His favourite place to compete is all by himself

Part I

By Susanne Kempf and Tatjana Flade
Photos © Susanne Kempf and Andrea "Hoo" Chempinski

Just last month Jeffrey Buttle from Canada won yet another National Championship. Over the past years he has become known for his extraordinary ability to "feel" the music as well as for his very expressive way to skate, even though the quad has remained a weak spot for him so far. However, he plans on landing one at the Olympics as he has just stated recently.

AbsoluteSkating had the chance to catch up with Jeffrey Buttle for a long chat and really get to know the person "behind" the skater and his his skating "philosophy".

Do you remember when you were on the ice for the first time?

I was too young, I honestly can't remember. I started when I was two years old. My parents just took me and my sister to the rink, we had family skate sessions – it was a really small town. Basically I was just trying to walk on the ice. What I do remember is that they put us in skates to play hockey.. that didn't quite work out in my case! (laughs)

Do you remember your first competition?

I actually do! My mom has it on video tape – I stopped in the middle of my program and waved to her in the stands and then I sort of kept going. I didn't realize it was a competition. I think I was about 6 so it must have been 1988. I think I came last. (laughs)

Did you also watch skating on tv?

I think I probably started watching shortly after I started competing. I mean, at the time I wasn't really interested in skating, I just did it for fun. I had no idea that it was really a sport in a competitive way.. Sports in general didn't really interest me until later..

Do you remember anybody particularly watching on tv?

Oh my gosh. I think Kurt has always been the one I have watched all along. What sparked my interest in skating originally was probably Brian Orser.. The battle of the Brians. I have looked up to Kurt so he is basically the one that I wanted to use as my idol.

Obviously you have met him...

Right, I have done a few shows with him and there is a new support program regarding the Olympics that he started in Canada. It includes a mentorship program where anytime we feel like calling him, we can do that. So it's a great idea.We have an actual summit of the mentors and the athletes.

Do you do any types of dancing (off the ice)?

Actually two types. I used to do competitive ballet. I wasn't really serious and we did it to improve my skating. I just did the competitions because my ballet instructor forced me into it (laughs) but I also did competitive ice-dance with my sister. We weren't very successful because at the time I was shorter than she was. (laughs) She is older than me. We didn't so well so we stopped and I decided I better wanted to do single skating and she continued in ice-dancing. She did much better without me. (laughs again) I took offence to that!

Can you tell us a bit about working with David Wilson? First it were mostly Canadians he did the choreography for and now he becomes more and more popular and even Sasha Cohen has asked him to rework her program.

Previously I was working with Marina Zoueva but that became a bit awkward because I am a close competitor with Fedor Andreev. So I had to move on to a new choreographer but I had no idea. Basically we looked at past skaters we enjoyed watching – Sebastien Britten was one of them. So we decided to find out who did his programs. That's how we fell upon David Wilson. We started working with him in 1999, my first year in seniors. At the time it was a little hard because we didn't know each other at all and he didn't know which skater I was. So the first year it took a lot to actually do the choreography because he just wants to watch you skate and to find out what kind of skater you are. But every year it gets easier and the work gets better. It's a lot of "how does this and that look". It's sometimes frustrating because when David and me work, it looks so cool but I just cannot do it like he does it! He moves really cool.

You said he has a different approch to work than other choreographerÂ…

He is the master of bringing out the best in every skater: highligtening your strengths and hiding your weaknesses. What is so good is that he is able to explain why the choreography is so important and why you shouldn't change everything once the product is there. I think I have been really good over the past years to connect myself to the program.

You had skated to Glenn Gould in the long program but recently changed it. However, what made you choose Gould's music in the first place?

At first it was just this one piano piece which we had heard and which was really haunting but not depressing, almost uplifting. So we started with this piece. I honestly didn't know much about Glenn Gould at first but the more we learned - we read books about him and watched a documentary - it was kind of eery how there was a bit of a connection. He was born one hour from where I trainÂ… so I felt I should do more than just one piece. There were 8 pieces. The first piece was Tristan and Isolde.

