This interview with Gabriella and Guillaume is like a Polaroid picture of their season.
You can see in it the joy and the relief of finding the perfect music for the free dance, and even the (phonetic) similarities between Clair de lune by Debussy and Sonate “Au clair de lune” by Beethoven. The Christopher Dean-effect when it comes to their short dance: “It gave us confidence and pushed us to have fun with it, and not be scared of it”. The air of the Olympics, the “huge stage” that it was for all the athletes – and their own struggles, disappointments, but also the support they felt, the energy of it. And the medal with the rings, encapsulating all the work and the commitment, and feeling like “a really great achievement”.
And then the end, in Milan, with them performing their programs in Mediolanum Forum as if they were show-programs, pressure aside – “one of the first times that we really got to experience this feeling on the ice”.
At 22 and 23, Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron won their third World crown, and they’re the current holders of every ice dance record there is.
And so this interview is like a picture of their last couple of months, as taken by themselves – with all the lights and the half-shades, the threads and the contours.
This is the shape of their Olympic season.
by Florentina Tone/Milan
I’m meeting Guillaume in the mixed zone of 2018 Worlds – and, as last year, we’re setting up the “camp” for the interview in the green room. Luckily for us and our ears, there’s no such thing as the dismantling of the arena yet, nor the metallic noise to accompany the conversation.
There is a particular kind of soundtrack to this interview though. The Blues Brothers, Luther Vandross, Mariah Carey, or Metallica – the Worlds exhibition has just started, and we’re a few meters from the ice.
The first topic on the table is just how long this season has been – and it’s still not over yet: a day later, he and Gabriella would leave for Paris, for a media tour, and right after, with the rest of the French team, they’d be skating in 25 shows during La Tournée des Stars Olympiques.
I’ll start with that: are you happy with your choices of programs this season, with the whole package? Because this was surely an interesting, intriguing combination: a very modern Ed Sheeran, and a very classic Beethoven…
Guillaume: Yeah, we are really happy with the choices that we’ve made – we’ve been very careful about the choices we were making this year also because of what happened last year: we felt like it was a bit of a struggle to work on that free dance.
So the free dance choice for this season was pretty easy to make because we were just so in love with that music.
This time last year had you already decided on the music for the free dance? At the end of Worlds in Helsinki, you knew it already?
Guillaume: No. We always knew we wanted to skate to a classical piece for the Olympics, so we knew what we were leading towards, but we didn’t know which piece.
And we started working on a few music ideas, it ended up not working well… and one day we came up with that – and when you find the right music then everything just starts being really simple. And Marie-France is always thinking about the structure of the program first, and how the music is gonna serve the elements, and so when she gets the vision of what the program will look like, then we know it’s gonna be easy.
And she was on board with the choice…
Guillaume: Yeah, she was on board, all the coaches were on board from the beginning.
Comparing to last season…
Guillaume: Last season, our music wouldn’t have been their first choice, but this year I think she felt really inspired by this piece, and when we started working, and improvising on it, it just felt so natural and so easy to choreograph it.
It just felt right.
And this was something coming from one of you? Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”…?
Guillaume: It’s funny, ’cause we wanted to skate to “Clair de lune” from Debussy at the beginning. And the moon-theme stayed… [smiling, while recalling the particular details of them choosing the free dance music for the Olympic season]
It was actually like a misunderstanding: Patch [Patrice Lauzon] thought that we were talking about “Moonlight Sonata” [Sonate „Au clair de lune” de Beethoven, in French], and so when they said it, we were like: Oh, no, that’s not what we were talking about… but it would be a great idea! Because we started to listen to it – and we all really loved that piece of music!
And we took different pieces from the movement, and put them together, to get a sense of the structure of the program, and it felt naturally. Because it’s not easy to cut a music like this, it’s like Mozart [the music for their free dance in 2014/2015 season], it has a link from the beginning to the end, it’s like a build up, and we didn’t wanna perturbate the rhythm, lose parts of it.
It was actually really hard to break it, but we had to. And I think we did a pretty good job trying to make a full thing out of it.
So it was quite a challenge, but it really worked.
