Ermolina's interview with Gleikhengauz `Choreographing is like chess'

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Olga Ermolina's interview with Daniil Gleikhengauz `Choreographing is like chess - if you don't hit the right style and theme you lose the game' for fsrussia.ru

If it wasn't for his love to figure skating Daniil Glekhengauz would probably become a movies producer like his father, or, perhaps, a ballet dancer, like his mother, who used to dance in Bolshoi. When he became 4 his parents took him to a figure skating school, which decided his destiny - he chose the sport.

Throughout his skating career he worked under many coaches - Natalia Primachenko, Elena Buyanova, Vsevlod Golman, Natalia Dubinskaya and Victor Kudriavtsev.. He started as a single skater but the injury made him switch to the ice dance, where he was coached by Oleg Volkov/Alexandr Zhulin. He then participated Ilya Averbukh's shows, and it was Averbukh, who after the 2014 Olympics pushed him to try coaching and choreographing in Eteri Tutberidze's group.

OE: In one of the interviews you said coaching is more interesting than skating. Why?
DG: I think it's about the age. I became older and started treating my job differently. I always loved skating, but as an athlete I was sometimes lazy, was not working enough or not overdoing. It happened. Partly, or probably, mostly, because of that I never achieved much. When I started coaching, however, I was so taken by it and things started working out. I am never tired. I spend most of the time on the ice. Of course a lot depends on the skaters. When the skater is interested in the work it's an additional energy and motivation. When you see the feedback you can work endlessly.

OE: Would you agree not achieving much as an athlete pushed you to become a coach?
DG: Certainly. Am not the first and not the last, but the feeling that I have an unfinished business after my skating career was there. The coaching is a second chance you get. You want to prove yourself and everyone around you that there is a reason you are in figure skating, that you have the knowledge, that you love it with all your soul, that you try to project your inner state through the skaters and you want to take all your experience and knowledge and share it with the guys so they will not repeat your mistakes.

OE: What was the main mistake?
DG: In not setting the priorities right. When you are young you think focusing on the sport would deprive you of the life, that you are missing out on things, that the life goes by and you see nothing. But if you try to have it all and not focus on the important you will not reach the main goal. My father always told me when you are young you have to work to the most of your ability because the reputation will work for you later. So later you'd have a chance to see the world, to feel the life. When I was an athlete I didn't understand it. Now I completely agree that when doing something you have to give all you have on the daily basis.
I guess these thoughts come with the age, because when young it's harder to give up on things. Food is a less of a deal for the guys, but still, you sometimes eat too much, gain a redundant weight and it effects your practices. It might not be visible, but the body is more stressed and tired. An additional 2kg and you injure yourself working on a heavier weight, landing the quads and the 3A. Then you pull something, the old injuries spring back and there you go. Also the regime - going to sleep at the right hour and not stay awake till 2-3am on the phone, try to avoid alcohol, the night clubs... At the time I was unable to give up some of these things so now it's important for me to explain the guys. An advantage is that our age difference is not that big and I was living exactly the same life they do - the hardships, growing up, puberty.
At the same time when I first started coaching it was important for me to have their respect and show that while we are not so far in the age, but we do have a certain distance. But Tutberidze's group had it done for me. When I joined the team there were never problems with the guys accepting me as a coach, not even the oldest ones. Now, 4 years later, it's another generation of the skaters. Those skaters grew up in front of me and many even call me by the full name (in Russian there is a polite way using the father's name as well). But as for Zhenia Medvedeva I like it better when she just calls me Danya.

OE: Was joining Tutberidze's group a lucky ticket for you?
DG: i think for both of us. By then I already had some coaching experience, I had some ideas about the technique and the choreography, I was trying to make it work but I didn't have the opportunity because of the skaters' level. I think now, in the ladies, we are the best group at least in Russia.There aren't yet enough good guys, but it's a matter of time. At any rate with such skaters I can develop the talent in any direction. When you coach great skaters you develop faster as a coach. I came to the group not for everything ready for me, I came after the Sochi Olympics. Behind us is a 4 years cycle, during which we were working as a team.

