500 bucks in an envelope
Averbukh talks to Vaitsehovskaya about his show, why wasn't he eager to skate in the USA, his past experience in Collins' show, the press and the figure skating today.
500 Bucks in an Envelope.
Six years ago the Salt Lake City Olympics Silver medalist in ice dance Ilya Averbukh confessed that during his skating career with Irina Lobacheva he dreamed of a moment when he'll be able to sit on the rocking chair in front of the fire, wrap himself in a warm blanket and do nothing. `Won't you get tired of that' I asked then. `Well, then I'll start rocking' he said.
After that Averbukh rocked so much, that he made the whole country watch the figure skating. He created his own successful show. He turned out to be a brilliant choreographer and presented an unexpected project - a full length ice show `The City Lights'. And then all of the sudden he went all shy when I approached him asking for an interview. `You liked it? Really? It's a really special project for me'.
This is what we began the conversation with a couple of days later
EV: The drama you produced - is it your inner creative need or a well calculated commercial move?
IA: Probably the former. During the last couple of years we created a countless amount of the ice show not only on the TV but we also toured the whole country. Those boundaries become too tight at some point and it becomes boring. Besides, the money part. It meant that during the first year it's a miracle everyone runs to watch and then the interest decreases till it completely falls. Hence the idea to create something more substantial then just exhibition numbers was in the air for the last couple of years. But I was postponing it all the time - realized that I would have to dedicate all my time to such a project. Otherwise it would only be good as a moonlighting job, which was not my goal.
And then all of the sudden the needed ideas and people just floated in the right direction and what was just an idea started to become real.
When the work was already in progress we were suddenly interrupted with the 5th TV season, but thanks to the hard work that was done before and the enthusiasm we pulled it. Though in general the project was released in a real Russian way.
EV: What do you mean by the `Russian way'?
IA: The foreigners who make such shows first think how will they promote it and only then begin to work. We did the opposite. We first build and only then think what should we do with what is already built.
EV: For the two times Olympic Champion Arthur Dmitriev an attempt to produce his own ice show ended with selling his apartment. Yours was a success. Now knowing you dream of your own ice theatre I can't help thinking of the continuous and useless attempts of the European champion Igor Bobrin and the Olympic Champion Natalia Bestemianova to do the same. Why do you think it'll work for you? In what are you better?
IA: The cast is the most important thing for me. It's one thing seeing mediocre skaters and quite different when there are world and Olympic champions who skate. After all it's a huge difference in figure skating. you can't replace a champion with a non champion - it will be visible. The champion have a different charisma and it's cristally clear to me.
Of course it's easier to have a couple of stars in the theatre and some skaters around them. It is also much cheaper. But it wouldn't be interesting. It would be hard to sell. To promote such a thing or create some other effects, decorations etc would cost a fortune. That is what Circle du Soleil does.
EV: Speaking of which, I've seen the Circle Du Soleil agents in various gymnastics, acrobatics, diving events. Do they come to the figure skating events as well?
IA: I know for sure the Circle Du Soleil management attempted to create an ice show several times. But they declined it every time. Probably because they couldn't figure how to make it. Circle Du Soleil is a company where the artists work, as we call it, `for food'. There is a great infrastructure, the kids are going to a special school, the artists get every possible benefit and they all hang to their jobs because the competition in the circus field is very high while Du Soleil is a world class brand. The ice show with the champions is a different thing altogether. Working with the stars is hard and doesn't pay off.
EV: What do you mean?
IA: Exactly what I said. If you create a show around one star you will be bribed by that star.
EV: When you had just began creating the show I had a feeling you took the American Tom Collins' show as a basis. Have you?
IA: Exactly. Everyone knows my story in his show. It was a long time ago. Collins created a show together with the St. Petersburg skating federation. Many Russian skaters were invited to participate, Irina and I included. The show was a great success and when it was over I quite carefully, not even myself, but through the agents enquired whether I'm entitled to any fee. I was fed with promises for a while and then was told an envelope with our fee was left at some hotel's reception. I went there at 3 o'clock in the morning and when opened the envelope saw 500$.
I was offended beyond any possible level. Even back then such a fee was an offense, especially for such a show.
Despite needing the money desperately I left it in that envelope on which I wrote `Thank you very much. You probably need that money much more than I do'.
That's when I said to myself `Oh well. You will come to us'. So, if you like, creating a successful show was a matter of honour.
EV: How do you handle such an amount of stars? Or are they disciplined by the knowledge you are the one paying them?
IA: That, of course, disciplines. Though I tend to think we are fist of all friends. We are comfortable working with each other. I can reveal that in `The City Lights' the standard fee was 1.5 lower, than usual, even though there was much more work than normally. Yet no one who I offered to participate in the project to declined.
On the other hand, as a figure skater I realize if any of my skaters will receive a more tempting offer they will leave me.
EV: Are you following the amateur sport?
IA: I watch some competitions and can't help myself thinking that it becomes boring. I ask myself what would I do to make the competition more interesting? And I have no answer. More over, working as a choreographer in the show I first try to make the programme interesting for the crowd. When I see the competition am shocked: one piece of music is more generic than the other. How can people stand it? I even thought there must be people who will be responsible for the artistic side of the programme.
