Bringing the drama: Wagner in a class of her own

Skater believes she's found 'happy medium' between being technical athlete and performer

Ashley Wagner has modeled her skating style after a couple of the sport's icons: Katarina Witt and Michelle Kwan.
Ashley Wagner has modeled her skating style after a couple of the sport's icons: Katarina Witt and Michelle Kwan. (Getty Images)


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By Jean-Christophe Berlot, special to
(11/17/2012) - At 11 a.m. Saturday morning, Ashley Wagner was practicing hard for her free program. Within a few hours, she will be on the ice again, going for the gold medal of this Trophée Eric Bompard. She, nonetheless, agreed to talk with about the theatrical approach she has chosen to take these last two years.

No lady in the skating world today is able to infuse her programs with drama the way Ashley Wagner can.

"I love to perform and captivate audiences," Wagner explained during the ladies short program press conference Friday. "Also, it's one of Mr. Nicks' top priorities."

Those two boosters have turned the up-and-coming American darling into a potential ice icon.

This is, however, not happening only by chance.

"I always like to choose pieces that tell a story," Wagner said. "Being there on the ice for four minutes, I also feel much better telling a story,"

Last year, Wagner's portrayal of Nina, the heroine of Black Swan, drew lots of attention worldwide, especially after Wagner finished third in the free program at the 2012 World Championships.

"I got very positive reactions throughout," Wagner said. "The fact that Black Swan was so well received made me realize that I could really build upon my performing abilities."

This year, Delilah has given her new openings into that same direction.

"Delilah is a kind of a femme fatale who is trying to uncover Samson's secret," Wagner explained. "A femme fatale is someone who will make a man fall in love with her, in order to betray him. She is coy, absolutely not trustworthy, even though she will eventually win his trust. As I portray Delilah, I want the audience to feel like Samson, so I want the audience not to trust me either. I can achieve that through my eyes and my skating.

"You know, instant attraction is not something anyone should trust!" she said with a smile.

Yet, of course, setting a dramatic story and portraying a special character does not mean that you have a similar personality.

"Delilah is not my personality at all!" Wagner said, laughing. "And it is so much fun to portray a character who is so different from what I am."

To get her approach better for the role she had to play, Wagner did some research.

"I drew from movies. I thought of all those movies I saw where ladies are not the good gals," Wagner said. "I try to be like one of them.

"People start to recognize me as a skater and a performer. The technical elements I skate are part of my real personality, and the audience knows this," she continued. "Also, I am very good at compartimentizing. When I am on the ice for the free skate, I am a completely different person than I am for, say, the short program."

Rather amazingly, Wagner does not work on her theatrical skills besides skating.

"No, I don't. I am lucky that it's coming very naturally to me," she said. "It's almost like acting, though."

Those who think Wagner is naturally gifted may be right. But it is absolutely impossible for anyone to claim that she has ever been a performer herself.

"You know, I studied again the short program I skated here, so many years ago, when I came here for the first time. That was my first senior Grand Prix. It was a shock to me. I have come such a long way since then."

Mr. Nicks is credited for the most part.

"My skating has developed so much since I went to California." she emphasized.

Wagner's choreographer and coach complement one another.

"My choreographer, Philip Mills, asked me to portray that femme fatale -- be a little more sultry. As for Mr. Nicks, he does not coach me on my theatricality, but he will ask me to focus on certain points where I skate solely for the audience. He will tell me, 'I need a moment right there where you'll be focusing on someone in the audience ... right there' ."

This theatrical technique has been used before by another skating great -- Katarina Witt herself, and it helped the German champion on her way to her second Olympic gold medal in her Carmen program.

"I've always loved Katarina," Wagner admitted. "She was very strong and made no apologies for that. She put everything on the table each time."

Portraying a character brings also some comfort to Wagner.

"All women I portray have been gutsy women. Neither Nina nor Delilah were soft and weak women. On the contrary, they are strong women, something I need to be also. My personality and theirs tie that way. If anything, it takes guts to be a champion."

Portraying gutsy women has helped Wagner along the way.

"When I skated at Skate America, one month ago, it was the first competition of the season, and I was just terrified. I choose those characters also because they are fearless. Delilah is fearless. She has to be always confident, and that reflected within myself. As soon as I stepped on the ice and heard that music, I had to be confident again."

Peggy Fleming, who used that same music in the second part of her Olympic program, used to say that skaters needed to take the energy from their music. Wagner seems to take hers from her role play.

Pushing drama is like pushing your guts, in a way.

"None of those women I am portraying would have given anything up," Wagner confirmed. "In the old days, I was skating to avoid losing and making mistakes. Now, I skate to win. It may sound cocky, but I am not stepping on the ice to end up second. I grew up in a family with strong-willed personalities. My parents always told me that I had to strive for the best and accept nothing less. I have to control that, instead of holding it back."

That link between drama, guts and Wagner's success may provide some indications about the next characters she will elect to portray.

"But I won't be Walt Disney's Cruella!" she joked.

Wagner's route toward drama is not only for her own development, though. It also helps promote and develop skating.

"People do appreciate the technical aspect of skating," Wagner said. "See Julia [Lipnitskaia, who is standing in first place before Saturday's free program]; she is so strong in all the elements she does. But there is also a performing aspect to skating. Audiences come for it also. When you manage to combine those two dimensions, it makes you a better skater."

"I spent a lot of time studying Michelle Kwan's programs, and the way she would interact with the audience. Michelle was so beloved from the audience. She skated to perform, not only to win. It's certainly a level I would like to reach -- both for the results and the performing success. That would be the best of both worlds."

"I wish skating had more strong individuals, some champions the audience can latch on to. In the U.S., the skating audience is dwindling now. I'd like to go back to what it was in Michelle Kwan's times. Performance is what people come to watch, beyond technique. Of course, you go for the elements, where you get the points. But the components are also so important."

"I think that I have turned into a performer now, even though I, of course, need to remain concentrated and focused on my technical elements. I have found the 'happy medium' between being a technical athlete and a performer, I think."

Showing a strong personality and feeling it inside her does not prevent Wagner from having her own questions, though.

"The biggest challenge for me now is to experience all the success I have and not let it intimidate me," she offered. "Maintaining that upward spiral of success and yet being able to mentally handle it. That is my biggest challenge."

Maybe portraying a woman like Delilah can help Wagner in that aspect, too?

"Oh, yes. Delilah was the first one to get Samson's trust and maintain it to get what she needed," she said. "And yet once she got it, she did not let herself get intimidated by it."

The "drama" dimension appears to be completely consistent in Wagner's approach: It enhances her skating, it boosts her confidence, and it makes her a better person. At the same time, it promotes skating as a whole and attracts an audience.

That approach could take her very high -- and for a long time.