By Seán Gillis
After the heartbreak of narrowly missing out on qualifying for the Olympics in 2014, Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier laid those demons to rest when they competed in PyeongChang in February of this year. While for many skaters an Olympic appearance might be the ultimate goal, the Canadians are setting their sights even higher for the season ahead.
Last season was by no means plain sailing for the duo who train in Scarborough, Ontario. Two fourth place finishes at their Grand Prix events in Russia and the United States gave them pause for thought and they decided to ditch their Perry Mason themed free dance and construct a brand new routine based around James Bond which they debuted at Canadian Nationals.
“It was a big gamble,” Poirier reflected. “I think for us one of the things that empowered us to make that decision was that we had done it two years prior with the Beatles programme and that had worked well. We knew that it was something we could do, and it was within our ability to have a programme ready that quickly. I think a lot of it was also forcing ourselves after the Grand Prix season to take a step back and re-evaluate the training choices and the programme choices we made and really trying to discern what would set us up best for the Olympic experience we wanted. Having that experience of already having done it once was very helpful and I think too having the support of our coaches and choreographers. They said, ‘Whatever you guys want to do, whatever will give you the most confidence going in to the Games, that’s the choice we want you to make and we’ll make it happen.’ I think that because we were united on that front it allowed us to take that step.”
“We didn’t let our programme decisions get the better of us,” Gilles added. “We took the challenge and we didn’t go back to an old programme. We are always about moving forward and creating something different every time we do something. It was a big risk to do something new, but we took that challenge and rose to it.”
The decision proved to be correct. Gilles and Poirier took silver at Canadian Nationals and went to the Olympics where they finished in eighth place. Poirier had competed at the 2010 Games with former partner Vanessa Crone, but PyeongChang was their first as a team and they were satisfied overall with the experience.
“I think the two of us just went and really enjoyed ourselves,” Gilles said. “It was a moment for us. As well as representing our country, we did it for us. Every skate that we did wasn’t any bigger or any smaller than what we did in training. It was exactly how we wanted it to go and we really took in the experience. We saw as much as we could. We rested as much as we could have. I think we did everything right.”
They closed out the 2017-2018 season with a sixth place at the World Championships in Milan, Italy, matching their best ever placement at the event. It was a good ending to what had been a challenging number of months.
“Last season we had a lot of highs and lows, but we really stuck to our guns and we had a goal for ourselves to make it to the Olympic Games,” Gilles said. “We wanted to jump in the world standings a bit and I think we really fought through.”
As they were just beginning their preparations for the upcoming season, tragedy struck. On 28 May of this year, Gilles’s mother Bonnie passed away after battling with cancer. Understandably, these past few months have been a struggle for Gilles.
“It has been a rollercoaster,” Gilles said. “You have these moments where you are totally fine and then something triggers it and you’re a mess. There’s no way of explaining when it’s going to come or how long it’s going to last. It is getting easier. Obviously, it was sad coming to the first competition knowing that she won’t be here and won’t see it. She fought all the way through Worlds. Her goal was to see us at the Olympics and she did that. It was tough to come here (to Oberstdorf) and know that she’s not here, but I also know that every competition we go to she has the best seat in the house.
“My grandma passed away right after. It was my mom’s mom so it was hard for her. It’s your only daughter, the only thing you have left and she couldn’t do anything. She was too old to take care of her so that was hard.”
Gilles found solace in her skating and in the support of her partner and coaching team.
“It’s been an up and down off-season of losses, but skating has been my sanctuary throughout this entire thing. Paul has been my rock. He has listened. He has let me cry. He has let me not say anything. He has seen every side of me and I am super blessed to have him and my coaches because it’s been great to go there and know that I don’t have to talk. I can express myself in the way that I skate. I can just leave it all behind, close the door and go back to it later. If I didn’t have skating, I don’t think I would be okay. Skating has been my life and I am blessed to have it because of all the highs and lows.”
Gilles’s mother was known in the figure skating community as a keen supporter of the sport and not just her own children, but of the skaters from many countries who she hosted when they visited Colorado Springs to train.
“She wouldn’t want me to not compete or to stop skating. She knew what we are capable of and she believed in us so much. She believed in so many other skaters. She just had this big appreciation for athletes and what they do. She was a mother. She just loved loving people and I miss that presence. She was kind of known as a skating mom and she was the organiser of everything. If you needed a restaurant or if you needed a needle she’d go and find it. I was talking to one of the U.S. team leaders who said ‘I miss your mom and what she did.’ It’s nice to know that she touched other people and not just our family. That help keeps her alive.”
For Poirier, it was difficult for him to see his partner go through such a devastating loss and he tried his best to be there for her when she needed him.
“There are hard things, but obviously not as hard as what she and her siblings and her dad and the rest of the family had to go through,” he said. “It was taking that approach of trying to be aware of what she needed at that time and then providing whatever it was. It was a hard time and I think when we go through those rough patches we need people to surround us and other times we need to be the ones surrounding others. I think that give and take is part of any good and healthy strong relationship.”
Amidst all this personal turmoil, they and their coaches set about creating their programmes for this season. Their music for the rhythm dance is “Angelica’s Tango” by Piernicola Di Muro, a piece that was brought to them by one of their coaches Carol Lane.
