Ice Network

Creating the program: Marcotte applies her touch

Castelli, Tran buckle down with choreographer to bring routine to life
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Marissa Castelli and Mervin Tran's free skate is starting to take shape after the duo made the first attempt at choreographing the program. -Getty Images

This article is the second in a series that will follow U.S. pairs team Marissa Castelli and Mervin Tran as they create their competitive programs for the 2015-16 season.

Although cutting the music for Marissa Castelli and Mervin Tran's new free skate was difficult, the initial choreography went fairly smoothly. Castelli, Tran and their choreographer, Julie Marcotte, selected three tracks by Journey, with an instrumental introduction. While Marcotte and Hugo Chouinard were still trying to fit the music together in March, Marcotte took to the ice with the team and started working on the program.

"We spent a day on the ice just working on ideas of what we might want to put in the program," Castelli said. "We fooled around with what elements we wanted to put where, working on the flow. We said, 'OK, we might have to change it, but let's just start.'"

"First and foremost, I've realized that what makes a good performance is when it's skated clean," Marcotte said. "So, I try as much as possible to adapt my music to the order of the elements that they need. There's a moment where there's that crazy crescendo; I knew that had to be a throw. I had to cut the music so the crescendo happens in that moment."

Once the music was finalized, Marcotte and the two skaters were able to get to work in earnest. Marcotte decided that the program would be, appropriately, about Castelli and Tran's journey together, finding each other and then helping each other to keep going.

Castelli said that choreographing the beginning of a program always takes a whole day.

"The first minute takes the longest, because it's the part of the program where you set the mood," she said. "If you don't have a strong beginning, you're not going to pull anyone into the program. The (opening) music is kind of abstract: We start low, and as soon as we do our twist, that's when 'Don't Stop Believin' comes in."

As with filming a movie, the parts of the program aren't necessarily choreographed in order. The next day, after some more work on the opening, Marcotte skipped part of the program and moved on to the slow section.

"At the very start of the slow piece, we travel around each other," Tran said. "It's a very close and intimate part of the program, and it really showcases the connection we have on the ice together."

Tran has worked with Marcotte for many years, and they have developed an organic way of creating programs. He says that sometimes Marcotte lets things grow naturally. Other times, she choreographs a movement with pinpoint accuracy.

"Julie plays the music, and she's not choreographing right away," Tran said. "We might play with an opening pose. Then she might have a dance move and we'll try it, and it kind of grows. It will start with something small, like a pull-through, and she'll say, 'This will go well with this piece of music.'"

While Tran and Marcotte skated together, Castelli watched from the boards.

"Mervin's really creative; he'll go off and do his thing with Julie," Castelli said. "I watch Julie do it and then I can do it. If I start skating, I kind of lose myself and start doing what I would do. But I watch them, and then I can do it right away."

"Julie is choreographically free. She doesn't worry about holding back; she knows I'll just make it happen," Tran said. "We've been together for so many years, we're super comfortable together. When she asks me for something, I'm like, 'OK, where do you want me to do it, and how?'"

"Julie goes off of what you can do, and what you feel," Castelli added. "She shows us what she wants and then we do it and see how it moves. We started with one dance lift and then it turned into something completely different."

It took four days for the choreography to be done, or nearly done. Since Castelli and Tran train in Montreal, where Marcotte is based, they know they can get together easily if the choreography needs to be adjusted later on.

"We were probably doing five hours a day," Marcotte said. "But when I work with these kids that train in Montreal, even if it's not finished or perfect, they just have a bridge to cross to see me again."

"By the fourth day, third session, I lost my mind for a bit," Tran said, laughing. "There was a point where I was gone, mentally. I was just running and head-butting Marissa when I wanted something."

At the end of the four days, one section was left unfinished: a dance lift transition into a pairs spin. The team couldn't quite make it work, so Marcotte let that part stay un-choreographed for the time being.  

"She said, 'I'm not going to finish that part of the program; you're going to go practice in Boston, and then, when you come back, I'll fix it,'" Castelli said. "It's amazing how sometimes what you end with is exactly what she wanted, but you never know you're going to get there."

"Honestly, I didn't think it would work for the first month," Tran admitted. "We left this one part [out], and it was always disconnected. One day, Marissa just came into a solution. She was like, 'Why don't we try going into it this way?'"

Once the choreography was finished, there was a lot of work to do before the program was ready for elements. Castelli and Tran had to learn to do the transitions quickly enough to leave time for each jump, lift and spin, and still finish on time. The next step was to work with Sylvie Fullum, a retired dance coach known for working with Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon.

"Sylvie is the polisher," Tran said. "Julie never choreographs a program you can compete with the next month. Her philosophy is, 'If you can do this right now, clean, it's not up to your standard.' You need to grow into the program."

"We'll spend half an hour just on the skating into the twist, working on the edges, making sure it goes with the music," Castelli said. "Sometimes, when you skate something every day, you lose the magic of the program."

Castelli said that Fullum has them do small sections over and over, making them bigger and faster. Even crossovers need to be fast enough to put the team in the right place for the next element.

"She makes sure that we know every single turn we're doing, on every edge," Castelli said. "She makes sure to keep everything that Julie wanted alive. Some of the steps Julie gave us, I was like, 'I'll do it, but there's no way I'm doing a triple throw out of that.' All of a sudden, with the same exact crossovers you had, you're skating 10 times faster."

"She makes us achieve what we think is impossible," Tran added. "She's very good at tracking. She'll let us know where we need to be relative to one another, where we need to be placed. Sometimes, I'll need to be more inside or outside on a curve."

At this stage, Castelli and Tran are starting to put some elements into place in the program. Tran already has some favorite moments.

"The very last choreographic sequence is my favorite, now," he said. "It's fun for me to do, and I love it. We do side-by-side split jumps, and right from the landing, I do a butterfly. It's fun to throw myself around like that. I'm a little anxious and scared to do it in the competition!"

Next up: Castelli and Tran add elements to the program.