Ice Network

Creating the program: Zhou makes music selection

U.S. silver medalist chooses 'Romeo + Juliet' as vehicle for free skate
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Vincent Zhou (center) has worked tirelessly with choreographer Charlie White (left) and coach Drew Meekins to create the perfect free skate for the 2017-18 season. -courtesy of Drew Meekins

This article is the first in a series that will follow Vincent Zhou as he creates his free skate for the 2017-18 season.

Creating a new program is a long and complex process for any skater. For an athlete with a strong chance of making the Olympic team, however, the process is even more arduous, and one that begins well before the start of a season. 

When Vincent Zhou won the silver medal at the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Kansas City, he vaulted straight onto the short list of Olympic team favorites. Even before Zhou competed at -- and won gold -- at the 2017 World Junior Championships in March, his team was already thinking long and hard about what music they'd use and who they'd choose to choreograph Zhou's programs for the following season.

"The Olympic season really starts before the previous season is finished," coach Drew Meekins said. "It's that big a deal, and it requires that much planning and strategy. If you haven't started before the season ends, you could be in trouble."

Zhou trains most of the time in Colorado Springs, with Meekins managing his training and program strategy and Tom Zakrajsek overseeing his jump technique. Zhou's longtime coach, Tammy Gambill, continues to develop and guide him from California as well.

Last spring, Meekins and Gambill brainstormed with Zhou about which choreographers might be a good fit for the skater and which music would ultimately suit him best. Meekins had choreographed both of Zhou's 2016-17 programs, so he was tuned in to the type of music that would bring out the teenager's strengths.

"We were looking for contemporary music that would show off Vincent's speed and power, but also wouldn't age him," Meekins said. "We wanted to show how amazing it is that he's 16 years old and able to do four different quads. Vincent is eager to grow and he wants to improve his components so badly." 

"We needed a piece of music that was familiar," Zhou said. "In the Olympic season, there is going to be a lot of attention on figure skating. We had a few pieces of music in mind, and we spent time listening to each piece in the dance studio and conceptualizing what the choreography might look like."

Meekins had Zhou skate the same piece of choreography to different musical selections in order to gain a sense of which piece he interpreted best. The music from the 1996 film Romeo + Juliet was an early leader, although the final decision wouldn't be made until a choreographer was chosen. 

"I feel like Romeo + Juliet is a good choice for me.," Zhou said. "It's beautiful music, of course, but there are lots of places to interpret the tone and the mood changes. It's a good piece to skate to, and it's familiar and popular." 

Once last season concluded, Zhou visiting other coaches in an effort to hone his skating skills and components. He visited Michigan in early April to work with Marina Zoueva, and spent time skating with Charlie White.

Zhou and White had great chemistry from the start. 

"They're both very witty, very thoughtful, cerebral people," Meekins said. "They both bring a kind of intellectual humor to the process that was great to be around and made the work enjoyable."

The music selection process went on throughout the month of April, but everyone kept returning to Romeo + Juliet

"There's such a fine line between trying to fit in sections where you're trying to push yourself to new heights versus having to be comfortable so you have enough energy to get all the most important jumps in," White said. "There's so much good music, but at the same time, you can't find just the right piece. Ultimately, we came back to one of the original pieces that we felt would be a good fit." 

Zhou will be one of the youngest skaters on the senior circuit during the 2017-18 season. Although he may appear young to be portraying such a romantic story, Meekins pointed out that the title characters in the Shakespeare play are only 13 and 15.

"Exactly, he's too old!" White said with a chuckle. "The tradition of the piece in skating is it's more mature, but that's just one take on it. It wasn't something that I was intimidated by. Meryl [Davis] and I used music that was very popular. Maybe when we first chose the pieces, people didn't think they were right for us, but we always made it work."

Once Zhou and his team settled on music -- which came in late April -- White edited the piece into a four-and-a-half-minute program.

"It gives you such an advantage in being able to play with [the music] while you're doing choreography," White said. "The steps have to stay the way they are, but the music doesn't always match. I got to decide on the cuts with Drew and Vincent. Being able to alter the music on the fly gives you more freedom."

"I love the program," Zhou said last week. "It's so emotional, and everything flows wonderfully for me. It'll take time for that emotion to show on the surface, but I can feel great things coming!"

Part 2 of "Creating the program" will cover Zhou's choreography sessions with White and Zoueva.