Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier: „We’re not satisfied unless we have pieced together something fresh and novel”

Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, at 2013 Rostelecom Cup in Moscow (Photo courtesy of Natasha Ponarina)

Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, at 2013 Rostelecom Cup in Moscow (Photo courtesy of Natasha Ponarina)

Every once in a while, a new ice dance couple grabs your attention and runs away with it; and you find yourself waiting impatiently for their next event, for their next performance. This is exactly the case with these wonderfully innovative skaters representing Canada: Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier. I loved the spark, the freshness of their short dance in the Olympic season and I couldn’t resist being amazed by their intriguing, sophisticated Hitchcock routine.
Well, this is only the noticeable part of their story, because – as you will discover reading this particular interview – for Piper and Paul this season was not at all as they imagined. Paul breaking his ankle last May really set their training back and, for the months to come, they felt like playing catch up with all the other teams; consequently, they missed the trip to the Olympics. But, amidst the disappointment and uncertainty, they continued to work hard and won their first big medal (silver at 2014 Four Continents) and an 8th place at the Worlds in Saitama, ten places higher than last year. And I for one could read their answers again and again: they are candid, touching, breathing an air of confidence and optimism in spite of all the setbacks.

by Florentina Tone

I’d like to start with that: you’ve only been for two seasons on the international scene – so you’re relatively new as an ice dance couple – still, the innovations in your routines already brought you a lot of admirers. It seems that creativity is the ace up your sleeve – but where does this come from? Is it you? Is it your coach, your choreographer? Who’s responsible for your wonderful innovations?

Piper Gilles: I think we just have such a great team. Our coaches are amazing and always finding ways to push us, and I think the other half really comes from Paul and I. We really know how each other work and we have one goal in mind and we aren’t scared of going after our dreams.

Paul Poirier: I think our creative style stems from all of us. Our choreography is really a team effort with all of us (Piper, myself and the coaches) contributing ideas. I think we work well as a team together precisely in that none of us are satisfied unless we have pieced together something fresh and novel. Working with so many people also gives us many options, which we can compare; having this variety of ideas from different sources/stemming from different visions allows us to have a multitude of different steps/patterns/elements from which we can select the best ones.

During the Olympic season, even your short dance looked a little bit different from the rest. Would you like to tell me more about your set of programs – short and free – for the season recently ended? To me, your free dance was a masterpiece – who chose the theme, the music, who did the choreography?

Piper: I think our ability to do different things really helps Paul and I pull off these kinds of programs. We have a really fun and goofy personality, which helps us pull off these types of characters because we aren’t afraid of what people will think. Carol Lane and Juris Razgulajevs choreographed both free dance and short dance last season.

When it comes to choosing music it’s really a group effort. Paul and I knew that we wanted to do something really dark, but we weren’t quite sure what year. Then Carol came in with the idea of doing a program called Directors cut and we were sold. As we started choreographing, the program just started doing itself and that’s always a sign of something genius or at least we think so.

Paul: Last season, given my injury and the lack of time, both programs were choreographed at home with Carol and Juris. Piper and I were listening to a lot of dark tunes when searching for free dance music, and, serendipitously, Carol came back from Junior Worlds telling us about the marvelous music she had heard on the plane. It was exactly what we wanted. The movie “Hitchcock” provided us with a firm story-line/theme and, from there, the program essentially choreographed itself.

The short dance last season was interesting in that the entire program was choreographed while I was off the ice. Usually, during choreography, Piper and I try things out to see how they feel, but we did not have that luxury this year. It was an interesting process (one I’d rather not repeat) and I think the program turned out well despite this setback.

I think what was key for us last season is that for both programs we spent a lot of time working on acting, style, and the characters, since that was all we could do while I was injured. Because of this I feel like we gained valuable insight into how important these aspects of the program are. It is something we will continue to focus on in upcoming seasons.

Piper and Paul in Moscow, last November, skating their short program (Photo courtesy of Natasha Ponarina)

Piper and Paul in Moscow, last November, skating their short program (Photo courtesy of Natasha Ponarina)

You’ve been working with the famous Christopher Dean. What does he bring to your dancing?

Piper: Chris has this amazing ability to know exactly what kind of character he would like to see when he hears a certain type of music, so, the last couple times we have come to work with him, he has really been trying to play up the character aspect. He also knows what of athletes Paul and I are, so he is never shy about giving us difficult choreography in our programs, especially our new show program, that we will be debuting this season at our Grand Prix’s.

