Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier: "We want each program to push us"

March 16, 2015
By Reut Golinsky
Photo © Anna Bertoloni, Reut Golinsky

Despite their relatively short career together - third season at the international scene and fourth overall - Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier have already been through a lot, successes and failures, medals and injuries. Last season was especially hard. The duo's preparation for the Olympic season was delayed due to Paul's serious ankle injury; they were fourth at Nationals and didn't qualify for the Sochi Olympics. This season they are determined to up the ante.
We met at the Grand Prix Final in Barcelona, where they finished fifth, and had a very long talk about their teamwork, plans and goals for this Olympic cycle, creative ideas for galas, and "Frozen. Disney on Ice".
And we started with a very serious question which had interested me since the beginning of the season.

We'll start with a very important question: your hobbies listed in ISU biographies... (lots of laughter from both and screams of "Yes! Yes!") Did you write them because you thought nobody would ever check them?

Paul: No one ever asked us about our hobbies before, so that was our experiment.
Piper: We wanted to see if anybody actually checked them. We wanted to see if anyone would actually notice and talk to us about them. Every year we had the same ones [written], but why should we? So we've decided that each year we're going to play around with them.

When I was preparing for our talk their hobbies in the ISU profiles were listed as: "bird watching, soap carving, extreme ironing, kazoo playing" for Piper and "carnivorous plant horticulture, tarot cards, chinchilla grooming, bicycle polo" for Paul. Now they are: "silver polishing, floor buffing, steaming the carpet, candle making" for Piper and "blinking, sitting on chairs, drinking water, wearing socks" for Paul. Stay tuned for what will come next!

So is there a chinchilla somewhere that you're grooming?

(both laugh) Paul: None, not yet.

Or tarot cards?

Paul: You know I was talking to a judge one time and he said: "I'm so excited you love tarot cards, because I'm really interested in that!" And I said: "Oh, that's nice"... We even talked about making up some fake story lines so that they will sound very plausible, but...
Piper: ...we haven't gone that far yet. But, yeah, next year expect new ones.

Talking story lines, I was a very big fan of your blogs on the official site. What happened to them? You don't really update them now.

Paul: I think the last post was before I got injured (in May 2013). And when I got injured it was just hard to do that kind of stuff, I didn't really want to be writing. And since then I just have gotten out of the habit. That might be something we can look at...
Piper: Yeah, we haven't updated our site in a long time. So I think that might be something that we should do...
Paul: I thought about it from time to time, it's been a little bit busy with school as well; I'm graduating in the spring. Maybe after that I'll have more time to be writing things.

Before we discuss the present matters, let's start with last season. It wasn't easy for you. For you as a team it was probably the first time you were at such a low point. How, as a team, did you deal with it?

Piper: When the beginning of the year started so low we understood that we really needed to depend on each other, to look for our support group, our family, our coaches. There were a lot of people that supported us. And also finding other things to do, to distract ourselves from things we didn't want to think about. To cover them up, but then to keep pushing through, making sure that we have other things to look forward to. There are ups and downs, and curveballs are thrown at you in life and in skating, but we knew that that low wasn't the end; we had other things to keep us going, other goals. I think we learned a lot about ourselves from that experience.
Paul: In a way it was like a game. We had so many limitations on how we could train, so we really had to strategize how we could make the most out of our training.

Yes, I remember reading in one of your interviews that Piper was trying new choreography with your coach on the ice...

Piper: ...and he was sitting on the side...
Paul:...and watching.
Piper: We had to be really creative about how we trained. It was fun to do something different, not that the situation was fun, but to be able to do something new was exciting and we did a lot of off ice training, which actually we learned from for this year. It was more of a learning experience than complete disappointment.
Paul: ... and we've moved on and grown from it.

Last season ended on a high note, you were 8th at Worlds and this one is going well so far. How was your preparation this summer?

Paul: Again, I think last season really helped because we saw how effective our training could be even if it was limited, so now when we had this extra time all of a sudden and we had all the skills to really maximize it, we had a really good off season of training. The important thing for us was that we set a four year plan for the entire Olympic cycle, and then we worked backwards: if we want to be here in four years time, this is where we need to be a year before, and a year before that.

