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Kiss and Cry

On skating.


A couple months ago, I sat down to watch the World Figure Skating Championships.

This was my second attempt. Back in March my mom and I had tried to catch N.B.C.’s coverage, but the “skating boom” of the 1990s is ovah, my friends, nobody here cares. The T.V. Guide listing was wrong and so we were left with only skating morsels: the bronze and gold medalists in the men’s event, and maybe the top five ladies. In the halcyon days when little girls played “Nancy and Tonya” and fought over who got to do the whacking, skating was on T.V. every week. Sundays were a broad glassy expanse of silly sponsored “championships”: the Hershey’s Kisses Challenge, the Fox Rock ’n’Roll Championship, the Hallmark Skaters’ Challenge. Ice Wars: The U.S. vs. the World! You could watch Oksana Baiul heaving sensually to Enigma’s “Sadeness Pt. 1,” or Sasha Cohen doing her breathtakingly pretty layback spin for the glory of Keri Lotion. Kurt Browning, on an iced-over movie set gliding through “Singin’ in the Rain”; America’s sweetheart Rudy Galindo, pushing the boundaries of the family hour with a Rocky Horror medley in corset, fingerless opera gloves, and tearaway pants. All of that was on T.V.! Here in the worst timeline, I had to resort to YouTube to piece together as much world-class skating as I could find.

Some of these were official videos—N.B.C. puts up a few for each Worlds. But mostly these were the illicit uploads which have become the lifeline of the serious skating fan. Figure skating is famously a marriage of art and sport. (We and the Russians call it “figure skating,” but the same discipline in many other languages is “artistic skating.”) The purely technical elements of the sport have changed dramatically since Dick Button, for generations the Golden Voice of American figure skating commentary, won Olympic gold by landing the first ever double axel in competition. Nowadays kids who get cut before the long program can do moves Button and his competitors didn’t dare dream of. And yet none of those old scratchy videos, where the champions give interviews in long-lost Katharine Hepburn accents, have been displaced. Anybody can do bigger jumps than Peggy Fleming. (I mean, I can’t, but you know what I mean.) But nobody can do a spread eagle, double axel, spread eagle combination like Peggy Fleming. No man is competitive at the international level today without a triple axel—and yet no technical advances can diminish the pure pleasure of Robin Cousins seeming to hang motionless in the air before landing a perfect single axel. We don’t watch moves. We watch people: expressive, beloved, unrepeatable.

The technical requirements can seem like a cage for the artist. After the vote-trading scandal of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, when figure skating revamped its whole scoring system (this is why nobody gets a perfect six point zero anymore), for a while it seemed like every single skater had to do some awful flailing scramble from one end of the rink to the other, a required sequence of steps in which arm-waving and fiddly frantic switches of direction substituted for musicality. But lately people seem to be settling in to the “new system.” I was excited to see what the men could do—and, more important, who they would be, out there alone at center ice.

I started with Vincent Zhou, an American who medaled at the previous Worlds but muffed his short program so badly that he D.N.Q.’d for the long. There are three parts to the World Championships, two of them competitive: the short program, whose top twenty-four skaters qualify for the long program, and then the gala exhibition, where the top and/or most fun skaters get to show what they can do with no points and no judges. Zhou didn’t make the cut not because he’s a mediocre skater, but because he’s an extraordinary one. At the U.S. National Championships he skated a gorgeous, complex, light short program where he landed a quad lutz with his arms over his head—a ridiculously difficult jump, just about the hardest thing they’re doing these days. His program had no blank spaces, no caesura where the skater is catching his breath or trying to sneak up on his next jump. His long program, which he didn’t get to show at Worlds, would’ve had a sinister vibe, a throwback to the late-aughts era of spooky Euro-oddballs like Kevin van der Perren.

But recent changes to the scoring system impose a hefty penalty for trying a jump you can’t land: falling costs you a full minus five in what’s called “grade of execution.” This may keep championships from becoming just cavalcades of falling, which audiences hate. Spectators want a few falls here and there—few things are as piquant as somebody else’s physical risk—but if everybody tries a quad and most of them fall down on it, we never get to see a clean, elegant program. Competitions devolve into car crashes with music in the background.

At the coda of Zhou’s short program, portraying Vincent Van Gogh (yes, “Vincent,” it’s on the nose, that’s skating), he’s first defiant and then saddened by fear that he will never convince anyone that his art is meaningful. After a fall and several other mistakes, it’s immensely poignant. Then Zhou clumps over to the “kiss and cry”: the rinkside area where coaches comfort or kvell over their skaters as they await the scores. In 2021, skater and coach sit on fake ice blocks a mandatory six feet apart. It’s a cold way to find out your championship is over.

