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London calling: Nichol talks Kostner, Asada music

Zoueva has course plotted for dance trio; Scimeca, Knierim heading to Vancouver for choreography

Lori Nichol is giving Carolina Kostner a choice of four free skates for the Olympic season.
Lori Nichol is giving Carolina Kostner a choice of four free skates for the Olympic season. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(03/15/2013) - When Carolina Kostner placed second in the short program at the 2013 World Figure Skating Championships in London, Ontario, despite a fall, she had her high program components scores (PCS) to thank.

For four of those five scores -- including transitions, performance, choreography and interpretation -- she gave much credit to longtime choreographer Lori Nichol.

"I want to just thank her so much for all her energy and all her trying to convince me, because sometimes I'm a little like, 'No, I don't think I can do this,'" Kostner said after a practice session Tuesday. "And she says, 'Yes, you can. You will see.' She always stands behind me."

Nichol, a member of both the U.S. and Canadian figure skating halls of fame who has choreographed for Michelle Kwan, Evan Lysacek and countless others, uses a unique approach to get Kostner to interpret the music she thinks best.

"I beat her over the head with a frying pan," Nichol said. "Just kidding."

Actually, when it comes to music choices, Nichol uses a combination of gentle persuasion and persistence to help make Kostner see things her way.

"Some years ago, I wanted her to do her free skate to [Debussy's] 'Afternoon of a Faun,'" Nichol said. "It took convincing, but I had a deep-seated instinct that it was the right music for her, at the time (2010-11 season). The atmosphere and emotions were good for her."

Last season, Nichol chose Mozart's lighthearted "Concerto No. 23" for Kostner's free.

"Mozart, to me, is one of the top three greatest composers," Nichol said. "I had a vision of her doing it, especially the fast ending."

This season, Nichol turned to Ravel's "Bolero." Watching Kostner practice the program Tuesday without jumps highlighted the texture of the choreography, with intricate steps and full-body movements that built throughout the four minutes.

"Carolina is the right age (26), in terms of both physical and emotional development, for 'Bolero,'" Nichol said. "I wanted something with passion, without the tempo being too fast. So it's the progression from the sweet, delicate faun, to Mozart, to the passion and drama in the slower tempo of 'Bolero.'"

"Carolina is very sensitive to music," she continued. "She used to be a race horse. Now, she is more patient in movement; she's learned to live in the moment."

Kostner, who began working with Nichol in 2006, has had more than her share of ups and downs. After placing 10th in her worlds debut in 2003 and then winning world bronze in 2005, she faded to 12th the following season.

That was just her first turn on the seesaw. In 2008, she won world silver, as well as her second European title, but in 2009 she again placed 12th at worlds. The 2006 and 2010 Olympics were disappointments, with 9th- and 16th-place finishes, respectively.

But Kostner had a lot more left in her tank. Her European titles now total five. In 2011, she won another world bronze, and last season she finally claimed world gold.

"To be honest, I think I had already given up," she said of her world title.

Nichol uses all of that experience when choosing material for the willowy Italian, who trains in Oberstdorf, Germany.

"Carolina went through difficult times; I want programs that show her incredible journey," she said. "I respect her immensely. I'm grateful to have somebody who has given me all of these years together.

"A lot of skaters want instant gratification. We got to build strength together: form, concept, emotion. I'm honored to be part of her team for so long, and I have to say her coach, Michael Huth, is a phenomenal team player. It's an open, honest trio of people working together."

Not that it's always perfect. In her press conference after the short, the demure Kostner spoke of having to "overcome her shame" in practices to act out the more dramatic movements and facial expressions required of Nichol's choreography. At times, she balks at the difficult steps and transitions Nichol and Huth ask her to perform.

"They say, 'Try harder, try again, you can be better,'" Kostner said. "Sometimes, I hate them for that."

Still, the skater is committed to again performing her choreographer's vision in Sochi next season, at what will almost certainly be her final Olympics. Nichol is more than ready.

"I've already chosen Carolina's music for next season, two new programs," she said. "That will put her in the driver's seat. She will have four [free skates] to choose from [for the Olympics]: the calm, gentle 'Faun;' the fun Mozart, with a twinkle in her eye; 'Bolero;' or the new emotions of the new free skate. Her choice won't be locked in, and she won't feel pressured."

Another of Nichol's clients, two-time world champion Mao Asada, who stands sixth after the short after a sparkling program to Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm," has worked with Nichol since 2005, although she has also called upon the talents of Tatiana Tarasova.

This season, Nichol choreographed Asada's short to the Gershwin standard. As with her selections for Kostner, it took some convincing.

"Mao arrived on my doorstep [in Toronto] last May. she wanted an exhibition program; she wasn't sure about a competitive program," Nichol said. "She had [selected music as] a tribute to her mother, and I listened to it."

Asada's mother, Kyoko, died of chronic liver disease at age 48 in December 2011. Asada, who was preparing to compete at the Grand Prix Final in Quebec City at the time, traveled home to Japan, but her mother passed away before she arrived.

"I'm a mother, and I told her from a mother's standpoint, 'I would not want my child to skate some sad, mournful song as a tribute. I would want her to be joyous,'" Nichol said. "I played Mary Poppins and "I Got Rhythm," and she perked up and smiled again. I haven't seen that in ages. In 2 1/2 days, we choreographed two programs, a short and an exhibition. Of course, we've polished them since.

"It was a mother's instinct, I guess."

Zoueva full of plans

Like Nichol, Marina Zoueva, coach of the two top ice dance teams in the world, has already plotted her pupils' courses next season, at least when it comes to their music.

"Yes, I have the music picked out," Zoueva said of programs for Meryl Davis and Charlie White, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, and Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani. "Some of the skaters know it, and some don't."

Asked how many selections she listened to, to help decide, Zoueva looked perplexed.

"I don't have to listen to music," she said, and then gestured to her head. "I have it all in here."

Reporter's notebook: After Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim's impressive free skate Friday, coach Dalilah Sappenfield revealed that Vancouver choreographer Mark Pillay will likely choreograph the team's free skate next season. The short program choreographer is still undecided.