There’s so much certainty, so much conviction in this line – one that Benoît Richaud expresses towards the end of our interview in Montpellier, France, at 2022 Worlds –, that you won’t doubt it for a second.
He knew from the moment he started working with Kaori Sakamoto, in the spring of 2017 – and even more so now, when Kaori is the Olympic bronze medalist and 2022 World champion.
Where does this utter trust come from, you ask? The source of it? Their partnership.
Their five-year journey through the good, the growth and the excitement, but also through the struggles.
Trust the numbers, if not anything else: out of Kaori’s 9 senior programs, 7 were choreographed by Benoît Richaud. In fact, the story of Kaori’s senior career, right from the start, is also the story of her successful partnership with the French choreographer. And a shared journey of discoveries: what she can do, what she can be, based on her incredible potential, and the team effort to bring to surface and emphasize her (out of this world) qualities.
The flow, the speed, the edge, the glide.
The choreographer is in awe: “She does one crossover, one bracket, before a double Axel, and she can cross all ice rink just by doing that! You can give that to anyone, they will do 10 meters – she will do 35 meters! It’s just unbelievable!”
There’s no such thing as a quote without meaning, without intention in this candid interview with choreographer Benoît Richaud, focusing on his most prominent pupil: Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto.
And the interview itself was a preview to Kaori’s glorious moment at 2022 Worlds: a day after her short program, a day before the free. In Montpellier, Kaori Sakamoto was the embodiment of freedom, in her skating, her glide across the ice and her expression, exuding happiness, excitement when claiming the gold medal.
She was free to really show what she could do, and feel it to the fingertips.
On the side, a proud choreographer didn’t have the slightest trace of doubt that she would shine.
And because this is, in fact, the story of their story, season by season, ever since Kaori enchanted the world as the girl in a red dress skating to music from the French movie Amélie, here and there along this interview with choreographer Benoît Richaud we’ll make you hear Kaori’s voice as well.
Reactions to their work together, drawn out from competitions in the last five seasons, lessons she learned over the years, discoveries she made about herself, feelings, certainties, revelations.
Kaori does not doubt it – and neither do we: her work with the French choreographer helped her grow.
You’ll notice that throughout the story, as we put a magnifying glass on their partnership – and you’ll hear yet another (trustworthy) prediction from Benoît Richaud.
“I think people started to realize what Kaori can do – and the next four years can bring something very magical on ice”.
by Florentina Tone/Montpellier
I will start with that: in the press conference after the women’s short program at 2022 Worlds in Montpellier [Kaori Sakamoto was in the lead, with a personal best score of 80.32 points – ed.], Kaori credited you with learning new movements, with her artistic development, with her components getting higher. What do you think about everything that she said?
Benoît Richaud: You know, as a choreographer, it’s my job to make my skaters become who they have to be. And to make them appreciated by the skating world.
And working with Kaori was exactly that: I teach people, teach her, and teach myself that things are possible.
I’ve been working with Kaori for five years already, and I could see her potential from the beginning.
But who approached who, and when did that happen?
We were at 2017 Junior World Championships [in Taipei City; Kaori finished third – ed.].
I got in contact with Kaori’s coaches, who were interested to make a choreography with me. And, of course, I said: Yes, because it was a big honor and it was my first time working with Japanese skaters. It was her and Mai Mihara.
2017-2018 SEASON. “KAORI IS SPECIAL – AND I WANTED TO SHOW THAT”
Actually, the first programs that come to (our) mind when thinking about Kaori Sakamoto are the programs that you choreographed for her, for her first senior season, 2017-2018, which also included Kaori’s first trip to the Olympics: her short program to Moonlight Sonata and her free skate to music from the movie Amélie. How was the work going – what do you remember? How do you usually work? Did Kaori come to France to work with you back then?
She came to California – I was in California, doing choreographies there.
And so she came to California, we choreographed Amélie Poulain, her free program, and it was kind of a funny story, because, at the time, because she was not so popular and famous, I was kind of free to choose a little bit what I wanted to do.