Paul: We have worked with Christopher in the past, and it is a process we enjoy. As I said earlier, it is always best to have as many different visions as possible. Chris keeps us interested and very challenged by introducing to movements and styles that we are perhaps less familiar with, as well as providing another critical eye to all the programs we perform. Last season he choreographed a new exhibition number for us. We would like to keep him on our team in the coming years.

How was this season for you? You seem to have started it pretty well, with a fifth and a sixth place at the Grand Prix Events you attended (NHK Trophy and Rostelecom Cup), but then failed to be named into the Canadian Olympic team, being fourth at the Canadian Nationals; and only a few weeks later, you won silver at Four Continents…

Piper: This past season was an up and down roller coaster kind of a year. With Paul breaking his ankle last May, it really set our training back. Luckily, we already had our free dance done, but that left us choreographing our short dance with Paul on the side lines, watching as our coach Juris skated with me and choreographed it. He was able to put his skate on at the beginning of August, but was only able to do 5 minutes at a time. As the weeks began to pass, he slowly was able to do a little more and a little more, until we were able to start doing some program stuff. We didn’t really start training again until the beginning of October, which left us about a month to train new programs and compete at NHK Trophy. We were so proud of ourselves at how much we had overcome, but we still felt like we were behind. The rest of the season we really felt like we were playing catch up with all of the other teams.

As for not making the Olympic team, yes, it was a little bit of a disappointment, because we really skated our hearts out at Canadians, but at the end of the day it made us stronger because we went to Four Continents with a bit of fire in our eyes, to prove we were still contenders to go to the World Championships if Tessa and Scott didn’t go. As for the Worlds, we really showed how much we could improve with the little extra training time we had on not making the Olympic team. It was a thrilling experience to be in the top 10 at Worlds and knowing that we jumped 10 places from our 18th place finish from the last year was a huge accomplishment and we could not be more proud.

Paul: This season was, to simply put it, a roller coaster. The Grand Prix did not go as we would have wished (given the expectations we gave ourselves at the beginning of the season), but considering our circumstances, and having only trained the programs for about a month, we were fairly pleased with how the events turned out. What was important for us at that point was not the result, but simply skating and making the statement “Yes, we’re back”. We couldn’t have asked for more from ourselves.

After the Grand Prix, we had our first good bout of training, as well as some feedback, which we could use to help us improve. We knew all our competitors had a head start. Once we got to Canadians, it was most certainly a devastating result. But again, given the circumstances, we had to be content with showing two very strong performances without mistakes. The programs were still slow and tentative. How could they not be?

The turn-around to Four Continents was quick, and a blessing, since we had no time to dwell on our defeat. We were exhausted (so was everyone) and I remember being so grateful for the intense practice leading up to Canadians and the muscle memory it had provided me with. We didn’t try too hard, we relied on our training, and it led to a strong result, and some consolation for the trip to Sochi we were about to miss.

February was difficult. The Olympics were constantly in all forms of media, a persistent reminder of failure. However, we also knew that we might be competing at Worlds. It’s difficult to train amidst uncertainty, but we willed ourselves to work. We did the kind of work we normally would have done in the fall in a normal season, reassessing the programs, tweaking bits here and there to increase speed, flow, quality. It was the first chance we had to do so last season.

In retrospect, not being in Sochi was a sort of blessing. Had we spent the month of February at the Games, we would’ve had no time to prepare for Worlds. It was crucial. Worlds were the first event last season we truly felt on top of our programs. It showed.

Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier performing their Hitchcock routine in Moscow, at 2013 Rostelecom Cup (Photo courtesy of Natasha Ponarina)

Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier performing their Hitchcock routine in Moscow, at 2013 Rostelecom Cup (Photo courtesy of Natasha Ponarina)

With this season’s programs you set the bar really high in terms of innovations and creativity; what about next season? Have you chosen your musical pieces, the concept/theme for your new free dance? I’m sure your admirers would love to know a little bit more in advance…

Piper: I think the only thing that we can give away at this point is that we might be doing something that will show a side of Paul and I that you haven’t seen before. We will still keep our difficult and innovative lifts, but we are definitely trying to grow our relationship between one another.

Paul: We have so many program ideas for the future, and we definitely won’t be able to create them all. Fortunately, every once in a while a piece of music just grabs you and you know it’s the right one. We have not finalized music choices yet for this year. I can tell you at this point in time that the free this year will be very different: it will be much lighter and dancy. We very much liked working with characters last season and think that we’d like to perhaps try this again with one of the programs this year.

