Catching up with Stéphane Lambiel

December 4, 2018
By Reut Golinsky
Photo © Reut Golinsky

He lives his life at 200 km/h speed. Every time we meet there is so much to catch up on - new students, new choreographies, new ideas, new projects, new dreams. And it's always too many questions and too little time. In Grenoble, on the day of the official practices, Stéphane found a few minutes for our talk. Half an hour later, when he already really needed to go, we still hadn't covered two thirds of the topics I planned, among them his own skating or the students who he came with for this event.
Nevertheless, the interview we managed to conduct was, like always with him, very interesting and detailed. We discussed one of his students, Koshiro Shimada, whom he will be bringing to Vancouver this weekend, some of the choreographies he did this season, and more.

Let's start from your choreographies, you did so many for this season. Who should we start with? Mikhail Kolyada? Gabi and Guillaume?

Misha came to Champéry in June, and Stanislava (Konstantinova) also came. I did his short program and I worked on his free as well. And with Stanislava we worked on both programs. She kept her "Anna Karenina" (her free skate of this and previous seasons - ed) and she wanted to adjust it, so we changed a bit the choreo sequence. We also worked on her short, which has this Spanish mood, very beautiful. I really enjoyed working with her, she has a lot of fire inside, and it was good to bring that fire to the program.
For Misha I suggested "Muse" for the short ("I Belong to You - Mon Coeur s'ouvre a ta voix"), because he has this rebellious spirit that I wanted to show but at the same time he is a very structured person. So I wanted to have a program which shows that he can be a rock skater but at the same time quite exact with his edges and his movement, and we agreed on that [direction]. We both were very pleased with the work. Unfortunately, I haven't seen him yet skating this program live.

With Gabi and Guillaume we worked in July, in Toronto. They asked me when I could be available and we organized it this way. It was the beginning of the work, so what we did mostly was creating new moves, putting new movements in their vocabulary, opening their horizons. Turns are turns, in figure skating you can't reinvent turns, but you can find ways to change the style of turns, so we were trying to develop that. Of course, for them finishing one Olympic cycle and going to a new one, they need more vocabulary to keep up during the whole cycle. And I think it's very brave and very interesting for them to work with Christopher Dean or with me. And we really were trying to feed their curiosity with new styles.

"We" as in you and someone else? Or three of you?

Three of us together. I mean it's always nice to work with a couple, because you have the woman's side and the man's side and you can really understand how things you bring are reflected in their connection. I bring something, then one will do it one way, the other one will do the other way, and then they will combine that to do as a couple. It's really interesting, something we don't have in singles, because you don't have to match someone, you just have to do it yourself. That's something I really enjoy...

The music by Rachael Yamagata was your choice?

No, it was their choice. I recommended a few of things, their coaches recommended a few of things, they had their own suggestions, the two choices that they had in the end were one from their coaches and one theirs, and they went for their choice. I actually think it's really good to be personal in your choice. It's always the best, when you pick the music based on your own feeling.

Another competitive program I wanted to ask you about... Is it true that you choreographed the "Y.M.C.A" program that Nobunari Oda skated at Japan Open?

Yes! We did that! And I was really happy with his performance. I was really happy about the attitude he had going on the ice, he wanted to share his passion for skating, and in this program you can really see that. He just let go and enjoyed it. While we were working on it, I could already see that he will enjoy doing it. He chose the music, he cut it. And the last thing I told him once we finished was: "Just have fun with this program, because that's your choice, that's your program."
I've been working with Nobunari for three years now, it's always fun to work with him. He is from my generation. And it's nice to see that he still wants to improve, wants to skate and keep up his shape.

Was it a one time thing? Will he skate it again?

I don't know if he will skate it again, but I hope so, because it's a great program.

Tell me more about Satoko's "Cirque du Soleil" exhibition.

She has grown up a lot this last year. Being injured the previous summer she had to really fight, physically and mentally, to go to the Olympics. And I think that was a very nourishing period for her, life experience wise and athletic wise, I can feel that she worked a lot on her personal content so that once she is on the ice, she can show more mature Satoko.
At "Fantasy on Ice", during each break we were listening to various songs I was showing her. It's funny, even though she is a bit shy person, you can always feel if she actually wants to skate to something. And it's really good that it's not just me suggesting, that if I suggest something she will only agree if she decided to skate to it, she won't approve something that she won't want to do. I could see from her reaction what has an effect on her and what doesn't. And once I showed her that piece, I could see that it will be a challenge, but I could feel her determination, and that's why we picked that.

It's quite a different image for her...

Yes, kind of a fairy that transforms into this sexy playful lady. She told me that she wanted something lyrical but at the same time more spicy. That's why I came up with this idea of transformation from a lyrical beautiful aesthetic character to something more edgy, sharp... She is a very quick and edgy person, with a lot of determination, and so I wanted to show that she is great with aesthetics and slow movements, but as soon as she brings the fire, it's becomes even more spicy than what we expect from her.
She came [to Switzerland] in August and we worked again on this routine, and it was great to see how she digested the movements, made them more personal. As a choreographer it's always nice to see how from the short period when you work with someone until they perform it, they have absorbed it, have developed it into something more of their own. And Satoko is one of those skaters you can trust that until she will perform it, she will really put her heart into that character.