So I said: I want to have her skate on Amélie. Because Kaori is special, she has something unique, and I wanted to really show that uniqueness, I wanted to show that she’s different.
And that’s why I chose this music.
And in the summer, so three months later, they invited me to work on the program, and they also told me the short program they had didn’t work, and they wanted to change it.
And then I choreographed her a short program on Moonlight Sonata. They had just asked me to make something, and I opened my phone, it was all very quick, and I said: I think she needs to go for a classical piece, something very well-known. But we’re gonna do it, of course, in a different way.
And I also suggested [the coaches] to backload all the jumps [in her SP], because I realized that all the Russians were doing that to maximize their technical scores, and when I saw Kaori’s technical ability, I said: You are more than good to do that.
And we did it. And she skated clean all season long. She did, I think, clean short programs on every competition she entered.
“THE GIRL IN THE RED DRESS, SKATING ON AMÉLIE”
Looking back, what do you see when thinking about Kaori’s first Olympics? Because to us, to many, that’s when people really started seeing, noticing Kaori Sakamoto… And her programs that season really made her stand out.
Her first Olympics was, I think, to make a name up. Not that she was not into figure skating before, but from these Olympics I think people noticed who Kaori Sakamoto was.
Because you like, you don’t like, you love, whatever, in good or bad, but one good thing about Olympics is that after that edition of the Games, everyone remembered her.
The girl in the red dress skating on Amélie Poulain.
And that was exactly what I wanted: that’s why I did some very precise choreography at that point, I also gave some freedom moments in the program, because I wanted the program to really look different – because she is like that.
But how did you work with Kaori preparing this season, how did you get along, did she know a bit of English at the time?
It was a very organic process, we don’t speak much, actually. You know, when I work, I’m not a big talker. I like to share by movement and by figure skating. Our language is figure skating.
Some people like to speak and explain – I do not like that. I like to speak more after, when we had created the programs… Because, you know, if I were such a good talker, then I would be a writer, I would not be a choreographer [and one can actually see a smile beneath Benoît’s mask, beneath his yellow glasses].
And that’s what I teach my skaters too: to let it go.
On ice, we let our bodies go, we work together, and we understand each other this way. And Kaori, she understands me just by the way I look at her, or if I do one movement in one way: if I just put the right shoulder up [showing the gesture], she would know what I mean.
Throughout the season, do you see each other more, to refine the choreography?
Yes, I always meet her like a few times during the season. Before COVID it was very easy: I was always going to her, or she was coming to me.
►►► Kaori Sakamoto on her first senior season and first Olympics in 2018: “In PyeongChang I was basically the youngest person in the team and, in a way, I had nothing to fear. It was just about giving it my all, and I was simply following the more experienced skaters. I was a follower and I didn’t have to think too much – so that first year was quite easy”.
[Press conference, 2022 Worlds]
►►► Kaori on her second senior season: “The second year I was an Olympian so I knew that I wanted to achieve good results and, thanks to that, I was able to take part in all of the competitions that I wanted to. I clinched my first Japan national title, I also advanced to the Grand Prix Final for the first time and I was also chosen to come to the World Championships for the first time – so that second season was also very good”.
[Press conference, 2022 Worlds]
2018-2019 SEASON: “WITH THE PIANO I WANTED TO BRING MATURITY”
What about her second senior season? You choreographed Kaori’s Piano free skate, which is a favorite to so many. Why did you choose that for her?
After doing something almost sarcastic, funny, a little bit modern in Amélie, a little bit like a suspense, I’d like to call it, because you don’t really know what to expect, with The Piano I wanted to bring maturity.
That’s what I was looking for: I wanted to really show the transition from a young woman to a woman.
And I think that’s how the program builds.
But the funny fact with The Piano is that nobody liked it at first. I don’t speak about her coaching team – the coaches liked the idea and everything. No, I speak about the people. Nobody noticed the program at the beginning of the season, in the first half of the season.
Well, not to disagree or anything, but we did – we did notice it in Bergamo, at Lombardia Trophy. But I see your point…
Nobody spoke about it. And then, at the World Championships, suddenly, at the last competition, everyone talked about it – from the Nationals, because she won the National Championships.