And now you're keeping up with it? Are you "on schedule" at the moment?

Piper: We wanted to make the final, and we wanted to medal at both of our Grand Prix events, so we've accomplished that. This year is more about making sure that we establish ourselves as among the top five-six in the world.
Paul: We always wanted be moving up and I think an important part of our plan is strategically choosing our programs and our themes. We want each program to push us and add stuff to our skillset. Both of our programs this year are brand new things that we haven't done before and they are teaching us a lot of different movements, different expressions. And that's what we want to do, we really want to be pushing ourselves each year and trying new things, because if you do material you're comfortable with, if you don't step out of your comfort zone, you're not going to grow.

You mentioned in one of your interviews that one goal you set for yourselves this season is to work more on your connection, especially in your free dance. And so I wondered how one can work on connection.

Piper: I think it's just focusing a lot on "in between" skating and extra things we can do. The first couple of years we just skated side by side, because we were still new and fresh...
Paul: ...and now that we're comfortable working together we have more time to think about those extra things.
Piper: We also have worked with some acting coaches this summer and our ballroom coach comes in and teaches us once a week. We definitely make more eye contact, and create more of a story line. And I think that's what we need to do every year - to create a story line and make it believable.
Paul: I think it just comes with being comfortable together, because we gel better and we're not struggling, we work together very naturally and I have time to think more about my character. So, part of it is just having the mileage with each other and the other part is giving a lot more thought to what each movement means and what each part is. Sometimes you have an arm movement, and it's a really nice arm movement but if you really invest in it, it makes it much more believable.

This season you worked with Christopher Dean again and, of course, I wanted to ask you about it. But first, how many programs have you done with him over the years?

Piper: This (the short dance of this season - ed) is our third. In our first year together we did "Dreams and Imagination" (FD of season 2011/12), and we also choreographed a gala program last year but we were not able to show it untill this year. Both of us have worked with Chris before, with our previous partners, so we've had a connection with him for a long time.
When we asked him to choreograph the short dance, he hesitated, said he wasn't sure about the new rules. But we said: "It's really like an original dance. Let's just play around!" And so we got on the ice, started playing around, it was like some kind of a fun puzzle. It's rather similar to the original set pattern, just having the pasodoble, and then you need to choreograph steps. Of course, when we came home, we also worked with the coaches, developing the program and pushing it, there were things that we had to change or to make a little bit slower.
Paul: Chris is always really excited to work with us but obviously we have to make our plans with our coaches and we need to know what we want to do, what we want out of the season. And with the pasodoble and Jayne and Chris' very famous paso from 1984, it just seemed a very natural choice. So we reached out to him and I think he was really tired, because he'd just finished his tour and that's why he was a little bit hesitant at first, but as we got going he was really excited about the work. It just ended up working really well and it's a great piece and it also pushes us, in a different way from the free dance.
Piper: We are quite honored that he wanted us to skate to his original paso, we were a little skeptical at the beginning: "Should we do this? Because we are not sure we can do it justice". But I think that we've put our own twist on it.

Did you get any feedback from him recently? Did he watch your performances?

Piper: We haven't talked to him but he did wish us good luck yesterday which was actually really cool.
Paul: It's been such a whirlwind since the Grand Prix events, and we haven't had a lot of time.
Piper: He is a very busy guy; he's got another show in the UK that he's been developing. It's not "Skating with the Stars" but it's another skating show that he's working on. He is often in UK, and he's very, very busy. And so are we. So it's hard to keep in touch all the time, but usually he is pretty supportive of our programs and at the end of the season he usually says "Congratulations, it was a very successful year", and adds words of encouragement.

With those amazing skaters, when they retire you always hope that they will work with the youth and will still be visible in the sport. So I was glad to see your collaboration, but I always wondered why he isn't working with more skaters.

Paul: I think he is so busy. And a lot of people in the skating world, they have their shows, they do their things... It takes up a lot of time. And all the skaters, we're all very busy with competitions, schedules; it's very hard to coordinate lots of different schedules.

