Lynn Rutherford

Freelance sportswriter covering Olympic sports.

Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker latch on to humor, joy and being organic

ISU World Team Trophy - Day One
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To survive and thrive in ice dance, you have to enjoy roller-coaster rides.

At the 2021 World Figure Skating Championships in Stockholm, Sweden three weeks ago, Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker left the ice after their free dance to minimalist composer Phillip Glass’ “First Movement” and Blondie’s 1978 blockbuster “Heart of Glass” feeling good about their chances for a career-high worlds finish.

Then, up came the score: 113.43 points, some eight points lower than what they had earned for the program at Skate America last fall.

“Technically, I think we put out a solid performance and met all the requirements with a very strict panel here, but the judges were looking for something clearly different,” Hawayek said. “Now, we understand there’s always inflation from U.S. national events, but I didn’t feel like there was that much at Skate America. And then on top of that, not 10 points less than what we performed.”

“We’re very frustrated,” Baker said. “We got extremely good feedback from this material all season, only positive and only growth feedback.”

As it turned out, other teams had similar frustrations in Stockholm. Hawayek and Baker, who stood 11th after the rhythm dance, climbed to ninth, equaling their previous best result in 2019. Not want they hoped for, but hardly a disaster.

“I think that we’re going to 100-percent push through this and it just makes us stronger at the end of the day,” Hawayek said. “And maybe at the next event, the judges will see the same program, but it’s from a different side or something like that. So we’ll see.”

That next event, World Team Trophy, is happening in Osaka, Japan this week. Hawayek and Baker take the ice for their free dance on Friday, where their goal is to earn far closer to their Skate America score than they did in Stockholm. The signs are good: on Thursday, the team gained 76.79 for their “Saturday Night Fever” rhythm dance, considerably higher than their score in Stockholm.

Worlds was just one more bump in the road for the skaters, who teamed up in June 2012 and won the world junior crown in 2014. Since then, the three-time U.S. bronze medalists have had to fight their way into the crowded U.S. ice dance spotlight, competing alongside all-time greats including Olympic bronze medalists Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani and their current Montreal, Quebec, training partners Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue (three-time reigning world medalists), and two-time world medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates. At ages 24 and 27 – still young, by ice dance standards – they believe more lies ahead and are committed to one day standing on the world podium.

“Those ups and downs, that’s not stopping anytime soon,” Hawayek said. “We’re not easily defeated. We’ve had triumphs in our career, and disappointment, and continually push pass it. I think that’s what makes us one of the strongest teams out here competing.”

Here is more on how the team uses humor and maturity to help manage competitive stress:

The last few seasons, you’ve become well-known for your comical exhibition programs, especially your gender-bending “Battle
of the Swans.”

Baker: We have our humor, just as everyone else does, and we like to portray that.

Hawayek: We both see the galas at the end of competitions as opportunities to perform and do things we can’t do in competitive programs. It’s funny because Jean-Luc and I are incredibly, incredibly serious people for our work. We take what we do on the ice to heart so much, and we go into every single day with the utmost respect for one another and for what we do. So even though we have that lightness, it’s never a lack of sincerity or seriousness.

During the final press conference at the U.S. Championships, your Montreal training partners, Hubbell and Donohue, really praised the humor you bring to the rink.

Baker: I’ve always been kind of a goofball and I like to make people smile and laugh, so sometimes I just like to do whatever I can to get to that point.

Hawayek: It kind of releases the intangible tension that could build from doing an elite sport. I’m not saying we don’t ever have those moments on the ice where we are feeling tired, or discouraged, or anything like that. That all comes with it. But I think because we lead with that lightness and that joy for what we do, it makes training easier in that respect.

Tanith White (2006 Olympic silver medalist and NBC commentator) said during a broadcast that it would be great if you would work elements of this humor into some of your competitive programs.

