If there were a skating pantheon where the greatest figure skating performances of all time would be included, no doubt that Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao’s “Turandot” at 2003 World Championships would be kept at one of the most prominent places, and be worshipped for decades.
That is why when Wenjing Sui and Cong Han, Shen & Zhao’s proud protégés, announced “Turandot” as their free program music for the Olympic season, there arose shocks, concerns, doubts, and even irritations. “This is a wrong decision”, skating fans left comments on the skaters’ social media accounts. “Shen & Zhao’s Turandot is a classic for the ages; there is no way your program can beat that”. Even within the skating community, coaches, skaters and journalists talked and wondered about the music choice.
And so this is the story of Sui and Han’s “Turandot”, as told by themselves.
by Wei Xiong
“I think people meant it in a good way, because I believe they really cared about us”, Sui commented on the reaction they received. “But, to be honest, I don’t think there is any classic that cannot be exceeded. Although there are many pieces of music you can use in figure skating, some are much more popular, and I think it is certainly possible to create more than one great program out of a same piece”.
She used their own cases to elaborate. “For example, we skated to Spanish Romance for our short program a few seasons ago, which was a classic by Virtue and Moir, but people absolutely loved our version as well. Another example is Blues for Klook – people immediately think of Takahashi when they hear the music, but when we did it last year, it turned out to be fans’ favorite and they kept telling us they wanted to watch us perform to it more. So, I really don’t think skating to Turandot would be much of a problem”.
Still, watching an elite Chinese pair wearing black and red costumes while skating to “Turandot” would bring back too much memories. Wouldn’t the young pair concern about being seen as copying their coaches’ most iconic program?
“But there is not much similarity”, Sui rejected the idea. “The music cut is not the same, and the choreography is brand new. More importantly, how we understand and interpret the characters is certainly different from our coaches, so I believe we can produce our own classic”.
Han added his opinions: “Don’t forget the judging system. What IJS requires in a program is very different from 6.0, so when we created the program, we used a different approach, which brought us more sophisticated transitions, loads of intricate choreography movements etc., to make sure the program would be competitive under current system. Although it is classical music, the program certainly has a contemporary touch”.
But why choosing a classic from the beginning when there is such a high benchmark?
“Lori (Nichol) suggested us some pieces of music when we were working with her in Canada during off-season”, Han recalled. “One day we were listening to her choices in the car; when the player started playing Hallelujah, it hit both of us immediately, and we felt like it was a gift to us from the God above. Then when it started playing Turandot, we also liked it so much that we decided that was it, we must skate to this music”.
The two had a bit of hesitation, though. Would their coach, the legend himself, welcome this idea? Would Shen and Zhao give their blessings?
“When I told coach Zhao about our decision, he didn’t comment whether it was a good idea or not. He simply said «if you two are going to skate to Turandot, you must skate a better Turandot than mine». I answered «alright» without any hesitation”, Han brought back the moment.
“Then coach Shen bought me a book, a very thick one”, said Sui, “which is a novel adaptation of the story”.
Interestingly, unlike the opera, this book leaves an open ending, which initially made her feel “ridiculous”.
“When I finally finished reading the 500 pages book, I was extremely frustrated to read the ending line, which literally wrote: «What happened to the princess and prince afterwards? Who knows?». I was like: «What? I’ve read 500 pages, and you don’t tell me the ending?!», and I couldn’t understand what kind of a book it was. But then, I started to think the intention was exactly to ask you to imagine, to tell your own version of ending”.
What is her take on the ending, then?
“I think the princess and prince probably became a couple”, Sui shared her own idea. “But I think, at the end people would find they were wrong about the princess. They would find that Princess Turandot was not heartless, and she didn’t kill those princes who proposed to her before Calaf – it was all acting. She pretended to be cruel and cold-hearted because she was afraid of being close to people, but in fact she wanted to be understood. Then Prince Calaf was the one who came into her life, guided her out from her closed world and showed her love”.
And if you have watched their program this season you must have noticed that this version of the story is exactly the 22-year-old’s interpretation on the ice.
“You’re a prince and you love her”
As much freedom as they gave, coaches became demanding when it needed to, as Han recalled: “Coach Zhao was very strict on the program. During practices, when he found one choreography movement that didn’t look good, he would ask us to do it again, or try a new movement. When he felt my facial expression was not matching the music or the story, he would ask me to stop and coached me in detail how I should perform”.
And since Turandot is “a love story between us”, Shen and Zhao did require their protégés to act like a couple in love.
“Both of them were trying to hypnotize us every day”, Han revealed. “They kept telling me: «you’re a prince and you love her»”.
This method certainly worked, as the young pair’s chemistry on ice was so good that people started to wonder if they were really in love.
“No, absolutely not”, Sui rejected the idea, as usual. “But it’s great that you feel it that way, because that’s exactly what we want to show”.
“I think from the beginning of the program till the end, we are like actors on the ice”, Han followed. “We really throw ourselves into the program emotionally, and become our characters at that moment. That’s what makes a performance different, and audience can really feel that. Some skaters may execute elements really well, but if they lack chemistry as a pair, and don’t show the emotion, the program would be empty”.
“So, every time I skate, I try to replace his head in my mind with the image of handsome actors that I like”, Sui smirked.
These days in PyeongChang, Wenjing Sui and Cong Han are competing in their first Olympics. As one of the heavy favorites to win, the two are certainly not afraid to show their ambitions, as Sui stated: “I want a gold medal. But moreover, I want to skate two perfect programs that deserve the gold. I want to show the most beautiful, and most unique Turandot to everyone”.
“I really hope people will appreciate, enjoy and, hopefully, remember our programs”, Han concluded.
What happens to the princess and prince at the end? Who knows?