EV: I have a feeling we are reaching the usual theme: the guys can't comb, the girls can't do make up, they are dressed in god knows what...
IA: The music cuts are `whatever' and is combined `on the knee'.
IA: I haven't noticed it before. May be because I was inside all that. But now I think may be it's a reason the figure skating looses it's fans?
EV: Would you like to have an opportunity to work with the skaters? Do you have any time?
IA: As long as am taking part in the TV project, of course I don't have time. The TV takes all my time and strength. But this is the last season and I don't think there will be another in the next couple of years. I would love to choreograph then.
From the side it seems choreography wise figure skating is in the Bronze era. I remember how everyone were thrilled by Phillipp Candeloro's `Godfather' programme. But let us recall what exactly what he doing there. First he gave a stare, than he skated featuring an armchair, then, basically, he did the jumps. Those 5-6 accents were enough to make that programme a huge success. Can you imagine what would it be like had there been a dramatic line that went throughout the programme?
EV: So you think this is what the choreography in figure skating is about?
IA: Well, not just. Before the Code of Points the judging was more `political'. The most important thing was to get a support of five judges out of nine, and well, preferably not to fall. Now things changed. One has to be able to do everything. Say, if one can't do the twizzles the way the Americans do, at least it's obvious what they have to work on. As far as the choreography goes, one has to inspire to make it clear for everyone who those twizzles were put exactly where they were put. Why are they accented by that musical phrase.
The same with the lifts and the spins. Choreography is an ability to give the performed elements an additional effect. Which, I think, many forgot.
Another problem is that our coaches are not too open for collaboration. There is that constant fear to loose the student. And I understand them. There were plenty of examples when someone offered the help and after a while the student came with a flowers, thanked and declared they were no longer working together.
EVid you have to learn new things in show business?
IA: Yes. I generally inspire to the new things. I worked in the radio, was hosting the show `Funny competitions' on the TV. I was horrified when I watched the programme and heard my Kermit like voice, but I was learning all the time. I didn't get any formal education, but only because I couldn't find what to study. The Salt Lake City scandal had a huge role in that - all of the sudden Irina and I became almost the heroes after being forever in the shadows. Our silver medal gave us much more than a gold could give in a different situation. I was then thinking we'd better sign some contracts while we are still spoken about. This is why when we retired I declined all the Western shows offers, because I realized it was yet another `500$ in the envelope' type of thing. And it was a waste of time. We could had stayed in the USA and coached grandmothers for 100$ an hour just as well.
When the TV project idea came up, without even blinking I said I knew how to release it. Though, frankly, I had no clue.
EV: What a nerve you have, apparently.
IA: I guess. The guys were looking at me as if I were crazy at first. Especially when even with that Olympic Silver medal I was the least accomplished skater among those who skate with me in the show.
EV: I would think that would be a reason you would be overtaken by bigger stars all the time. Do you have to decline often?
IA: More often it's the other way around. I'm trying to find a job for everyone. Even if only to make the switch from the competitive skating to the professional easier on the guys. I know how hard it is. Especially when the money is tight.
On the other hand there are situations when one has to be strict, tell unkind words to people.
EV: Money the skaters earn in your show - is it an easy money or a hard work?
IA: Life of the ice skater in the show is not easy: the constant moving around, trainings, concerts. On the other hand skating in the show is much easier than winning an Olympic medal. I think that money is first of all what those people deserve for their previous hard work and their sport accomplishments.
EV: Were you ever blamed for jeopardizing the skater's and the actor's private life? I'm not quoting the yellow press here, but speaking of the fact the format of the TV shows and the tours is not encouraging the relationships. That, being so overwhelmed with the work and being out of their routine that the show business demands...
IA: If looking at the facts the only two people who were divorced during the show are Alexandr Zhulin and I. the rest are only giving births: Masha Petrova and Alexey Tikhonov, Tanya Totmianina and Alexey Yagurin, Ira Slutskaya became a mother for the second time, Lena Berezhnaya. Oxana Domnina is expecting Roma Kostomarov's child. Albena Denkova and Maksim Staviski will become parents soon. Rita Drobiazko and Povilas Vanagas though childless remain together...
EV: So I take it all the activity of the yellow press must be quite annoying...
IA: Oh, it is. But hardly anything can be done about. My hands are tied here: I'm only hired to teach the artists to skate. The Russian Channel One employs their PR people, whose hostages we became. There was a time when I demanded to guard us from the yellow press, but it only became worse. The journalists were following us and were writing horrendous things. We had to compromise.
It's not what they write that upsets so much, but the fact it is so demanded. We love reading other people's letters, pick into other's windows. The most painful story was the one with Katia Gordeeva. It was very hard to convince her to participate the project and I consider it a huge gift to the Russian fans she came. But when all the bacchanalia with invading her private life began I couldn't do a thing. Katia left back to the USA and declined to come back.
EV: We all came to terms you don't work with Evgeni Pluschenko. Why?
IA: We have a normal stable relationship and I made offers him many times. But we both have our ambitions. He wants to skate in `Evgeny Pluschenko's show'. I want it to be `Averbukh's show'. One of my offers was to take the names out altogether and work atogether. It's an acceptable thing for me and I'm sure the fans would love it.
Corrections, remarks, discussions - all welcomed