Stefania Berton and Ondřej Hotárek: "You connect with people's hearts and they will remember forever"
The promising Italian pair, Stefania Berton and Ondřej Hotárek, have become very popular nowadays, you can find their recent interviews on many skating sites, including Absolute Skating, but I must note that I planned to talk to them for quite a while, ever since they caught my attention at Europeans 2011, their first European championships together where they at once hit top five.
We met with Stefania in October, when the season was yet to begin. Sitting in the mall near the Forum di Assago and sipping our coffee, we talked about new programs, work with Italian police, the artistic side of figure skating, and the roles each of them has in their team. And about their rising popularity, too.
When I was preparing for this talk, reading your recent interviews, I noticed there were quite a few lately. Do you suddenly feel more popular?
I find this nice, to tell people more about ourselves, as usually we don't talk, we skate. And I like that people want to know us a bit more, but I don't really pay attention and count how many interviews we've done. I always like to share my experience with people around me, it can be an interview or my neighbour, the concept is the same. I don't care if I'm more popular or less. The important thing is that I'm important for the people I love. The rest will disappear one day.
But you do feel that you got more attention last season than before, don't you? From fans, from your federation...
The federation always paid attention to us. From fans - yes, I felt a little change. Maybe because they liked our programs? Or the results? I hope it is because we are getting better and people love our skating.
You are now working with the Italian police. Was this also a result of your popularity?
Well, they saw our skating, our results, met us, liked us, saw our practices and decided that we are good enough for this department. Carolina (Kostner), Anna and Luca (Cappellini/Lanotte) are also there. We did all the needed tests, psychological and physical ones, we passed them all and they took us. We feel so blessed and lucky, they make us feel part of the family, really taking care of us, in every little aspect. So right now there is a cooperation between the federation and the police, which gives us a completely different level of living. We can practice knowing that that's our job, we will be paid for it and we are giving something to our country.
Do you have any tasks with the police? Do you have to patrol, for example?
Not really. We are invited to the public events and everything sports related. But we are not real police. Maybe when we finish our career and want to join them, we can. We will have to learn how to do it, so it's going to be a completely different story.
Talking about coming to the next level: last season you were already medal contenders, you medalled at the Grand Prix, you almost got to the podium at Euros. Does it feel different to compete, when you know that the podium is realistically possible?
It's exciting! Knowing that you can reach the podium and you can go home with the medal, it's a reason to train even harder and believe in what you do even more. Not that we were not excited before. But it's getting harder, and when it's harder it's more exciting.
In moving from singles to pairs there are advantages and disadvantages. The plus is you're not alone on the ice; the minus is that you're responsible for the other person, his failures; his health issues influence you too. So what is bigger: plus or minus?
It's all a matter of how you feel. I feel that I can express myself better with Ondřa's help. He is a great partner, he supports me, he gives me the chance to be myself, doing something that nobody thought I could do. He is always there for me. So when he is off I feel that I have to be there for him. And that's what a pair team does.
Since I was a kid I always thought that I can be better in a team, part of a couple. I was even doing ice dancing, with Marco Fabbri, and I loved it. But probably something was missing, so I continued with single skating. And when I thought that my career was done, that I was going to study and start another life, Ondřa proposed that I skate with him. So I thought: "Why would I throw away fourteen years of my life, out of eighteen, if I can try something that I never tried. Maybe I will be good?" Actually for some reason I thought I might be good, I don't know why. For me personally, having the man beside me gives me the chance to express my art better, I can do a better job. I think that's what I was meant to be, a pair skater. So, of course, I take everything with it, the bad things and the good things.
You mentioned your art, let's talk about that. There is an opinion: "Figure skating is a sport, if you think about the story, you'll miss the jump; music in your program is for the background, the important thing is to make the elements clean". What would you answer to that?
Well, everybody can have an opinion, I would never ask anyone to change their opinion. What I say is that you can learn the technical elements and be good at them, you'll be able to impress people and maybe they will even remember: "Ah, that team was doing great jumps, or twists, or throws". But I have the feeling that what will make a skater unforgettable is not their technical, but emotional skills. You connect with people's hearts and they will remember forever, I'm sure. I want to give an example from singles: Philippe Candeloro. Probably a random French guy for many, but for those who saw him skate his "D'Artagnan" at the Olympics in 1998... I was eight years old but I will never ever forget that! He was so impressive, people were screaming for him, he had such a great energy throughout the whole program that I get chills just thinking about it.
