Ice Network

Papadakis, Cizeron's free dance gets balletic touch

French couple hope collaboration helps bring authenticity to program
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Jeffrey Cirio, a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theater, brought his own creative vision to Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron's "Moonlight Sonata" free dance. -courtesy of IMG

Two-time world ice dance champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron have gone classical for the Olympic season, choosing Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" for their free dance music. It's the first time the team has skated to a classical composition since their breakout season in 2014-15, when they took their first world title with an elegant contemporary interpretation of a Mozart concerto.

"It really is special to dance to that music," Cizeron said on the phone last week, speaking of the Beethoven piece. "I'm very grateful to skate to it. ... It's still a challenge for us to skate to music that has been around for centuries. We really want to honor this piece and do something we can be proud of."

For a fresh take on their signature contemporary style, the team ventured out of the box and contacted American Ballet Theater principal dancer Jeffrey Cirio. Cizeron had happened across a video posted by Cirio's own contemporary dance group, Cirio Collective, last winter.

"I was watching random videos on Instagram and saw a piece of his choreography, a pas de deux, and I was really amazed by the choreography," he said. "It was really, really interesting and beautiful, so I did research and checked videos of him online, and I was like, 'Wow, this guy is amazing. I really love his work.'

"I talked to Marie[-France Dubreuil] and Gabi about him after worlds and said, 'Go check him out, I think it would be really nice to work with him,'" Cizeron continued. "They both really loved his work, so we decided to contact him."

Cirio, 26, started his professional ballet career with the Boston Ballet when he was just a teenager. His technical prowess and vibrantly expressive presence soon made him a huge favorite with Boston audiences, and he became a principal dancer in 2012. In August 2015, Cirio left Boston and joined the American Ballet Theater in New York City; last year, he was promoted to principal.

Cirio and his sister, Lia, a principal dancer at the Boston Ballet, founded Cirio Collective in 2015. The Collective performs new choreography, mostly by Cirio himself, but it has also commissioned works by other choreographers.

"Our vision is to bring dancers, choreographers and other artists together to explore and develop new works without boundaries and without fear," a statement on the group's website reads.

Cirio said that hearing from Cizeron was unexpected, to say the least.

"I didn't think any skaters would be interested in the work I do as a choreographer," Cirio wrote in an email. "Naturally, I was very interested, but I was quite honest with Guillaume and told them that I had never done anything like this before. The way it was to work was, they would work with their choreographer but leave space for me to fill."

After Dubreuil, the team's coach and choreographer, created the structure of the piece, Cirio flew to Montreal in August to spend a week working with Papadakis and Cizeron.

"He really respected the choreography, but he brought his vision," Cizeron explained. "It was a lot of sharing...it was really a rich process."

As they worked on the program together, the dancers and choreographer went back and forth from the ice to the studio. If they were working on arm details, for example, they would go off the ice -- and, incidentally, get warm.

"It gets kind of cold when you're not moving a lot!" Cizeron said.

Throughout the week, Cirio learned some of the language of ice dance.

"He's a really smart guy, he gets movement, and he was always trying to understand what we were doing and what it felt like on the ice," Cizeron said. "It's hard for someone who has never skated to understand the flow of it. He was taking the time to understand, to do things that would match with the flow that we already had.

"It's nice to have a fresh vision. He can ask you to do things an ice choreographer wouldn't do. It was very refreshing."

Although he was aware of the natural connections between skating and dance, the experience took Cirio out of his comfort zone.

"This was really experimental for me," Cirio said. "I have always worked with dancers, but I just love working with [Gabrielle and Guillaume]. I am hoping to have the opportunity again. I really believe that ice dancers can benefit from ballet and ballet classes. Line, extension and strength is absolutely imperative in both art forms, and yet it must all look natural and easy."

Cirio was delighted to find that the ice dancers were far more than just superb athletes.

"One of my biggest complaints about ballet is that there is sometimes too much emphasis put on tricks and not enough on artistry," Cirio said. "I could see this happening in ice dancing as well, so when I saw them dance, I was so happy to see that they value their artistry."

Asked to name some specific choreographic moments fans can watch for, Cizeron was hard-pressed to pick one but finally mentioned the arm movements after each set of twizzles.

"Everything that looks unusual or more contemporary, everything you've never seen on the ice comes from him, probably," Cizeron said.

Cirio admitted he was blown away by Papadakis and Cizeron's talent level, and he is thankful for all he learned from this experience with them.

He said, "I hope to be able to do more work with this couple. It really was such a joy and privilege!"