For ice dancers Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, it’s not enough to be good, to zip around the ice executing difficult stuff, to continue on the long road they’ve created for a decade.
They must push. They must be different from anyone else. They must be different from anything they’ve ever been. They must love what they are doing. They must forge new paths.
And so, at the suggestion of coach Pasquale Camerlengo, they turned to iconic Russian ice dancer, Peter Tchernyshev, a five-time U.S. champion with Naomi Lang, for a new adventure. For their free dance, he bought them “This Bitter Earth” with two pieces of music: “On the Nature of Daylight,” by Max Richter, and “”Run” by Ludovico Einaudi.
The concept and the music was mostly the brainchild of Tchernyshev, known as a musical, creative dancer with the most wonderful knees: soft and well, there’s just no other word to describe them. Let’s try “otherworldly. ” Tchernyshev lived in the United States for 15 years, but returned home to Mother Russia, where for the past four or five years, he has choreographed routines for pair skaters Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov – and he’s also worked with Maxim Kovtun and Olympic champ Adelina Sotnikova.
Weaver and Poje had seen Kavaguti and Smirnov’s routine last year to the “Manfred Symphony.” And they loved it. They were huge fans. “I saw that program for the first time in Obertsdorf,” Weaver said. “And we have seen it almost every single competition. Save Europeans. I watched it and it was stunning. I had no idea what the story was but that’s what I mean. They were so emotional in it. And it had such power and it captivated people. And for a pair program – that’s rare. And when I found out that it was Peter that did it, I thought: ‘Oh, of course. He’s brilliant. He’s a dancer.’ And they performed it amazingly.”
Tchernyshev has given them their money’s worth. They’ve been dutifully pushed.
“It was an amazing challenge for us to work with him,” Weaver said. “He pushed us in so many ways and wanted our skating to look different than it ever has before. We were all for that.”
Take for example, their circular steps in the free dance, which is 47 seconds long. And Tchernyshev said: “Why can’t you use the whole ice? Why can’t you be in this footwork so that people forget it is a footwork sequence?”
“Well, no one does that,” the Canadian team said.
“So?” Tchernyshev said.
Okay, Weaver and Poje thought. Why couldn’t they be different? Although Tchernyshev had been an ice dancer, he’d done it in the days before the code of points judging system. He follows ice dance, but he had no preconceived notion of what the convention was. Weaver and Poje found this refreshing.
They had to meet in the middle, of course, bringing the whole thing into line with current rules. And they’ve had positive feedback on it. Well, they won the Grand Prix Final with it.
“It’s very different from our usual footwork where you go out there and complete your turns,” Poje said. “If you were to look at everybody’s footwork, it is very similar. But with ours, Peter tried to create pattern in the shapes and in our bodies. That was new for us. I think it creates different-looking footwork sections for sure.”
Said Weaver: “It feels more like choreography that happens to be rockers, choctaws, and twizzles, rather than focusing everything on the blade and nothing else on the body shape and the timing and the extension of our lines.”
It was tough for Weaver and Poje to get out of the old mindset, but it was worth the challenge, considering it has fulfilled all requirements.
Shae-Lynn Bourne acted as a consultant choreographer on the routine and worked with Tchernyshev for a couple of days. Years ago, she skated professionally with Tchernyshev. Originally, he spent 10 days in North America, working on the routine. “She had great things to say about him,” Poje said. “We knew that he had a great style that I think was different from what we are used to. So it was great, because he is similar in terms of stature to me.”
The fact that Tchernyshev is a tall slender man, like Poje, makes a huge difference, actually. The two longlegs feel movement the same way, in terms of height. The moves that Camerlengo can physically make up with the team are completely different to what Tchernyshev can do.
“He has different lines, different muscles, different height and this gives you different abilities,” Weaver said. “It’s funny, because when we were working on things with Pasquale, it wouldn’t be possible. You’d try the thing, but it would be something only someone of a certain height could do. That made it a huge advantage to work with Peter, because Andrew had someone who looked like him. And that’s rare. Big tall guys. I think we had many more ideas. New ideas.”
Here’s a cool one: a very difficult lift they do in their free dance, which starts out with Weaver flying around Poje’s waist, while he’s holding one foot off the ground. She rolls a couple of times up his back, then slides back down to the ice off one of his shoulders.
Actually, it was a move they had been working on for a couple of years. They’d seen an adagio pair team perform it at a Cirque du Soleil show, and took a video of it back to their acrobat instructor. “Sorry, that can’t be done on ice,” said the instructor, who knew the performers. She was tiny, he tall. Weaver and Poje didn’t have the same height difference.
Weaver and Poje never gave up. They worked on it for two years. Finally, they were able to go back to their acrobat guru and say: “Look. We can do it.” And now it’s in their free dance.
Tchernyshev pushed Weaver and Poje in every way imaginable. “He accepted nothing less,” Weaver said.
“We are not satisfied with staying the same,” she said. “We are not satisfied with just hoping that what we did last year but maybe a little bit more, is enough. We want to push ourselves and ensure that we grow. When we’re not growing, we’re not happy. We want to be happy and fulfilled at the end of the year.”
By the time of the annual general meeting last spring, which Weaver and Poje attended, Skate Canada showed a video of their winning free dance from last year’s Canadian championships. Weaver and Poje looked at each other and thought: “Oh gosh, we can do better than that. We can do so many things better than this.”
They are their own harshest critics. They know there is so much more room to grow.
When Tchernyshev was creating the free dance, he insisted that every move had to create a feeling of flight. “It wasn’t good enough, until it was flying,” Weaver said. “He did all of those things with both of us. He would be the girl with Andrew. He’d be the boy with me. We could skate for 10 hours a day and he wasn’t satisfied until every step was flying across the ice.
“That is something unusual too, that the choreographer performs the steps with you, rather than giving you a little direction and letting you figure it out.”
They had to build power and speed from day one, when Tchernyshev was in the room.
They had to throw things out that stopped the flow. “We would love whatever it was, and he would say: ‘Nope. Not fast enough.”
That mindset stuck with the Canadians.
The choreography of the free dance was a long process. “I don’t think we could have done it any other way because it developed different moves in different ways,” Poje said.
“The program does flow right away,” Weaver said. “Of course it will build, but it’s not a struggle to create that.”
As for Tchernyshev, he “remains one of the best male skaters, ever,” Weaver said. “And he’s still pushing. And I think that’s a beautiful thing. It’s something we can relate to.
“It’s hard to keep up, mind. Really hard.”