Piper, I wanted to ask you about your sister and the show "Frozen. Disney on Ice". Did you watch it?

Piper: I did! Her opening night for "Frozen" was in Detroit and we'd just finished our senior B in Barry. So right after that my Mom, my friends and I, we packed our car and drove down to Detroit. It was an amazing show! And everywhere you went there was a little Elsa or little Anna... It's insane! And everyone was singing; it was an incredible experience. And we got to go backstage and meet all the other people and see how they produce the show. You never think of how much actually goes into a show like that. All those different wigs, all those different dresses! Costume changing areas, the lights... Then to be able to take that down after they put it up and then go to another city and put it all back up again, and their schedule is crazy. But she loves it! She said that it's an experience that she's never going to forget. She is very grateful that she had an opportunity to do it.

"Frozen" is a story about sisters, and you two are sisters, is there any similarity?

Piper: You know, maybe! I guess our personalities are very goofy. I'm a little more bubbly and outgoing, so maybe I'm the Anna in our relationship and she is a little bit more stoic. I'm more curious and she is more like "you go first". So I guess our relationships are kind of similar.

If we talk about shows, galas - and you personally are always very creative with your exhibition programs - what do you think about this new arrangement that any skater, not just top placements, might have a chance to be invited to the gala after a competition?

Paul: I think the goal of the gala is to do a very entertaining show where people can perform without pressure. Some skaters enjoy that more than others, some like competing and don't like doing galas, and some just love performing for a crowd. At the end of the day the gala is a show, it's for entertainment, there are people buying tickets to watch it, so the best entertainers should be part of it. And this has given more skaters opportunities to perform and get more exposure to fans that they wouldn't get otherwise. So, yes, I think it's a really great move.

I was watching the competition here, not the ice dance, and thinking about things I wanted to ask you. And then suddenly I had this question: if you could learn and use an element from some other skating discipline, what would it be?

Piper: We've actually done the headbanger, the bounce spin.
Paul: And one of our gala numbers had an overhead lift.
Piper: And we can kind of do a death spiral or something similar to that. So we've got a little bit more of pairs' stuff. We have a lot of things to explore, but I don't think you're going to be seeing us do any throws in the future. (laughs)
Paul: And it's very hard to jump in dance blades.
Piper: I think we'll keep trying to push our limits in our lifts, so maybe you will see a pairs' entrance or something, but we haven't really thought...
Paul: There are so many things you can do...
Piper: The sky's the limit!

I guess you know that skating fans really love you. I once saw someone write about you on a skating forum, saying: "They are so much fun, I would have loved to spend a day with them." So let's just imagine that some lucky fan gets this chance to spend one day with you. What would this day look like?

Piper: That's a really difficult one! Well, we would definitely do something active, we're both active people. Paul really wanted to do this CN Tower Edge Walk, on the top of the CN Tower in Toronto.
Paul: You can walk outside of it now! And hang over the edge! You know, I've lived in Toronto my entire life and I went there for the first time two years ago.
Piper: Maybe we would take them there, yes. Because if we had a date with the fans we would take them to do something we've wanted to do together. This should be a bit scary and exciting, and they'll be able to see a little bit of our personalities, that we're human and we do get scared. We would scream and cry together!
And food... OK, so we would go to do that and then we would go to some food place, because Paul loves food.

Something specific?

Paul: Any food! I'm just passionate about food. I love grocery shopping. I can spend like four hours in the grocery store!
Piper: So let's go clothes shopping and then grocery shopping! Or we could do a show or a movie, because I am a huge movie freak. Or show, what kind of show would we do?
Paul: No, no, I have an idea! You know what we would do? We would go to one of those places where you can have costumes and you can do photo shoots.
Piper: Yes! This is what we would do!
Paul: Costumes from different eras...
Piper: And they do black and white photos, with the props and everything.
Paul: That's definitely something we would do! We can also maybe skate...

Sounds like an amazing plan! I can already see the long line of fans willing to sign up for such day with you. It was a pleasure talking to you, thank you for this interview and good luck!


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