After Zhou I munched through some lower-ranked skaters who made it to the long program. Boyang Jin, a World medalist and five-time Chinese national champion who in the past had offered jumping drills with bare-necessity choreography, here tries out a delicate angularity, like one of those water-skimmer insects. I couldn’t find the competitive programs of Donovan Carrillo, but he got to skate in the gala because he’s one of a handful of skaters ever to represent Mexico at Worlds; he portrays a robot, electrocuted into life, who becomes a mariachi singer. (I think.) He’s a crowd-pleaser even in the absence of a crowd.

Italy’s Matteo Rizzo places eleventh, skating his long program to “The Greatest Showman.” He’s strong, he stands up on two quad toes, but the bland music makes his skating seem truly generic. Soundtrack skating is the worst American export since the A-bomb. Anyway thanks, Italian Todd Eldredge, you have pretty eyes. Jun-hwan Cha’s short program occasionally brushes the music with its choreography but doesn’t cling. In the long, Cha is perfectly serviceable until—until! Until he swoons into a huge layback Ina Bauer, swerving across the ice with his spine arcing backward like he’s got the Spirit. After that he’s musical all the way to the end. His costume includes the subtly insane touch of gloves that almost match his flesh tone but not quite, so he looks like he has mannequin hands. Tenth place.

The Russian team can’t call themselves that, as punishment for doping and evidence-tampering. They compete as “F.S.R.” and if any of them win they’ll play Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. One instead of the national anthem. This may seem a bit “Don’t punish me with a good time!”, but the ardent voice with which the Russian commentator says, “Now we begin to worry and to desire success,” when one of them steps out onto the ice, suggests that the blow to national honor does sting. The Russian commentator is hugely invested in Evgeni Semenenko’s performance, but unfortunately Semenenko has the Russian tic of silly arm-waving. He’s fine, he’s ninth, whatever.

Never whatever, always what what, next up is Jason Brown, with choreography by the velvet genius Rohene Ward (look up his “A Journey to Solace” program sometime, after the kids are in bed), skating his short program to Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman.” And here’s the thing. Brown’s “Sinnerman” has been wildly popular among skating fans, and it deserves it. Every second is something different, something wild and new. His body stretches like Gumby; every edge is deep and clean, every step meets the music and takes it further. But . . . this is a song about a sinner hiding from God’s wrath. Nina Simone is an apocalyptic thundercloud flashing warning, pity, and scorn. And meanwhile here’s happy, bouncy Jason Brown. He used to have this iconic silly ponytail, and he’s finally cut the thing, but spiritually he still skates like he’s got it. I respect this skate immensely but it’s missing some necessary undercurrent of fear or threat. Compare this to Christopher Bowman’s weird gala skate at 1989 Skate America, where he keeps covering his face and winding his body into strange shapes of shame, or Rudy Galindo’s malevolent, campy Swan Lake free skate at 1996 Nationals. Brown’s long program, to “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” isn’t as compulsively exciting as “Sinnerman,” and yet I like it more—he’s light and musical and flowing, he’s got great transitions into his big moves, and he’s not trying to be a Graham Greene character. He ends up seventh. For somebody who’s never landed a clean quad in competition, that’s spectacular. Quads below him, a dizzy spinning array of quads ahead of him, and in the middle just Jason Brown, skating beautifully, deep and clean and clear.

I can only find the long program for Keegan Messing, who’s represented America in the past (he trains in Alaska, where he was born) but now skates for Canada. It’s to G’n’R’s “November Rain,” and he’s decked out in this sparkly black sweater thing, and he makes the pained Air Guitar Face all the way through his program. And you know what? I really dig it. There’s no wasted moment. He does all these catlike landings with his knees bending deep, he’s got a fun variation on a sit spin where he looks like he’s doing the stereotypical “Slav squat” while spinning, and he does a super hydroblade, a move where his face gets so close to the ice he must feel it breathing on him. He’s got a great big move where he sort of windmills his legs as he jumps, with his torso parallel to the ice, which I think is called, in the intermittent poetry of skating, a butterfly. Skating terminology is hard.

Now another flagless Russian, Mikhail Kolyada. Man, this guy looks more Russian than Tarkovsky’s God. Anyway, his short program is prancey and louche, fingers snapping. His long is a lovely Nureyev tribute, with a balletic opening and an atmosphere of delicacy and longing. And also, you know, two clean quads. Shoma Uno gives a fun short program with long loping edges and another great butterfly (I think). Then his long is one of those very accomplished programs where the athletic skill outpaces the emotional or artistic connection. I’d put Jason Brown ahead of this even though you just can’t.