But the idea [of this program] was very precise. I always do something because I have a precise idea: where I want to bring Kaori. And then I find a way to do it.
And The Piano was, at that moment, the right program to do exactly what I wanted – because from that program, all the components started to increase in the way that I wanted.
►►► Kaori Sakamoto on how working with Benoît Richaud changed her approach to skating: “Up until this season [her second senior season – ed.], I was only paying attentions to the jumps, and wouldn’t think too much about the choreography. But then I learned from coach Benoît that every move in the choreography has meaning and it’s important, and I became very aware of the choreography during routine training. … My goal this season was to become mature”.
[Kaori Sakamoto: the coming of age]
►►► Kaori, after winning her first national title, in December 2018: “When I saw my score [for the free skate], I thought it was a mistake: How come I got 150? … After the [Grand Prix] Final, I further polished my free skate, and I remembered that coach Benoît told me to pay more attention to my facial expression. I think the work really paid off”.
[Kaori Sakamoto: the coming of age]
2019-2020 SEASON: MATRIX. “KAORI IS THE BEST DESIGNER OF SKATING SKILLS ON THE ICE”
The following season you did…
Kaori’s free skate…
At that time I was only doing the free, she wanted to try other choreographers as well.
The idea of Matrix for Kaori was… First of all, I think it’s brilliant: the music is a masterpiece, and I just realized that no woman skated on it. You know? I didn’t remember any woman skating on it.
And then I realized she’s the perfect skater for that music – because we can really build something to show her ability to move on the ice. Over the years, I really started to develop an idea that Kaori Sakamoto is the best designer of skating skills on the ice. For me, she’s the only one who can really skate [categorical].
Some people, sometimes, they say on twitter or elsewhere: Oh, but Kaori…, I don’t understand why she gets so high components… And I always say: Come on the ice. Come and do that.
Because some skaters look cleaner on Youtube, but then when you put them on the ice, and you look at them after Kaori, you’re like: Oh, Kaori is [from] another world!
Because people make the mistake with being clean with the upper body, and being clean with the legs. But we do figure skating!, that’s the name of it, and people tend to forget that.
And every time people saw her live, everyone always said to me: Oh, My God! I didn’t know!
Of course you didn’t know! But if you look at her, the way she skates, the performance, the way she glides is another world!
And I think now people recognized that – and that was the whole point of Matrix. Because Matrix was the program where I really started to show, one hundred percent, her ability to flow – much more than anyone else.
But Matrix was also a transition program for her – she changed, she started to be a woman, and I think it took a while… During the season, I was kind of disappointed because nobody mentioned the program was nice, or something special – and for me it was a big upsetting moment.
But then, because of COVID, she decided to keep it [for the following season] and…
►►► Kaori on her struggles at the time: “With COVID, for several months we weren’t able to practice. And I realized that none of us were able to practice, so then it occurred to me that if I trained really hard on the land, did land training, off ice training, then I could probably improve and get better than my competition. So I just really did everything that I could off ice, and that helped me gain upward momentum.
Ever since then, things kept getting better and better, so now, as I look back on my second season with Matrix, when it was really hard, I realized that you can only come up after you fall so low – and that for me has been the biggest learning over the last four years, that having gone through that struggle has helped me come out and grow”.
[Press conference, 2022 Worlds]
2020-2021 SEASON: MATRIX 2.0. KAORI’S BIGGEST STRENGTH? “HER FLOW!”
When Kaori took Matrix back, the year after, the program finally became [what it was meant to be], and everyone started to realize: Oh, My God, this is amazing!
And taking bits of the program to TikTok, to social media, because Kaori got very viral with all the choreo step sequence – which was the whole idea!
You know, the Matrix program was a bit of a mix of Amélie and The Piano: it means that it had some very memorable moments, a lot of maturity – and I wanted to show something more dark, a little bit, but more… sassy, in a way.
I feel like the way she does it, in the second part, she’s playful – but I also wanted to increase all the things that she flows, much more than the other ones, and she has a lot of speed!, and she has a lot of curve!, and she glides!, and she has so much edge!