[Gabriella joins us in the green room – and when taking her seat, the small gold medal around her neck hits the table in front of us. She takes it down and puts it on her right, while a “generous” offer comes from my part: “I’ll take that if you don’t need it”. A good share of laughter follows – and Gabriella becomes instantly a precious part of the conversation]
Guillaume was just talking about “Moonlight Sonata”, the choice of it – because my initial question was if you two were happy with your programs for the Olympic season. And the stories of the short dance interests me as well…
Gabriella: The short dance was a less obvious music choice, it took us a long time to decide. It was hard to find the music that would look good on the ice, and that would be original, and that we would relate to.
And we tried a couple of mix-s and stuff… a couple… like a lot! [laughing] And right before working with Chris [Christopher Dean] we had different ideas – and then he came up with this one, which was a new one, and we just liked it and decided to jump in.
And Chris really liked the song, and he was really motivated to create something out of it – and that made it work too.
Yeah, and you seem to have such a beautiful connection with Christopher Dean – from him choreographing your short dance and having nothing but praise for you throughout the season, to you being invited to Dancing on Ice recently. Can you talk a bit about how it was to work with him, whose idea was it to have him as a choreographer in the first place?
Guillaume: I think it was the president of our federation who introduced this idea. And the collaboration was really great. He only came three days in Montreal, during the summer, to build the short dance, but he already had the whole concept in his head, so everything went so fast.
And it was really, really easy to work with him, because he’s so generous, but he also knows what he wants. And it can be sometimes hard when a choreographer comes for such a short period of time, and then leaves, but everything was already precise enough so that we could have something to work on, and not change it too much.
Of course, everything evolved throughout the season, and we kept transforming the moves and working on them, but the whole shape of the program really stayed as he choreographed it. And it really gave us the approach, and a good kick of confidence – because he was so confident, and he trusted that we would make it look good, you know?
Because we’ve always had a bit of a trouble with the short dance, it’s always been our less good program, so it was a bit of a pressure on us to find the right thing, and make it work, and feel like we own it – and working with him really allowed us to feel that way.
It gave us confidence, and pushed us to have fun with it, and not be scared of it.
And we really did. Like it’s one of my favorite short dances so far, and we really had a lot of fun dancing to this song.
Do you feel you did justice to the programs this season? The scores & records would suggest it, of course, but are you happy with the way your performed them, or feel that you needed more time? Was this the maximum that you could give?
Gabriella [smiling]: Well, it’s never really the maximum…
Yeah, but if you’d kept working on them, you might have got tired with them eventually…
Gabriella [laughing]: No, no, we wanna move on and start working on new programs, of course, but we’re very glad of what we did this season.
Sometimes we have great programs, and you can never perform well in competition – but this time it wasn’t the case: we really liked our programs, and we were able to perform them well in competition; almost in all competitions.
If you were to choose a favorite performance for the short, and for the free – performances attached to the events this season – what would those be? What might have been your favorite renditions of the programs?
Guillaume: Oh, I think the two favorite performances were here, in Milan. Because you had all the training, the quality of the programs was already there, we’re in shape, all the work was done, and you just had to have fun with it.
And it wasn’t a lot of pressure either – and that really allowed us to just feel the good energy of this space, the feeling of the crowd, the feeling of the show. Performing your competition programs as if they were show-programs is really something special, and I think it’s one of the first times that we really got to experience this feeling on the ice.
Gabriella: I think those two were our best performances, yeah, but I also really enjoyed performing the short dance at the Final [Grand Prix Final] and the free dance at the Olympics.
Let’s talk about that as well. How would you describe this first Olympic experience? I’ll put it differently: when you look back, what do you see?
[Guillaume is laughing]: The rings!
Well, people do say Olympics are a different kind of experience – that you can only understand Olympics if you live them, that they can eat you alive, that can be time-consuming, energy-consuming, that you have to juggle between a lot of things and possibilities… So how were these first Olympics for you?
Guillaume: I think every edition of the Olympics must be different, and the experiences are surely different, but I was surprised to feel that sports energy – because you’re surrounded by so many athletes. Yeah, it’s like a huge stage for athletes, from every country, from every discipline – and it’s not just about skating.
And I think our skating world is very particular, because it’s also like a show, it’s also like an artistic discipline, and so, in that way, it’s really different from other sports. Yeah, sometimes skating feels a bit more like a Hollywood-thing – everybody’s fancy, wearing make-up, sparkles – and all the other athletes are just used to being, you know, in the dirt, in the sweat, in the pain… and we’re like totally on the opposite side.