Baker: It is something that we’ve talked about and something we would be very willing to explore. It has to kind of arise naturally; Kaitlin and I are not going to force something like that, because we find that when you try to be funny, it’s the farthest thing from funny. You know, when you meet someone that’s really authentic, you are genuinely attracted to them. But when someone is not authentic and they kind of put on a face, you don’t really get a good vibe from them. So [authenticity] is one of the things that we really cherish when we create material, whether it be for a show or competition.

It sounds like showing that humor in a competitive program could be challenging.

Baker: When you do that kind of program, you’re so focused on the humor and the real interaction that’s happening, that sometimes you can lose sight of doing a rocker or something like that. That could take you, if you’re talking about a world stage, from third place to eighth or ninth, because we all have similar [element values]. So it’s definitely something we’re curious to explore, but we also need to play it at the right time.

Plus, different countries have different ideas of humor. What is funny in the United States, may not be as humorous abroad.

Hawayek: The reason that we like injecting humor and joyfulness and a little bit of light-heartedness into our programs, is to bring joy and enjoyment to people. So there’s definitely a line that we very carefully tread and are respectful of, because regardless of the culture or the country that we’re in, we never want to offend. We only want to inspire and bring joy to people. So, we always keep that in mind when we’re creating our show programs or even our competitive programs as well.

In keeping with the theme of authenticity, you’ve talked about how your “Heart of Glass” free dance doesn’t necessarily have characters or a storyline, but simply captures your emotions listening to the music.

Hawayek: Our free dance is very organic, it’s something that comes from deep within us. And I think that we will start shifting ourselves more and more to the organic [side] of our creativity. Sometimes, that may lead us in the direction of having a role [to] portray, but I think that we’ve proved not only to the world but to ourselves that we are capable of doing many different things.

Baker: Something Kaitlin said in an interview a few months ago: we are trying to allow the audience and the judges to go on a journey with us, as if they were going into a museum. When you go into a museum, you see beautiful pieces of art. Now, if you read [about] the artwork and exactly what’s happening within the story after you see the painting, you might be confused. Or, if you read the story before looking at the painting, it can be confusing because it’s not what you would imagine yourself. So something that Kaitlin and I are both latching on to is just being organic and allowing the music to speak to us.

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Jason Brown, Rohene Ward seek to spread the light with “Sinnerman” program

ISU World Figure Skating Championships - Stockholm: Day Two
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When choreographer Rohene Ward contemplates a new program for Jason Brown, he asks himself: How are we trying to touch people? How are we going to leave them feeling when they walk away?

Last spring, with frustrations in the Black community growing and COVID-19 tightening its grip, Ward thought it was time to honor Alvin Ailey (1931-1989), founder of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and choreographer of “Revelations,” a landmark work telling elements of the Black American experience through modern dance.

“All of this is part of my blood memory,” Ailey said of his signature work, first staged in New York City in 1960 and now one of the most performed ballets in the world. “We’re really celebrating human beings, trying to make an identification with the Black past through dance.”

As a work devoted to the Black experience, “Revelations” encouraged people of color that there could be a place for them in the dance world. In 1968, it formed part of the Opening Ceremony for the Mexico City Olympics.

“The first time that I saw ‘Revelations,’ it was shocking to me; it meant, ‘Dance can do this, dance can be this, in a uniquely American tradition,’” said Kate Penner, a dancer who teaches at Boston Ballet School and is part of the Vail Dance Festival team.

“The stories that you portray in classical ballet represent almost no one — a lot of fairy tales, peasants, royalty and class things — from [the] Grimm brothers,” she added. “My dad is Black, my mom is white, and ‘Revelations’ resonated with me [because of] the stories family members tell about where we’ve come from, what our values are.”

Ward sought to create a program for Brown rooted in the Ailey vocabulary: athletic presentation, combined with long extensions and fluid, yet controlled, upper body movements.

As the painful spring of 2020 stretched on, with the death of George Floyd and the eruption of protests in U.S. cities, his choice was affirmed.