We took two different pieces of music of him playing piano and sort of meshed it in Tristan and Isolde. It starts with the introduction, with him falling in love with the music and then him as a performer so it's a very happy, showy sort of style. And then there was a period when he was 42 where he stopped performing live music because he found that music could be more appreciated in the studio, so he isolated himself for a while. The third piece kinda reflected that isolation from live music.The final piece was the piece of music we fell in love with first so we thought we had to include that in every case, it was all about serenity.

However, although I was skating better, I wasn't feeling comfortable enough with the middle section of the program. I loved the program . . . but I felt I was holding my breath through the middle two minutes. It was a hard decision because I had been getting such great component scores but it's more important that I feel good through an entire program . . . and the jumps work better (with the old routine). I don't feel I'm going back to something that's weaker but that I'm going back to something that is more comfortable. At this point, I just want to go out there and feel comfortable and know that all the training I've done is right.

And what about your short program?

David came to me with the idea and said "I want you to listen to a piece of music but I won't tell you the name". I said I want to know the name first (laughs) but he put in the CD and of course I recognized "Sing sing sing". I said "No" right away – not only has it been done before so often but * I * had done it in pre-novice so I was like "I can't do it again"! But apart from the first few beats you wouldn't have any idea it was "Sing Sing Sing". He put in the scatting so it was really cool. So I basically gave in to his idea (laughs) but at the end we weren't even sure if the scatting was allowed because it is a voice and even though there are no words specifically. The program was done and we weren't even sure we could use it!

When you perform it seems you do it from the bottom of your heart - how do you try to create those movements?

Dave and I just listen to the music – in terms of choreography we are really different. I like to listen to the music a lot to figure out the character and stuff like that but David doesn't like to listen to it at all. Once the music is cut, he doesn't listen to it until we are on the ice and doing choreography because he likes the ideas to just come out of nowhere. So I think the character from me comes from the fact that I enjoy it. If I enjoy the music I am able to get in the character. If I don't I find it really hard.

What kind of music do you like skating to, do you have a preference?

I don't think so. Over the years I have just done many different musics so that I don't really have a preference anymore. I think last year's long program was a bit hard for me at first to get into, it was sort of different from what I was used to be doing but by the end of the season I started to appreciate it. It was dark and serious but then I thought it was really sort of a contrast because it could be really busy at times and then there was this solo and slow piece which was so effectiveÂ…

How do you feel towards the "art" that is so important in your sport?

I found a quote about art which I found very fitting:"The intention and purpose of art is not for the momentary release of energy but it's the life-long journey". It's the process that sort of counts for it. How I relate is that when I am developping a program it is not the final result that I am most fond of and really tells a story, I think it is everything leading up to that point. The Olympic year is so weird because you spend so much time preparing for it and you expect that this one moment is the one that really counts – and everybody I talked to about it told me that afterwards they wished they would have enjoyed the process more, that they would have paid more attention to it…

So, how much of figure skating is sport for you and how much of it is art?

I think my father would very much say it is definitely a sport. (laughs) Honestly I think I just try and have a balance for both. I feel like I skate better and I am a better jumper if I am into the program. For me, I would never want to sacrifice the artistic side of it just to land the jumps. For me that would seem more of a training session. I think what's so "artsy" about sport is, that it is half and half.

You are certainly taking a risk if your programs are so "busy" and you maybe cannot prepare enough for the jumps.

It is choreographically demanding but again, it's something I like to have. I mean, maybe I am not skating clean programs right now but if people skate clean programs at the beginning of the season it might mean that the programs are too easy for themÂ…If you can enjoy your program while it's not clean, that is still something very good and says a lot about you.

What is your goal in skating?

When all is set and done, I just want to be happy. Not about specific results - obviously those won't have an effect on life beyond competitive sport. I want to be sure that I enjoyed myself. I mean, I put school on hold because right now I prefer skating.

Go to Part II


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