The Inside Edge with Sarah and Drew - June 3

Talking with Buttle and Canadian junior men's champ Firus

Jeffrey Buttle (middle, right) on the ice with coach Tom Zakrajsek and students Paolo Parkinson, Max Aaron and Brandon Mroz.
Jeffrey Buttle (middle, right) on the ice with coach Tom Zakrajsek and students Paolo Parkinson, Max Aaron and Brandon Mroz. (Drew Meekins)


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By Sarah S. Brannen and Drew Meekins, special to
(06/03/2011) - We've been in Italy for a wedding, and between visiting Michaelangelo's David and touring Tuscany, we've been a bit out of touch with the skating world. We were good though, and before we left we interviewed a couple of skaters. Both are from Canada: 2008 world champion Jeffrey Buttle and 2010 Canadian junior champ Liam Firus. Andiamo!

Last fall, Tom Zakrajsek saw Buttle at Skate Canada and thought he might be a great choreographer for some of his students. He urged him to come to Colorado, and the plan resulted in Buttle flying straight to Colorado Springs at the end of the Stars on Ice tour, where he spent over a week working with Brandon Mroz, Max Aaron and Paolo Bonifacio Parkinson.

It was fascinating to watch Buttle skate through the programs he was choreographing, passionately flying down the ice side by side with his students.

"The more I give, the more I get from them," Buttle said. "If I shy away from it, then they'll shy away from it. It's important for me to show them how much energy they can put into this side of it, rather than just focusing on the jumps. I want to make it fun for them and challenge them."

Mroz's new short program will be to "Mack the Knife," and Aaron will be skating to a medley of "Assassin's Tango" and "Oblivion."

Mroz's program is very playful and has a light-footed, quick, step sequence, perfectly in time to the music, including an amazing one-foot section.

Buttle says he has a tendency to put too much choreography into a program at first, so he has to go back and clean it up.

"Especially with footwork sequences, there's so much that has to get done, that it can often look overdone," he said. We loved the program Buttle did for Jeremy Ten last year, his "A Single Man" short program.

"Not many boys would be brave enough to skate to this music, considering the content of the movie," said Buttle. "He loved it and his coach loved it."

Most of Buttle's inspiration comes from off-ice dance; he goes to the ballet as often as he can, and he's a big fan of modern ballet.

"I love their movement and the abandon they have," he mused. "Kurt Browning's wife Sonia, who is a principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada, invited us to a general rehearsal once. I was just in awe of the process that goes on in the studio. The ballet dancers don't speak until spoken to -- in the dance world the choreographer is the chief! It would be amazing to have that atmosphere on the ice."

Buttle told us that when he was young he took a lot of dance, even competing as a ballet dancer. He still takes dance classes regularly.

"I hadn't done a lot of modern, so I do that now. I even take hip-hop," he said, laughing. "It's funny taking those classes, everyone's so down and dirty and my posture is so up. It's a lot of fun and it's a good way for me to get out of my comfort zone."

We wondered if there were any pieces of music Buttle would particularly like to use in the future for some of his clients.

"There's some modern music that hasn't been explored and I'm waiting for someone who can really move, like Daisuke [Takahashi]," he said. There's a contemporary ballet called 'In the middle, somewhat elevated;' it's very strong, very aggressive. That could be a direction I'd like to explore."

Buttle said that choreography is the part of the skating process he enjoys the most. When he was still competing, he loved getting his new programs from David Wilson each May, and says he was almost disappointed when it was time to start training them.

"Part of me wanted that experience to go on for the entire year. David turned me on to that side of skating," he said. These days, of course, a choreographer has to be an expert in fine-tuning the judging system.

"It's weird -- it kind of makes our work easier because everything takes so much time that we don't have that much to work with -- but it's harder to make it creative and unique. We'd love to let the technical side suffer for the creativity. It's a really tough thing. The system is hard -- we're trying to quantify things that should really be creative, but if we just keep it creative we end up with scandals."

Buttle will be returning to Canada after he's done in Colorado, spending another three or four weeks doing choreography before he leaves for shows in Korea, China and Japan. After that, a well-earned vacation beckons.

"Woohoo!" he said, enthusiastically. We asked where he's thinking of going.

"It's the only time I can take a vacation but I'd just as soon stay at home and enjoy the weather in Toronto. I went to Thailand last year, and it rained more than fifty percent of the time. I might just rent a cottage in Canada."

From Buttle to Chan to Firus?
When Vancouver resident Liam Firus met Drew for the first time, he asked what his last name was. When Drew said "Meekins," Firus exclaimed "Meekins?? Are you related to Cam Meekins?"

"Yeah, that's my brother," said Drew.

"Dude! That's so cool! I can't believe you're related to Cam Meekins!"

Cam, who just finished high school, is a rising rap star, and Firus is a big fan. Small world.

Meanwhile, we are both big fans of Firus's excellent skating skills, great edge quality and control and soft knees. We sat down for a chat and asked him to tell us all about himself.

First off, we mentioned that he looks so much like Patrick Chan on the ice, right down to his jumps, that we actually mistook him for Chan a few times.

"A lot of people say I have knees like Patrick. It's not identical, but I take that as a compliment!" said the 18-year-old. "I'd not noticed it until this year. I admire his skating, but it's not like I go home and try and skate like him -- it just kind of happens."

Firus told us he has trained with the same coach, Lorna Bauer, in North Vancouver, British Columbia, since he started skating at the age of eight. He also trains with Rod Mackie three times a week and works with Scott Davis each year.

"I work with Scott in Calgary to skate with lots of boys, because there's only one novice boy and an intermediate (called pre-novice in Canada) at my rink."

Firus told us he's a first-year student at Capilano University in North Vancouver. He loves to ski, although he's only allowed to at the end of the skating season. He recently spent some time in Colorado, which was where we caught up with him. What brought him here?

"Just to get away from Vancouver for a while," he said.

"Mostly for motivation, and getting that triple Axel. It's fun skating with lots of boys every day. I'm working with Damon Allen, Eric Schultz, Christy Krall, Kathy Casey and Janet Champion."

Since we had talked to Buttle the day before, we asked what he thought of the great champion.

"I grew up watching Jeff, and I always admired his skating skills and flow on the ice," Firus said. "I've seen how good he is artistically, and I strive to be more artistic and put more effort into the skating side of things instead of just jump, jump, jump. He's definitely motivated me to work on my skating skills."

Firus has been working with choreographer Mark Pillay for five years, since he was an intermediate. He said that next season he'll be keeping his long program, to the Lawrence of Arabia soundtrack. He has a new short program, to a cover of "You Can't Always Get What You Want" by the Rolling Stones.

Since Firus lives in Vancouver, we asked what it was like during the 2010 Olympics.

"I watched the men's short progam," he said. "It was very motivating. I've never been in an arena where it was so loud -- it hurt my ears when Patrick went on! I went downtown almost every night -- you just walk around and meet people from everywhere, everyone's in a great mood. When we won that final game in hockey, everyone was driving around honking their horns -- everyone was united as a nation."

Arrivederci for now,
Sarah and Drew
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