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Memoirs of the Shibutanis: A matured 'Geisha'

Duo enlists Tachibana to bring out film's narrative elements on ice

The Shibutanis worked with Miyako Tachibana (right), the Japanese dance consultant for <i>Memoirs of a Geisha</i>.
The Shibutanis worked with Miyako Tachibana (right), the Japanese dance consultant for Memoirs of a Geisha. (courtesy of Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(09/04/2012) - When Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani performed a free dance to Memoirs of a Geisha as novice ice dancers, many considered it a breakout performance.

Now, at the ages of 18 and 21, they return to John Williams' 2005 film score with the desire to create a program that incorporates the beauty and intricacy of Japanese dance with their development as athletes and performers.

"Maia and Alex's new free dance is very mature, and the music is very sophisticated," said Marina Zoueva, who coaches the Shibutanis in Canton, Mich. "It is a drama, and they can use it to really show all of their abilities.

"We are working a lot on bringing their feelings out and exploring and sharing those feelings with the judges and audience."

Lighthearted "ShibSibs Production" video spoofs, including one filmed at Champs Camp (Aug. 21-26) showing off some tricky basketball shooting skills, are YouTube sensations among many skating fans. Memoirs of a Geisha, however, emphasizes a different side of the team and departs radically from last season's free to Glenn Miller hits.

"We always want to continue to improve and grow, not just year to year but throughout the season as well," Alex said. "Our new programs are completely different from last year's. The free dance, especially, is a meaningful step up in terms of maturity of presentation."

Memoirs of a Geisha, based on the book by Arthur Golden, centers on a universal theme: how a single act of kindness can inspire and change a life. The main character, Sayuri, experiences much hardship, and one day, by chance, she meets a wise and noble man (the "Chairman") who shows her kindness. His simple gesture is so meaningful that it fuels her conviction that she can aspire to become something special, an admired and successful geisha.

"As we developed our choreography, costuming and overall presentation of this program, it was important that the definition of the term 'geisha' be properly understood," Maia said. "To quote Sayuri's mentor, Mameha, from the book: 'The very word "geisha" means artist -- and to be a geisha is to be judged a moving work of art.'"

The skaters and Zoueva enlisted Miyako Tachibana, an esteemed practitioner and teacher of traditional Japanese dance -- and the associate choreographer and principal Japanese dance consultant for the film -- to help them refine their portrayals.

"We want to understand and, wherever possible, incorporate movements and gestures from traditional Japanese dance into our choreography," Alex said. "It can be the tilt of a head, the direction of a gaze, the angle of an arm or a hand."

The skaters initially worked with Tachibana following the 2012 World Figure Skating Championships. She also visited Canton before Champs Camp.

"From what I have observed, ice dancing is very dramatic; the emotion is very big and intense," Tachibana said. "In general, Japanese dance has a more subtle kind of movement and nuance. We want to make that understandable and palatable in this program so many people can appreciate it.

"The geisha are very strong women, but they never overtly show their strength. Their mannerisms are more delicate and shy. I concentrated not so much on the spins or twizzles, things like that, but from the torso up."

The pivotal storytelling comes at the beginning, when Maia, as Sayuri, experiences a moment of awakening: She can change her life, if she becomes a geisha.

"There is a moment at the very start when Maia's body is bending kind of like a ship's curve," Tachibana said. "When it is done on stage, it is called an 'ebi sori' and the head almost reaches the ground. It is part of the ceremony to become a geisha. It's a big moment in her life, and we tried to incorporate that move because it's very beautiful, and it can be tweaked so that it is still Japanese, but fits the program."

The skaters are scheduled to debut the free dance at the Rostelecom Cup, held in Moscow from Nov. 9-11. Tachibana hopes to work with them to add more nuance as the season progresses.

"It is such an honor to be partnering with Miyako," Maia said. "We're fortunate she is such a collaborative artist, understanding our need to balance rules and finding the best ways to integrate authentic elements into the program."

To help with this season's featured pattern dance portion of short dance, the Yankee Polka, Zoueva sought out as a consultant Maurizio Margaglio, Italy's 2001 world champion (with Barbara Fusar-Poli) and now an ISU technical specialist and national ice dance coach of Finland.

"As far as the short dance goes, we are really enjoying it," Alex said. "We have not competed the Yankee Polka before, but we're having a lot of fun and working very hard on it with Maurizio and Oleg Epstein.

"The dance is very fast, and you have to be very accurate. I think the Polka will be very strong for us because it requires a lot of quickness, lightness and unison. Maurizio is a great source of guidance and insight, not just with the Polka, but with technical issues overall."

The Shibutanis -- who earned world bronze in 2011 in Moscow on their first trip to the senior world championships -- placed eighth in the world last season, and both think the experience is part of the maturation process.

"We're still young and growing and always seeking to raise the bar technically," Alex said. "We had some injuries that came up in February and March that unfortunately hampered our ability to train all out and in the way we would have hoped to."

"While this past worlds was disappointing for us, we still feel like, overall, we had a very strong season," Maia said. "We once again medaled at both of our Grand Prix events and won our first Grand Prix title (NHK Trophy). We were also very proud to qualify for the [Grand Prix] Final last year, after having been alternates the season before."

Zoueva is confident the young team will be in the hunt for podium finishes this season.

"Last season, they could not always train properly; Alex had an injury to his back," she said. "This year, so far, so good. Of course, they had a problem with the twizzles [at the 2012 World Championships] in the free dance, and twizzles are worth a lot of points, so it is not such a surprise they finished where they did. This season, we know what we have to do, what we have to improve."

After the Rostelecom Cup, the Shibutanis will make a return trip to the NHK Trophy, in Sendai, Japan, Nov. 23-25.

"We're thrilled with our events," Maia said. "We always love skating in Japan, and being in Moscow again will be so exciting. We definitely have a lot of great memories."