“I knew this was a special piece of music, it was a special time, and I knew Jason was special,” Ward said, adding that although the skater is not Black, “He has been close to people in the African-American community for so long, he has a different perspective than some people would have. He has the ability to make people stop and watch him and feel something. It doesn’t matter the race, the sex or the age, or anything.”

“Sinnerman” appears in the third and final section of “Revelations” – “Move, Members, Move” – and is danced by a male trio. Ward chose Nina Simone’s jazz-infused version of the spiritual, with its propulsive beat, for Brown’s short program.

“There is definitely an excitement about the piece. I can’t wait to play that program off of people, feel that energy,” Brown said after his performance of the routine at the 2021 World Figure Skating Championships in Stockholm last month, where spectators were not permitted.

“A lot of people have said they can’t wait to be there,” he added. “I’d like to be able to perform [“Sinnerman”] in front of an audience, when it is safe to do so.”

Brown will get the chance at the 2021 ISU World Team Trophy, to be held April 15-18 in Osaka, Japan, which is planned to have a limited number of spectators. The event features six top ISU members – Japan, U.S., Russia, Canada, Italy and France (substituting for China, who declined the invitation) – competing in a team format, with points awarded based on skaters’ placements within their discipline. Each country brings two men, two women, a pairs’ team and a dance team to the event. His fellow skaters elected Brown team captain.


“Growing up with Rohene and his influence since I was a young kid, he has introduced me to so many different genres and styles of music and dance,” Brown said. “He introduced me to Alvin Ailey and always pushed me to watch different styles of dance from a variety of cultures. It’s always amazing to learn from him.”

“We really wanted to bring [“Sinnerman”] to life in a different way, on the ice,” he added. “I’m really, really thrilled how it is coming along.”

Ward’s relationship with Brown dates back to the 2008 Upper Great Lakes Regionals, where he competed in the senior men’s event and Brown, then 12, contended in the juvenile category.

“Judges came up to me and said, ‘You have to watch this little boy, he reminds us of you, he has a ponytail,’” Ward said. “So I did, and I thought, ‘Wow, he does remind me of me.’”

Soon after, Brown’s former longtime coach, Kori Ade, asked Ward to stand in for her at one of the youngster’s exhibition performances. This initial contact was inauspicious — Brown forgot to bring his music and left the ice in tears — but in 2009, Ward moved to Chicago at Ade’s invitation, to coach and choreograph. He has created programs for Brown ever since, including “Riverdance,” which went viral in 2014, and an acclaimed short program to “The Room Where It Happens” from the musical “Hamilton,” among others.

“I have been talking to [Jason] about Alvin Ailey for years and years and years, but we never did a program,” Ward said.

“Sinnerman” almost didn’t happen. Ward and Brown created another short program in the spring of 2020, set to a gentle piano piece, “Melancholy,” that Brown used to win the Peggy Fleming Trophy in Colorado last summer.

The skater, who trains in Toronto, didn’t even show “Sinnerman” to coaches Tracy Wilson and Brian Orser until Ward insisted he do so. They were bowled over.

“I think once Brian and Tracy got to see it in person, it gave him that little boost of confidence that, yes, this is the short program,” Ward said. “And as soon as he got that he ran with it.”

Ward’s determination to create a program based on Ailey movements sprang in part from a longtime friendship with Derrick Minter, the company’s late performance director. Minter, and other Ailey members, thought Brown could capture much of the modern dance technique invented by Alvin Ailey’s mentor Lester Horton: lunges, leaps and turns, combined with lyrical movements.

“Jason incorporates so much of the physicality with a commitment to its original intent, appropriately adapted for the demands of a short program,” Penner said.

“It really stands out to me that his body line is trained to navigate these new shapes,” she added. “This looks like a different program than what he has done in the past, which is impressive because given the demands of the sport, it’s totally understandable to see people recycle movement vocabulary from one season to the next. Jason does not do that.”

