Stéphane Lambiel: "Nothing is mathematical!"

October 23, 2023
By Reut Golinsky
Photo © Reut Golinsky, Anna Bertoloni

In Oberstdorf, before the start of the Nebelhorn Trophy and his new season as a coach, we sat down with Stéphane to talk about his summer projects as a performer and one particular program he revisited, which is dear to my heart. What makes interviews with him so fascinating is that you can be sure they won't go as planned, but they will always be engaging and sincere.

I wanted to start our talk with "Poeta." I don't think we ever talked about it. And now that you've returned to it, I feel we should. Let's start from the very beginning. Tell me more about how it was created.

"Poeta" was created in the summer of 2006. And then I performed it for the first time... Swiss Nationals in December, you didn't go to Europeans, so next time was at Worlds 2007.

Yes, Worlds 2007, that was it!

I started working on it with Antonio Najarro in the summer of 2006. Actually, it was later in the summer, more like in the fall because I was running behind in my preparations, though I can't recall why. He came to Geneva a couple of times to work with me, and I also visited Madrid, as he wanted me to experience flamenco from the inside. We visited flamenco schools, and I had the opportunity to take classes there and observe the flamenco posture. He also took me to various places in Spain to immerse myself in the Spanish culture. He introduced me to the costume maker crafting outfits for flamenco dancers. This experience provided me with a lot of inspiration, which was very useful because, after winning my second World title, I felt a lack of a clear objective. I felt I had reached some of my dreams and didn't quite see what my next step should be. Discovering this whole new world and being inspired by so many creative individuals and the environment really opened my eyes to the world of dance, all the nuances of movement and expression.

After [Nationals in] December, my brain was still overwhelmed, not by the flamenco experience specifically, but by everything - the victory, the shows, the travelling, the pressure, the training; it all felt like "too much." I was only twenty-one at the time, and at that age, you often question your purpose and the reasons behind your actions. I needed a moment to reflect and decide where I wanted to go. "Poeta" presented a unique challenge for me because I realised that it wasn't so much about whether I could become a champion again or secure a medal. What truly mattered to me was performing this program. It was a challenging and difficult piece, and it was the first time I had something so distinct, created with a lot of input from outside. And so I chose to make it my objective - to be able to stay in character that I had created for this program, with or without mistakes. And even though I had some mistakes, I felt so happy at Worlds 2007, I was so proud of myself for finding the courage to take on a new challenge.

But from there on, it became more and more difficult. The following season (2007/08) was very tough for me; my physical and mental capacities were decreasing... Physically, I was losing myself, dealing with a severe muscle tear, and experiencing a great deal of imbalance in my hip, my pelvic. I had doubts: should I continue? Should I not? What should I do with my life? All these deep questions, you know.

And I tried so hard to push through. I saw so many doctors, I went to the US to train with Galina (Zmievskaya), hoping to find someone or something to regain inspiration and my desire to continue. But nothing really worked for me. Plus, I was injured. The timing was unfortunate because it was challenging for me to find an objective, mentally, it was tough to piece things back together, all while my body was betraying me, suffering from overuse and disbalance.

I was in a situation where there was no answer to my injury and no clarity about my future. I needed to take a step back and reset because it was going nowhere. It's been like this since Worlds 2008, I had tried everything, but after seven months, I had no energy left to keep fighting. The new season was about to begin, I was far from being ready, and I couldn't see any long-term perspective. And so, in October 2008, I announced my retirement.

I remember it all too well: your retirement, the story of how Marla Pichler, whom you met during "Stars on Ice" in Canada, helped you recover, and your comeback for Vancouver 2010...
Does this entire story mean that "Poeta" is too closely associated for you with those dark times?

Yes, I think so, the period from 2007 to 2008 was a hard time...

So at Worlds 2007 it was your happiest Flamenco?

Yes, it definitely was. And then the worst came, the pain, the discouragement...

I don't think you ever shared this before, what was the story you portrayed in this program? Do you remember?

The beginning of the program sets the atmosphere of the south of Spain, a heavy sunny atmosphere. I start by hiding my face from the hot sun, but then I let it come through. There's also a scene at the seas, featuring a love story at the harbour. It conveys the very romantic feeling of being by the sea, watching the sunset, and hearing the seagulls. So, there's a lot of this very poetic atmosphere, but then the last part is undoubtedly about entering the arena of a bullfight, embodying a testosterone-driven, macho attitude and posture, it has a lot of sharp movements, intense upper body engagement which is very hard and took me a long time to master.

