By Hiro Yoshida
After just missing out on gold four years ago in PyeongChang, Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron are back on Olympic ice this week in Beijing seeking the one title they need to complete their collection.
It has been an eventful four years for the 2018 Olympic silver medallists to say the least. They picked up World titles in 2018 and 2019 and seemed invincible until their winning run was abruptly halted at the 2020 European Championships in Graz, Austria where they were beaten by Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov from Russia. They were scheduled to face the Russians again at the World Championships in Montreal, Canada in March 2020. However, the week before the event was scheduled to begin it got cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We were very excited about this event because it was in our hometown, the place we train,” Papadakis said. “My family and a bunch of my friends were coming from France. It was going to be something special in our careers. Of course, we were very disappointed when it got cancelled because it got cancelled really last minute. It was very disappointing for everybody and we were sad that we weren’t going to experience those Worlds at home.”
The four-time World champions spent months unable to train on ice during the initial stages of the pandemic. The uncertainty around whether certain competitions would go ahead due to the precarious situation globally surrounding the virus forced them to re-evaluate what they would spend their time working on during the 2020-2021 season.
“We worked on a new free dance programme and then some of the competitions got cancelled,” Cizeron said. “Then we decided that during the winter we would start preparing for the year after. It wasn’t very exciting for us just to train for (2021) Worlds without any preparing competitions. It didn’t really make any sense in our career at this point. We started focusing on the Olympic season. That was far more exciting for us. It put us in a really good energy so that’s what we did.
“It was taking control of our timing and the things we were going to work on. Depending on the world situation wasn’t easy, so we decided to look more long term to get some peace and be more comfortable and not be in the unknown. It was easier to just focus on something that was probably going to happen for sure.”
Skipping the 2021 World Championships in Stockholm, Sweden gave Papadakis and Cizeron more time than they normally would have to create their Olympic programmes.
“For the last Olympic season, we probably started doing our programmes at the end of May or the beginning of June,” Papadakis said. “This time we started around March. It was about two months more than what we are used to and the only difficulty was that we didn’t have any short-term goals. Usually, we are in such a rush to do the programmes that we can work faster. We took more time to explore more of the choreography, just deepening our work in that area, on lifts, on elements. I don’t feel that we made any compromises in the ideas that we had for our programmes whereas we usually almost always have to do.”
For the lost season of 2020-2021, the French had prepared a tango free dance which in the end they never performed in competition. This season they opted to interpret Gabriel Fauré’s “Élégie” for their free and weave elements of the tango into the dance.
“We really liked the feeling it gave us on the ice and all the possibilities for shapes and movements,” Cizeron said. “It was also something that was challenging for us to incorporate a layer of passion in a free dance. Mostly we wanted to keep something that felt passionate, but we also wanted to have more layers that were contemporary and lyrical.
“It really just fit well and it’s also one piece from beginning to end that already has a lot of colours by itself, so I think we were really drawn to the idea of using one piece and not doing a mash-up of several pieces.”
Papadakis and Cizeron waivered on whether or not the choice of music and theme was the right one for this season.
“We changed our minds a lot,” Papadakis said. “There are some programmes where we found the music and then do the choreography and it just works. Our rhythm dance is a bit like that. Our long programme is not like that at all.”
“One option was to keep last year’s music,” Cizeron said. “We had a few other options in mind that we tried on the ice, but this seemed the best for the season.”
The reflective and poignant mood of “Élégie” is no coincidence. With the dance, Papadakis and Cizeron wanted to look back on their journey in skating and the uncertainty of what path they will take once this season ends.
“The first idea we had creating this programme is that we don’t know if we are going to keep skating after this season,” Papadakis said. “We might or we might not. Every other season starting we knew it wasn’t going to be our last and this time we don’t know.
“We thought if it’s our last programme, our last free dance what do we want it to be. It didn’t feel like it could just be one thing. It just felt like we had to put everything that we learned over the past years in terms of styles of dance and energies and the way that we move our bodies.
