Ice Network

Ward gets Chock, Bates into the hip-hop groove

Two-time world medalists turn to Dean for free dance choreography
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Madison Chock and Evan Bates turned to Rohene Ward for their short dance choreography. -Getty Images

It's late July, and Madison Chock and Evan Bates are running through the midline steps of their short dance -- again, and again, and again.

"I've experienced a lot of different styles but never came across hip hop until now," Bates said. "It just takes more repetition than anything we've done before."

"We're getting the groove," Chock said. "It's feeling better."

Hip hop hits the ice this season as one of the approved rhythms for the short dance, so the U.S. silver medalists are adding pop, pump and freeze to their movement vocabulary. And while the style may look more free-wheeling than a waltz or quickstep, it requires just as much precision.

"The beat is so distinct, so sharp, there's no room for error," the team's choreographer, Rohene Ward, said. "I'm here in Novi for a week, and we spent six hours on the ice one day just on the footwork."

That's on top of visits this spring to Ward in Colorado, which saw the duo work on the blues rhythm and endless hours on the floor.

"Everything needs to be super clean, very readable and in perfect unison to make the program pop," Bates said. "The movements -- all those 90-degree angles -- are strange to us, but we're on our way."

"We picked the music with Rohene and really like the pieces we chose," Chock said of their "Uptown Funk" and "Bad to the Bone" medley. "Rohene has definitely brought us out of our shells. I love the choreography he's done."

The trio built a casual-yet-disciplined approach to working together last season, when Ward choreographed a show program for Chock and Bates to a Beyoncé medley.

"Last summer, we showed up (in Colorado) to work with Rohene kind of unprepared," Bates said. "We were sitting in the lobby tying our skates, and just then the music guy sent us our music. We got on the ice with no real game plan, and Rohene very quickly created."

Best known for his choreography for Jason Brown, Mariah Bell and other singles skaters, Ward embraced the chance to expand his resume. He studied ice dance's myriad judging rules and drew on the knowledge of the skaters' longtime coach, Igor Shpilband.

"It's wise for me to ask questions, and Igor is incredible," Ward said. "Choreographing for couples is a lot of fun. Two arms, great; four arms, even better."

He thinks people will be "blown away" by Chock and Bates this season.

"They haven't had a lot of experience moving (to hip hop), but they move just as well this way as they do classically," he said. "I think they are better at the avant-garde. Their free dance is insane -- I was floored when I saw it. I thought, 'This is what they need to separate themselves from everybody else.'"

For the free dance, Chock and Bates turned to Christopher Dean, the 1984 Olympic ice dance champion (with Jayne Torvill) renowned for his inventive -- and demanding -- choreography.

"Igor suggested we collaborate with [Dean] a year ago or so, and the timing didn't work out, so we planned for it this season," Bates said. "We had Skype meetings every week in February and March, brainstorming for the music."

A Russian musician friend of Shpilband's offered a remix of Queen and David Bowie's "Under Pressure."

"He just reached out to Igor out of the blue, said he thought it would make a good skating program," Bates said. "We wanted part of it to have a different rhythm -- that's required -- so we used Igor's friends in Russia to compose a middle section."

Dean is well known for pushing skaters to their physical limits and for a work ethic that pays little attention to the clock.

"Neither one of us had met Chris before, so we were a little nervous and unsure," Bates said. "Certainly, his reputation precedes him. And he was so nice and welcoming and encouraging. He invested not just time but his own personal energy and thought into our program."

Since teaming up in the summer of 2011, Chock and Bates have worked mainly with Shpilband on choreography, choosing movie and musical theatre selections, as well as classics from Gershwin and, last season, Rachmaninoff's "Piano Concerto No. 2." This pre-Olympic season, Shpilband wanted them to explore new viewpoints.

"With Igor, he goes a lot more by feeling, " Chock said. "We'll try a bunch of different stuff and see where we're going. Chris has an idea in his head and sees what he wants to do and is very good at just executing it. And if something didn't work, he would have something else ready to go."

"In two days, we had the whole free dance mapped out, steps and everything, and then went back and polished it," Bates said. "I think we spent 20-24 hours on the ice with him, over six or seven days."

The result, both skaters think, is something special.

"From a partnering perspective, his choreography requires really good, sensitive leading from the man," Bates said. "What we've done before has been powerful, fast and open choreography. This is more nuanced."

"[The free dance] is about love and the struggle of life, and sometimes how it tears people apart or pushes them together," Chock said. "Two people going through the pressure of life."

"That kind of sounds like last year's program, but it's totally different," Bates said. "It's more intense."

The couple showed the free dance to U.S. Figure Skating officials at the Chesapeake Ice Dance Camp in late June and will perform both of their new programs at Champs Camp later this month.

Chock and Bates, who won the 2015 U.S. title as well as the 2015 world silver medal, played catch-up for much of the 2015-16 season, changing their short dance after Nebelhorn Trophy and retooling part of their free dance heading into the 2016 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, where they won silver behind Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani. They had their finest free dance of the season at the 2016 World Figure Skating Championships, where they won the bronze medal behind the Shibutanis and two-time world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France.

"Medals aside, it probably was our best year," Chock said. "We really grew from it. We learned a lot and were able to push through tough times."

This season, they're looking forward to tough competition, not only from the Shibutanis, Papadakis and Cizeron, and the rest of the packed ice dance field but from returning 2010 Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada.

"You want to be pushed, you want to be motivated," Chock said. "If the results are more predictable, you might become complacent and say, 'What's the incentive for me to really strive to be my best?'"

"It feels like the perfect time for us to come with a fresh look," Bates said. "We're skating to such different music than people are used to from us. Everything is new, the timing is great and, hopefully, it will lead to good momentum."