Ice Network

Creating the Program: From 'Avatar' to ABBA

Nagasu enlists Wilson's help after Zakrajsek nixes initial selection
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Mirai Nagasu and David Wilson landed on Sarah Dawn Finer's version of the ABBA song "The Winner Takes It All" for the former U.S. champion's free skate music. -Courtesy of Mirai Nagasu

Last season, icenetwork followed Marissa Castelli and Mervin Tran for months as they developed their new free skate, from the initial selection of music to competing in the fall. This summer, we'll go along with Mirai Nagasu as she creates and hones her new free skate for the 2016-17 season. 

Mirai Nagasu is only 23, but she's a veteran competitor. Over the past nine years of her senior-level career, she has worked with several different choreographers, ranging from Lori Nichol to U.S. teammate Adam Rippon.

Nagasu recently headed to Toronto to work with two choreographers on her new routines. David Wilson choreographed her new free skate at the end of June, and Jeff Buttle is working with her on her short program. Until a few days ago, she didn't know what music she would be using to for either program.

"Choosing music for this season was really hard, because I had no idea what I wanted to skate to," Nagasu said. "It has to work between both the skater and the choreographer. For the choreographer, it's difficult to create something if they don't feel a connection to the music; and as a skater, I always ask myself if I'm willing to listen to the music every single day for the rest of the year without shooting myself." 

Nagasu had thought for a while that she would skate to music from the movie Avatar, until her coach Tom Zakrajsek pulled the plug.

"Because James Horner is an amazing composer and the movie itself is quite visual, that (music) would lead as a great inspiration for a program. Unfortunately, Tom vetoed the idea right off the table with the words, 'The music is not iconic.' I was a little bit hurt, but these things happen for a reason."

Wilson had been on board with Avatar, and when Nagasu told him Zakrajsek had nixed it, he had to scramble to come up with something before she arrived in Toronto for choreography.

"I said 'OK, I will get some!'" Wilson said, laughing. "I went into my music, and lo and behold, there was this piece sitting there, like a little diamond in a pile of coal. It was this incredible version of an incredible song."

The piece Wilson found was the ABBA song "The Winner Takes It All," as performed by Sarah Dawn Finer. Wilson went to see the musical Mamma Mia! in New York several years ago, admittedly without much enthusiasm.

"I've never been a huge ABBA fan. So I'm sitting there, not expecting anything, and then when you get to that song, I was absolutely in tears," Wilson said. "It's got that effect on everyone. I'm expecting this piece to be very inspiring."

Wilson emailed the song to Nagasu the day before she left for Canada with the subject heading "To Die For." Nagasu responded just as he had hoped, saying she found the music so beautiful that it made her cry. So, despite an early detour, finding the free skate music was easy in the end.

Nagasu relates to the lyrics as much as she does to the music of the song. After winning gold at the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships and finishing fourth at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, she has faced some huge disappointments. She hasn't won a major title since 2008, and she was not placed on the Olympic team in 2014.

"It's an obvious statement, but I feel like with every person, sometimes you're not the winner and you have to keep going," Nagasu said. "It's about persevering. It's an emotional kind of performance."

"I wondered if Mirai was courageous enough for it," Wilson said, "But it was meant for her. It has to be someone like her, with her story -- to skate to something that autobiographical is hard."

The Sarah Finer version of the ABBA torch song starts a cappella and doesn't reach a full-throated cry until a couple of choruses in; it's a quieter version in general than what's usually heard, although it does build to a big finish. The song isn't quite long enough for a free skate, so Wilson had a piano interlude composed and recorded to fill it out to four minutes.

"I really relate to one part of the song in the beginning," Nagasu said. "She starts out saying, 'I don't want to talk about the things we've gone through,' and that's so relatable because sometimes it's a personal kind of thing. I feel like skating is kind of like that -- we share our performances, but the training is something that we do personally. I can really relate to it as a skater."

Some skaters listen to music constantly in search of program music; Nagasu, not so much. Although it does sometimes occur to her that a certain piece might make a good program, it's not a big part of her focus, and she's fine with that. She's also fine with a choreographer suggesting just one piece of music rather than including her in the entire selection process.

"I've had choreographers where we've sat in a room and listened to music for hours and hours," she said. "We have more choices now because vocals are allowed. Skating introduced me to lots of music I would never have listened to."

Wilson, like most choreographers, thinks about music all the time and keeps track of potential skating music.

"When you choreograph for two or three people a week, you're constantly looking for music in general," he said. "Sometimes you find great pieces, but they're not what you're looking for. So I have lists of things going back five or six years."

Nagasu and Wilson spent all of last week choreographing the program, and both are very pleased with it.

"It's a great definition of life in general, so I think everyone will be able to relate to it," Nagasu said. "Just how I related to (2015-16 short program) 'Demons' in a personal sense. I thought 'Demons' was a possible tearjerker, but this goes well beyond it if I can perform it to its potential."

"The song says it all -- the words take you through it," Wilson said. "The trials of life and not giving up. Knowing that you went for what you wanted. It's such a wonderful, wonderful song that I truly believe there's not a human on the planet that can't relate to it. I'm expecting this piece to be very inspiring."

Part 2 of this series will focus on Nagasu's choreography sessions with Wilson.