Any other choreographies you want to discuss? For your students maybe? Koshiro Shimada got both his programs from you, if I'm not mistaken he is your only student for whom you choreographed both programs this season.

Basically, the reason why I made both of his programs was because once he was not able to go to Nationals the previous season, we had to come up with a plan for the rest of the season. Because in Japan if you don't compete at Nationals, your season is done.
I felt that he was still struggling because of his injury, and it was also a big disappointment for him not to be able to compete. So I asked him if he would agree to start preparing earlier for the next season.

How was his injury back then?

The whole previous season was a big struggle. Physically he was getting much better, but the fear of getting injured was still there. You need to change the balance between fear and determination, if the fear is even one percent higher than determination, it is overpowering and you're holding back. And that was what was happening to him. He was on the way to be healthy, but the fear was still present. We finished choreography towards the end of February, in March he was still struggling and then in April Ghislain (Briand, one of the coaches in Toronto Cricket Club team - ed) came, and from that point I could feel that the fear is getting less and less, and the determination is higher and higher. From April on I could really feel that Koshiro was back.

Did you expect him to qualify for junior Grand Prix Final?

From April until he went to Linz (Koshiro's first Grand Prix event of the season - ed), I saw his big blooming. I didn't expect him to qualify, but I really expected him to blossom, because I could see the flower opening. Before there was nothing and then suddenly something has appeared. Before it was weak - some ingredients were missing or the fear was too strong - and now he had a content to bloom with. It feels great when this happens [to your student].

If we started talking about your students, what is going on in the Skating School now?

I have my students, I'm coaching, I'm skating, I'm going to competitions... That's what's going on.

There was an article in Swiss magazine just recently, they mentioned you have now ten students. Since the beginning of this season you also have Luke Digby and Matilda Algotsson. Who else?

Also my Swiss students. I had Noah and Noémie (Bodenstein), but they left. I have Céline Sonzogni, Fabienne Dirbach, Oxana Vouillamoz, Anne Guan... Some of them are our girls, for example, Anne grew from our group. Some, like Oxana, have two training bases. And then we also have a "Learn to skate" group. Ten was an approximate number, but it's actually more. We have three groups now - A, B, C - every day. And "Learn to skate" twice a week.

What happened to Noah and Noémie? Are they in Toronto now?

One week before Volvo Cup in Riga their mom just decided that they will move to someone else. She told me that they will move back to Peter (Grütter), but I have no idea, I don't know where they are... They were my first students, I taught Noah since he was eight... I feel a bit nostalgic, of course, to not having them on the ice and to not be working with them, but that's life...

You know, since Lausanne won Youth Olympic Games bid for 2020 I always imagined Noah competing at home Youth Olympics with you at the boards...

He will be there with someone else...
I just wish them all the best. I did my part and they did theirs when we were together, and now... I'm not holding anyone. I'm just hoping that they grow as much as they can.

You mentioned earlier Satoko coming to Champéry in August, it was actually Mie Hamada's whole group. And you had many other groups visiting this summer as well.

Yes, there was an Italian group from Turin, a group from Sweden. Misha and Stanislava came together, once you have two skaters it's a group already. A big Korean group who came... that was in... I don't remember... in April maybe? Or in May? Or in June... Somewhere in spring. We did a lot, we did eight camps from April until August. Or maybe even more? And then Satoko's coach, Mie, came, and Ghislain came for a couple of camps. And it's always good to have people coming. At the moment I'm also helping Emmi Peltonen from Finland, she was [in the Skating School] before and she is coming this Saturday.

Can you say that this is a fulfillment of your vision? Groups from all over the world coming to your school.

My vision is to be on the ice, I love to be on the ice and I love to work with kids, that's what I enjoy the most. I love to work on their technique, to help them develop, to help them face their fear - because I feel it's mostly that, as a skater you have a fear of failing. And as a coach I'm planning their training and their sessions for them to get confident enough to face those fears. And once, like I said, fear is lower than determination, you get something amazing from them. I'm enjoying that process, I'm enjoying their various personalities, you give an exercise to one person and that person will digest it very differently from the other one. I'm guiding them on that way, but I'm not the one who walks on it. They are the ones who walk and I just need to bring the light, to illuminate it for them and then it's up to them to choose the speed they want to go on that road, it's their decision.

When he is at the boards his passion is so attractive and contagious that cameramen already learned to have a separate camera on him the whole time his students perform and then show him on the split screen during replays. And it touches you, maybe because it is, like his skating, very sincere and genuine. And, like with his own skating, he gives all of himself to it.

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