OE: What do you think makes Tutberidze's group one of the leading in the world?
DG: Eteri's path to prove herself as a coach, who is not only good in the jumps, but in gliding and the choreography was quite long. At the beginning she was doing all of the above alone. Then she went through a long process of creating a team. Sergey Dudakov joined. There were a lot of gliding coaches, which I hate - it means they only work on something so narrow, and the word sounds like a curse.
When I decided to try out in Tutberidze's group most of the people were quite skeptical - there were quite a lot of skaters like me and they changed every 2-3 months, no one stuck around. So it was just meant to be till she found a person who was suitable for her level of ambitions. So step by step the team was created: Dudakov, the off ice choreographer Ludmila Shalashova, the jazz and contemporary choreographer Alexey Zhelezniakov, doctors, physio - all that works like a clock. If you take on screw from the machine something might go wrong, but for now the work goes right. No one is trying to take the credit. We are all trying to do our best. And we all love figure skating more than anything else and dedicate all our time to it. It does not mean we are spending 24/7 on the ice, but during my free time all my thoughts are around figure skating - the music choice, the new themes, technical things, the interviews, photoshoots etc. The work is in every direction and we are trying to help every skater in the group to show the most they can. If they work in the same direction we do and gives all of himself there will be a result. Of not everyone will become an Olympic champion, but we will make sure the skater will skate to the top of his ability.

OE: Would it be right to compare the choreographing to chess? Let me explain: the layout of the elements, the elements order will influence the result.
DG: For now the amount of the choreographers in figure skating is so high not many understand the difference between putting the elements in the music and creating a programme, an idea, to walk the chosen character from the beginning to the end so the viewers will get the right emotions whether it's happiness, tears or empathy. I can't say I do everything in the programmes myself. But I do agree with the point of view it's a matter of talent - either you have it or you don't. If you do - he second you start listening to the music your brain sends you some pictures, some characters, memories, themes which you later translate on the ice or start dancing yourself writing down the ideas for the programmes. Am not in control at those moments. They just happen. And then there is Eteri Georgievna, who for me is a quality control. She will tell where I went too far and where not enough. She would point on the places where the viewers will not understand and where she was touched. Eteri Georgievna's point of view is a guarantee for quality, because if she likes it, then surely the viewers and the judges will do as well.
As for the chess comparison, yes, there is always a danger missing the right character you lose the game. The athlete might land great jumps and be a great spinner, but if his programme is boring his audience who support him is smaller. Every skater has to have a TM move, something that would stand out. If you, as a choreographer, find that feature and give it to the skater or emphasize the feature the skater has, in a way that it would be recognized and appreciated it's for the best for us.

OE: Does the choreographer have to be from a figure skating world? After all not everything, even genious off the ice will look equally impressive on the ice.
DG: If we are talking about the invited choreographers I don't see anything wrong with that. It's a good thing, because you sometimes get into a routine, when you are deep inside, you know what is expected to see, what the judges will like and mark well and you are slightly adjusting to that. An outsider doesn't know a thing about our sport and his ideas might be very interesting and unusual. Of course there has to be a person who will translate all these ideas to the ice and integrate them in the right part of the programme so it would stress the originality and wholeness. If you combine the external choreographer's ideas with the group choreogrpaher's work, it will turn out to be very interesting.