We're the first strong Italian pair team and as Italians we're emotional, everybody knows that. That's our quality and our problem lots of times too. But that's what makes us different and special in our way. We try to include all the technical elements that we can, but we're Italians - yes, Ondřa is Italian too now! - so we bring our hearts and our feelings, and our emotions, and stories. And I'm sure people will remember us for that.
This is one of the reasons why we still don't know how long we will compete, because we are not sure how long we can go on. But I do believe, and I've been talking to Ondřa about it, that we have a lot more to give. We will skate as long as we know that we can still improve and give feelings to people, emotions, regardless of our results. They are important, of course, but we never based our career on that.
I agree with you. And if we're talking about programs which will be remembered by many, Lambiel's "Poeta" is definitely one of them. How and why did you choose this music?
I remember that program and I really loved it, but I must say that I would watch Stéphane's skating forever. Being honest, it's not only that program that changed my view about skating, but his entire career, his and Carolina's (Kostner).
Ondřa listened to this music and liked it, so he came to me and Franca (Bianconi), our coach, and said: "I want to skate to this music". We looked at each other and said: "Flamenco? Great. Yes, Stéphane skated to it but we can bring something different, because we are a pair team. This music is really emotional, we can make it work". We went to Pasquale Camerlengo, he loved it too and then we started to work on the story we wanted to tell. It's about a man who dreams he has found his love, but in the end... he wakes up. I feel that we can tell our story and people will love it.
I don't want to compete with Stéphane, because I think he is the best. For example, I would never skate to "Who wants to live forever" by David Garrett, it's a great piece of music, David Garrett played it perfectly but I can't rid my mind of Shen/Zhao's short program at last Olympics. I cried [watching it] which I never do when I watch skating! But Stéphane is a single skater and we're pair skaters so I think we can show something different.
Isn't it depressing for you that both of your programs tell moody, gloomy stories?
It's true, they might seem sad. But, for example, the story of "Paint It Black" (short program) is about a person who lost his loved one. He is desperate, probably thinking he doesn't want to live anymore, doesn't have a reason to be on this Earth anymore. But the end of the program says - and my costume too, this is the reason why I have all those Swarovski rhinestones on my chest - that in your heart you can always find the strength and the reason to reach for the light again. I'm sure that I wouldn't want to live if I lost the person I'm in love with right now. But at the same time I do know that that person wouldn't want me to give up. Even if everything looks black, with people who love you and your own strength you'll be able to find the light and not give up. So that's the meaning of the program, which is sad at the beginning but then it evolves. And at the end I smile, as if I'm saying to people: "Don't give up! You can still make it! There is more that you can do!"
The beginning of our long program is also sad; we're skating in parallel to each other, without touching, for around a minute. But then Ondřa - yes, it's only an illusion - thinks that I'm there with him. We play with each other, we smile, and we flirt. Yes, in the end it gets sad again but even in this program we find a minute and a half when we can enjoy, a happy moment even if the situation overall is really sad.
Do you have some exhibition program in mind already?
I'm sure we'll keep "Dirty dancing", because everybody loves it, and we love it.
For me and my best friend it was like the best movie ever, it was the story of our teenage years. We watched it again and again; we know every word of it, in Italian and in English. I could relate to this story because I've been in such vacation villages since I was a kid. Because of my skating we never had too many vacation days so the best option for my family was to spend them at a place where everything was already included. You don't have to worry about anything, good sea, people who are entertaining you and if you want you can just rest. And I love Patrick Swayze in this movie; he is amazing in everything he does there. When watching I always said: "I wish I could have found you during my vacations!" This love story is something every one of us wishes could happen.
For couple of years I'd been telling Ondřa: "We should do it, we should do it". But he thought that it was a movie for girls, and then at one of our shows there was another team who skated to "Dirty dancing", and although it was something quickly made for just one show, the crowd's reaction was fantastic. Ondřa saw this and said: "We should do it!" So I choreographed it because I've seen the film so many times. And we tried to make the costumes exactly the same; my Dad helped me with the pink dress. And everywhere we perform it people just go crazy about it.
I have another idea already, but it's a little complicated so we'll need some time for choreography. I don't know if we'll make it for this season but definitely for the next one. We will save it for the time when we're really in shape, because we're going to put a couple of throws in there, at least two or three lifts, a spin, a death spiral and we're going to skate it fast.
It sounds you're really into choreography yet when you were asked what you want to do when you retire you named acting and psychology...