When you move, it looks so natural and easy. But when, as during the "Friends on Ice" finale, others struggle to repeat it after you, one understands how complicated it actually is.

That's why I was so impressed when we did it with Daisuke (Takahashi). It took him two weeks to learn it, while it took me two years! When I was asked to do it with Daisuke, I hesitated about whether I should make him do something completely different.

No-no-no, it was so good.

I know! But it was so mean! Because I worked on it for two years and he had to learn it in two weeks.

No, but it was great. The only problem with both of you performing it from two opposite corners was that people didn't know where to look!

But that's perfect! This way, they didn't compare. I didn't want people to compare. If we skated next to each other, it would have been very easy to compare. By starting from afar, it was like two energies coming together. As we were getting closer, we could feel this tension.

Daisuke mentioned in one interview that he felt like he was back to competing against you.

Yeah, I felt that too! But when I looked into his eyes, I also felt so grateful. It wasn't about wanting to be better than him, but more about us being there together.

It must have been a truly special experience. People who saw it live said that the video doesn't do it justice.

It doesn't! I mean, I couldn't see it live, but I watched the video, and it felt so different from how I felt doing it, because what happened between him and me was so intense. There was one show especially - the Saturday afternoon or evening, I don't remember exactly - when the tension was almost tangible, there was something in the air.

So you choreographed all the parts, including the one with Kana Muramoto and Andrew Poje?

Yes, the first part was the intro, in which I play the role of the fisherman. I'm at the harbour, finishing my day. While I'm leaving home, Kana is arriving and enjoying the landscape. We are just crisscrossing - I'm leaving, she's arriving. What I wanted to create in this intro was the feeling of being at a harbour, "harbour", "sunset", "fisherman" were the key words. And then the beautiful lady dancer is coming and enjoying the atmosphere. She strolls through the harbour, eventually meeting this man.

I didn't want this part to have a flamenco spirit at all. It's simply a romantic dance, with tourists meeting at a beautiful location, flirting, dancing, as the night progresses. It's only after, that there is a fire [between them], and that's where the flamenco theme begins.

And you used different music for that part, right? Not the one from "Poeta," even though it's from the same album.

Yes. My point was not to have a flamenco "flavour" during the introduction because if we start with that, then where do we go? That's why I wanted to go a bit away from it. I wanted to develop a more theatrical story that could lead to the part people expect. When we think of "Poeta," we think of that part, but I wanted to get there from another angle.

You revisited "Poeta" once more before "Friends on Ice," during your "Ice Legends" show in 2016. It was special to see you skate it, and it felt different, probably because you were a different person.

Yes, I was different during "Ice Legends," and I am different now. It's been nine years from 2007 to 2016 and seven years from 2016 to 2023, and a lot has happened during that time. I feel that right now, I'm in a much better place than I was in 2016, and in 2016, I was in a much better place than in 2007.
But I wasn't happy with my performance at "Ice Legends." Something was missing, I was expecting it to be fulfilling, but it was not.

Maybe because there was so much going on for you then...

Probably. Probably I had too much weight on my shoulders, I was stuck with too many things. My favourite time was probably the last one, now. When I performed it for "Friends on Ice," I could really play with it, and it truly helped me. It was very fulfilling.

Well, I'm glad that your aftertaste from this program will be so good now.

Yeah, I'm happy. It was Shizuka (Arakawa) who came up with this idea. She has very good ideas.

This music will always be associated with you and with this program. It's special for me and for many people I know. Is it special for you, and what makes it special? What do you think?

It's a good question... I don't know. I have to admit, I don't know why it's so special. Perhaps it's especially meaningful for you, but if you were to ask someone else, a skating fan, "What is Poeta?" they might not even associate it with me, so it's not special for everyone.

But it is. Of course, when you look at it from your perspective, with complex memories connected to it, you probably don't see it this way. But this program is a part of your legacy, part of figure skating history. Yet I don't have an answer to what made it so special.

Me neither. Of course, I connect to it. Every time I hear this music, it's deeply ingrained in my heart. Like I said, it was one of the challenges that allowed me to rebound from a deep doubt I had in myself. So for me, it connects with the moment of rebirth, reset, with a new chapter. This is the vibe it gives me. Even if it was a struggle, I have no regrets, and I enjoyed every second of it, even during the difficult periods. There were some awful moments that summer when I was practising here in Oberstdorf; I felt so miserable. But when I think about it now, there are so many positive things connected to those times, to that period of my life.

