Could it be that grief is so close to joy? That happiness can be found in grief? Yes, say Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, heading with a skip in their step to the world figure skating championships this week, with their “This Bitter Earth” free dance.
They feel down-in-their-boots grief every single day they practice, at times close to tears when they lay it all out on the line. And then comes the joy in the doing of it. There is lightness in their step and their words as they head to Boston.
“This Bitter Earth” came from the soft-heeled imagination of Peter Tchernyshev, but the feeling came from Shae-Lynn Bourne and her madly creative husband Bohdan Turok. Bourne is not just a consultant to Weaver and Poje. She is their muse. She is their touchstone at every emotional point.
“I’ve worked with them for a long time now,” said Bourne. “They are like my kids in some ways. They were my kids before having [son] Kai. I’m really happy for them because they’ve matured. They’ve continued to develop and grow their experiences. Every year, it’s difficult, especially in ice dancing. Nobody ever reuses a program. In singles, they get a chance to really develop a program. But not in dance. Everything has to be new, even the elements. In dance, lifts change, spins, everything changes of course to fit the rules. It’s like reinventing yourselves every year.”
This year, Bourne was less involved with their creative process, and has stayed involved from a distance. She mentally prepares them, helps with costumes, music, or with that final choice of finding music. Even Turok has been heavily involved with their music the past few years.
Once the free dance was developed, Weaver and Poje asked Bourne if she’d take a look at the routine at national monitoring sessions at the beginning of the season. Their question: “What story do you see?” After their first competition, they added a vocal. Bourne thought it added more soul.
However, Weaver and Poje had to deal with what the free dance was all about, what they had to do from within to make an audience get it.
Strangely enough, as Bourne watched the free dance, a story that Turok had written came to her mind. It was a short film he had created about the stages of grief.
It was, said Turok, a story about how two people, having lost a child, can completely turn in different directions in the relationship. “So one can completely lose oneself in grief and the other balances the reality of life,” he said.
In Detroit one day, watching Weaver and Poje skate their free dance, Bourne felt as if she was watching her husband’s short film. “Wow, that’s Bohdan’s movie playing out,” she thought.
So then she told them the story of his film. She felt the team just didn’t have the full story of expression at that point. As Bourne told the story, this Bitter Earth” started to make sense to the team. “We started to go through the pieces and changed expression,” Bourne said. “In this moment, we are feeling this… In this moment, we are feeling that. And then it came more alive.”
That’s when she started feeling goosebumps, Bourne said. “You cannot not have goosebumps,” she said. “I don’t like to watch something that leaves me with a question mark, where I’m not fully understanding it. You don’t even have to fully understand it, but you have to be touched by it.”
From the time that Weaver and Poje unleashed their “Je Suis Malade” routine several years ago, their trump card has always been their power to elicit goosebumps in viewers’ arms.
Turok emailed Bourne the script after she left that night and Bourne passed it along to Weaver. It was an aid to help them tap into a picture to make the routine more understandable, “so there is more of a reason for the movement,” Bourne said.
The program was no longer a blank. It was inside them. Weaver and Poje had never been through the experience of losing a child, but they could imagine.
Turok’s short film? It’s called “Return to Sender.” A couple loses their 6-year-old son, who died six months before the film starts. Every day, the wife writes letters to her son to stay connected with him. The letters never reach him, of course. They are always returned to sender. And she really wants to join him.
The husband is the one who is trying to stay in balance and deal with the realities of life. There is conflict, two people dealing with a tragedy in different ways. She blames him for not loving the son enough. “You have left me, too,” the husband tells her.
At the end, there is a reversal of roles. The wife comes to the brink of committing suicide, but chooses not to and arrives back to her life in the moment. And as soon as she has returned, the husband can break down, and allow himself to feel also.
“He has been supporting her,” Bourne explains. “He was holding her up.”
“He was maintaining his life in a quasi-balance, but it’s also temporary, because he doesn’t grieve,” Turok says. “Until she allows herself to survive. While she has one foot in the world of her son, he has to maintain the balance.”
At the end, they are able to hold each other.
At the end of Weaver and Poje’s routine, they shifted the choreography to reflect this story: at one point both of them lean back, almost like falling into a world of grief, but he turns and sees her falling and he catches her. He is her support through much of the routine.
The feel of the program lightens during the final footwork section. The music lightens. “It feels like life,” Bourne says. “It feels like they can live again.”
The program ends with the two of them holding hands and standing. “It’s almost like choosing life,” Bourne says.
The message of the routine: It’s not just a bitter earth. It is “This bitter earth, how sweet it is.”
“You can look at it many ways,” Bourne says. “It’s the best thing and it’s the worst thing because we die. And the people around us die, but we want to be here as long as we can, because it is so beautiful. Life is beautiful. We’ve got to embrace every moment because it is so precious and short. It’s bittersweet.”
Before and after competitions, Bourne and Weaver and Poje always check in with each other. Bourne says she has witnessed their growing confidence over the years. She remembers their nerves when they first started. She sent them away from training in Toronto with her to let them be in an environment with competitors, “because it’s very difficult when you are not,” she says.
“They are on this journey and they are on the right track,” Bourne says.
Bourne has known Weaver since she moved to Connecticut where Bourne had been training with her world champion dance partner Victor Kraatz. Weaver was taking lessons from British born dancer Matthew Gates. “I remember working with her and her partner,” Bourne says, recalling a show program she helped to do.
“I remember her bubbly personality and she always has this positive attitude that has been driven from day one. She visualizes and dreams of what she wants, and then she goes for it.”
Weaver and Poje balance each other perfectly. They are ying and yang. They have very different personalities, “but they are like an old married couple in their relationship,” Bourne says. It works.
So Weaver and Poje, performing to deep grief, are coming to the world championships with joy in their step, and the freshness as if they were starting a long season, not finishing it.
They stumbled at the Four Continents, defeated favourites, but – knowing them – that is to their advantage. “We had a bit of a wakeup call,” Weaver said. “We’ve actually risen with these challenges.” Coach Anjelika Krylova has told them: “This is the hardest you have ever worked. I’ve never seen you skate like this.”
Over the past five weeks, they worked on every microscopic detail: their fingertips, the point of their toes, their eyelashes, their power, their speed, every edge, every glance, what those glances mean, how they want it to read.
“I feel like we’re skating with confidence and power with no hesitation,” says Weaver, with a flush of excitement in her voice.
“That brings us to great places,” she said. “We are also enjoying what we are doing. For us, I’ve always said that happiness is an advantage.”