Brown announced he will keep “Sinnerman” as his short program next season, with hopes to compete it at the Beijing Games next February. Following the 2021 World Championships, where he placed seventh, the skater returned to Chicago to polish the program before the World Team Trophy.

“It still has a ways to go, and I’m definitely going to watch more Alvin Ailey pieces and continue to learn as much as I can from them,” Brown said, adding, “It’s all about the symbols, the shape, the lines. Alvin Ailey is such a modern, contemporary take on dance, unlike anything I’ve seen before with other styles. It’s really about this abstract movement on a piece of modern music.”

Less abstract is Brown’s pursuit of quadruple jumps. In Stockholm, he landed a quad salchow in his free skate, but it was judged slightly short of four rotations by the technical panel. Still, it brought him steps closer to his goal of having quads in both of his programs come Beijing.

“Every single day we train both (quad salchow and toe loop), all the time,” Brown said. “The programs are choreographed so they are interchangeable. I’m striving hard to get both quads in, as soon as possible.”

Ward applauds Brown’s pursuit of quadruple jumps and the extra points they bring – so long as the skater’s choreography and performance quality doesn’t suffer.

“I’m just happy Jason hasn’t gotten frustrated and stopped believing in himself,” he said. “The fact they gave him some marks that are under rotated or whatever, I’m like, ‘Dude, it’s not about how they feel about it; it’s about how you feel about what you did.’ He needs to be proud he did it while keeping up the integrity of the rest of the program.”

Alongside his choreographic career, Ward coaches at Fox Valley Ice Arena in Geneva, Illinois, about 35 miles outside of Chicago. There, he works with the rink’s skating director, two-time U.S. pairs’ champion Rockne Brubaker, and Brubaker’s wife, Stefania Berton, a European pairs’ medalist. Two of Brubaker’s pairs won junior medals at the 2021 U.S. championships.

“Amber Gil and I are building a singles program and also working on technique with the pairs,” Ward said. “We teach in groups, more in the European style, so it’s more affordable for the kids.”

Ward hopes to attract more students of color.

“I’ve reached out, but with COVID it’s been difficult,” he said. “It’s about going into the community and doing the work. I’m ready to do that, once COVID clears.”

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Where are the quads in pairs’ figure skating?

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At the 2015 World Figure Skating Championships in Shanghai, five of the top seven pair teams attempted a quad element in their free skates: three quadruple twists, and two throw quadruple salchows.

“We want to move the sport forward,” said Eric Radford, who executed a throw quad salchow and won the event with partner Meagan Duhamel. “I think, in a few years, there will be two kinds of pairs: those with a quad element, and those without.”

Radford was wrong.

At the 2021 World Championships in Stockholm last week, no pair tried a quad twist or throw. Ditto in 2019. You have to go back to the 2018 World Championships in Milan, when Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov did a quadruple twist in their silver medal free skate, for the last time a pair did a quad at worlds.

Over the same time period, quadruple jumps in the singles’ events proliferated like wildfire. It would be unthinkable for a man to land on the world podium in Stockholm without at least two types of quad jump, and indeed medalists Nathan Chen had five, Yuma Kagiyama three and Yuzuru Hanyu attempted four in their free skates. Aleksandra Trusova, the women’s bronze medalist, tried five quads total in her free skate, succeeding on two.

So, why aren’t pairs trying quad twists and throws anymore?

The answer can be found in Tarasova and Morozov’s protocols.

In 2018, the Russian champions hit a solid quad twist that gained Level 3 (the second highest) from the technical panel, giving it a base value of 8.60 points. Adding in grades of execution (GOE) awarded by the judges, it was worth 9.74 points.

In their free skate in Stockholm this week, Tarasova and Morozov didn’t bother with a quad. They hit a Level 4 triple twist, with a base value of 6 points. With good grades of execution, it was worth 8.74 points – exactly one point less than the Level 3 quad twist the pair did in Milan.