I may be biassed because this program is what essentially made me fall in love with figure skating. But even if we attempt to be objective, it's a beautifully crafted program, especially in terms of choreography. Looking back at it now, and being a choreographer yourself, don't you think so?

Maybe? (smiles)

You never tried to...

Analyse it? No. I'm not focusing so much on the content. What I appreciate in any program, and probably what was crucial in "Poeta," is that it reflects the skater's personality. You were talking about choreography, but I believe that personality is even more important. For example, before we came here, one evening, Koshiro and I watched Tessa and Scott's (Virtue/Moir) performances in Vancouver. Then we watched Gabi and Guillaume's (Papadakis/Cizeron) rhythm dance in Beijing. While their content is exceptional, what I'm saying is that when you see how they shine and express themselves, you're just melting and it doesn't matter if they put their arms here or there.

Both couples were amazing in different ways, incomparable, but both brought you this sense that you live within their performance. This is what this sport needs right now - more than content or a checklist of elements, we need personalities. This is what defines this sport. Who is the strong personality right now? Do you see strong personalities out there? No! Because everybody is focused on checking all those boxes. There is no space to show your personality; it's all about box one - done, box two - done. At the end of the program, you feel like, "Okay, finished, next?" I would love to forget to check these elements. My favourite moment is when they immerse me so deeply in their programs that I'm not even aware of the time, the content, or anything else, because they take me with them. And this is what I want to see!

You mentioned Guillaume. Tell me more about that piece you skated together. How was it created? Will you work on it more? Will we see it somewhere?

It's been quite some time that we wanted and were discussing doing some collaboration together, but in the end, it happened quite spontaneously. He asked when I might have some free time, and I answered that I don't have any free time, but that during the month of August, I wanted to spend some time on a project I'm involved in with ISU and Centers of Excellence that is about creating a new way of thinking choreographically. That part we did with Guillaume - and we also worked with my colleague from the Skating School, Giulia Isceri - was about allowing skaters to develop creative ideas without adhering to the rules, allowing ourselves to be creative on the ice without the need to "check the boxes." So this was the first step. Now, we need to finish that and then create a way of judging or establish the rules for a competition. It would be interesting if we suddenly have one entity versus another, let's say Guillaume and I...

...versus Gabi and Maddy?

Maybe Gabi and Maddy, but it also could be, I don't know, versus Satoko. And then we do a "battle," and you have the judges who need to decide which performance they prefer, which one touched them more.

I don't see how this can be judged. I don't work like this; I'm more mathematical.

But that's awful! Nothing is mathematical! You have a certain opinion not because you can calculate it, just like when you love someone, it's not because they have blue eyes or your favourite hair colour.

Yet when you love someone, it's not a sport.

I'm talking about art, like figure skating from before when it was about personality and not just content. Now it's become too mathematical, which is terrible, and we need to move away from it. I'm emotional about it because all these small details and numbers are killing my sport. When my skaters come, they don't want to learn how to make things beautiful; they want to learn how to get the levels. Why should we care about the levels? I want to see a beautiful spin! This system doesn't encourage you to look for the aesthetics behind it; it pushes you to go for the levels and points. That's why, with the ISU, we're planning a workshop where we can be more creative, prioritise aesthetics, and have a judging system that rewards the beauty of movement. It's a work in progress, and we're still processing ideas, but the first part, what we tried this summer with Guillaume, was to see how we can be creative and go beyond the ISU rules.

Will we see this program at some show?

Hopefully. I don't know. I hope there will be some opportunities.

And the last question, what can you reveal about your show in Champéry next summer?

This show will be a part of "Rencontres musicales" ("Musical meetings"), an annual festival of classical music in Champéry, and next year they will celebrate 25 years. The idea is to connect music with skating and to invite Beatrice Berrut, a pianist from Valais, the region I grew up in. We actually went to the same high school; we're from the same generation and have known each other for years. Each of us has developed our own career, and now it's an opportunity to reconnect. We had a plan to do it for the "Ice Legends," but it didn't happen, so this time we will do it for the "Rencontres musicales."

We have already set a playlist with different musical pieces, mostly classical, but there will be some arrangements of more modern ones. The dates are 8th and 9th of August 2024. The full cast will be announced as soon as possible; it won't be a big cast. We will also have skaters from our school for the group number, and there will also be some champions with solo performances. Salome and I are already working on the choreography. Each piece will have its own story, but the main theme will be magic, with a little boy discovering magic through different personalities.

Sounds great, looking forward to seeing it!

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