Deniss Vasiljevs: "It is always about
what I can connect with"

April 18, 2024
By Reut Golinsky
Photo © Reut Golinsky

We caught up with Deniss Vasiljevs during the Worlds in Montreal, discussed his ambitions, programs and program changes, costumes and costume violations, and his plans for the coming summer "to be a normal guy." As always, our conversation was deep, interesting, and highly philosophical.

I love your "Hallelujah" short program, it always brings tears to my eyes, even when I see it during practices. And it was such a great skate here.

The reason I can connect with it is because it's quite sincere. I really feel a lot when I skate it, especially when I manage to let go. And during the short program there was a moment when I could offer this experience of passion, compassion, and acceptance - this is the way I understand love, in many of its forms. Singing it through movement was joyful, and seeing how people responded to it with a standing ovation, well, this is the reason to skate. This is what I'm working towards. Not for this fear of success or failure, but towards really sharing... These are my eighth Worlds! It's been such a long career, and I feel I still have in me this passion to share. I feel alive, and I feel I'm a super lucky guy.

And we're lucky to have you. I wanted to ask about your new free skate. Why did you decide to revisit the "Lion King" theme? When it was your exhibition program, you had a certain philosophical idea behind it. Has this meaning changed now?

I think it has matured in a slightly different way. Personally, it represents courage to me. Changing your program one month before performing it, and considering some things that happened before coming here (his coach later revealed that Deniss was injured ten days before the Worlds - ed), it takes a lot of guts. There are two ways you can react to challenges - you either crumble or rise to face it, do your best to overcome, and let go of the fear of failure. I can relate a lot to this program, to the spirit of this music, to the story depicted in the movie, cartoon, or the musical. To me, it's about passion, courage, and ferocity. This season, I was searching for instinct, trying to comprehend instinctive behaviour. And I feel that in this free skate, I have an opportunity to trust my senses and my training rather than overthinking and being methodical about it. In the last few years, I struggled with letting go, with having less desire to control things outside of my control. Because I want to perform at my maximum every single time, I tend to overthink and overdo, which is sometimes counterproductive. So, performing it was also about finding the freedom to live, to connect with the part inside you that is trained but does not overtake your thought process; it "lives inside you," it's what you are outside your conscious perception.

Do you feel you managed to do it? To let go and not overthink?

Well, almost. A fraction too late, but I did. There was too much tension, because when you skate last [in the group], you're hibernating in your own juices for a bit too long. I wanted to go for it and then... it's not exactly that I freaked out, but I wasn't naturally keeping the flow, I felt I was trying to fight the current. And that was the result. I don't need to think about any of my jumps, and once I start thinking, they don't work. That's what happened with [quad] Salchow; I was not comfortable enough with its placement, and with all the tension, I chose not to try it before the program (in the warm-up time one has while the previous skater waits for marks - ed). I did try it during the [six minute] warm-up but was struggling with its placement.

I must admit, it felt a bit peculiar seeing you skate to the "Lion King". Each time we meet, after some time has passed, I'm always impressed by how much you've grown and matured. But here, with this music, this costume, this haircut, it felt a bit like travelling back in time to 2018. So, my question is: a lot has changed for you and within you since then, but is there something that has remained the same?

The ambition. Not in a conventional way for any athlete - to win a medal. But the ambition to challenge myself. I really want to master my own perception. I'm working a lot and, as my coaches tend to note, even overdoing things. I'm not doing it purely for sporting reasons, but because I want to be better than I was yesterday. And my ambition is to be in control and craft myself but with the ability to let go. Maybe the desire to be free has matured since, but it is still there. And the ambition to find the ability to switch and control the intensity with which I do things is still there. And this is my personal challenge as an athlete, as a man of culture I believe in, in this entertainment that I wish to experience in my life daily. It's about the journey and not just about reaching the summit.

To me, this sport is much more than what we do on the ice. It's the culture, the daily behaviour; it's more connected to philosophy than to purely performance for the sake of entertainment alone. And I wish for myself greater achievements in this, while my vision is much broader than just when I am on the ice.

Earlier this season, you mentioned that your choreographers, Shae-Lynn Bourne and St├ęphane, had quite the opposite approach in choosing the music for your programs. Shae-Lynn basically said, "You will skate to this," while St├ęphane had a playlist of tens, even hundreds, of musical choices. Which approach works better for you?

