Yes, they had won medals at two world championships, chalked up undefeated strings on Grand Prix circuits, ruled Canada’s ice dancers for two years, and earned sheets of standing ovations for their heartfelt routines. But still, Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje felt something was missing.
A flutter, a little heat, perhaps. A new energy. After a stellar Grand Prix season last year, they had finished only fifth at the 2016 world championship in Boston. And 2010 Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir had announced a comeback for this season. The ice dancing world was getting crowded at the top.
Still, it wasn’t that, they say. “Regardless of their comeback, we knew we needed some new spark to our skating,” Weaver said. “And something inspiring. [Virtue and Moir] only fuelled the fire.
“Their comeback, it’s neither here nor there,’’ she continued. “It’s not involving us. But I’d be lying if I said I haven’t worked harder because of it. And that’s just the competitors in us. We’re natural competitors and I think that’s how we’ve made our career as successful as it has been so far.”
Weaver and Poje, who have won the two Canadian titles that Virtue and Moir missed by stepping aside for two years, haven’t gone head-to-head with the dance virtuosos this season yet. That will change next week at the Canadian championships in Ottawa.
“I’m not really concerned how our results will be against them,” Weaver said. “We’re still Kaitlyn and Andrew. People appreciate what we do, thankfully, and we love that they do. We bring something different than anybody else. And that’s because we’re us.
“They have no bearing on that, and will not be able to take that away from us.”
Well, an “us” with a little extra spark this year, down to the fingerless gloves and the heat they engender in their Michael Jackson hip-hop short dance. More on that later.
Coaches Anjelika Krylova and Pasquale Camerlengo in Detroit knew something was missing too. Change will sometimes fix that. And so they suggested the Canadian team go to the court of Nikolai Morozov, who hasn’t worked in the ice dancing world for the past two years. He says he just didn’t like ice dance any more.
“I didn’t work for two years,” he said. “Not anywhere. I didn’t see competition. I didn’t do anything.
“I was tired. I didn’t want to do anything. I’ve been working since 1999 with very high level skaters and this was very hard. I didn’t see my daughter, so …I just decided to stop.”
His daughter, Annabelle, currently lives with him.
Morozov had been involved with the coaching and choreography of a wide array of singles skaters (Shizuka Arakawa, winner of the 2006 Olympic gold medal, 2002 Olympic champ Alexei Yagudin, and world champion Daisuke Takahashi), countless ice dancers, including 2003 world champions Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz, and most recently, he’d worked as the choreographer for 2014 Olympic pair champions Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov.
Still, the dangling of world silver medalists before his nose caught Morozov’s attention. He took on Weaver and Poje, finding them easy to work with because of their professionalism. His biggest job, he says, is to keep them from skating too much.
The 41-year-old Russian-born coach first met with the Canadians in June in Moscow for a week, he said. “They are beautiful on the ice,” he said. “They are good skaters. I don’t know why they couldn’t make medals before, because it is so easy to work with them. I is surprising.”
The deal is that Krylova and Camerlengo still serve as mentors, while Weaver and Poje’s muse, Shae-Lynn Bourne, has not worked with them this season. She was briefly married to Morozov years ago. “She’ll always be a part of our lives,” Weaver said. “We still keep up with her so often.”
Morozov was sitting in the kiss-and-cry corral with Tatiana Tarasova when Bourne and Kraatz won the Grand Prix Final in Kitchener, Ont., a couple of months before the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. Bourne and Kraatz won that event by using a memorable free dance to Michael Jackson music. Perhaps not so strangely, Morozov has led Weaver and Poje to a Michael Jackson medley for their short dance, too.
In the beginning, Morozov fashioned for them a country swing that the Canadian team showed off at the national team training camp last September. “We worked really hard through the summer with Nikolai and his new ways,” Poje said. “And we really thought we had the right direction for us with our original short dance. And it was so much fun to perform that country swing that we really pushed ourselves to get it ready for camp.”
But when they arrived at camp, and monitors were scribbling away their thoughts, Morozov said to his new team: “I like this short dance, but let’s try something else, just for fun.”
Michael Jackson took over. “Just knowing [Morozov’s] ideas, we really fully committed to trying something completely out of the blue,” Poje said. “And we knew from day one that this was the right direction for us. We fully accepted.” Out came the fingerless gloves.
The music is fun, Weaver said. “Everybody loves MJ music and it’s easy to dance to.
“And you can just groove and have fun and let loose,” Weaver said. “Right away, we were gelling with this style. It was daunting to take on hip hop because we had to be very strategic about how to transfer that onto the ice, which has proven difficult in the past.” But along with Morozov came top-notch dance teachers and helpers and choreographers to figure it all out.
While Bourne and Kraatz used well-known Jackson tunes, Weaver and Poje are opting for Jackson that is “not necessarily oversued.” A female voice, Judith Hill, sings “The Way You Make Me Feel,” while Jackson is on board for “Dangerous” and “Jam.”
They trusted Morozov, they said, because one of his biggest strengths as a teacher is “packaging and finding an incredible identity for skaters,” Weaver said. “He created [Alexei] Yagudin, he made Brian Joubert’s “Matrix,” and name one person he’s done something with, and he’s given them something memorable.”
“So when he says try something else, we have to jump in with both feet and trust. Seeing as we made this big change, there is no reason to hold back. We did it and I’m so, so happy that we were brave.”
Because of the change, Weaver and Poje had to miss their first international event. They just weren’t ready. And with Grand Prix assignments outside of Canada, they’ve been a bit of a mystery back home. They now train in Hackensack, N.J., and also at the major Russian training centre in Novogrosk, a suburb of Moscow.
They are also used the tried and true skating routine – used by so many – Concierto de Aranjuez, that should play to their emotional strengths in the free dance. This best-loved guitar concerto, written by blind Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo in 1939, is addictive. He used to play this music, night after night, in the dark.
However, they did not qualify for the Grand Prix Final, an event they had won the past two years. “Sometimes you have to take one step back to take two steps forward,” Weaver said. The bright side? They were able to spend more time with Morozov, to knuckle down and perfect their opuses.
They feel rested and energized, coming into the Canadian championships next week. The major block standing in their way now is Virtue and Moir. Last spring, Weaver first expressed surprise at their comeback, but as is their custom, they forge ahead.
Is it awkward for Virtue and Moir, knowing they have elbowed aside a team that has carried the torch in their absence? No, says Virtue.
“We’ve been long-time fans of Kaitlyn and Andrew and long-time friends as well,” Virtue said. “We want them to have their best season yet. And we know that they are going to deliver exceptional performances in Ottawa and we’re going to have to be at our best. We’re grateful that there is such a strong Canadian team in ice dance and in all the other disciplines.”
Moir says he knows them as fierce competitors and they do not assume they will defeat them next week – although they expect to win if they deliver. “We haven’t pushed them down anywhere,” Moir said. “That has yet to be decided.
“There is going to be a fight and we are going to have to go head to head. That’s what competition is all about.”
Virtue and Moir have set world records this season: 80.50 for the short dance, and 197.22 total. Their free dance score of 116.72 is the second highest in history.
Weaver and Poje’s top scores are 73.78 for the short dance, 110.18 for the free and 182.93 for a total score.