What about the Paso Doble for the short program? Does it suit you – or you have to try harder in order to appropriate it, to make it yours?

Piper: So far, our Paso already seems to be very strong. I am a huge fan of this dance and I can’t wait to see what all the teams are going to come up with!

Paul: The Paso Doble will be a challenge in that it requires a very strong presence from both the male and the female, something on which we are still working. On the other hand, our power and dynamic skating lends itself much better to the Paso than other softer dances such as a waltz, so we will have an advantage there. On top of this, we do not necessarily need to perform a Paso Doble for our SD, but we can choose from a variety of Spanish dances such as flamenco, fandango etc. It gives us a lot of options and we can choose based on what suits us best.

Piper, looking at the outfits you’re wearing – in Saitama, at the Worlds’ closing banquet, you had a stunning dress – you surely have a passion for fashion. How does this translate into skating?

Piper: I am a huge fashion nut and I’m always studying up on what’s going on in the trends. I spend a lot of my free time going through magazines, looking at different fashions over the decades and shopping online, so, by the time next season comes and we start choosing music, I already have an idea of what our costumes are going to look like. I’m also attending Ryerson University for creative industries, which is fashion and business media.

In retrospect, was there any moment of your career so far that you’re particularly fond of?

Piper: Being a pretty new team we haven’t yet accomplished everything we’ve wanted to, but I think the highest moments for me was when we won our first Senior B in Salt Lake City and getting our first medal at a championship at Four Continents.

Paul: As much as it was probably one of my worst moments, I think the recovery process from this injury has been a truly definitive time in my (and our) career. We had to take the rubble of the season we had planned for ourselves and make the most of the dust. We had to be creative in training as much as possible without aggravating the injury. We had to learn to communicate better to ensure that we were always on the same page, and that we knew what we expected of ourselves. We had to be so determined to succeed. On a personal level, it was such an important reminder of why I loved to skate.

I remember being stuck in bed. But I also remember fighting, and overcoming obstacles in the tiniest of steps, and sharing them with Piper and the coaches. I think this season is one we’ll carry with us in to next quadrennial, to remind ourselves of how much we accomplished despite the setbacks, and, therefore, how great the possibilities are if we train well.

Piper and Paul in Moscow, last November; the short dance was skated on music sang by Caro Emerald (Photo courtesy of Natasha Ponarina)

Piper and Paul in Moscow, last November; the short dance was skated on music sang by Caro Emerald (Photo courtesy of Natasha Ponarina)

Short/long term plans? I hope you’re here to stay – and consider skating at least till 2018 Olympics in South Korea…

Piper: Yes, we are planning on staying together all the way through the 2018 Olympics in South Korea. But as for short term goals we would really like to make the Grand Prix Final this year and really just keep climbing up the World Rankings.

Paul: Piper and I have discussed this, and the plan definitely includes sticking around until Pyeongchang, South Korea. When pairing up, we both discussed wanting to be on the World and Olympic podiums, and we knew that it most likely wouldn’t be a possibility in Sochi (only 3 years into our partnership). I think we are only now really beginning to gel together, to find our style and to work as a unit instead of separate skaters. I think this is our quadrennial to thrive. Of course, we’ll have to push ourselves in order to achieve what we want to, but I think we’re really trying to tackle this entire quadrennial as a unit. We’re looking at our end goal (the podium), and exploring how we can use each season to inch ourselves closer to that goal, both in our training and the results we wish to have.

Are there any ice dance couples that you admire in the history of the discipline, that you aspire to be like…?

Piper: I think both Paul and I really admire Torvill and Dean, not just because we have had the chance to work with him, but the fact that they made ice dance so recognizable. They made everything look like one person and were always thinking out of the box for program ideas. I also really idealized Tanith Belbin when I was growing up. She had so much presence on the ice and was truly an ice dance diva – I knew right then that I wanted to be like her.

Paul: Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean have served as a huge inspiration to us. Their innovative programs have contributed so much to the sport, and over the years they have created so many novel things. I think that is something we aim to do as well.

I also have a particular fondness for Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko (also big names in the history of the sport, I know). To me there is such joy in their skating, and as a spectator you cannot help but to have an affective response to their strong presence on the ice, their beautiful lines, elegant positions. I think these are all things that Piper and I can work towards, in order to improve our own skating.