OE: Especially as the invited choreographer will not spend so much time with the skater during the season and make sure the programme does not fall apart.
DG: The programme might start falling apart 3 hours after it was finished. At one place the arms movement will be gone, after a week 30% of the programme might disappear. Indeed our work is to control what was done at the first place should be done all the time. I can see the examples in front of my eyes. I don't only choreograph for our guys, I work with the other groups and the foreigners. For example I recently worked with e junior pair Pavluchenko/Hodykin, who are coached by Sergey Dobroskokov.
Am not worried about missing the right character with the skaters from our group - I know each of them really well. In our practices I don't only work on the gliding in a manner of `go, bracket, rocker, basic steps...'. Every time I try to touch the characters a little bit, change the rhythm, work with the upper body and pay attention to the artistry. The 2nd part of the season when there is more free time I bring different music styles and we, the whole group, come up with the short programmes for 1.5 minutes. Modern, Jazz, Classical. During 3-4 practices we learn the combinations and I see who is better in which style. Some are better in the classics and are not yet ready to skate to the blues or jazz, so that's the style we'll pick. However, it does not mean in the future we will not be working in the other direction. We have to keep working so they will not have to skate the same thing the whole life.
I just think that now figure skating is in a state of a slow composition - classical or not, and the programmes of love and suffering, which make you cry - they are more liked by the judges taking the skaters performed well. It narrows the choices. I.e. creating a fun programme about a clown, something funny when you can play with your face is not really encouraged. You understand that you skater will go out there with that programme, will skate his best and then another skater will go and skate to a classical music with an inspired facial expression and their components will be higher. Hence even if I want to choreograph a funny humours programme there is no point. We are left with the exhibition numbers, where we can have fun, create the characters and not worry about the judges.

OE: How many programmes have you choreographed?
DG: More than 200.

OE: Which ones do you like more -those that were hard to work but were so satisfying later, or those that were easy?
DG: Not always the hardest programmes are the most satisfying. Sometimes you feel the music, have a great idea and the athlete does fine, the choreographing process will fly so fast and it will be a great programmes. On the other hand sometimes you suffer for 2-3 weeks on every step and understand it's all wrong.

OE: What are your favourite programmes?
DG: I'm becoming more and more demanding every year. I rewatch the old programmes and see the positive and the negative sides, mark the interesting ones in changing the mood, going into a different part, interesting step, the facial work. And here I hate 10-15 moves, because it looks not sophisticated. I try to get away from the usual, to fill the programmes with the interesting steps, and, of course, the characters. Of course you can't avoid the basic steps and crossovers - you need to gain the speed, but still you should try not do the banal steps, but something unusual- change of direction, moves, so it will seem interesting. In the other words - I keep developing and improving and hope I will never say I peaked as a choreograher.
One of my first major programmes was Adian Pitkeev's SP, which he skated his last season. By then I already choreographed quite a few junior or kids programmes, but this one came out emotional and quite a high level. The programme combined 2 musical pieces by 'Apassionata' and a Japanese compositor. Adian had his best SP skate with that programme in Moscow winning the SP, being ahead of Javier Fernandez. I rememebr Eteri and Sergey were standing near the border and I was behind the hated white line. I don't know, but it's a special place to humiliate people. But it was not even about that, but after Adian's skate they turned their backs to the ice and came to me to thank.
It was a defining moment to feel the confidence that not only people you work with like what you do.

OE: Adian's exhibition was quite interesting as well.
DG: Which showed just a part of his talent. Pitkeev could do everything on the ice and it was only about developing his abilities. The exhibition was not bad, though it could be better. We simply lacked time, choreographing the number in 2 nights. We finished right before the start of the competition.
I also like the theme and the idea of Polina Tsurskaya's last year SP to `The game of thrones' music. She was depicting a painter, but let me tell you more - in a way it was a choreographer. When the creative person is trying to create something perfect there is so much agony to go through. It happens you search and search the music, something new no one else yet had skated. I was trying to depict all that in Polina's programme. It was a step up in my journey. Polina skated that programme really well. Unfortunately the athlete was unable to win the most important competitions that season. Yet a lot of people who support her saw a new Polina in that programme. I think it was her breakthrough. I think it's the best junior programme in Russia last season.
I had a couple of cute programmes. Ilia Skirda's LP to `Once upon a time in America'. Frankly, I forgot how hard is it to show the story on the ice. I love the movie. My father showed me when I was little and didn't understand everything. I later rewatched the movie several time. In Ilya's programme I decided to show the childhood, growing up, when you get your first true feelings, first understanding of what is friendship between men, the female beauty, the first loss... It was an interesting experience choreographing and Ilya skated it so well.
And, of course, Zhenya Medvedeva's exhibitions. Recently we created about 6 programmes. It's so much fun, we both do what we want. There was an idea to show Zhenya can be fun, so it was a French `Parole', where first dressed in a bath robe she knits, then takes off the bath robe and has a lovely dress on and becomes a playful girl. It showed people, who thought Medvedeva is a one trick pony she can depict absolutely everything.
Then there was a hit `Seylor Moon'. I watched the cartoon as a kid as well, but I forgot a lot. Before working on the number I spent the whole summer with my gf in Dominican Republic rewatching the tv show so I would be ready and know the character. I think no one had done it before. Perhaps only Javier Fernandez with the `Super Javi'
Working together with Eteri Tutberidzeon Alina Zagitova's LP `Don Quixote' was also very interesting. The programme is great, we will make it a bit more complicated and ideal.

