Stéphane Lambiel talks new programs and
competing in ice dance

December 12, 2019
By Reut Golinsky
Photo © Ksenia Nurtdinova, Reut Golinsky

When you interview hungry Stéphane during his lunch, expect some peculiar culinary connections in your talk. For example, you might suddenly discover that creating a program is similar to kneading dough and that every program of his has... a taste. It's never boring with him and he never ceases to surprise.

Last time we talked about your choreographies and students, but didn't have time to discuss your own skating, so this time I want to start with it. In 2019 you showed five new programs, two for the "Art on Ice" and three more which you premiered in various shows in Japan: Schubert's Impromptu, Beethoven's string quartet and "I love you" with Japanese singer and songwriter Toshi.

"I love you" was just a collaboration with live music (for the "Fantasy on Ice" show). Schubert [was created] because Khatia (Buniatishvili) recorded a new album. During the off season when I had to find music for my students I was listening to a lot of musical pieces, among them Khatia's new album. This Impromptu was vibrating in me, and I decided I wanted to use it to create something new. So when we were in Austria (for the summer camp in Telfs) we choreographed that program with Salome. We actually created both, also "I love you". And for the latter we finished doing choreography off the ice, because I had to leave to Japan and we had no time. I have a video of me with Salome choreographing in the living room of our apartment that we rented. That was very funny! I really like that program, it brings a nice atmosphere. Schubert, I loved performing it...

Why past tense? You won't perform it anymore?

I will! But I don't know when and where. But I was enjoying to perform it.

Tell me a little bit about its costume.

The material is lace, mostly white lace, but we wanted to add an effect of shades of grey, green, and black, to make it slightly soft, but salty...

Salty? Like with salt? Maybe spicy?

No, salty.

Wait, you mean that this program has a taste?

Yes, soft and salty...

Does your every program has a taste?

Mhm. (laughs)

This is the first time I hear something like this from you! What is the taste of "Poeta" then?

Very fruity and... spicy. (takes time to think) Like bruschetta maybe? Something juicy and spicy.

Wow. You know that now I'd want to ask about every program you ever skated!

(laughs) Beethoven is very different...

By the way, why did you decide to choreograph yet another program to a classical piece?

Because I don't make plans. You have to understand that. Maybe for you, you count the programs by year, but I don't make a plan, it's more like I'm trusting my instincts. And when there is a possibility, an opportunity I grab it. If there is no opportunity I will wait. I don't want to force to create something if I don't have the opportunity to do it.

And if you have an opportunity, you always have an inspiration?

It's connected, opportunity and inspiration are connected. If I have an opportunity and inspiration is there, then something will grow. And if it doesn't, it doesn't... It's like a seed, you plant it into the ground, you pour water, and then sometimes it grows and sometimes it doesn't give anything.

What was the opportunity and do you feel this program "grew well"?

It totally grew! The opportunity was that Kenta (Kojiri, Japanese dancer and choreographer) was in Champéry to work with my students. And I was looking for someone to help me to train, so I told him: "You know what? Maybe we should just work on something!" I asked him what kind of music he had in mind, he showed me this Beethoven's piece, I put it at the rink and exclaimed: "Yes, yes, yes, yes!" Immediately. It was a complete revelation.
Our work was very similar to how I work with Salome actually, not the movements, but the process. We tried and tried, shaped it, mixed and smashed, like the way you knead a dough, and when it becomes a good "dough" you decide about details and then you have your final shape with everything taking its place.

What about the costume? Which frankly I don't really like...

I wanted something Japanese and something far from skating, something contemporary that has no image of a skater, no relation to figure skating at all, something that could be anyone from any world, a bit off time, off geography.
The costume is composed from clothes by a famous Japanese designer Issey Miyake who had a brand made completely from pleated fabric. My first priority in costumes is the material. Of course, also the image that I want to create, but when I choose the costume it's first of all the material. It's like when I do a program, the first priority is always the music.

But in movement, especially during spins or twizzles, it looks so weird...

For you it looks weird, but it's an effect of this material, this plissé creates an organic movement. It could be anyone, it's not a figure skating costume, it can be a person on the street... You probably have an image of a human body in your mind... but it doesn't have a shape... it's organic. And the taste is also this, organic.

Let's move to another performance you did last summer. How was it to work in "Hyoen"? (Fusion show of figure skating with Japanese culture which was based on the 11th century novel "The Tale of Genji" - ed)

It was actually quite a stressful experience, because at the same time I had selection for Koshiro (Shimada) for NHK Trophy, I had to teach at the Japanese national camp and it was a lot, a lot of details to remember [for this show]. I had to know the script and I had to know every single detail, every single angle, and every single count. There is a scene of the funeral of my "father", in which every skater had to count up to sixty eight or nine, we had to go like this: "one-two-three-four-two-two-three-four..." up to "sixty nine-two-three-four", it was crazy! And for each count there was something to do, sometimes just a small movement, like a small bow. So I was always so nervous, because the rules are pretty strict, even the way you bow, the rhythm, those details are so important. And since I am the emperor I should know all those in order to look credible.

I especially loved the parts where you skated with Yulia Lipnitskaya, you looked really good together.

It was actually nice to have her and nice to see that she has passion to skate. I really enjoyed that. When it's two single skaters skating together it always takes time to adjust. And I think at the beginning it was a little bit difficult, but later it got much better. And then, of course, with the costume it was not easy to catch and make all the positions that we wanted, especially because the heaviness of the dress made me move so much slower than how I usually move. Sometimes I was not fast enough to make a three turn, and I had to rush because I wanted to match her, but I would not have my natural speed. But it felt really good during the performance. Every time we would come off the stage, we had so much emotions from our skating together. And personality-wise it was a good combination. I would have wished to have a little bit more time maybe to make it smoother. Also, more time to perform it. It was six shows, but I would have loved to have twenty, so that we could make it better and better.

It was so nice to see her back on the ice, because she...

...retired pretty early.

You know, she once mentioned she would have loved to try her hand at ice dance. And with Daisuke moving to the ice dance... what about you and her?

Uh-uh.

I need you to elaborate, because I'm not the only one who wondered about this.

You know, ten years ago I said that if I skate with someone it would be with Jana Khokhlova. But that was ten years ago, now it's over! We were meant to be together! (smiles) But it didn't happen.

So why didn't you try after Vancouver? You retired, she stopped her partnership with Sergei Novitski...

She skated one season after that with Fedor Andreev. And I kind of feel that it was me who should have been there!

But how could she guess? You should have told her!

I told her! We were ready to do it. You see, we had the inspiration but the opportunity was not there.

Did you try to skate together?

No, we only had this fantasy, but the opportunity never showed up, so... And that's it. I would have loved to skate with her, oh my god, I looooved her.

What about now? I don't know, is she still skating?

But I'm almost 35! And the commitment that you have to do to be an ice dancer and to compete, it's not something that you can just say: "Let's try and have fun!"

Especially when you have...

...a school. And it's a big responsibility. Being a coach is a huge responsibility. I feel like I'm their father. At any level, baby ones, champion ones, on all levels you share with them the values that you have inside you and that you believe in. And that's a big responsibility to shape someone...

Unfortunately this is it, our "efficient" (c) lunch/interview is over too soon, Stéphane needs to go to work with one of his students - he had three during this competition - and we don't have time to discuss all the other million things he did and does. Two more pages of questions will need to wait for another opportunity, which hopefully - together with inspiration - will appear sometime soon.

P.S. "Carne cruda" should definitely have something to do with meat. Chili con carne would be the obvious choice. What about "La Traviata"? Will it be too banal to say that it tastes like champagne?


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