The Inside Edge with Sarah and Drew - July 21

Mroz, Bezic and Wester's new enterprise

Colorado Springs-based skater Brandon Mroz and girlfriend Annabel Bowlen.
Colorado Springs-based skater Brandon Mroz and girlfriend Annabel Bowlen. (courtesy of Brandon Mroz)


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By Sarah S. Brannen and Drew Meekins, special to
(07/21/2010) - Sarah S. Brannen and Drew Meekins are back with another edition of "The Inside Edge."

Brandon's story
Last season, while she was doing television commentary, Sandra Bezic mentioned that she didn't feel Brandon Mroz's music choices suited him.

"He looked uncomfortable," she told us last week.

Meanwhile, coach Tom Zakrajsek was talking to his father about Mroz.

"He said, 'You should have Sandra Bezic choreograph for Brandon,'" said Zakrajsek. "Only he pronounced it 'Bezich,' because he's Slovenian and that's how they would say it. I said, 'Ok dad,' and kind of rolled my eyes, and then I thought, 'Hey, that's not a bad idea!'

"When Tom called me I felt I owed them constructive feedback and a more detailed explanation of what I meant," Bezic said. "Tom asked me to choreograph but I couldn't for several reasons, so I offered to consult where I could."

Bezic was probably the best-known skating choreographer in the world in the early 1990s, following her spectacular re-invention of Brian Boitano which led to his 1988 Olympic gold medal. In recent years, Bezic has been primarily a television commentator, but she has mentored a few skaters and helped them with musical ideas and concepts.

"It's a luxury to step in as I can without having to actually produce steps and feel pressure to come up with the right number of turns or rotations," Bezic said. "I have the freedom to challenge the skater's thinking, present ideas that might trigger a fresh approach or add another dimension to their performance within this system. I try to remind skaters audiences want to feel something and not just count or be dazzled by technical difficulty."

We sat down with Zakrajsek and Mroz for a chat last week, and asked him how the sessions with Bezic came about.

"I got the magic golden ticket!" joked Mroz. "No, seriously, we've always talked a little, here and there, and she would give me feedback when she could. Last year she said she didn't think my programs suited me as well as they could have. So we thought it would be cool if she worked with me, to try and get more emotion out of me."

Mroz and Zakrajsek recently flew out to Toronto and spent three days working intensively with Bezic; they plan to return in the fall for more work. She suggested Leonard Bernstein's score for On the Waterfront for his long program.

Mroz said that the music is very powerful; Hugo Chouinard did the music edits. The long program is definitely a collaboration. Zakrajsek set the order of the elements, and Tom Dickson choreographed the framework and did the step sequence. Bezic consulted on movement and emotions.

"She knows my story a little bit, and what my family went through, and she's trying to incorporate what's happened in my life and use it as a strength and force in my program," said Mroz.

In 2005, Mroz's younger brother Spencer and his mother were severely injured in a car accident. Spencer was paralyzed from the waist down, and now uses a wheelchair to move around.

"Things like this don't leave you," Mroz said. "Sandra wanted to use my strength and my character in the program. She wanted to make it personal."

"The idea was simple," Bezic told us. "Rather than portray a character, I thought it might be cathartic for Brandon to draw upon his own life experiences. I encouraged him to take ownership of his work and find the courage to be as honest as possible in this journey of self-expression. The music evokes strong emotions and I heard what I perceived to be his story within it. I encouraged him to develop his own unique version with Tom Dickson."

"She stressed to Brandon that what the audience wants from him is honesty," added Zakrajsek. "She was interested in helping Brandon contribute to the scoring system in an original way, to give him something based on emotions rather than rules, that would still work within the system. The goal with this music is to try to create something that isn't the same as what everyone else is doing."

Meanwhile, Mroz has a new short program, also choreographed by Tom Dickson, to the opera Barber of Seville. It's a version for cello, Mroz's favorite instrument.

"It's still in the works," Mroz said. "The last few weeks have been kind of hectic, working on the long program. It's nice having Tom doing my short and having a say in my long, since he can oversee them throughout the year."

Leaving skating for a moment, we asked Mroz how things have been going off the ice.