“We didn’t want to be playing characters that were not us, things that we did before. We didn’t want to do that. We wanted to just be ourselves and tell a much deeper story of our relationship of what we went through, what we discovered about ourselves over the past couple of years.
“It’s how over the years we have shaped ourselves and created something in the world of skating that is just ours and that looks like us and how we made our vision come alive on the ice. It’s a lot also about time passing. I think it’s the first time we realise we’re not the young ones any more at all.
“It was also thinking about what we leave behind, our legacy.”
For their rhythm dance, Papadakis and Cizeron took a completely different tack than their free and explored waacking, a street dance that emerged from LGBT clubs in the 1970s.
“We were all workshopping and pitching ideas,” Cizeron said. “The voguing came up and we didn’t really know what waacking was either. We discovered it watching videos.
“We contacted the best in waacking in Montreal. Her name is Axelle Munezero, and we were very lucky that she was not really working at the time due to the pandemic. We were able to train with her for a few weeks and then choreograph with her.
“We were very drawn to the fact that it’s never been done before on the ice. The whole waacking community was surprised too to see waacking on ice. It was challenging at first learning the dance. It’s something that we had never done before, but then it became pretty natural. It’s also why we chose it. We wanted something that we would be able to match our bodies and our personalities. I think it made it easier in the end.”
“Our choreographer always told us that she wished that it was more popular so people from the waacking community were just happy that they got visibility for their style of dance and community,” Papadakis said. “They were happy that their art was shared into the world.”
The rhythm dance is bookended by the John Legend track “Made to Love” which they had considered using for the PyeongChang Olympics.
“It was on our playlist,” Cizeron said. “The rhythm of it made us think of waacking. It’s not really typical waacking music even though you can waack to pretty much any music.
“We liked the power of the music too. We liked the feeling of going to war for something, for love. We really liked that message that we were made to love, and we were fighting for it. It’s a peaceful fight and I think that’s what waacking is about too. Waacking was originally a dance that people danced to feel empowered and to express their true selves. It worked with the overall concept of we were made to love ourselves and each other. It’s not necessarily something that comes easily. You have to fight for it.”
Coming up with innovative ideas and new ways to move has been something that Papadakis and Cizeron say has been a motivating factor throughout their careers and that their two programmes this season encapsulate their ice dance ethos.
“That’s where we get our inspiration,” Papadakis said. “Taking things that already exist and mixing them and making them our own. It was like that with the two programmes.
“Anybody can waack and anybody can do a tango, but the fact that we mixed those things and did them together that’s really just very unique to us.”
Papadakis and Cizeron go to Beijing with some Olympic demons to slay. In PyeongChang, in the first few seconds of the short dance, a clasp on Papadakis’s costume came undone which hampered their performance. While they won the free dance, it was not enough to overtake the eventual winners Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir.
“It was a mix of a lot of feelings,” Cizeron said. “The disappointment of our technical difficulties in the short dance, but then winning the free dance was also a huge achievement for us. It left us with a bit of a bitter taste. We wanted to win, and we didn’t. It gave us the fire to keep training and go to the next Olympics. Obviously, we don’t like to lose. We were still proud of our silver medal, but I think as a competitor you always want more. It’s just how we are designed.”
“We got a lot from that experience and got a lot from the last years that followed and the pandemic and life events that shaped us and changed the way that we think,” Papadakis said. “We’re still doing the same thing and still training the same way and want the same gold medal, so some things have not changed. I think we became a bit more grounded that I think will serve us going to this Olympics.”
China has been a happy hunting ground for the duo with them winning their first Grand Prix and World titles in the country during the 2014-2015 season. Their victories in China propelled them forth to set the agenda for ice dance ever since.
“We always felt that China was good luck for us,” Papadakis said. “Not that we are extremely superstitious, but all the good superstitions we will take them.”
