Hubbell, Donohue emphasize passion over points

American ice dancers aim to draw in audience with emotion-filled programs

Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue enjoy being involved in the choreographic process.
Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue enjoy being involved in the choreographic process. (Getty Images)


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By Jean-Christophe Berlot, special to
(11/15/2012) - For the last 18 months, Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue have shown the world that they are on the verge of a great competitive career. Each of their programs has become a hit. The duo arrived in Paris with high expectations, in front of a crowd where they have "a strong fan base," as they acknowledged it.

They agreed to take some time with, just after their first official practice session at the Trophée Eric Bompard.

"We need to advise you, though: We love to talk!" Hubbell started with a big laugh. Not only do they like to talk, but the conversation proved that they liked to convey their own vision of the sport. After you finished competing in Nice, at your first worlds, you said that you would take the time to really work on your components. How did it go?

Hubbell: Our offseason was very productive. We are now better at skating together.

Donohue: More in sync!

Hubbell: We have chosen very challenging programs this year, with a very mature free dance (to a flamenco). We have had more problems technically, because we put so much energy into artistry. So what we aim for at this competition, here in Paris, is really to get all our technical levels. How did you get the idea to turn to flamenco?

Hubbell: We knew we wanted to go in that direction after worlds, but we had to convince our coaching team. What was important for us was that we would pick a program emphasizing the same quality as last year's.

Donohue: That is, a strong relationship between a man and a woman, with a passionate quality in it. It could have been flamenco; it could have been blues as well, I suppose.

Hubbell: Of course, we wanted to skate something different from what we had been skating before but still keep the same alchemy inside. Our program last year was much easier, in the way that it came much more naturally. In flamenco, everything is tense all the time, with this energy you have to have in your arms, legs, chest...

Donohue: Four minutes is very long, actually! There is a lot to think about all the time. In other kinds of programs, muscle memory can help you after you have practiced enough. In flamenco, muscle memory is not enough, because it's not natural moves.

We worked with Timo Nuñez, a flamenco dancer from California. He taught us the complexity and intricacy we needed. There are lots of subtle movements in that dance. In addition, there are four-side audiences -- not just one like in real flamenco -- so you can't just breathe through it.

Hubbell: It was a lot of fun working with him. It was his first experience on the ice, so it was like a brain-teaser for him. Flamenco is more static, whereas we need to make it dynamic. On the ice, you need to have contact with one another, which is not the case in the regular dance. It takes lots of effort to create a traditional flamenco (which is what we wanted) on the ice! Do you get involved in choreography yourselves?

Hubbell: The choreographic process was quite different in the school I used to train [in] before. In Detroit, I feel very involved in the process and I enjoy it. Pasquale [Camerlengo, who coaches the team] does with what comes naturally from you. Massimo [Scali, former world competitor who now coaches in Camerlengo's team in Detroit] did the same last year with both our programs.

Donohue: I actually am very demanding for putting my hand into choreography. It's quite important for putting our own passion into each movement we do. Also, Pasquale has so much experience. He has worked with different disciplines, different people and different styles, even out of the ice! It's nice to work with someone who has no limits. He always comes up with something different. What about the short dance?

Hubbell: Actually, I had a vision in my mind, and I was hoping that we could use it. Technically, the rhythm was that of a polka, but it was not a polka. So, given the good results we had last year, we decided not to rock the boat anymore and not take the risk. But I hope we can use the concept next year.

Donohue: Pasquale came up with the idea of Titanic. He argued that it was the 100th anniversary. The program came up really fast; the choreography was actually done in two or three days. We feel the energy beneath the music. It is really nice to have music which really tells you what to do. You seem to emphasize expression a lot.

Hubbell: Zach and I enjoy dance and theatre and the production side of the sport, not only the technical one. We are very passionate about the feeling we hope to give the audience. We do really care about that. It's not just about the points.

Donohue: We want to make sure that the people think we're honest. Sometimes, a program may look fake, when you don't involve yourself. We train a lot on this. We skate emotionally. It comes quite naturally for us. Some people would think that we need to work on it to keep that capacity, but we don't. We will look naturally at one another and have that connection. We have that chance.

Hubbell: People tend to think too much technical. We both enjoy dancing. What we want is really to bring people in, to make them feel that they are a part of the program. We want people to be on the edge of their seats.

Donohue: You can express yourself by a smile or a grin on your face. But you can also have your movement tell a story and show an emotion you want to put forward. It's something I tell myself each time I go to the ballet: Only the people in the front row will see your face, whereas turning sides, staccato, skating high or low, will create a much more visible expression.

Hubbell: This is actually the way we practice on the ice. We think to ourselves: What is the story? What are we trying to say? You can really see if someone is mad when one is skating. You do not need to think, "I need to look this or that." Your expression needs to come naturally and make a story you can relate to. Do you skate in shows?

Donohue: Not at the moment. We are too young a team to be asked, I suppose.

Hubbell (opening big, laughing eyes): But if we were asked, we would love it!

Donohue: We are both very interested in shows. We have a lot of ideas! But half of them are not possible in competitive ice dancing. You know: You can't stay apart from one another for more than that long, some lifts are not even thinkable, etc. We are both focused on the creative side of ice dancing, so we will love to skate in shows and create what we want.

Pasquale's job is my future. The more I can be on the ice pushing myself, break the mold and show different things each time, the better.

Hubbell's and Donohue's clear vision should also be perceived on the ice, and there is little doubt that the Parisian audience will buy into their programs. These two are here to stay. They already bring a lot to the ice and beyond.