A point isn’t nothing, but skaters and coaches have decided it simply isn’t worth the extra energy and training time, not to mention the risk.

In 2015, Alexa and Chris Knierim executed a quad twist in their free skate in Shanghai, where they placed seventh in their worlds’ debut. They went on to hit it at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, but did not try it their final two seasons. Chris Knierim retired from competition in February 2020.

When Alexa Knierim was asked whether she and her current partner, Brandon Frazier, would consider developing a quad twist, she shook her head.

“I think you don’t see the quad twist anymore because the point value for it is not significant enough for the danger, and wear and tear on the athletes’ bodies,” Knierim, who with Frazier placed seventh this week, said.

“When Chris and I were training that element, we would only start it in August/September, and we would only do it one session a day, because of the torque on the body,” she added. “I think if the point value for it were much higher, it would be something to consider, but at this point skating a solid program, with great grade of execution (GOE) on all of the elements, is really the strategy for winning.”

Two-time world champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, winners of the silver medal last week, are another pair who have seemingly abandoned the quad elements, including twist and throw salchow, they performed earlier in their career.

Neither the gold medal pair in Stockholm, Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov, or bronze medalists Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitry Kozlovsky attempted a quad element. Both of these Russian pairs are trained by legendary coach Tamara Moskvina, who fairly sniffs in disdain when asked about the quad twist.

“It is not a simple element, and to get the top level, they want the girl to do it with her hand over her head,” she said, citing one of several features – also including a full split and the man putting his arms at his side after the toss – that might help qualify a quad twist for a Level 4.

For Duhamel, the message is clear: the ISU is discouraging pairs from upgrading the difficulty of their twists and throws.

“When Eric and I competed, the throw quad was only worth it when we landed it cleanly,” Duhamel said. “If I put my hand down on the landing, then somebody else’s clean throw triple would get more points. I’ve done a nice, easy, flowing throw triple, and I’ve done a hand down on a throw quad, and a hand-down throw quad is a lot harder than a nice throw triple.”

The base value of a throw quad salchow is 6.5 points; for a throw triple salchow, it is 4.4 points. Contrast that with the differential between a triple salchow jump, 4.3 points, and a quadruple salchow, 9.7 points.

“I’ve talked with singles’ skaters who think that is just ridiculous,” Duhamel said. “They don’t understand it.”

Conventional wisdom has it that, by keeping the value of quad pair elements relatively low, the ISU wants to avoid pair skater accidents and injuries. But Duhamel says no one from the ISU ever approached her and Radford to discuss how they trained the element.

“Why didn’t they come to the people who were doing it, and ask them: Can we do research on the number of falls you have, and how they compare to falls on the throw triple?” she said.

Before they developed their quad twist, Alexa and Chris Knierim met with sports medicine staff at the United States Olympic Committee to create a training and recovery program to help prevent injuries.

“I have to be really technically sound, more so than for the triple,” Chris Knierim said at the time. “Sometimes I get a little antsy and kind of rush, so the biggest thing for me is to keep the steps into [the quad] nice and easy, like I was going into a triple. After the steps are done, the up is the same as the triple; it’s really no different.”

Duhamel reasons that, instead of keeping the value of quad twists and throws low, the ISU should increase the base values and allow skaters and their coaches to decide whether or not to pursue them.

“For every skater, or team, the path to the top is different,” she said. “For us, we needed every technical point we could get. It would be dangerous for me to try a quad twist, so I would never do it…. Do I want [other pairs] to do it? Yes, because it is thrilling.”

While pairs have been stagnant on quad elements the last several seasons, lifts are growing ever more complicated, with difficult entries and exits, as well as one-arm variations, required to obtain Level 4s.

“When I see the lifts people are doing, for me, that’s more dangerous than doing a throw quad,” Duhamel said. “To compete in top five at the world championships, you have to have a massive triple twist. To me, that is more dangerous than a throw quad…. The coach and the skater should weigh the risk factors of elements, not the ISU.”

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