OE: Many noticed the programme is based on the musical stresses, which is really complicated.
DG: It was a new thing. We started working from the end, because it was decided the accent would be on the last part and we would put the jumps on the musical accents -something that was never done before. In order to make it work the skater had to take off from a very short distance. It's something about the contemporary skating - watching the programmes of 10 years ago - they telegraph the jumps. Now every element is followed by the other and the gaps of 5 seconds at the most and all the jumps are in the 2nd part of the programme. But we did it, hence hardly surprising Alina won pretty much everything with that programme.
This year Zagitova will have a new SP to a `Black Swan' with a very unusual music cut. When I heard the music from the movie `Moonlight' I felt the suffering, the uncertainty and the shout of the bird and though `what if we combine the contemporary piece with a classical Tchaikovsky? I let Eteri Georigievna listen and she said it would be ideal. It did: the beginning - a bit of a `Swan Lake', then a long part and the steps sequence- the moment of becoming the Swan. The finale turning into a `Swan Lake' with a change of a character and the costume.
Not that Alina will be performing one of the most complex steps since she started skating and I choreographing. I hope it will show how much Alina progressed compared to the last year in her expressions, gliding and in general...

OE: Seeing the music - is it from your father - the movies producer or your mother - the balled dancer?
DG: Of course the genes had a part in that. But let me put it this way: the ability to control your body and the choreography is from my mom, but everything about my brains is from the father. Father was a very smart and an interesting person, with his own ideas and non standard approach. It was not without a reason he became a producer and was making interesting movies. He have been teaching me since I was little, talking to me, showing interesting stuff. At the age of 15 or so I watched the world masterpieces together with my father, even though I was unable to understand everything back at the time, but since the movies were not forgettable I rewatched them years later.
I don't know what would I chose if it wasn't for figure skating. Perhaps I would choose balet, because, think, I was not yet walking but already having basic ballet classes. I recall almost all my childhood I was practicing with my mom. They started the ballet classes from the age of 7, but at the age of 4 I started skating. When the time to choose came how could they tell me `take off the skates and go dance off the ice'? By then I had already been skating for 3 years and didn't want to stop. Frankly, I hated the ballet training till the age of 17. Imagine: you're in puberty, everyone leave the ice and head to mcDonalds, while your mom picks the ballet shoes and tells you `off we go to study'. Though when you are older you realize we should be grateful to our mothers, because I, for example, would not become a choreographer - it was thanks to my mother's lessons from the childhood.

OE: There was a moment when you were injured and could have picked something different - produce the movies for example.
DG: There were thoughts to have another education, but I couldn't leave figure skating. Even now when am tired, in a vacation etc - I catch myself thinking `I want to be back on the ice!'. Father never really thought seriously of figure skating, he planned me to follow his steps, but I have been practicing for so many years I couldn't imagine the life without the sport.

OE: And your father didn't insist...
DG: Never. But life is long, and I like acting. I would love to be in front of the camera. Or behind the camera. But all that, even if it should happen, will not be in the near future.
 

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