So it was kind of a clash between those worlds. And it was fun to feel that… contradiction.
I just wish we had time to see more, see other sports events, get to exchange more with the other athletes – but everybody had his own schedule, his own jet lag, his own thing, everything was just so busy.
Gabriella: Honestly, when you were there, during the event, it was very similar to any other championship. What was really different, I think, it was the impact it had, and the fact that we were mixed with so many other athletes, from so many different sports. That was very fun and, again, it reminded you that this is just a game. The real nature, the spirit of the Olympics is actually just fun. And you never really realize that at any competition, at any championship.
And what about your Olympic silver medal? Are you happy with it? How do you look at that medal with the rings on it?
Guillaume [smiling]: It’s a beautiful medal.
I think, looking at our career, it’s a really great achievement for us. It’s a part of our path, and I think it really represents the work we’ve put into this, the commitment we’ve put into skating, into each other, our coaches… The medal in itself is a great object, but just the fact that everybody was so committed to make us skate as well as we could, I think this is something that not a lot of people can experience.
And having such a great feed-back and support…. This thing is so big at the Olympics – and it can be consuming, but it can also be uplifting: we really felt people were involved in what we were doing, and supported us.
And it felt great to feel that energy, it felt really heartwarming to feel that way.
Speaking of that, of support, of having people by your side even in difficult times, have you looked back on the short dance day? Because at the moment you looked incredibly composed, both of you – and a day later, you seemed to have had put everything behind you, and started anew in the free dance. And to me, you handling the moment, the difficulties of it, might have been one of the biggest moments of the entire event – so… where does this composure come from? If someone is selling it, I wanna have some as well…
Gabriella [smiling]: Well, I think it’s always like that in life: when something bad happens, you have, at some point, to move on to be able to have great things coming.
But when you’re at a competition, you have to move on very, very quickly! [laughing, while emphasizing the last words]
You have to do this process in one night, because otherwise you’re not gonna be able to skate well the next day. So if you had a bad day at competition, you really wanna get pass that and do whatever you can to move on.
So, you know, it was… At first, we were sad, and disappointed, and angry, then we just accepted it, and moved on. We talked a lot to our mental coach, Steffany [Steffany Hanlen]…
She was there with you at the Olympics…
Gabriella: Yeah, she was there and, you know, it’s not the first time we had a big disappointment after the short dance.
We had that last year at Worlds, many times in our career actually – not this type of disappointment, but big disappointments still… – and I think also the fact that we skate together for so long made it easier to process and deal with.
Has it ever occurred to you to just stop, fix the problem, start from the beginning?
Guillaume: I knew it would be 5 points if we stopped.
…I thought about stopping to like put it back, but the short dance goes so fast, it’s not like the free dance… It’s so fast that if you miss 5 seconds, you’re gonna miss so many steps! And, after a while, it was just like: Well… it’s been half of the program [already], so… [smiling, a bittersweet smile]
“WE WANTED TO TAKE BEETHOVEN WITH US TO THE GAMES”
I’ll come back to “Moonlight Sonata”, I have to – and not only to close the circle. It has been considered one of the highlights of this edition of the Olympics, and not just “The New York Times” said it, Inside Skating said it as well [all smiling, of course]. Have you felt it was a big moment there, on the ice?
Gabriella: We wanted to take Beethoven with us to the Games. And we were there, on the ice, with him, with the music – and it was really a big moment, because it was what we worked for the whole season, and also our whole career before.
And we are very attached to this music, so, yes, for us it was huge as well.
What might have been your artistic coach’s most precious lessons when it comes to performing to this music, when it comes to interpreting Beethoven?
Guillaume: I think it’s something all of our coaches have said. And it seems simple, but you don’t always understand it fully.
It’s just: Listen to the music.
Just taking the time and making the effort to really listen to the music.
It’s not something that’s easy or obvious to do – after a while, you get so used to it, you know the piece so well – but it’s so beautiful, and it has so much to say when you really listen.
It’s so uplifting, and really inspiring, and you can’t get bored with that.
SEE MORE: Gabriella and Guillaume, winning their third World crown in Milan
[interview by Florentina Tone, Milan/photos by Natasha Ponarina, Wilma Alberti and Getty Images]