A keen, palpable sense of anticipation surrounded Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron’s return to competitive ice, after what has been the longest pause between events they’ve ever experienced. But don’t be fooled by words like pause, or absence: the French ice dancers didn’t stop training, making plans, dreaming big.
On the contrary: they had the time to do it all – and, most importantly, they had the time to think ahead to the Olympics, and make this season’s programs exactly as they envisioned them to be.
The energetic, addictive, eye-catching waacking rhythm dance. And that free dance full of details, full of colours, to Gabriel Fauré’s Élégie, carrying so many of their thoughts, their creativity.
Ils dansent leur dernier tango, they wrote about the free dance.
“We liked the idea of dancing our last tango – just because when you do something for the last time, it has a different flavour, it has a different feeling to it, it adds a different value. In this program, and in the music, there was an idea of grieving something that is very enjoyable, so it’s beauty, and grief, and fear, and anger at the same time – there’s so many layers to it”.
And though the dance itself can easily be seen as a legacy, and though Gabriella and Guillaume had specific things in mind when putting it together (do read this part!), don’t look for definitive answers – they are not there.
What is there is their sheer commitment to their skating, their programs – and the goal they have embraced this season.
interview by Florentina Tone/Torino
Gabriella, Guillaume, there were 20 months in between 2020 Europeans in Graz, your last event, and Masters de Patinage in Épinal, at the beginning of this October – the longest time you didn’t compete. How did you keep yourselves motivated? How did you use the time?
Gabriella: Obviously, it was a challenge, the whole 20 months… First, we were very disappointed because the Worlds got cancelled, especially because it was in Montreal, and then it was the whole lockdown situation, where we couldn’t train for three months, which was a challenge in itself.
And then we started training again, we got into shape a bit, we started preparing for the Grand Prix-s, and they got cancelled. There was this situation where it was hard to keep up with all day disappointments. Because when you’re training for something, and it doesn’t happen, it’s not easy – for anyone. And every skater was in the same position.
So it was a challenge the whole time: we had never experienced something like this, and we were kind of in that period of waiting for a competition not knowing if it’s going to happen or not.
Until we decided not to go to Worlds [2021 Worlds in Stockholm]… And that was a choice that was empowering to us, because it just got us out of this unknown – and we started putting all of our efforts and time into thinking ahead to the Olympic season, and start preparing the new programs.
And that was great, actually: we had a lot of time to do the choreography, work with specialists and choreographers that we’d never worked with before. We had time to do the programs that we wanted to do.
And it also got us time to rest, that we didn’t take for… never, actually [smiling], and we’re starting this season pretty rested, and with a lot of energy.
“WE CHOSE A MUSIC WHERE WE COULD HAVE ALL OF THOSE COLOURS THAT WE LIKE”
Talking about your programs this season, let’s just do an accolade here – and start from the tango free dance that you prepared for last season. That particular free dance, which remained unseen, turned into something still wearing the clothes of a tango, but different, to Gabriel Fauré’s Élégie… How was to make the switch from that dance to this one, how was it to prepare it?
Guillaume: Yes, we choreographed the tango for last year’s program, which we liked a lot. But, actually, more than the music, we liked the feeling of the program, the attack and the passion.
Did it have something to do with the tango rhythm dance that you had a while ago?
Guillaume: Yes, we had really enjoyed doing a tango in the rhythm dance – so, as a transition program, before the Olympic year, Gaby suggested that we would do a tango, because we liked doing that short dance, and we thought we never really got to do a tango free dance.
And then, later on, trying to create something for the Olympic year, we considered keeping it – but then we kind of felt it wasn’t rich enough. Like we needed something that had a little bit more layers to it. But we wanted to keep a part of the tango feeling and some of the elements, so we tried to choose a music where we could have all of those colours that we like.
We wanted something that was our style, but also that would challenge us to do something different. And we wanted to be able to incorporate some lyrical, more classical movements with contemporary ones, and still have that passion layer to it – we really wanted something that we could attack more this year, with the energy that we had at the moment.
And how was the music chosen, Gabriel Fauré’s Élégie? Romain, your coach, said that maybe you had it on your list for a while…
Guillaume: Every year we search for musics, so we have a pretty big list and… I think I introduced the piece a few years ago. A little bit every year, actually [laughing], but it wasn’t meant to be.
And this year, I think it just reunited all the pieces of the puzzle that we wanted.
And the cello? Was this intentional, to skate to the sound of cello as well – in addition to all the other instruments you skated to?
Guillaume: Yes, I mean, we love the piano, but we skated to a lot of piano music and the cello is another instrument that we like a lot, because it’s very rich and it works really well with skating – and the combination of the piano and the cello is particularly enjoyable to skate to.
You worked with a specific choreographer for this free dance…
Guillaume: The choreographer that we chose to help us, her name is Saxon Fraser. She’s very versatile: she has done so many styles of dance, a lot of ballroom, but also mostly contemporary and everything.
And it was perfect to work with her because she really understood where we were really trying to go with this program. And it was really nice to be able to only use that piece, and not do a mash-up of several pieces of the same artist. It’s something that we’ve always been a little bit frustrated, to cut pieces, especially when they’re like… masterpieces [smiling].
And this piece in particular [Élégie, by Gabriel Fauré] has a really nice crescendo that I think is very enjoyable and makes a really nice structure for the program.
When it comes to the overall packaging of this free dance, you started the season with particular costumes – and then, in Italy, you skated with brand new sparkling ones. Is this the final version, is it a work in progress?
Gabriella: I think costumes are always a work in progress. We tried something that we wore at the first two competitions, Masters and Finlandia, and the idea was great, but it didn’t look like we wanted it. I mean, after seeing it in pictures and videos, we were like: Hmmm, there’s something lacking, we could do better.
