By Hiro Yoshida
As the Sochi Olympic season concluded in 2014, who could have predicted that Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron would turn the world of ice dance on its head and push the sport in a new direction toward PyeongChang?
With the 2018 Olympics just over two months away, the now two-time World champions will arrive in Korea as one of the favourites who vying for the gold medal. While four years ago there may not have been many who could have imagined this situation, the French ice dancers always had the belief in themselves that they could reach the position they are in right now.
“We’ve always had a pretty good idea of what we are capable of and we have a lot of people around us who believe in us too,” Cizeron said. “We’ve always felt supported on our journey and we’re really excited and honoured to be here right now and aiming for an Olympic gold medal.”
The 2013-2014 marked the senior debut for Papadakis and Cizeron. They finished 15th at the 2014 European Championships as the third string French ice dancers and did not skate at the Sochi Olympics. The now three-time European champions watched the games at home.
“I remember we were cheering for Nathalie (Pechalat) and Fabian (Bourzat),” Papadakis recalled. “We were pretty disappointed because they didn’t get to be on the podium. I remember also Elena (Ilinykh) and Nikita (Katsalapov) were very strong and had a very strong programme. It was pretty impressive to watch too. Of course, I remember the rivalry between Tessa (Virtue) and Scott (Moir) and Meryl (Davis) and Charlie (White).”
When asked to choose between the Canadians and Americans about which was her favourite, Papadakis answered diplomatically.
“There were things that I admired about both couples. It’s hard to compare because they are different. I remember loving Tessa and Scott’s programmes always. I remember the first time I watched Meryl and Charlie live I was very impressed because they had so much energy. That was something where they were unbeatable.”
Although Davis and White have retired since winning the gold in Sochi, Virtue and Moir returned to competition last season and bested the French at each of the three competitions where they faced off against each other. This week’s Grand Prix Final in Nagoya, Japan will be the only time the two teams will compete in the same event before the Olympics. The French are fully aware of the significance of the showdown, but are viewing it as a trial run before PyeongChang.
“For us it is going to be important,” Papadakis said. “Not so much for the competition itself, but dealing with the pressure of being together with the best couples at the same competition. It’s going to be interesting and a great practice before the Olympics.”
This season they seem to have the edge thus far. They won both of their Grand Prix assignments in China and France and set new personal bests in each phase of the competition. They also became the first ice dancers in history to breach the 120-point mark for the free dance and exceed 200 points for their total score.
While it will be the third trip for their main rivals, it will be the first time for Papadakis and Cizeron to compete on the Olympic stage. They believe that their inexperience may actually help them in Korea.
“It’s a lot of pressure, but we feel very lucky to be in this place for our first Olympics,” Papadakis said. “It could be a strength never having been to the Olympics because we don’t really know what to expect and we’re really just excited. We don’t have any memories attached to it so we’re going to go like we are and skate the best we can.”
They will be making their Olympic debut with two very contrasting programmes. For the Latin American themed short dance, they took a decidedly non-traditional route by opting for “Shape of You (Latin Remix)” and “Thinking Out Loud” by Ed Sheeran.
“It’s really fun to bring that ballroom Latin dance into something that is more modern,” Cizeron said. “I think people can relate to it. It’s fun and that is the point of the short dance.”
“We love the songs and the choreography,” Papadakis added. “We really take pleasure in working on it. We knew that our weak point was the technical part of the short dance, so we really worked a lot on it this summer. We’re still working on it and have work to do, but we know we are on the right track.”
An ice dance legend had a major hand in the concept for their short. 1984 Olympic champion Christopher Dean travelled to their training base in Montreal and choreographed the routine for them.
“We didn’t know him at all before,” Papadakis said. “He’s such an important celebrity in the skating world that we were shy in the beginning. We obviously discovered he was a great choreographer and it was amazing working with him. He was also a great person and very fun.”
The initial idea of using Ed Sheeran for the short actually came from Dean himself who was equally effusive in his praise for the French team after working with them.
“I picked all the SD music and put it together,” Dean explained. “The music was a current huge hit around the world and felt young and right for them.
“We basically constructed the first draft in about six hours in total. They were very easy to work with and immediately translated my ideas into steps.”
They have gone classical for their free dance with Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”, a style that has become a kind of a signature for them ever since they won their first World title skating to Mozart’s “Adagio from Concerto No. 23”. It was also clearly a very personal and conscious decision for the duo.
“I think the choice of music really came from our hearts,” Cizeron said. “It’s a piece of music we love. We had this idea and it just felt right. When you feel inspired and everybody is on the same page, it just felt natural, so we went for it.”
“We had the general idea of the programme for some time,” Papadakis continued. “Actually, since we won Worlds for the first time. The music came later during the summer. We were listening to different music and ‘Moonlight Sonata’ came up and we were both said, ‘Oh my God! I wanted to skate to that for a long time.’
“There’s a few key words we keep in mind when we work on it,” Cizeron said when asked about the theme of the piece. “It talks about beauty and humanity and honesty. It also is about compassion and love. Quietness, being simple, the complexity of simple things.”
The choice of music may have been conventional, but they contacted Jeffrey Cirio, a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theater, and arranged to work with him on the choreography to give a skating outsider’s perspective.
“The whole team wanted to bring a choreographer with a contemporary style, a modern style,” Cizeron said. “We always like working with people that are not in the skating world because it brings a fresh eye on what we do and it’s always very interesting to see through a dancer’s eye, not only a figure skater’s eyes. It was a really great collaboration. We had so much fun working with him. He had amazing ideas and is so creative. We hope maybe to work with him again.”
While “Moonlight Sonata” has not been associated with ice dance, Papadakis and Cizeron belatedly discovered the iconic free programme that Russian pairs skaters Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov had performed to the same piece of music to win gold at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympic Games. Both dancers were born after the Russians won their second Olympic title.
“We chose the music and didn’t know about any of the history with that programme,” Papadakis revealed. “Marie(-France Dubreuil) said ,’Oh, Gordeeva and Grinkov already did an amazing programme to this.’ But we said we still wanted to skate to it.”
There has been some criticism that the programme is similar to their Mozart routine, but the French see it as testament to how far they have come since that breakthrough.
“I think this is a more mature programme because we have improved so much since then,” Cizeron said. “It’s still a programme we love and we’ll always love it. It was the first year we worked with Marie-France and it’s always going to have really good memories for us.
“There is a thing about classical music that touches us like no other music can,” Papadakis said. “Being able to work with Mozart and Beethoven is something that is really powerful.”
With just over two months to go until the Olympics, the fact that they train alongside their biggest competitors for that gold medal does not seem to perturb them in the slightest.
“We train with a lot of other couples in Montreal and we don’t see everyone every day because we all have different schedules,” Papadakis said. “We see them often, sure. They’re really nice people and we learned a lot training with them last year. We just try to be better than ourselves and they try to be better than themselves. Whatever happens, happens.”
Win or not in Pyeongchang, Dean firmly believes Papadakis and Cizeron will leave their mark on ice dance for future generations.
“Gabriella and Guillaume are such talents and their ability to move over the ice with flow and speed is unique. It’s as if they have grown from the ice. They are so organic and skate as if they were born with skates on their feet.”
The French are grounded in the here and now and focused on the rest of this season.
“We always learn from our scores, talk to the judges and they tell us what to improve,” Papadakis said. “We also look at the videos to see for ourselves. We have to reach our perfection and it’s never finished.”