Ice Network

Creating the Program: Nagasu, Wilson get to work

Skater, choreographer hit the ice to collaborate on free skate layout
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David Wilson and Mirai Nagasu enjoy a light moment during a choreography session in Toronto. -Courtesy of Mirai Nagasu

This article is the second in a series that will follow Mirai Nagasu as she creates her free skate for the 2016-17 season.

Mirai Nagasu arrived in Toronto on June 26 with nothing but the music for her 2016-17 free skate, which was selected by choreographer David Wilson. She made sure to reserve a big chunk of time for choreography: a week with Wilson and then another week with Jeff Buttle, who choreographed her short program.

(Nagasu will skate to "Nocturne in C-sharp minor" by Frédéric Chopin for her short. This series of articles, however, will focus exclusively on her free skate to ABBA's "The Winner Takes It All," as performed by Sarah Dawn Finer. The music selection process was discussed in Part 1.)

"I wanted to work with David and Jeff because I admire their work and wanted a new challenge, as simple as that," Nagasu said.

"I loved how she asked me -- I was really charmed by it," Wilson said. "I knew she was in the right place. She had wanted to work with me for a long time, and she felt like she was finally determined that that was what she needed. I told her I had particularly enjoyed watching her the last couple of years, because she has really been fighting to come back. It gets harder and harder. She's not going to disappear; I really admire that."

Nagasu's coach, Tom Zakrajsek, is often very involved with choosing the choreographers his students work with, but he was hands-off with Nagasu this year.

"[I'm] obviously supportive of Mirai's choices of both choreographers, as I have worked with them in the past," Zakrajsek said. "I was hoping David Wilson could give Mirai an iconic program that would become a signature piece for her."

Wilson and Nagasu got on the ice the morning of June 27 to start creating her new free. Unlike some choreographers, Wilson doesn't work with the music before he meets with a skater.

"I never go on the ice by myself," he said, laughing. "I'm lost by myself."

When Wilson works with a new skater before, he makes sure to spend time getting familiar with the person.

"When it's someone that I've never worked with before, I'm always a little nervous. It's like fast-track dating," he said. "You get on the ice and start playing around with things. I need to get to know them a little bit and talk to them and see where they're at, and if they have any ideas. I've watched [Mirai's] whole career from a distance, but I didn't really know her except to say hi."

Wilson says he doesn't map out the program ahead of time. He prefers to get on the ice with his clients and see where the music takes them.

"I'm an organic person," he said. "I like to do things in the magic of the moment."

Nagasu, on the other hand, felt that Wilson had some ideas before they began.

"In his mind, he has key points," she said. "Before we even started, he said, 'There's this point where I want you to pose and look at the judges. I think it will be a meaningful point in the program.'"

Nagasu spent about three hours on the ice with Wilson the first day. He doesn't usually do programs in order, and indeed that day he started working with Nagasu on the middle of the program, followed by the footwork section and a bit of the ending.

Nagasu said she went into the session with an open mind.

"I already had a mindset that I was going to be on the ice for long hours every day," she said. "I thought I was going to be really tired by the end of the day, and I was! I was exhausted, because choreography is a different kind of training on its own."

On days two and three, Wilson created most of the rest of the choreography. Nagasu said it was like putting a puzzle together, starting in the middle and then filling in the edges.

"A lot of it, he would create without the music," she said. "Then we would try to get it to fit to the music, and then we would change it to fit the music. That's how we got the beginning and the end done."

Skaters at Nagasu's level are professional learners, able to grasp and remember complex step sequences and moves very quickly. Nagasu said she doesn't nail every element immediately, however.

"I forget steps all the time," she said. "I'm a very visual learner. He'll say, 'Do a counter there,' and I know I need to do that, but I'll do a bracket. David has a funny little chuckle -- I heard it, usually when I messed up."

Days four and five were about connecting music to movement, creating "cue points" that Nagasu will need to hit at certain moments of the song. These days were also devoted to working on nuances, which can captivate the audience and, in turn, raise the components mark.

"There's one section where I have to listen to the silence and start my movement as the silence happens so that when she starts singing again, I'm already starting the move," Nagasu said. "Falling is really annoying, because we choreograph to land the jumps. When you fall, you get so behind in the music, and then there's a deduction for that as well."

The day after completing the choreography, Nagasu said that she particularly likes the opening pose.

"But I dislike it at the same time," she admitted. "It's a very cool shape, but it's hard to hold and breathe to. I'm standing with one toe in the ice and my head is back, as if in exasperation, and then I tilt my head forward. I'm not used to a lot of head rolls, and David loves them. He had to teach me a lot of different styles of head rolls. He told me at the beginning of the week that my neck was going to be sore, and it is!

"I loved the whole process," Nagasu continued. "I love how the program feels very natural. I wouldn't say it's easy to skate to, but I don't feel like I'm forcing myself into any of the jumps. I'm sure I'll feel different when I'm training the jumps; I'm sure I'll fall."

Nagasu will debut the program at Skate Detroit later this month, but it won't be in competition shape by then. It takes months to get all of the elements of a routine in place and trained. Skaters will sometimes debut a program with place holder single and double jumps.  

"It'll take her a while to really be able to do it full out with all the jumps," Wilson confirmed. "I've seen kids in the past who try to get all the triples in too fast. I'm a firm believer in running it, running it, running it, with just single jumps so you don't have to think about one thing -- it's all automatic. Then you add one jump at a time, a little here, a little there. You really have to take your time. That way, you're always putting the program first, and the jumps just get put into their little slot."

Zakrajsek left the jump layout of the program to Wilson and Nagasu.

"I could sense Mirai was ready to work from her own instincts," Zakrajsek said. "She has grown so much in the last year. I had total confidence in her decisions and process."

Wilson says he usually asks skaters and coaches "a million questions" about their jumping passes to help him know where best to place them in the choreography.

"Someone like her, she's an accomplished competitor, and a grown woman. It's about me getting to know her so I can best make use of her talent, so I can make it doable for her," Wilson said.

After Skate Detroit, Nagasu will head to Japan to skate in Mao Asada's show THE ICE. After Japan, she'll return to Colorado Springs to prepare for Champs Camp and train for the season. Nagasu has been assigned to two Grand Prix competitions, Skate Canada and the NHK Trophy.

She said, "I've never finished a program this quickly and easily. I'm very impressed."

Part 3 of "Creating the Program" will cover training the new program and adding elements.