“I think our approach for the programme this year, because we had done a tango two years ago, was that we wanted this one to be a little bit warmer, a little bit more effusive,” Poirier explained. “Young love versus mature love which was much more the other tango we did two years ago. It was just very established and this steady relationship with two people who know exactly who they are to each other. This one is a little more about discovery, more about passion, more about want versus already having. I think that is kind of what drove it, so we wanted the music to have the highs and lows that allowed us to tell that story. Especially with it being a rhythm dance this year, it’s actually very hard to find a tango that fits the tempo requirements for the pattern dance because a lot of the interesting tangos change tempo way too frequently and you don’t have enough of a period with a steady beat to do the pattern dance. Then a lot of the ones with a regular beat the whole way through felt very bland. It was just a nice piece that we felt we connected with and allowed us to capture the emotion that we wanted to have.”
A creative collaboration is perhaps how their free dance this season could best be described. A cover of Don McLean’s “Vincent” by Anglo-American busking group Govardo was rearranged by the musicians themselves to fit the requirements of the rulebook. The music was again discovered by Lane who came across them on Facebook.
“Paul and I two or three years ago talked about doing the story of Van Gogh because it was so beautiful, but we could not find the music,” Gilles said. “We put it on the back-burner so when Carol brought it up we thought, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’
“We got in touch with Govardo,” Poirier continued. “‘Vincent’ is a very beautiful song, but it’s flat at a steady pace the whole way through. We knew that if we wanted to use the piece, and we were really drawn to the singer’s vocals, we needed to fix it, doctor it up a little bit. We got in touch with them. We told them our needs for skating. That it needed to be four minutes. That it needed to have a change of tempo and we would ideally like to have an instrumental that’s a bit faster so that we can have some variety in the story. ‘Can you make this work?’ They said yes.
“We went through this sort of two-month process of, well actually one month of just waiting, and then they sent us a first version which was very nice and we were actually surprised at how they had understood and captured what we needed in order to tell the story we wanted to tell and dance to this piece. I would say there was about another month of tweaking, just changing up the instrumentation a little bit, changing things, making this part slower, making this part faster, adding a hesitation here. At the end, during the instrumental section, we added a drum beat just to give a little bit more of a drive and a bit more of a punch as compared to the vocal parts of the song which are very gentle. It was such an interesting process to go through that with them and in some ways to be dependent on what they were able to create and make. We are very grateful to them that they were able to capture our vision in a song and they entrusted it to us to then share with so many more people.
“I think as this programme evolves and grows and as we continue to perform it throughout the season I think we are looking forward to the deepening of that relationship between us and the musical artists and that we have come together to create this work of art.”
“The story is so relatable for any human being that’s suffered loss, who has loved someone, who has strived for greatness,” Gilles added. “I think there are so many things that people can be touched by in the story. It’s not about the loss of Van Gogh at all. It’s about that he was such a passionate person who was so creative and had so much greatness in him, but no one really appreciated that in his time. It’s a rollercoaster and I feel like that’s what everyone is doing these days. They are striving for something amazing. You have so many wonderful moments from that and so many disappointments. That’s just life and that’s really what it is. It’s the story of life.”
Gilles and Poirier believe that their free dance, in particular, is a massive step forward for them emotionally and artistically as ice dancers.
“I think there is a sense of vulnerability and freedom, but with that confidence and being able to be that vulnerable and own it,” Gilles said. “That’s a tough thing – to just open your heart out. That’s when mistakes happen – when you are being extremely vulnerable and you don’t have that confidence. Now it’s different. This is the grown-up Paul and Piper. We’re taking ownership of who we are and what we are capable of. The emotion I think is just coming with it.”
The Canadians opened their season at the Nebelhorn Trophy in Oberstdorf, Germany where they comfortably won both segments of the competition and the title. With Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir ostensibly retired from competitive skating and Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje skipping the Grand Prix series this season, Gilles and Poirier go into the start of the seasons as flag bearers for their country in ice dance. While it is a position they relish, it was not really a factor in their approach this year.
“I think in some ways it’s a nice feeling just to be that couple,” Poirier said. “At the same time, it doesn’t change the job that we have to do and I think, if we are to reach the goals that we have for ourselves for the coming years, we have to take that step anyway. It doesn’t matter who else is competing for Canada.
“To be honest, it hasn’t really been on my mind that much. Going into this season, I think this off-season was just really about finding our vision, figuring out what statement we wanted to make this year and creating material that allows us to make that statement and then just living in the moment of the two programmes that we have made. I think that’s going to be the vital part. I think it’s not about trying to be good skaters any more, but it’s simply about being present in what we are doing and that is actually going to help us reach our goals more than over-trying to get them. I think that’s much more what our approach to the season has been about. If we so happen to be Canadian number one right now, all the better and we want to keep that moving forward.”
The post-Olympic season usually ushers in a shake-up in the standings. Four years ago, Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron took ice dancing by storm and went from not cracking the top ten at Worlds in 2014 to World champions in 2015. Gilles and Poirier feel that there is much to learn from the French team.
“That was a Cinderella story,” Gilles said. “They brought vulnerability and confidence to the table the first year they won Worlds.”
“They had no expectations for themselves and they just skated with freedom,” Poirier continued.
“Anything is possible with the right material,” Gilles added. “You can’t get there without having the right programmes that speak to people and we’ve been talking about that. That’s something we have learned over the years that if we don’t have the right material for the season you won’t get the goals that you want. I think that is what we did this year. We made sure everything was in place and then hopefully it goes our way.”
This weekend sees them compete on home soil in Laval, Quebec at Skate Canada. For their second Grand Prix assignment, they will travel to Grenoble for the Internationaux de France in November. While last season their goal was all about making the Olympics, this season they are looking to move up significantly in the rankings.
“We want to be on the (Grand Prix) Final podium and the World podium,” Gilles said. “We have set high goals for ourselves, but we know we are capable of that now. It’s going to be a very exciting season, I think.”