Carolina Kostner speaks a different language. She just does.
It’s not Italian, German, French or English – although she does speak all of these. It’s the art of movement. At 30, she’s a master of it.
And on Saturday, it unfolded in her free skate at the Rostelecom Cup, the first Grand Prix of the season. She won the silver medal, but the medal or the marks don’t tell the story of what she did with the haunting understated, melancholic “Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune,” one of the best known works of Claude Debussy. Debussy was known as the man who broke the rules of modern harmonies, using dissonances and untraditional tones, using – in The Faune – layers of motifs that float from phrase to phrase, stirring up music that combines fragments of previous melodies. All carefully composed and complex. Debussy developed his own musical language.
And Kostner, in all of her delicate glory, understood and spoke it with refinement. Kostner rendered people speechless. As she floated past the spectators, you could see folk in rapt attention. It was magic.
Half a world away was her long-time choreographer Lori Nichol who had led her to these moments, shaped her development, saw her grow, and took her through all the rough bits of her career and her life. And vice versa, actually.
Nichol was not at her home near Toronto, but in China where she has been working with the Chinese team. She was still awake in the wee hours of the morning, watching the Russia Grand Prix in her hotel room. And she saw what Kostner did – in her first Grand Prix of the season.
“I was just so happy for her and proud of her,” Nichol said. “Her journey has been very difficult and very tumultuous. To see her love and passion in the last several years to develop movement in an incredibly refined way, and to see her feel comfortable tonight to perform that kind of standard, well I’m just still in my “wow” zone.”
Nichol and Kostner have collaborated on “Afternoon of a Faun” before – during the 2011 season when the Italian skater was trying to return from injuries and had suffered just too many ups and downs in her career. Nichol suggested Debussy’s piece, which had also been done by John Curry, a mentor of Nichol. Janet Lynn also did it, too. Only the best did. It took a great deal of courage, Nichol said, to skate to something that had been done “to such a divine level.”
(Above) John Curry COMMENTATING on Janet Lynn doing a routine he made legendary as a pro.
Kostner wasn’t keen at the start. Nichol was able to convince her that it was perfect for her: the “ethereal nature of the music” suggested that Kostner could be her natural self in the piece. Talk to Kostner and you can feel her natural self. Nichol calls her a “pure, Zenlike person.”
So Kostner used that piece for her first artistic breakthrough, at a time that she was troubled that she couldn’t do two of her most difficult jumps because of injury. Nichol told her to use this time to develop her artistry. And with that routine, Kostner finished second at the Grand Prix Final and took the bronze medal at the world championship that season.
Now, Kostner is returning to this magical piece, so good to her in the past. So good in the way it softened her knees, gave her patience, taught her so many things about beauty.
“We listened to so many different pieces of music and of course, at this point, she is so experienced, she could have done many things,” Nichol said. “But it was about finding the piece that made her feel at home, and be able to really dive into the character, the emotion, the divinity of it all. It was just a pleasure from start to finish in choreographing it [again.]” Nichol said.
Still, she and Kostner went through many difficult times trying to sort out the structure of the program, to allow her to be technically sound, but not let go of the artistry. There were many challenges along the way. They were at a rink in Milan Italy several weeks ago, after she competed at the Lombardia Trophy in Bergamo, in northern Italy, not all that far from Kostner’s home town to touch it up.
Kostner had finished third in the event to two young sprites, Alina Zagitova of Russia and Wakaba Higuchi of Japan. Kostner had finished second in the short program (another exquisite routine to Celion Dion’s version of “Ne Me Quitte Pas” – note her beautiful arms positions in spins) and fifth in the free, with lots of jump bobbles. Still, Kostner easily had the highest component marks of 71.12.
“We decided: ‘Let’s just love being Carolina and love the music and just build toward the moment,’” Nichol said. “Some of that had been compromised.” And she did that in Russia. And straightened out the technical problems, too.
Of course, Kostner doesn’t yet have the technical content of others – hey, no sight of the two triple Lutzes that others do – but it’s a shame if judges use that to discount her artistic mastery. “Skating is both sport and art,” Nichol said. “Tonight, she did the technical. Her two triple flips were absolutely gorgeous. And if you watch how she lands, you watch that actual moment of landing, and see the clear running edge with no wobbles through to the second jump, there is such mastery there. “
Yes, she will increase her technical content.
“Just as it’s incredibly difficult to do the technical to a very refined state, it’s the same level of difficulty to take artistry to the next level,” Nichol explained. “I think that’s what’s misunderstood in many ways. I don’t want to use the numbers of the new system, I just want to use the concept that refinement of body movement and body line and integrity and interpretation – to achieve her level is equal to being an incredible technical master.”
So Nichol feels proud of her. She feels great for skating. It’s a very fascinating time in figure skating, she said. She watched the men “knock it out of the park” with intensely difficult programs and they still kept the integrity of movement and music.
Nichol also created the free program of Nathan Chen. “I absolutely adored working with him,” she said. “He’s one of the most intelligent skaters I’ve ever met. And the moment where we broke through that intelligence and went into the realm of living in movement and through movement was a very rewarding experience. “
There must have been a great environment at that rink in Russia, she said. The ice must have been great. There must have been a great energy for this to happen, for folks to see what Kostner stands for: great quality and truth.
“When I saw her take her starting position, I thought: she feels at home,” Nichol said. “And whatever created that, through the organization, or through the ice, or through the people, I love watching how well received Carolina is.” She got standing ovations.
With all of her experience and with her performance, Kostner finished with 1.37 lower component marks than winner Evgenia Medvedeva, a 17-year-old, in the short program, and .2.84 points less in the free.
In skating skills, performance and interpretation, Kostner was a sliver behind Medvedeva in all three.
Nichol isn’t puzzling over these things. “Carolina and I decided long ago not to allow marks to validate what she’s doing.” And they clearly don’t.
“She just skates from such an incredibly pure place with that desire to love skating, and it sounds cliché as I say it, but perhaps remembering in this moment the true glory and preciousness of skating is exactly what is needed,” Nichol said.
Kostner comes from a pure place. She’s a freshet in the world of humanity. A Gerard Manley Hopkins sort of water rippling over stones in a creek. She’s the faun.
Nichol knows no one else like her, unless you’re talking about her parents and her brothers and her family. They’re just the same. “She’s divine on the ice and off the ice in a way that blows my mind on a constant basis,” Nichol said.
About two years ago, Nichol had an appointment for surgery on the day her son was to compete at a provincial championship that day. Of course, she could not go. Kostner had been in town, working with Nichol to polish up a routine.
Kostner stepped in, without hesitation. She took Nichol’s son to his tournament. She watched the tournament on her own, because she didn’t know anyone, aside from the team. And she celebrated with Nichol’s son as they won. And brought him home.
Later, Nichol was facing another surgery during choreography season, and wasn’t allowed back on ice yet. Still, she had to work with the entire Chinese team. Kostner flew from Italy on her own dime “to be my body,” Nichol said.
“She knows my teaching. She knows my mind. She knows what I want and I could say things and she would create them as I wanted, and then teach the skaters.”
On her own dime. Her own time.
“I consider her my angel of skating,” Nichol said. She certainly looks the part.