The Inside Edge with Sarah and Drew - July 29

Babilonia engaged, Young Artists' Showcase, Christina Gao

Joel Dear (right) poses with Nathan Chen, who performed one of Dear's choreographed pieces.
Joel Dear (right) poses with Nathan Chen, who performed one of Dear's choreographed pieces. (courtesy of Joel Dear)


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By Sarah S. Brannen and Drew Meekins, special to
(07/29/2010) - Sarah S. Brannen and Drew Meekins bring you the inside dish from the world of figure skating.

Comedy + Ice = Romance
We got a sweet note from Tai Babilonia yesterday, telling us that she and comedian David Brenner are going to get married.

"I got engaged last week to longtime (seven years) love and brilliant funny man David Brenner. Our unpredictable journey continues," she wrote.

Babilonia told us that she and Brenner haven't set a date yet. Congratulations and best wishes to them!

Anonymous Judging
This weekend marks the finale of the Grassroots to Champions Young Artists' Showcase competition for young choreographers. We wrote about this earlier, but to remind you, coach Audrey Weisiger created the competition in honor of the brilliant choreographer Brian Wright, who died of AIDS on this date in 2003.

The live show will take place this Sunday, Aug. 1, at the National Sports Center in Blaine, Minn. Admission is free, although donations are requested.

Six choreographers under the age of 18 (the "Grassroots" group) and eight from the ages of 18 to 28 (the "Champions") have been posting their pieces online for the past two months in a series of four challenges. The Champions competitors were Courtney Baga, Adam Blake, Joel Dear, Shannon Lenihan, Kathryn McSwain, Tommy Steenberg, Elisa Seigmund, and Amber Van Wyk.

Each round was judged by a group of skating luminaries including Kurt Browning, Gary Beacom, Lea Ann Miller, Sarah Kawahara, Michael Weiss, Stephanie Grosscup, and many more.

Dear and Steenberg are the two finalists in the Champions category, and Victoria Beebout and Nanoha Sato are the finalists in the Grassroots category. Dear and Steenberg will be assigned the same piece of music to choreograph, for the same guest star, as will Beebout and Sato, for a different skater. (The identities of the guest stars are secret; Weisiger swore us to silence on pain of torture and death!) In addition, each choreographer will bring a prepared piece of their choice. Several other choreographers who participated in the competition will perform as well.

The audience and judges will watch the programs without knowing who the choreographer is for each, and the audience will have the opportunity to vote. The judges for the event are Sarah Kawahara, Doug Mattis, and Ryan Bradley.

The contest consisted of four challenges, two of which had two parts for the Champions. The challenges were:

1. Carving Space; 2a. Proper Seating, which included a prop, a chair, table, bench or stool; 2b. Stomp on It, in which all the contestants used the same piece of percussive music; 3. Return to the Classics: the contestants chose from a short list of classical, balletic pieces; 4a. Fosse Fosse Fosse; 4b. Inspiring the Next Generation; the piece had to be choreographed for and skated by a young skater, no more than 11 years old.

"It was a really amazing experience, both creatively and, honestly, for networking," McSwain said. "Audrey did a great job of putting people in connection with each other. Artistically it was a really great learning process. I never thought I could put work out that fast. I've always wanted to be a choreographer, but I've never put it to the test. And now I know I can do this."

McSwain and many other competitors had to fit the six challenges into a very busy schedule. McSwain is appearing at Cedar Point Amusement Park in Ohio, performing three times a day, four times on Saturday. Blake is on tour in Australia. Dear performs in shows in Sun Valley every weekend. Other skaters had unique challenges: Grassroots competitor Ilana Sedaka's house was hit by a tornado in June!

All the pieces and the judges' reviews may be seen on the G2CYAS channel on Youtube.

The Finalists
We called Dear and Steenberg to hear their thoughts on this novel competition.

"It was a really interesting process, unlike anything I've ever done before," Dear told us. "It's the first time I can remember a competition based around the choreographers. It was amazing that it was the choreographers' names on the pieces, no matter who was skating it."

We mentioned that we had particularly enjoyed Dear's piece for Nathan Chen, in which Chen's red-gloved hand imitates a spider.

