Ice Network

Buttle brings 'revolutionary' style to choreography

Creator of programs for Hanyu, Farris, Nguyen fast gaining recognition
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The same ability to sync movement and music that he displayed as a skater has made Jeff Buttle a highly sought-after choreographer. -Getty Images

Icenetwork will announce its choice for 2014-15 Person of the Year sometime in May. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by icenetwork contributor Amy Rosewater.

As I sat in the stands of the Giant Center, the arena in Hershey, Pennsylvania, where Stars on Ice had arrived for its latest stop, I wondered about what lay ahead. Usually, I try to get an advance copy of the show's rundown so I have an idea of what to expect. This time, for whatever reason, I wanted to just experience it. The lights dimmed, and the first notes of the opening music started to play.

And I began to groan.

I recognized George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" in nanoseconds. It's beautiful music, for sure, but it's also one of the most overplayed pieces in skating.

Slumped in my seat, I decided to pick myself up and watch.

I'm glad I did.

The approximately seven-minute program connected the likes of Patrick Chan with Meryl Davis and Charlie White and Evan Lysacek, and highlighted each of the skater's individual nuances beautifully. There were interesting movements, pairings and lifts, and by the time the music ended, I had to admit that I was riveted.

Jeff Buttle, who choreographed the routine, as well as other group numbers in the show, didn't quite have me at hello, but when it was time for goodbye, I was sold.

"Sometimes you think there are only a finite amount of things you can do on the ice, but I found from working with Jeff that there is much more than that finite amount," Joshua Farris said of the the 2008 world champion, who choreographed the U.S. bronze medalist's very well-received short program this past season and will also craft his free skate for the upcoming season. "Jeff is simply doing things that are revolutionary."

It is because of this "revolutionary" style that I have selected Buttle as my Person of the Year.

Buttle worked with reigning Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu on a Chopin short program, young Canadian Nam Nguyen on his short program to "Sinnerman" and Farris on his Ed Sheeran "Give Me Love" short program, among others. Buttle also assisted another fantastic choreographic mind, David Wilson, with Javier Fernández' routines.

This coming season, Buttle will help Farris and Adam Rippon with their free skates and also plans to collaborate with Michal Březina and several skaters from Japan, including assisting world silver medalist Satoko Miyahara with her exhibition routine.

Choreographers have the challenge of working with various skaters and a variety of styles. It takes a great choreographer to be able to select precise movements and just the right music for each individual performer -- all while having to keep the complicated scoring system in mind.

What I liked about Buttle's work this season is that he was able to highlight each of the skater's talents and wasn't afraid to test the waters with lyrics. Take, for instance, Nguyen's short program. "Sinnerman" was actually a piece of music Buttle wanted to compete to himself, but because of the lyrics, it was difficult to edit for competition.

"It just has this youthful energy that I thought would work well with Nam," Buttle said. "[He and his coaches] were reluctant because of the lyrics, but I just thought it was a great piece. I didn't pressure them, but I knew it could work. Being the first year with lyrics (in competitive skating), I knew I had to be really strategic about using them."

Like most choreographers, Buttle has a huge playlist ("well over 10,000 songs"), and he is constantly scrolling through his music library for work. He will also explore iTunes.

"I will listen to one piece (on iTunes) and then I will get a recommendation -- 'If you like this piece of music, you might like this' -- and then I hear that piece, and pretty soon I hear something totally different," Buttle said.

Working with Hanyu was a completely different experience, as the challenge was to help the skater in his post-Olympic gold season.

"He approached me about skating to Chopin," Buttle said. "I went through Chopin's musical catalog and ultimately found ["Ballade No.1"]. It's not an unknown piece, but when I listened to it, I thought it almost comes in waves. I thought about [Hanyu] and how after the Olympics he was pulled in every direction, and I think the music was reflective of how he was so busy off the ice, but when he was on the ice, this was his place. It was very peaceful and mature."

Then there is Fernández, the enthusiastic and personable newly crowned world champion. Although Buttle was not his main choreographer, he loved working with the Spanish skater.

"He is just like 100 percent positivity," Buttle said. "And he definitely moves differently. Once he gets comfortable with the steps, he is so fun to watch."

Being based in Toronto, Buttle frequently visits the nearby Cricket, Skating and Curling Club where Orser coaches Hanyu, Fernández and Nguyen. Farris and Rippon said they plan to travel to Toronto this summer to work with Buttle.

When Buttle created Farris' short program last season, the process of coming up with the right music was pretty simple.

"I guess it was kind of fate," Farris said. "I had wanted to skate to Ed Sheeran, but I couldn't make it work. Then Jeff sent me about 3-5 songs to check and one of them was 'Give Me Love.' I think I responded back in about five minutes. If you don't know me well, then you wouldn't know that I'm not quick to communicate, so this was very fast for me."

Rippon, who once trained in Toronto and crossed paths with Buttle there, said he has always wanted to work with Buttle.

"He is brilliant and just blends the beauty of skating and the beauty of dance so effortlessly," Rippon said. "What he is doing is innovative and fresh."

It's the ultimate compliment for a choreographer when one of his clients' rivals sits up and takes notice of his work.

"I really liked Josh's program, and when I watched it, I said to myself, 'Oh my, the level of complexity and the little nuances make it so fun to watch this program," Rippon said. "Then I looked and saw that Jeff did them and thought, 'Yep, that makes sense.'"

Buttle was in Los Angeles when he and Jef Billings, the director and designer for Stars on Ice, started playing around with ideas for the tour's opening number. They watched openings of big award shows, like the Tony's, for ideas but couldn't come up with the right concept.

Then, almost as a joke, Billings played "Rhapsody in Blue."

"At first I thought, 'Oh God, not 'Rhapsody in Blue,'" Buttle said. "But then I thought that it really fit the bill. As a skater, I had always tried to avoid anything popular, but this really worked because the crescendos were wonderful and great for highlighting what the skaters were known for. I wondered about it. I thought, 'I don't know if people are going to like this or not.' But then, when I finished the choreography, I had a feeling it was going to be something special."

Although Gershwin's classic composition worked perfectly for this year's show, I gave Buttle a friendly warning for next year: "Please not Carmen," I said with a laugh. "Well, maybe you could do Carmen…with lyrics."

"Now that's a challenge," Buttle replied.

One that Buttle surely is up for.