“I think winning Worlds that year was a turning point in our careers,” Cizeron said. “It was a total shift from being in the back of the ranking to being first and then trying to keep that spot. Every year was different. Every year has been a different challenge. We have matured as people and as skaters. I think it really shows on the ice. It’s funny to look at our evolution throughout the years. Looking back at some of our programmes I think there’s a lot of them that we really liked and that shaped our style, our artistic world. We have always tried to do something different every year. We listen to our intuitions a lot. It was always a question of what we feel is interesting for us. We always thought that what was going to be interesting for us will be interesting for the public and judges. We just trusted ourselves and our coaches.”
There is a touch of sadness that due to the Covid-19 restrictions on foreign visitors entering China that their loved ones will not be there to cheer them on in Beijing.
“It’s disappointing for our families and they wish they could come,” Cizeron said. “But we are trying to be happy that the Games are happening.”
As high-profile athletes, Papadakis and Cizeron have also found their voices to speak out on issues that are important to them. Cizeron publicly came out as gay in May 2020 and in April 2021 “Ma Plus Belle Victoire”, an autobiographical account of his struggle to come to terms with his sexuality, was published.
“I am very happy that it is out there, and it might help some people,” Cizeron said. “Some things are evolving for sure. Slowly but surely in the right direction hopefully.
“Until it’s something completely normal in our society I think it is important to talk about it. I think when you have a voice that has the opportunity to be heard worldwide by different people in different countries, I think it is important to use it. Because it’s not just about France. There are a lot of skaters from a lot of countries that look up to us and if we can inspire them through our skating, through our voices then we are happy to do so.”
Papadakis used her social media last summer to defend a male Spanish rhythmic gymnast who had been subject to discriminatory comments by a former Olympic ice dance champion from Russia.
“I reacted strongly because it touched me personally when someone who has a big voice makes fun of someone who didn’t ask for anything,” Papadakis said. “As Guillaume said when we have a big voice it’s our responsibility as much as we can that we be aware that we can help, but we can hurt too. For me picking out someone and just saying things that were hurtful about what he was doing and who he was, it just made me react that way. Because it was someone in the skating world, I just wanted to balance it a bit and say there are also other people who think you are great.”
Moving from France to Montreal in 2014 with their coach Romain Haguenauer to train at what has become the Ice Academy of Montreal has been transformational not only for their skating, but also their personal development.
“We’re basically the same people, but we’ve also just evolved,” Cizeron said. “We’re trying to get better at a lot of things. I think skating has always been a great school for that. It has taught us so many things being surrounded by so many different people and being guided by our coaches. Having that support and having then as role models as well has been really inspiring. I think we’re extremely lucky to have them as people we can look up to that we respect and admire a lot. They’ve never really disappointed us. They’ve always shown that we could trust them.
“It has been a crazy experience and an amazing relationship,” Papadakis said. “Most people don’t get to experience so I think we are very lucky.”
“We really have strong relationships and I think that is one of the most beautiful things we will take into our lives after,” Cizeron said. “It’s the relationships that we have built and all those memories of training. The medals are good, but also the relationships are very rich and valuable for us.”
Whatever happens in Beijing, the next stop on their road will be a first home World Championships in Montpellier, France at the end of March. Whether this will be where their journey ends as competitive skaters remains to be seen.
“Skating in France is something very special for us because that’s where all of our audience is too and lots of fans and we’re very connected to France even if we don’t live here,” Papadakis said.
“This year is special,” Cizeron said. “We are very focused on skating, but we also have a few thoughts about what our lives are going to be after. We have always had many interests outside of skating. Maybe they will become a bigger part of our lives in the future. I think for me skating will always be something that I cherish. We would love to keep skating. Maybe it will be competing, maybe it will be doing shows, choreographing, teaching a little bit. I don’t think we have a very specific plan for the next four years to come. Every possibility is equally exciting. I think we’ll just follow our instincts.”
“All things have to come very naturally,” Papadakis said. “That’s why we don’t decide. It’s just because we don’t know how we’ll feel.
“We always had such a precise plan of what we’re going to do for the next four years or the next eight years. We are getting ready to embrace more uncertainty and go where the flow leads us.”
A version of this article in Japanese has been published in the latest edition of Figure Skate Life magazine.
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