If we were to stop right here for a second, what would you say Kaori’s biggest quality, her biggest strength is?
Ah, the flow!
Her flow on the ice – I mean, she has more flow than the men!
Have you seen it? She does one crossover, one bracket, before a double Axel, and she can cross all ice rink just by doing that!
You can give that to anyone, they will do 10 meters – she will do 35 meters! It’s just unbelievable!
And that’s what I’ve been working with her also, and not just with the choreography – I also work a lot with her skating skills. Because I can change the way my skaters skate by doing exercises, that’s also my specialty. And that’s what I also did with her, and it worked – a lot!
“I WANTED THE JUDGES TO FEEL THEY ARE THESE PEOPLE FROM MATRIX!”
And almost “cutting” the judges’ heads with her blade – how was that move thought of? It became Kaori’s trademark – when you think of her Matrix, you think of this particular move!
Yes, that was the whole idea!
When you see this slo-mo movement in the movie, when they give the guy a kick, and you see him leaning backwards – I wanted the judges to feel they are these people! That they are actually there, that they are the guys from Matrix, and she’s kicking them with the foot!
And it really gives the feeling like in the movie, like it’s in slow-motion: when she does it, you feel like something stopped, you’re not even in the program anymore! That’s really what I wanted to do!
HER JAZZY SHORT PROGRAM: “HAVE KAORI EXPLORE A LITTLE BIT MORE THE WOMAN’S SIDE”
And you also did Kaori’s short program that season, 2020-2021 season…
Yes, Bach à la Jazz.
With Bach à la Jazz I wanted to bring something a little bit more conservative, but still very modern. Bach is a classic composer, but the way the music was treated, it was like jazz. And that’s something I wanted to do, to have her explore a little bit more the woman’s side.
I don’t like to use the word feminity, because using feminity I think it’s really putting the girl on a very low stage. I think a woman can be whatever she wants, feminine, not feminine – but in skating people always say: She has to be feminine. So I don’t like this word – I like to say instead I wanted to bring her personality out, her playfulness, being a bit sassy, a little bit different.
And that’s why I chose that music, which is like a charming piece.
►►► Kaori on her Bach à la Jazz short program at 2021 Worlds in Stockholm: “There is a distinct contrast between the first and the second half of this short program. The first half is rather soft and smooth, whereas the jazzy second half only has steps and spins, so I wanted to make sure I perform it in a way where those watching could feel the excitement”.
[Mixed zone, 2021 Worlds]
We did that program online. Actually, from COVID on, for two years already I have been working with Kaori online. She’s the only one who did everything online, I think.
I only saw her once in two years, when I went to Japan for a week. But outside of that, I was only working with her online. Prior to the World Championships here in Montpellier, I haven’t seen her since September. But, I mean, I see her every day on Zoom.
I keep a lot of contact with Kaori, the communication with my skaters is very important.
2021-2022 SEASON: FREEDOM
Let’s talk about this season – and this season’s programs. Exactly like it happened for her first Olympic season, for this one too you choreographed both the short and the free for Kaori. Is this what we feel it is? The very essence of freedom? She talked about it, about being free, liberate, especially when it comes to her Gladiator short program. How was this season thought of?
This season I think it was finally the season when we could do more than just figure skating.
And that was the whole point: I wanted to show her that in the way we work there is much more than figure skating.
And for me it was clear that an Olympic season needs a strong message. And I think Kaori is one of the skaters who “speaks” very easily to everyone. Because… it’s inside her, I cannot really explain why.
And that’s why I suggested her a short program speaking about freedom, because I believe everyone should be free, especially in 2022. And I feel very sad that not a lot of people are free.
And you can see freedom in many different ways – and that was also the whole point: I wanted people to feel something about that.
And in the free skate I wanted to extend that freedom to woman. Because I think they are connected.
So it was thought of as a package…
It’s a total package, yes.
It’s actually the same voice: the voice over you can hear, it’s the same woman who speaks in the short and speaks in the free. So it’s a total package, yes.
