Ice Network

Kawahara crafts skating magic for 'I, Tonya'

Choreographer's personal touch adds authentic detail to film
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The work choreographer Sarah Kawahara did with actress Margot Robbie helped bring the skating scenes in 'I, Tonya' to life. -Courtesy of NEON/30 West

One thing is clear about the highly anticipated movie I, Tonya: Tonya Harding's skating routines have been meticulously recreated. That work began with the film's star, Margot Robbie, learning to skate before production began.

Tasked with coaching the Australian actress was Sarah Kawahara, who has been choreographing for the sport's elite since the early 1980s.

"One of the really important things I tried to teach [Robbie] is the feeling and look of a skater who's been skating all their life," said Kawahara, who has choreographed programs for the likes of two-time Olympic medalist Michelle Kwan and 1984 Olympic champion Scott Hamilton. "We really worked on the casual stroke, the stroke that you would use when you're just talking to your coach and you're stroking off to go try again. Also, the stroke to come on for a presentation."

Since Robbie could not literally perform Harding's routines, Kawahara utilized two skating doubles, American Heidi Munger and French competitor Anna Malkova. In order to better understand the nuances of Harding's programs, Munger and Malkova studied the skater's performances.

Kawahara was pleased with how the doubles recreated Harding's stroking, as her body language was quite specific.

"Her spins were very fast, and I was really excited to find someone who could spin really fast with excellent centering and never traveled," Kawahara said. "It was exciting for the doubles to study Tonya. From another generation, they admired her technical capabilities.

"Skating is more complex today, but the virtuosity of the strength and the rawness of plowing into a triple lutz or triple loop or flip, these two doubles were capable of doing everything," she continued. "It was a great use of their talent, and I was so happy to see it got on the screen."

The doubles did all the jumps, too -- except for the triple axel, which was digitally created.

"It was a partnership between the cameraman, skating around the double or Margot, that really helped make it magically edit together so well," Kawahara added.

To get a feel for the way Harding carried herself on the ice, Robbie spent extensive time watching skating videos. Kawahara also had to adapt some of Harding's movements so they would fit with Robbie's body.

"The overall essence, I wanted it to be as exact as possible," Kawahara said. "Margot was an excellent student and has very good visualization talent."

For the movie, Robbie learned five short routines, with the film's director, Craig Gillespie, even shooting the first minute of Harding's 1994 Olympic performance. Although Robbie had never learned 3-turns or mohawks, she was able to pull off the turns in a believable way.

"Craig Gillespie used Margot skating a lot," Kawahara said. "For an actress to learn from scratch…she took to it quite naturally. She worked very hard at it and took it very seriously. I really commend her for that."

Among Kawahara's credentials are serving as choreographer for numerous TV specials over the last two-plus decades, winning an Emmy for her work as director of the Opening Ceremony at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City and spending time with Champions on Ice in the early-to-mid 2000s. For the impressive résumé she's compiled, Kawahara was elected to the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame earlier this year, and she will be inducted into both the U.S. Figure Skating and Skate Canada halls of fame next month.

Kawahara said, "I'm truly thrilled. I'm not a champion ice skater; I was an artistic skater. I loved what I did as a performer, and I really love what I do as a choreographer and director. The whole idea that I could reach this height with these tremendous honors is, I hope, an inspiration to others."