When Kumiko Hamada, editor of the Japanese publication World Figure Skating, asked me to share my thoughts and experiences about working with Tatsuki Machida for their special tribute edition, I was honored. Over the three seasons that Tatsuki and I collaborated we developed an incredible connection – one like I have never felt before with any of the great figure skaters I’ve worked with over the past 30 years. I am so grateful to World Figure Skating Magazine for its continued support of Tatsuki and appreciate the Japanese Figure Skating Federation for their support during our artistic journey together.
I always felt Tatsuki’s biggest asset was the combination of his mindset of a ballet dancer and his intensity as a great athlete. Having come from the ballet world as a principal dancer for 13 years, I was intrigued to finally have a top skater I could train using the same process I implemented as a ballet dancer. This journey filled my artistic cup with great contentment. I was able to develop a different side and clarity to Tatauki’s already beautiful foundation that he had from his amazing Japanese training over the years.
The following are questions posed to me about our work together over the years:
What was your first impression of Tatsuki Machida?
I clearly remember the first time I saw Tatsuki at the Ice Castle International Training Center in Lake Arrowhead, California. He came for summer training and I was struck with intrigue at how this young man seemed so serious about his skating. Even as I watched him walk into the rink for the first time, I was impressed by his posture and carriage as he strode to take a spot at the benches to prepare for his session. I felt like he would be a quiet warrior.
What did you think of Tatsuki before you met each other?
When he was introduced to me by Anthony Liu, Tatsuki was so gracious and respectful. I don’t think either of us realized that before too long we would begin to work together.
You call Tatsuki your muse. When and how did you come to realize that?
The first piece I choreographed for Tatsuki was the Firebird. I was very excited as I had danced this many times as Prince Ivan and also Kastchei over the years. I immediately thought that developing this program would produce a whole new perspective to the ballet. The Firebird is a heroine and I was excited to see Tatsuki as the hero of figure skating. We immediately both knew this was going to be a very natural collaboration.
The second season Tatsuki wanted to skate to East of Eden and I asked him why. He told me he loved and revered Michelle Kwan. I decided that Tatsuki Machida’s East of Eden would be a tribute to Michelle Kwan, who was also previously one of my students. It was during the third season, when we choreographed the Fantasy from the Ladies in Lavender and Symphony #9 by Beethoven, that I realized I had found my muse.
Can you please comment about Tatsuki’s musicality?
I believe musicality is something you can enhance however the artist either has it or they don’t. The music was everything to Tatsuki and he would pay very close attention to the nuance and dynamic I was looking for when creating the choreography with him. I remember when I started Symphony #9 in California I wanted to start by having Tatsuki stand in his starting position for the 15 seconds with his eyes closed. The inspiration was to have him fully surrender to the music during this quiet stance at the beginning. When your eyes are closed you must use your other senses; this is why I did this.
How do you go about working together to make the Firebird program?
The process always begins with the music. Tatsuki told me the tracks he liked from the ballet. But in this instance I reworked everything so the ballet would be developed in the natural order to optimize the choreographic result. I began with him just standing by the mirror on the ice at Ice Castle and started with his port de bra (carriage of the arms). Just as I did with Ashley Wagner in the Black Swan program, it was paramount that Tatsuki look like a ballet dancer and not like a skater trying to skate to a ballet. I told him to watch birds outside paying attention to how they moved their heads; this would transcend into pure honest movement that replicated the ballet.
My choreographic style is very organic and I create on the spot for each skater individually. Ekaterina Gordeeva, Olympic medalist, commented that while I choreographed two programs for her for a television special, she always knew exactly what I wanted based on this organic process. I use this same method for singles, pairs, or ice dance.
Do you think Tatsuki would have become a dancer if he had not become a figure skater?
This is an interesting question because I feel Tatsuki is the only male figure skater I ever worked with that was a ballet dancer. I felt the same way about working with Sasha Cohen, she was the only female figure skater I have ever worked with that was a true ballet dancer. For any choreographer from a classical background to have the opportunity to come across two skaters like this in a career is a privilege.
Have you seen any of Tatsuki’s performances after became a professional skater?
Yes, I have seen Tatsuki as a professional skater and I am not surprised that his programs are constructed with a balletic flair. I love that he uses the entire space around him and not just that which is under his feet. The pure classical beauty of his Don Quixote Gala could have easily been seen on a stage with a full corps de ballet behind him and an orchestra in the pit below. His costumes and make up were right on point and the choreography was exciting and perfectly balanced like they would be in any ballet company around the world.
Maurice Bejart is a famous 20th century ballet choreographer who created Bolero with a male lead, Jorge Dunn, and also with a female lead, Suzanne Farrell. I knew that Tatsuki would be a strong male Bolero lead. I love the way he started his Bolero program with school figures, like we did years ago, because this shows the haunting repetitive excellence that the lean of the edge and the specificity of a circle demands. The lighting and costuming were perfect for this piece. Tatsuki’s extensive training and education enhanced the sophisticated choreography he created.
Tatsuki, I am so proud and happy for all you have brought to the world, not only in figure skating, but as a human being of the highest character. Our time together as student and teacher will be something I will cherish always.
The session is over and the Zamboni is coming out.