And so we tried something else here – we don’t know how it will end and… what we would end up wearing at the Games, but that’s definitely closer to what we want it to look like.
“ILS DANSENT LEUR DERNIER TANGO…”
This season, you also used teasers for your programs. And a particular line from the free dance teaser, “ils dansent leur dernier tango…”/”they’re dancing their last tango”, made people wonder: is this the story of the dance, the story you wanna portray on the ice? Or is it your own story as well, your last dance in a competitive arena? I’ll put it differently: did you look post-Beijing?
Guillaume: It’s actually hard to make a decision right now, because we don’t know how we will feel after the Games. But that’s not really what the program is about, I think. We liked the idea of dancing our last tango – just because when you do something for the last time, it has a different flavour, it has a different feeling to it, it adds a different value.
In this program, and in the music, there was an idea of grieving something that is very enjoyable, so it’s like beauty, and grief, and fear, and anger at the same time. And imagining that’s the last time that we skate, it’s a little bit of the same thing: there’s so many layers to it, there’s so many feelings attached to that idea. And I think it’s very rich for us to explore that theme.
Gabriella: Yeah, and that was also very present in our decision for the program now – because, 4 years ago, before PyeongChang, we were pretty sure that we’re gonna keep skating. It was almost 100% sure that we’d continue to skate.
And, I think, this time is not as clear.
We’re a bit older, and we’re somewhere else in our lives, so we don’t know if we’ll keep skating. We might, we might not – but if we don’t, what program do we want to be our last?
And it couldn’t have been just anything – it had to be special, and we put a lot of our thoughts into creating something that we would be proud of, if it was our last. That was the intention that we had.
If we reached PyeongChang, is there any useful lesson or experience that you can take from 4 years ago and bring it, to your use, in Beijing? And how did you enter this season, what thoughts, knowing it’s the Olympic one, and that you already have one edition of the Games under your belt?
Guillaume: We for sure have a lot more experience now, a lot more maturity – but I think our mindset going into this year is really different than 4 years ago.
[At the time] I think we knew that we were equally favorites with Tessa and Scott to win the gold, but I think it’s something that we never… We were scared to actually have that goal, a little bit. Because, you know, the fear of disappointment…
And this year we are choosing not to be scared of it. And really just embrace that goal that we have: we are going for the gold and we really believe in that goal. So, this time, we have a different mindset, definitely.
“WE COMPLETELY FELL IN LOVE WITH WAACKING”
Let’s talk about your rhythm dance as well: who came with the idea of waacking? And how was the process of making the program within this season’s theme?
Gabriella: The theme was street dance, yes. And, you know, because we had time because of the pandemic, we worked with a dancer in Montreal, that’s called Kim Gingras.
And we asked her: Can you make us dance many different styles? To see what we like, to see what feels good in our body – because sometimes you can think something is good in your head and then you try it, and it’s not good. Or you can be surprised when you start dancing to some music that you haven’t thought of: Oh, I actually like that!
And she did that, she made us try many styles, and at first we started liking voguing and then, through voguing, we started to bring more in that direction – and I think it’s Marie-France who came up with the idea of waacking, that we didn’t know about.
She said: Oh, there’s another style that’s kind of the same vein – and she showed us videos, and we really liked it. And then we called the waacking specialist that Sam Chouinard knew, Axelle Munezero, and we started working with her.
The first hour we met her, she talked to us about the history of the dance, and where it came from, and how it evolved, what it means, and we completely fell in love – and then we started dancing, and then we fell in love again, and it was kind of like that!
We started working with her a lot, no choreography at first – for several weeks we were just doing basics and started waacking on different types of music, trying to find our own style… Because waacking is large, and the meaning is to find your own thing in that, so we were trying to do that, she even made us battle between each other [laughing], and it was super fun!
And, eventually, we ended up doing the choreography [smiling].
“WE MISSED THE ADRENALINE, WE MISSED SKATING IN FRONT OF AN AUDIENCE, THE THRILL OF JUST PERFORMING AND HAVING THAT ENERGY BACK”
Three competitions under your belt, are you happy with how everything works? But, first of all, was it emotional, your comeback in a competitive arena, at Masters de Patinage in Épinal? Did you feel nervous?
Guillaume [smiles]: It was a nice crescendo, actually – we started with a small national competition… and we are always there nervous on our first competition, you can’t forget how it feels like to be stressed. But we were just so grateful to be competing again, we had really missed it.
What did you miss about it?
Guillaume: We missed the adrenaline, somehow [laughing], we missed skating in front of an audience… Training is good, but you train for something! And we need that something to make sense of our training.
So it’s just… the adrenaline, the thrill of performing and having that energy back, and being alone on the ice, and having that feeling with the costumes, you know, the whole thing!
We’re competitors since we were babies, basically, it’s part of who we are, and I think we need those high moments – and it makes the practice after a lot easier too, because you’ve tried the program, you’ve got feedback and then you know what to work on, you know how it feels in a competition setting.
And, yes, we’re very happy with where we are right now – it was actually going from bigger and bigger events, our programs have evolved a lot, we made some changes on the short dance as well, the middle part.
Everything is actually evolving really well, but we’re perfectionists, so there’s a lot of things that we want to make better, technically or artistically, in the overall performance, there’s a lot of room for growth, a lot of work to be done still, and we’re excited to do it.
[interview by Florentina Tone, Torino/photos by Alberto Ponti, Askar Ibragimov]
MORE TO SEE:
THROUGH THE LENS. Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron: the Olympic programs