Their mission is epic. The world synchronized skating champions – Nexxice – are tackling a musical behemoth. They are going where few have gone before. They are flying into the sun.
They are skating to “Bohemian Rhapsody” this year.
They are up to the task.
At the Canadian championships Feb. 20 in Waterloo, Ont., they took their opening poses, with some of the 16 reaching quietly but dramatically to cross their hands to their shoulders. The simple gesture spoke volumes. The visual is reminiscent of the iconic photo that graced Queen’s album cover for Queen II. Over 20 years of performing and more remembering, the compelling image has always been Queen’s favourite photo. We got the reference right away.
They are Freddie Mercury’s hands that are crossed and this epic, one of the most revered songs in pop history, all came out of his wondrous imagination. Genius. The song soars along in different keys, with different rhythmic and harmonic changes, in different genres (ballad, opera, hard rock, heavy metal). It has no chorus. Freddie began to dream up pieces of it from the late 1960s until Queen finally released it in 1975 as an apparently unwieldly five minute, 55 second song, much too long for radio, right?
But the world – beguiled, mystified, energized – has been listening to its grand melodies ever since. Indeed, the song is a bit of a siren.
Last season, Nexxice won the world synchronized skating championships while skating to “Rhapsody in Blue.” This season, choreographer/coach Anne Schelter thought it intriguing for the talented team to skate to a different rhapsody, the Bohemian kind. It was a major leap from a glorious, sweeping lollipop to a tune about the fullness of life, with all of its shades and shadows.
“As soon as she suggested it, I thought, yes, that’s perfect,” said coach Shelley Simonton Barnett. “It’s the antithesis of what we did last year. We had wanted to skate to this kind of music for a while, and we just hadn’t found the right thing. And that was it. That’s exactly where we needed to go.”
One of the early worries? Had “Bohemian Rhapsody” played too many times in people’s consciousness? Was it over done? Perhaps not, at least in skating. Ask a Nexxice member if they ever tire of hearing it day after day after day of practice.
“Never,” said Kiersten Tietz, 20, of Erin, Ont. “Never.”
“I don’t know how you could ever get sick of that song,” said Lee Chandler, a fixture with Nexxice.
“It feels so powerful and empowering,” Tietz says. “It feels like this program is continuing to grow every single time we perform it. We are taking it to a new level and the next time, it will be even bigger.”
“Bohemian Rhapsody” is not an easy piece of music for a skater to master. Perhaps that’s why it’s seldom seen this season, although Freddie Mercury and Queen have been prominent in mainstream figure skating as vocals have been allowed. (Young Canadian novice Alistair Lam skated to it at the Canadian championships, under suggestion from his adventurous choreographer Shawn Sawyer, never one to turn away from a challenge.) The musical and emotional complexities of the music are overwhelming.
It’s a beautiful piece of music,” said Barnett, who grew up during the era of Queen but who admits the band “didn’t stand out” for her at the time. (Sounds familiar.)
The music is intricate, she said. “There are so many layers and emotions. It’s so sophisticated. And to be able to skate properly and convey the feelings of that piece of music takes maturity.”
And for 16 people to be able to do it together and convey the same message? Daunting.
They’ve all had to explore the Queen thing. Some of the young skaters knew of him. Barnett thinks some hadn’t even listened to Queen before. “But they’ve certainly gotten to know him a lot better,” she said. “That’s what is wonderful about skating to music like that for a full year. You research and go deeper and keep trying to bring out more. With each month that passes, we just get more and more out of what we are hearing and what we are learning about him.”
Chandler, 25, said he’s always loved the song. He has wanted to skate to the song for years. No, it’s not from his era. (The song was released 41 years ago.) “We’ve had to go back and really dive into something that is different and unique,” he said. “I think the team has really been pushed a lot to get into that Freddie Mercury character. So far it’s been working really well.”
He admitted that although he’s been a fan of Queen songs, he didn’t really know a lot about the band. Tietz knew a little bit, but not a lot of details. They’ve surfed the video channels, where they’ve seen their live performances.