Yuzuru Hanyu took bronze here, which is one of those moments that make you think about what it means to “lose” a skating competition. Hanyu is a two-time Olympic men’s champion—the first since Dick Button, back when Truman was president. Hanyu has often failed to “put two clean programs together,” as they say, but it rarely matters, because he has been the total package for a long time: art and sport, soul and science. This year he says he wants to do a fun skate, because it’s been such a miserable year, so he gets out there in studded black faux-leather and skates to “Let Me Entertain You,” and it’s beyond anything else we’ll see. This program is packed with complex choreography, and he handles it all with a pro’s relaxation and even a hint of comic seduction. For his long he’s in a pastel costume, and the ethereal choreography risks seeming desultory once the jumps start to fall apart. Hanyu pulls it together on the artistic side, following the choreography’s plotline. When he finished I was surprised that the skate had flashed by so fast. Hanyu has taken gold with messy programs before—most notably at the Sochi Olympics in 2014, where he won despite falling twice. But there’s essentially no ceiling on the technical score, except for whatever ceiling our Creator has placed on the human capacity to land jumps. You can’t win the World Championships without athleticism; you can win without artistry.

And so, it’s a relief to watch the silver medalist, Japan’s Yuma Kagiyama (in his senior Worlds debut, good grief), and see a floppy, pleasingly ragged quality to his skating—a hint of youthful wildness which the veteran Hanyu has inevitably outgrown. If Hanyu is the pro, Kagiyama is the promise: clean quads, deep knees, deep edges, not necessarily much of a point of view yet but enough skill and joy to make you excited for the future.

Now, at last, I reach the top: Nathan Chen, a Yale man. Chen won hearts—and earned himself years of pressure, no doubt—with a delightful gala skate at the 2010 U.S. Nationals, where he interpreted Peter and the Wolf with himself in both the titular roles. He was ten years old and he made his hands into wolf claws, and now he is the king of technical skating; now he has an Olympic bronze and five U.S. titles and three World titles; now he can call his memoir Quad and Man at Yale. (Sorry.) He stumbles in the short program, with one fall, and it gets a bit “business in front, party in the back,” with the artistry coming out only in the second half. His long program is skated to selections from Philip Glass, although while listening I found myself thinking they were the most soundtrack-y Philip Glass selections I’ve ever heard. (I later learned that part of Chen’s music was in fact from the score of The Truman Show.) The technical content is unbelievable, he hits five quads and misses nothing—but there’s also a step sequence which hints at a dreamy lyricism, as he leans backward and lets the music pull him around the ice. His final step sequence is quite musical but in that “Be! Aggressive! B-E aggressive!” way skaters get, every song a fight song.

Chen gets the highest P.C.S. scores, very rough equivalents of the old artistic mark. He gets nine and sixty-eight hundredths out of ten for “interpretation of the music.” Is he really a greater artist on the ice than Brown, Kolyada, Hanyu? Well, everything’s beautiful when you land your jumps. “Drink it in,” the British lady commentator suggests; her male counterpart says, “I am standing as I’m applauding.”

I was thrilled. I was awed. But I was also grateful for all those illicit uploads, from the Sixties down to the present, in which skaters who couldn’t rely on their double axel still leap and swirl in triumph. I’ve been to Nationals twice now and I know that there’s an electricity—a Dionysian rapture—to live skating, which video can never match. But learning fandom through video, you get to see skating as an art. Some of my favorite skaters never medaled at the Olympics: Johnny Weir, Christopher Bowman. Some never had a realistic chance of it: Lucinda Ruh, the Swiss “Queen of Spin,” clad in bizarre alien bodysuits as she turns herself into a flower, an insect, a regret, an ecstasy; Gary Beacom, who wears special soft skates for disturbing, oozy moves which seem to defy the laws of physics. Video trains you to see figure skating as a Wunderkammer, where the purpose of each exhibit is simply to be as much itself as possible. How can you judge a narwhal horn against a woodcut of the Ascension? There’s no Code of Points on video—just the long, tightening spiral or the rising feet.

At Nationals this year, the Americans skated for an audience of cut-out figures, including the Geico gecko. At Worlds the competitors had one another, and their coaches, and a blank blue dome with fake ice blocks and fake trees. And the judges. But beyond the judges, the long loving afterlife of YouTube and Vimeo, the paradoxical video heaven where every step is at once forgiven and preserved.

Eve Tushnet’s most recent book, Tenderness: 
A Gay Christian’s Guide to Unlearning Rejection and Experiencing God’s Extravagant Love, will be published in November by Ave Maria Press.

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