Ice Network

Gilles, Poirier strive to create moments on the ice

Canadian ice dancers talk about this season's disco, tango programs
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Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier said the intellectual simplicity of disco appealed to them. -Getty Images

Canadian silver medalists Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier routinely offer some of the most original pieces in all of ice dance. They stand in fourth place before the free dance at the 2016 Trophée de France in Paris, after a wobbly twizzle in their short, but their performances are always among the audience's favorites. They talked with icenetwork about their programs this season and how they are preparing for the next Olympics.

Icenetwork: You have reached universal fame thanks to your originality. You're different; what you do is very peculiar. Where does that come from?

Paul Poirier: We enjoy doing things that challenge ourselves.

Piper Gilles: Thinking outside the box appeals to us.

Poirier: For me, the way I like to approach skating on a day-to-day basis is like a puzzle. There are so many dimensions in skating. I enjoy the work we do because we always have problems to solve and solutions to find. Like, what does this step mean? How can we make it more visible, or more liked? How can we get out of a situation where we're stuck? Skating is multi-dimensional and brings us many different situations and…problems.

Icenetwork: You mean that you are a problem solver?

Poirier: Exactly. I like thinking through things. It may be a curse, too, when the time comes to create a moment of true authenticity, that is, not a mechanical one.

Gilles: I am different from Paul: I can be on autopilot when I need to create a moment, but I can't be on autopilot for technique. I need to be focused on the basics and feel stronger. So, we are very different, just like the yin and yang sign. That makes us special, as our differences work together. That allows us to create very different material and programs.

Poirier: This quality has been a matter of learning to harness (our abilties), and how to exploit our strengths and maximize the impact of our programs.

Gilles: Absolutely. Each season is also by itself a new piece to bring to the puzzle. By next year, we need to be podium-ready. Each year, thinking outside the box leads us to challenge ourselves for the next season.

Icenetwork: That's many puzzles. Skating is a puzzle, and then the quadrennial leading to the Games is a puzzle?

Gilles (laughing): Yeah, it's a puzzle inside a puzzle! We've been working at it since Sochi, actually. Of course, our ideas have evolved with what has worked and what has not. But we prepare ourselves. We have very clever ideas for ourselves! (She smiles, radiantly.)

Poirier: Next year we want to amaze people, in whatever sense that is. We are 100 percent committed to our vision, whatever happens in the world of ice dance. The key is to put your stamp on it.

There is a lot of trial and error. You don't know what will work; you don't know what will please. There, it gets tricky: If things work right away, then it's too easy. If they don't, you're not sure they ever will. The question is, how much time can I let it go until I change them?

Gilles: Sometimes you need to declutter, when things just don't look right. You need to watch yourself in the mirror while you dance. When you find something you don't like, then take it out. That's what we've mastered this year.

Poirier: What is key in our (tango) free dance is creating a moment. It's not a program where one should say, "That part is cool" and "That one is, too." We'd like this program to create an atmosphere. That means that it shouldn't provide any distractions. We keep removing any distractive things from it.

Gilles: For us, it's a whole process of leaving in what shows the best of our skating, so that we find the best of our skating. Our goal is really to find the best vehicle for next year.

Icenetwork: Tango seems to fit you so well. You must have danced tangos many times?

Gilles: No, not at all! The last one was way back, about 10 years ago. But then we were 14 and, of course, we couldn't relate to it the same way.

Poirier: We worked off ice a lot, to make the Argentine vibe come true. Tango is such a subtle dance. So we had to take time and sit and create that moment. It gives us the opportunity to slow down and show our skating skills. 

Gilles: Disco (the team's short dance) is outward. Tango is inward. It makes it almost difficult to stand at times, as there is so much passion and intimacy between us.

Poirier: In the usual "ice dancer mode," it's like, "Look at me! Here I am!" You show off. This program is the opposite. So much has to come from the gut.

Gilles: Each time we present it, we are asked, "Did you hear the audience roar?" No, I can't see anything but Paul when I'm dancing through that program.

Poirier: It's the same for me.

Gilles: I feel I'm able to lose myself mentally. I let my body go with the movement and the feeling we're creating. There's a freedom from thinking.

Poirier: There is a point in the program when the self just dissolves. Only one thing exists: dance. Music. Us.

Icenetwork: That must be challenging for you, as you are usually so active on the ice!

Gilles: This is a milestone we've been pushing for: Creating a moment. You need to be confident with silence.

Poirier: Stillness is a challenge for us. We like to be involved and active in every sense. We chose this to appreciate stillness and to own it. As a performer, temptation is to present outward, because you're afraid of losing the people. You're always checking that they are with you.

Gilles: The key is to have absolute trust in the moment of silence, without ever breaking it. If you go out of stillness too early, then you don't trust it enough. We need to trust that now people know us enough and will want to be with us anyway, when we are creating something. We -- at least I -- feel more confident today.

Poirier: You need to take silence as bonbons. We just need to skate with our hearts, which will allow the audience to take the time to be with us.

Icenetwork: Your short dance is so exuberant in comparison. You're one of the very few top teams to have chosen disco. Why?

Poirier: Our costumes are over the top and our dancing is over the top, because that's what disco is! Intellectually, disco is simple.

Gilles: It's a lot more readable than last year's program. It was very difficult for us to switch characters in just a couple of minutes: We had to go from the Beatles, all light and fun, to a hard waltz.

Poirier: (When you look at this year's possible choices for the short dance), apart from hip hop, all other styles are from a generation before us. Disco is not a trend that lasted long, so it didn't have the time to mutate. Disco is disco. Nothing grew out of it. When doing our research, we found out that because disco was so consistent, the parameters of what we needed to create were clear.

Gilles: There are many different ways to interpret a waltz, but there are not different kinds of disco.

Icenetwork: Is it not too difficult to dance in a style that comes from such a different era than yours?

Gilles: You have to believe that you're in that decade and that you want everyone to be part of it. This makes it believable in us, and in the eyes of the judges and audience.

Poirier: Our parents grew up in the disco era. It's like a time box. You take it from the ground, you open it, and disco is there, untouched. You can reminisce, to create nostalgia. You know, I can almost feel that I have nostalgia for that period I didn't live myself.

Icenetwork: How do your personalities blend into such different programs?

Gilles: I'm genuinely easygoing…at times (she laughs, as does he). If I have a schedule and am organized that way, I'll do what I need to do and enjoy the process. Also, I can't split my energy. If I'm passionate about a project or a person, I'll be 100 percent, always. I'm like a horse -- I go straight!

Poirier (talking to his on-ice partner): I feel like you allow yourself to experience the world 100 percent!

Gilles: That's true. If I'm tired, I'm 100 percent tired. If I'm mad, I'm 100 percent mad. What I get from that is that I'm here, present, in the moment. Paul and I have known one another for so long that I trust him enough, and I give my 100 percent to him. Sometimes, even my coaches say, "Your habits are turning into Paul's," which is fine, as he has great qualities, too!

Poirier: Yeah, my sense of humor! You know, there is a stereotype in Canada. I don't know if it's true in Europe, but it's true also in Japan. It's called "dad jokes," because dads are said to always tell the worst stories.

Gilles: Well, Paul is not a father, but he's like his father! But I like humor, and (she talks to him) you have a great sense of one. We started bonding by watching funny videos. That proved a way to share things and to get to know one another. Laughing together makes skating enjoyable!