Ironically, Chandler, who had retired from the team after the world championship win last April, was pulled back into the Nexxice fold just before the Grand Prix Final in Barcelona, when synchronized skating became part of an ISU event featuring other skating disciplines for the first time, alongside the Yuzuru Hanyus and Patrick Chans. But Nexxice had some problems. They don’t usually peak that early in the season. And the team had been riddled with injuries. Schelter was reluctant to go to Barcelona.
One veteran severed a femoral artery during practice. The injury was so severe, surgery was required. She’s retired. The week before they were to leave for Barcelona, another veteran broke a wrist during practice. And then the next day, another of the veterans twisted an ankle warming up. Who said synchronized skating was easy?
Currently about eight of the 16 members are new. “We needed to train them to skate,” Barnett said. Hurriedly, they put together a program that was “skateable”, and tidy. It certainly didn’t plumb the depths they would have liked. Just as difficult: how to reduce the 5:50 minutes of “Bohemian Rhapsody” into the required length of a free skate, which is no more than 4:40 minutes. And for all the times Queen was told to cut the piece and thought they couldn’t, Nexxice did. You can’t tell what’s missing.
At the last minute in December, Barnett called Chandler, who now works as a full-time coach.
“I was happy to come back,” Chandler said. “I still really love the team, and love the work ethic that the girls have. And they welcomed me back.” And imagine: he was coming back to skate that song.
But Chandler had to work miracles. He had been in Australia and returning through the United States at the time of Barnett’s plea. He learned the routine on his laptop on the way back to Canada for a practice. He had one practice. They flew to Barcelona the day after he learned the routine.
“That is a testament to him, but he’s so focused and he’s so talented,” Barnett said. “And he believes in Nexxice, so he really tried hard to make it work. He was great.”
Nexxice finished third, a remarkably good effort, all things considered. When they returned to Canada, they still had to create a short program – the Grand Prix Final called for only a free skate – and they created a routine to “Carol of the Bells,” a Christmas song performed by a children’s choir. And with its purity and heavenliness, it was the total opposite to “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Dressed in the white of innocence, they skate to lyrics that go: “Hark? Hear the bells/Sweet silver bells/ All seem to say/ Throw cares away.”
Not at all Freddie’s scene.
After Nexxice finished the short-program choreography, they had an event called Winterfest in Mississauga. And only after that could Nexxice buckle down to do some serious re-choreographing of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The new rhapsody looks decidedly different from the old.
A big help: Sandra Bezic, who had worked with them last year enroute to their victory in the world championships, returned, inspired by their work ethic and abilities.
At first blush, Bezic, who has choreographed Queen before, said “Bohemian Rhapsody” was not a piece that she would have gravitated to. She’s now all in.
Bezic’s contribution has been to stress the importance of an emotional connectivity to the music, “trying to draw things out of them that they didn’t know they had, or it hadn’t occurred to them in the music,” Barnett said.
“We’re just getting them to understand so they can skate it honestly. The really big thing is we don’t want them to skate it without knowing what they’re saying.”
Emotionally, Nexxice is endeavoring to show “a raw pain.” They wrestle with the conflicting emotions of a young adult. At the end, they free themselves from the darker side. Below is their performance at the Canadian championships.
At the very end comes a tribute to Freddie, inspired by a performance he did of “Bohemian Rhapsody” with the British Royal Ballet in 1979, although truth be told, Freddie had two left feet when it came to ballet. For most of the routine, he strutted as Freddie does. But at the very end, a group of ballet dancers turns him upside down, like an upended cross. (The second clip shows Freddie talking about the experience.)
Nexxice wanted to re-create Freddie’s inverted cross but International Skating Union rules prevent skaters from being suspended upside down. Bezic came up with a solution: Chandler does a handstand and supports his own weight.
“We had our Freddie,” Barnett said, speaking of Chandler, the only male on the team. Indeed they do.
(And just for the Queenies among you, watch Queen’s “One Vision” below, where they revisit the iconic photo 10 years after “Bohemian Rhapsody” was released.)