Donohue: "That's true!" (He laughs as well.)

Icenetwork: How has your Great Gatsby free dance evolved since then?

Donohue: We had a very different concept at the start of this season. We chose to skate not to the Robert Redford version (from the 1974 movie) but to the Leonardo DiCaprio version of 2013. 

We wanted to skate to very modern music, like in clubs. We had to admit that the message was not getting across. It was not received well. So, along with the federation officials, we decided to change the concept in August and September. Pasquale [Camerlengo] (their coach) brought in Barbara Melica, a choreographer from Italy, to help us. We worked toward a modern hip-hop style. You may like or dislike the 2013 movie, but the atmosphere and party scenes are just incredible. The general idea we took is: "Whoa, I wish I could be part of it!" We want to bring that to the audience, have them clap and project themselves into that world.

Icenetwork: What about your short dance? Spanish music suits you so well!

Hubbell: We danced to Spanish music two seasons ago in our free dance.

Donohue: And it was underrated then -- at least in my view.

Hubbell: We loved those four minutes for the staccato dance in place and drama. But at that time, we were only in our second season as seniors, and judges were expecting more skating from us.

Donohue (laughing): It's easy to skate to Spanish music: You need to be mad, be very good with your arms, and you'll have a good skate!

(He turns serious.) No, in fact it is a very intricate dance. You need to work a lot to get the feeling and skate comfortably. We did not want to leave any details behind. Many are dancing flamenco in a tango style, because it is easier on the ice. We have kept most of the original details in our own dance. What is always difficult with Spanish dances is to keep the proper feeling and balance between being too mad and being too passionate -- which are not the same.

We want to bring skating back to the sport. Being unique should be valued, instead of politics and drama.

Icenetwork: Do you see yourself as a judge?

Donohue: I could never judge! I am extremely harsh. I'd be the one to give bad marks to everyone. (She laughs, nodding her head in agreement.) I see myself more as a coach or a choreographer, even more so as a choreographer. I actually already choreograph for singles skaters and pairs. I have learned a lot about pairs skating recently.

Hubbell: After one or two quads -- no, it won't be three (she laughs) -- we would love to perform and then go to school. I see myself working like Shae-Lynn Bourne -- she is so great!

Icenetwork: Do you get involved in the choreographic process to create your programs?

Donohue: Pasquale is kind of a genius -- please don't tell him, though! -- but he lets us be a part of the process. He has a clear picture in his mind, and then we kind of work off of one another. Each skater needs his or her own style. You don't have to be a robot.

In fact, we are actors. We're here to tell a story. Not every skater can do that. We have that very unique interest in acting within us. There are so many different ways to portray anger, or fear, or joy -- a persona. The right questions to ask are: "How would I react to that situation? How can I tell it in just one move?" You have to find it, and behind it you need to find the reason, and behind the reason to find the movement. If you lack the reason, your performance will fall flat.

Hubbell: Some people say, "If you want to mimic joy, just smile." That does not work like that. Smiling won't give you the feeling of joy throughout your body. You need to actually feel joyful if you want to transmit joy to the audience. That's why underlying stories are so important.

Donohue: Exactly. The reason should be behind each movement. I have spent my youth going to Broadway dance studios and attending lectures, and that's exactly that.

Hubbell: We feel so comfortable with improvising, that it came naturally to us. We love competing; we love the spotlight and the interaction between people. That sets us apart. We skate with the mood of the day. We feel it in the moment.

Donohue: You need to find the right balance between passion and structure. If you want to reach the top, you need both. Putting yourself into your choreography will take the interpretation of your movement to a different level.

That may be the reason why Hubbell and Donohue are so exciting to watch and follow. That also makes them one of the strong favorites in Saturday's free dance, and for the rest of the season.