Well, it wasn't as categorical as "this is the music"; there was more to it. But the point is always about what I can connect with. I really tried my best with the previous free skate, but I don't think I was mature enough to embody the level of grooviness that was required. And that was the reason behind the change; I still struggled to find my personal interpretation of this music. Perhaps I could portray it, but it was really far from my potential compared to when I can truly understand, connect, and embody the music. It felt more "made up" rather than authentic.

Another thing you mentioned earlier this season was about changing the direction your sport takes, something your coach also talks about a lot. Can you elaborate?

I definitely share the desire for reform towards character, charisma, and performance, rather than the brutality of execution. I wish to see a character, a living image, to see the soul of an athlete through their eyes, to see them reaching out to the crowd. I don't want to see track and field, people running and jumping over hurdles. It is not just about pure athleticism that can be measured simply by time; it's more than that. What differentiates figure skating from any other sport is this opportunity for flexibility in its unique niche market in the world of sports, which I feel we have lost on a much greater scale in recent years, both in this and previous generations. As someone who has been in the senior category for three Olympic cycles, I see that there are not as many eye-catching moments that you want to come back to, to follow and see, as there were when I was growing up and when I saw my coach's generation, for example.

As much as I enjoyed watching your coach's generation, which was no doubt amazing, I also really enjoyed the competition we had here. It's crazy how beautiful it was.

It was. Please don't misunderstand me. The current model is still very entertaining to watch, but I feel that my favourite competition to watch is actually ice dance because I sense the spirit is way more charismatic, dramatic, and elegant. For me, figure skating represents this excellence, personal finesse. It can still be rough and animalistic if that's the character you choose, but it has to be a performance; it should not be just "run the track" or "swim the pool."

This might be a bit superficial, but it's something I've wanted to ask you for some time. You must have noticed that throughout this season some of the judges gave you a costume/prop violation (for example, at the Nepela Memorial or Skate America). Did you consider changing them, or were you adamant that it was exactly what you wanted for those programs?

To be fair, we already had quite a discussion initially, trying to see how we could somehow "minimise the openness." I'm quite proud of having a physically fit body, and if we're talking about vulgarity...

But it wasn't vulgar at all! The commentators even complimented how well it matched the movement in the short program.

Exactly! For the sake of character and performance, I would have liked not to be restricted by things like that. And besides, it wasn't vulgar at all. It was always a pleasure to wear these costumes, whether it's a "second skin" one or the nice, airy one with its own choreography. It's like with my hair, you know, it needs to tell its own story.

I know you have a few shows scheduled for this upcoming off-season. Besides those, what are your plans for the summer?

My plan is to enjoy the summer and, for once, let go a little bit. What I really want for this summer is to not feel like a figure skater, at least for a moment. I want to feel like I can step out of this routine of work and then later return to it with a clear purpose, rather than just keep going because it's what I've always done and I'm riding the momentum. I don't want to stop it entirely, but I also don't want to feel like I'm "locked in the prison of my sport."

I absolutely love it, but still, it's time to let go and rest. This season, even during my time off, my brain wasn't off. I want to feel okay with allowing myself not to think about skating or for one day not to wake up, do my morning routine, and live as an athlete aiming for the Olympics. It's okay once in a while to take a week and just be a normal guy. And I don't mean to be a couch potato, but not to be afraid to go on a hike and sleep somewhere in the mountains, then return and still be okay with feeling sore because the next day you don't need to skate. And you're fine because you don't need to fall a few times from the quad and you're not afraid to hurt yourself. One of my dreams, not sure I'll manage it this summer, is to do a hiking trip around the mountain peaks. This year I've done some crazy stuff when I hiked in the middle of the night, trying to strap my phone to my forehead to use as a flashlight. I've experienced some unbelievable moments and emotions. (laughs)

Deniss has a busy summer ahead with "Fantasy on Ice" shows in May and June, "The Ice" in July, and the recently announced "L'Apprenti sorcier" in Champéry in August. We hope he'll still find time for himself, to clear his head and "be a normal guy," and we can't wait to see his new programs, including the already confirmed "The Firebird" for the August show.

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