"Nathan was such a privilege to work with," Dear said. "He's one of the most impressive young people I've ever met. He thinks like an adult and it's fascinating to watch his thought process as he sifts through things."

Dear told us that the idea for one of the pieces he'll present this weekend came to him in a flash.

"I had been stressing over it, trying to come up with a concept," he said. "I was driving back from the airport last night and I got the inspiration in a matter of fifteen seconds. I drove straight to the rink, put my skates on and I was done with the piece in an hour and a half. Part of the battle is just listening to yourself and being ready when inspiration strikes."

We asked Steenberg his impressions of the competition.

"I really enjoyed it," said Steenberg. "Each challenge was something new; some were definitely harder than others! I wanted to show off my versatility. For instance, my 'props' piece versus the ballet one -- I loved them both, but they were so different."

Steenberg told us that for his "Proper Seating" challenge, he used a table, which created some problems of its own. He and skater Ashley Brickman went to the rink at 1:00 a.m. to record the video, alone except for two workers, but when they started, Brickman sat on the table and it collapsed under her.

"She screamed, and we were like, 'What now?' One of the workers helped us put it back together quickly. She was pretty freaked out though."

We told Steenberg that we really liked his first challenge piece and asked him about it.

"It's to 'Tropicana' by Ratatat," he said. "I'd always wanted to skate to it, but I thought it would go over terribly in competition."

Steenberg is a freshman at George Mason University, where he is pursuing a double major in both dance and business.

We asked Weisiger how she felt the competition had gone.

"I thought it was very interesting," she said. "I was very pleased with the number of people who were watching. We got a pretty good following toward the end, and I hope this is going to spark more interest in the future. It was been incredible for me to watch the young choreographers create their pieces and to learn more about their skating and their lives. To have them produce the kind of work they were able to produce is remarkable."

The winner of the competition will have an opportunity to have their work shown at Rockefeller Center in New York, as well as the chance to attend the creation of work by master choreographers Douglas Webster and Cindy Stuart. They will also win a scholarship to aid in the development of their career.

We haven't seen every single one of the 78 videos posted online, but we've watched as many as we could. Some of the programs are truly memorable and deserve to be seen and talked about. We hope they'll turn up in lots of shows in the immediate future.

We'll remember, and re-watch, Steenberg's "Carving Space" and "Stomp On It" programs; Dear's Fosse program with Kim Navarro and Ashley Clark, and his adorable "Nathan and the Spider" program for Nathan Chen; Adam Blake's Fosse duet and Kathryn McSwain's Lady Gaga "Proper Seating" program and her breathtaking "Giselle," danced without flaw by Jeremy Abbott. We also loved Shannon Leigh Lenihan's program for Grassroots competitor Ilana Sedaka, choreographed for the last challenge.

Miss Gao
Whenever we talk to Adam Rippon he mentions that he's been hanging out with his young friend and training mate Christina Gao. We greatly admire Gao's skating, but neither of us has ever met her; we gave her a call the other day to hear about life in Toronto.

"I've been here a year now," Gao said. "I like Toronto better than Cinncinnati, where I used to live in the suburbs. I like cities better. There's a bunch of cool little shops within walking distance. Everybody is pretty close at the rink. Everyone's really nice."

Rippon had mentioned that due to the summer schedule at the Toronto Cricket Club, he and Gao train very late in the day, into the late evening.

"Our schedule starts really late in the summer. We don't start skating until two in the afternoon," she said. "During the winter we skate at 8:45 in the morning! At first it was hard, skating at night, but now it's fun. I'm definitely not a morning person. It's pretty much just Adam and me and maybe a couple other people, so it's nice."

Gao is looking forward to competing on the Junior Grand Prix circuit this fall.

"I like traveling," she said. "I really want to go to China. And the final is in Beijing this year, so hopefully I can do that. I have grandparents in Beijing, my mother's parents. I can speak Chinese and understand it, but I'm not good at reading or writing it."

Apart from skating, Gao told us she wants a puppy, but she's afraid she wouldn't be able to take care of it, since she has to travel often.

"I told Adam we could have a deal, when I'm at competitions he can take care of it for me. But he was like, 'No.'"

And with that, she and Rippon were off to the beach. Which sounds perfect to us too.

Sarah and Drew
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