The thing is I love skating, but I had a lot of moments when I thought I didn't like it, and I was continuing with it because I had been doing it forever. I always thought that I didn't want to stay involved in skating but it looks like my life is going in that direction. I don't say I'll do that for sure. I don't say I'll be an actress or psychologist either. Those are certainly my passions, and I know that I'll try to pursue these passions without excluding the possibility of creating choreography, too. I can try everything and then decide what I feel like I'm most made for. But a lot of people already asked me to make choreography for them, perhaps because they find our programs interesting.
Do you contribute your ideas to your competitive programs too?
We always tried to collaborate with the choreographers. It's always good to give your personal input so that your personality will be seen in your program. Pasquale (Camerlengo) and Anjelika (Krylova) always ask us what we want to do. For example, when we started to work on our long program Pasquale asked: "OK, guys, what's the story?" And at that moment I suddenly knew what the story would be, and Ondřa liked it. And when, a month later, we were talking about the short program, Ondřa had an idea. And I had something in my mind too, so we've put all the ideas together and we worked on them with Anjelika.
And, of course, we always think how to have all the elements in the right order, how to fit them into the music, how to have the right preparation for them. That's obviously one of the most important things. You can build the perfect program but then if you can't do the elements, you may as well stay home.
I wouldn't care about the elements, but Ondřa is really strict about them. But spending time together we're starting to complete each other, sometimes he does something really creative and I do something technical. So we're growing, both of us. And we both are ready to take a step back and let the other talk. Sometimes we get angry but it usually doesn't last long because we know what our task is, and we know that even if we have different ways to express ourselves, we still have the same goal.
Next time we met was in Paris, at Trophée Eric Bompard, where Stefania and Ondřej finished third. After the gala practice Ondřej found a few minutes to update me about how the season was going for them so far.
Your first competition of the season, in Bratislava, wasn't very successful.
We tried an approach which didn't work. We wanted to be aggressive with all the elements, to do them better than we do at practice, which we figured out was not a good idea. We tried too hard. And when you try at 200%, things don't work because there is no connection, you're too focused on how much you want it. But you need to be focused on what you have to do. We just need to come to the competition and skate what we can.
So there was a plan for Skate Canada, there was a plan for Bompard, and as you see it worked. The decision was to just go and skate what we can do at practice, nothing more nothing less.
Overall if you compare your second Grand Prix event with the first one what was the difference, what was improved?
At the first Grand Prix event we had a big advantage [in points] after the short program, so it was easier to skate the long. Here we knew that we had to skate both programs almost clean, perfect, to make a good placement. There was much more pressure, because we knew about the quality of the pairs here, this was one of the hardest Grand Prix events. So we didn't expect anything and tried for two clean skates. Although we missed the Salchow in the long it was enough [to get to the podium] so we're happy.
You're still not in a position to choose your Grand Prix events, but if you could which would you choose?
My number one choice would probably be Japan, we did NHK last year and we have a lot of fans there, people [there] enjoy skating a lot. It's the country where the skating is on top right now. Every time it's a pleasure to skate in front of ten thousand people. Probably second would be Cup of Russia (Rostelecom Cup now - ed). We have a lot of fans in Russia, a lot of people are writing us: "Come to Russia, come to Russia!" And we would but we can't if we don't get an invitation. But actually France was such a good surprise. There were a lot of Italians who came to watch the competition, we felt almost like we were at home. The support was great, and the organization was great too. I was so surprised, I think, Paris was one of the most beautiful Grand Prix events I did.
What your next competitions will be?
We will go to the NRW Trophy, in Dortmund. We wanted to do it; to be sure we have enough points to stay in the top eight in the world. So for that and also we feel that we need more competitive experience. So we will do Dortmund, then Italian Nationals and then Europeans. We like to say that we get better every competition, so we still need a couple more competitions to be good at Europeans.
While the main goal is to be good at Worlds, I guess.
Exactly. This season the main goal will probably be to step up at Worlds. At Europeans there is a big block of amazing pairs like Aljona and Robin (Savchenko/Szolkowy) and the Russian teams. They are all at a really high level, so Europeans is going to be hard, we will try to catch up with them. And then at Worlds we will see. We definitely want to improve, especially our placement at Worlds, so that next year we can get better Grand Prix events. By better I mean that we can step up and be seeded higher, as a second. But we'll think about all this later.
Stefania and Ondřej took silver at the NRW Trophy, being succeeded only by four-time World champions from Germany, and won their third National title. Their next stop is Europeans in Zagreb at the end of the month. While preparing for this competition they've also worked with Stéphane Lambiel on the choreography and nuances in their long program. We're looking forward to seeing Stefania and Ondřej at Euros, and wishing them the best of luck for the rest of the season.