"My summer has been going pretty well," he said. "Skating has been keeping me busy. I try to soak up the sun when I can. All three of my brothers, Jordan, Devin and Spencer, got to come out here, so it was kind of nice to get reacquainted because I hardly get to see them. My girlfriend is in Hawaii, which is kind of a bummer, but I'm trying to survive."

Wester designs
Lately we've noticed that ice dancer Jennifer Wester Barantsev has been designing a lot of skating costumes. Naturally, we were interested, so the three of us convened on Skype to hear more. Wester and her partner and husband Daniil Barantsev last competed in the fall of 2008, when they were on the Grand Prix; they won the Nebelhorn Trophy in 2007. Unfortunately, they had to withdraw from the 2009 U.S. Championships because Barantsev had a back injury, and they haven't competed since, although they haven't officially retired.

"I still have hope," Wester said. "Since nationals 2009 we were really trying to get back to a stage where we could compete again but things just didn't seem to go our way. Right now we're trying to make the rest of our lives somewhat stable. We're on the ice every day, we just aren't always skating with each other!"

Barantsev coaches in Simsbury, Conn., and Wester works with students on choreography and skating skills. They still perform together, and just got back from a show in China with David Liu.

We asked Wester how she started designing and sewing skating costumes.

"I made my first skating dress just after I'd started skating, when I was about twelve," she told us.

"I was really interested in costume design then -- I even told people I wanted to be a theatrical costume designer -- but with skating and life, I kind of just put it into its own little cubby and really didn't return to it until I was about 22."

Along the way, Wester told us that she skated with world bronze medalist Massimo Scali for a year in Italy, in 2000. They never reached a decision about which country to try to represent, and then Scali decided to compete for Italy with Wester's roommate at the time, Federica Faiella.

"It was sticky," Wester admitted, "But life is really a cycle and we've come back together now!

"When I was in Italy, Massimo and I never really got any competition costumes made so what we used for shows was either borrowed or something we constructed ourselves," Wester said. "I even have photos of Massimo sewing his own costume for a show back then." After Wester teamed up with -- and married -- Barantsev, they moved to Michigan in late 2007. At that point she started sewing costumes for other skaters. Soon after, Faiella ordered a costume from her, which she wore in the exhibition at the Olympics. Wester started her own company, Style & Confidence LLC.

"My concept is that the 'style' part is costuming and the 'confidence' part is motivational graphic design posters with quotes, that I'm still in the process of getting off the ground," Wester said.

So, does she have a personal design style?

"I feel like I have desire to make things that go outside of the typical skating dress," she said. "I tend to be quite eclectic so perhaps that's why my design spans different genres. I'm sure I was influenced greatly from spending time in Italy. I really think that helped free my concept of personal style."

Wester says she has done over a hundred costumes in the last three years, often for repeat clients. Sewing the costumes starts with math; Wester takes her clients' measurements and then uses a formula, depending on the stretchiness of the fabric, to come up with the pattern dimensions. She then draws the patterns on a grid.

"That's the most important step," she says. "The mathematics and the cutting. The most important part is definitely the cutting, thinking through how the item has to go together."

As well as using rhinestones, she sometimes paints the costumes, which presents another set of challenges.

"I did a dress that inspired by Ed Hardy, with old-style tattoos, so I had to hand-paint the whole thing."

The multi-faceted Wester has yet another serious interest, shooting. As in, rifles.

"I did shooting sports for a long time, and still would love to get back into that," she said. "I've taken both Massimo and Daniil to the shooting range. It's humorous because both managed not to learn to shoot in the involuntary armies of Italy and Russia, but they went to shoot with me!"

In the immediate future, Wester and Barantsev are preparing to skate in a cancer charity benefit show, "Tribute to Life," on August 14 in Newington, Connecticut, starring Olympic gold medalist Viktor Petrenko. Jennifer and Emilie Nussear hope to do a duet, and Wester, Barantsev, Nussear and Olympic bronze medalist Ruslan Goncharov may do a quartet number.

In the fall, Wester will attend Yale University, where she was one of four students accepted through the Eli Whitney program.

"It's for people who have pursued other areas in life, rather than a regular high-school path," she said.

She's not sure what she's going to study yet.

"My life pretty much revolves around business, design, and linguistics," she said, "So those are my desires but I'm really trying to keep my eyes open to any possibilities."

Until next time,
Sarah and Drew
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