2015 World champion and 2021 World silver medalist Elizaveta Tuktamysheva is a beloved fan favorite not only in Russia but throughout the world, and is someone worthy to look up to as she has been at the pinnacle of figure skating for a decade. A winner of the Top 50 Most Famous People of St. Petersburg award, the 24-year-old athlete sat down and spoke to choreographer Yuri Smekalov to do an interview for magazine Sobaka.
Translation of the interview to English:
Yura: Liza, how are you?
Yura: Let’s start then. For many years now, choreographers from the theatrical or ballet sphere have been invited to stage performances for figure skaters – Chelidze, Varnava, Pimenov… me, in the end! I think it’s time to start a revolution and bring in professional hip-hop trainers. What do you think?
Liza: In addition to hip-hop, I would also turn to jazz, but I would invite dancers as experts at the very end – for the finish. So that they can point to specific movements, suggest elements. I would not be able to entrust a hip-hop dancer to stage my program fully – I need a person who will know me and see the whole picture.
Yura: What role would you like to play on the ice?
Liza: I’ve never skated to a comedic theme. Haven’t used funny images. And I really want to try!
Yura: You can handle it. You are alright with humor, you are very lively. And in figure skating, it seems to me, there are not so many such lively athletes. One thing is concentration, the rigor of the task. Another is playfulness. The second point is not enough for many. Tell us, which of your colleagues’ performances do you consider to be benchmark references?
Liza: I really like Nathan Chen’s short program for the 2018 Olympic season with Benjamin Clementine, Kamila Valieva’s short program Girl on the Ball, and Carolina Kostner’s short program to French chanson.
Yura: I have an idea! I came up with a comedic number for you. I know that Alexei Nikolaevich Mishin really likes the image of Charlie Chaplin.
Liza: Oh yes.
Yura: I’m sure that Chaplin in women’s opinion, in your opinion, is cool. And Leonid Yakobson also had a ballet-miniatures Vestris to the music of Gennady Banshchikov, which he staged specifically for Mikhail Baryshnikov. I advise you to open YouTube right now and watch it – this is an absolutely unique job. This is the theatre dell’arte, when the main character in a starched wig and camisole takes on different images – an old man, an eccentric woman, a child, an ignoramus, a womanizer, and so on. That’s very beautiful. If stylized as the Italian Renaissance, it would be great.
Liza: Alexei Nikolaevich will appreciate it. Coming back to the topic of the choreographer, I remembered how I once worked with Shae-Lynn Bourne, who, in my opinion, is one of the most brilliant choreographers of our time. She used to be a professional figure skater and understands how movement looks on skates well. For me, this is the best option.
Yura: Why is it difficult to transfer choreography from floor to ice?
Liza: When we stage in the gym, we do not fully work out the technical elements in gliding – hooks, hooks, turns. The most difficult thing is to transfer the ligaments of the arm and leg so that they are combined with the movement of the skate, do not contradict it.
Yura: Let’s tell the reader how choreography in figure skating generally begins.
Liza: We look and select what we want for the new season. That is one. The choreographer examines the athlete, gets to know their condition and sees what they can cope with and what they cannot. That is two. Three – there is a search, coordination of music and its editing for the program, so that everything is clear in time. And then that’s all, let’s work! At the very end, when the program is done, a coach joins us. Alexei Nikolaevich makes adjustments: he says where to remove the movement, where to add it. There is usually no controversy, only if you need to add steps somewhere, when the program is almost done. It is always a very thrilling moment for me when a coach evaluates choreography.
Yura: What is fashionable in choreography now?
Liza: Contemporary music, which you can skate to the modern. They are slowly abandoning the classics, looking for young composers who can offer something new. For example, in the fall of 2020, I skated a free program to the music of Bhima Yunusov, a cool young composer who works with rapper Husky. And in February of this year, at the last moment, I decided to change the music from Aram Khachaturian’s ballet to the Lovely track by Billie Eilish and Khaild.
Yura: And it was cool! Your works are very different genres, filled with drama and character flamboyance. When I think about it, I imagine that the school of the legendary coach Alexei Mishin and his athletes can be turned into an institution for improving dance education.
Liza: What do you mean?
Yura: Now it all starts with the choreographer choosing a style and genre for you. But if you, skaters, learned to dance in parallel with skating, you would be ready for what is expected of you. And they could have shown more initiative. The Russian figure skating school is very much connected with the theater, with ballet, we have a powerful background for dramatic action. If we take the Olympics as an example, then one program, a short one, corresponds to modern trends, and another program, an arbitrary one, is a mini-performance, a performance in which the inner world of the hero is revealed, insane technique is used.
Liza: Come to think of it, when judges evaluate my work, they first look at the technique, then at the components. Choreography is the mark for the components: it is very important for the athlete to feel the music and show it beautifully, and not memorize it. For me, as a skater, this is a fundamental moment – to invest in movements myself and be able to change something.
Yura: And what if not figure skating? What would you do?
Liza: Well, they wouldn’t take me to ballet with my physique. (Laughs.) Therefore, I would go to Latin American dances and professionally, head first, I would go into them.
Yura: You have a very intense life and career. Tell me, what about your burnout?
Liza: For me, burnout is devastation and a situation where there is not a single strong emotion to hold onto. This is the moment when you cannot enter the training process, everything seems to be monotonous. But I can handle it. It helps me a lot when I take two days and don’t think about figure skating, I switch. Or I go to the competition, go to the start and feel the adrenaline rush. Yes, competition is my burnout remedy.
Yura: You ironically call yourself “figure skater of balzac age.” Seriously, how do you see your future?
Liza: Now I want one thing: to get to the Olympics. It’s my goal. While I am preparing in the usual way, I do not relax, I work – I will squeeze the maximum out of myself this season. And then, perhaps, I will switch to programs in which it will be possible to implement a show. You can show yourself much brighter in a show than in the competitive program. But first – the Olympic Games!