KAORI’S STRUGGLES WITH HER FREE PROGRAM – THEN HER TRUST
But how did this Woman free program come to life, what was the journey of it? And did Kaori embrace the idea from the start?
At first, she was Ok, but the problem was that we created the program online and, one week later, she had to skate it in a show.
And, of course, it was not good – when you have to skate a program that was one-week new.
The program was not ready, she got, I think, bad feedback – and then she started to, maybe, question [the choice], which I totally understand, because it’s an Olympic season, and everyone is worried, because everyone wants the best.
And so she said she wanted to take back The Piano, to which I said: It’s a mistake. But I also said: It’s your own choice, if you want to do it. And then she did it, she skated it for one competition, and then she realized it was a mistake. And I said: Of course, because Piano was created for how you were three years ago. Not for now.
And then she trusted me. And if you think about it, that’s the first season that she could skate clean from the beginning.
And nobody realized it, but that’s the whole strategy I put together [for her].
I am a choreographer, I like art, I like everything – but I’m also someone who likes to win. You know? Not everyone likes to win.
And what I want to say is: I did it, and it worked – because she was skating clean both her programs all the time. So that means I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and I was happy that she trusted me, because I told her: I had the whole plan in my head ready for you, for the Olympics, to do what you are doing right now.
Everything was in my head, ready to make people understand things – and all of that, to have a big impact on the next four years. Because from now on, the work is going be totally different. Because now she is a totally different person.
►►► Kaori Sakamoto on her Woman free skate: “Ever since we decided to skate to this music I knew that I had never skated to music that had this powerful of a message before. So I went through a lot of trial and error trying to figure out how to best capture that message, but I struggled.
And, finally, when Benoît Richaud told me that this is a story for me, for Kaori – he said: «Kaori, this is your story, so just skate in the way that you want, and feel free to do that» – since he mentioned that, I no longer had to think that hard, and I felt that I could just use it to show my own skating.
So, from there, I think I felt more free to really show what I could do”.
[Press conference, 2022 Worlds]
“THE NEXT FOUR YEARS CAN BRING SOMETHING MAGICAL ON ICE”
So she’s going to continue, that’s a sure thing…
Skating? Yes, of course. She said in an interview that she will continue for four more years.
And do you already have some plans?
I have something in mind, yes.
But do you think she can do more?
Of course! This is just the beginning.
For me, she’s just at the beginning. I think people started to realize what she can do, and the next four years can bring something very magical on ice.
“SHE EVOLVED INTO A REAL ARTIST”
If you look at Kaori who you started working with five years ago, and look at Kaori the way she is now, what do you see? What has changed?
I would like everyone to go to Youtube and look back to 2017 Junior Worlds, and then look at her now, how she skates: I think she’s the biggest progression in figure skating.
She evolved into a real artist, a master into choreography, skating skills, interpretation.
But is she aware of the changes? If we take her reaction after seeing the short program’s scores in Montpellier, you have her jumping with joy, with amazement, almost disbelief in the Kiss and Cry… And she does deserve those scores – she thoroughly deserves them!
I think she started to understand, yes. That our work had impact. Already yesterday [March 23rd, in Montpellier, at 2022 Worlds], in the press conference after the short, it was very nice to hear all of that from her.
►►► Kaori Sakamoto on how the work with Benoît Richaud helped her grow as a skater: “I definitely feel that Benoît has a very unique and modern style. Usually, figure skating has a lot of ballet elements in it, but he has a completely different kind of style, so there are different types of movements that Benoît creates every year that I’ve never seen before, and that I’ve never really done before, and all of that gets worked into my choreography.
Since I’ve encountered Benoît’s teaching, I really think that I was able to make new discoveries about what I’m capable of.
I never expected my five components to become such a high level and I really think that’s thanks to me being able to work with Benoît – and I have nothing but appreciation for what he has done for me”.
[Press conference, 2022 Worlds]
[Interview by Florentina Tone/Montpellier
Photos by: Alberto Ponti, Natasha Ponarina,
Getty Images, © International Skating Union
Other photos courtesy of Benoît Richaud]
MORE TO READ. Kaori Sakamoto: the coming of age