Thursday, May 3, 2018

Echinaceas: A Little Over the Top

Yes, it was an  exciting day in the annals of catalogue plant porn when the Big Sky Echinaceas came out.  Oh, those soft yellows and oranges, and what a breakthrough for lovers of the stalwart pinky purple Coneflower, who were longing to spice things up in their horticultural bedrooms.  Then we brought these newcomers breathlessly to our gardens and found out very quickly that they didn’t last.  Not here in the north, anyway.  Now everybody and their plant snipping brother is producing new and wilder shades in every flowering form and configuration possible.  Double Deckers, pom poms with short petals, pom poms with long petals,  greens, screaming reds, an impossible array of tropical looking orange and yellow shades with tropical sounding names like Tiki Torch, Aloha, Leilani, Pina Colada and Hot papaya, and, of course, dwarf container sized plants with cutsy names too (just what a prairie plant was meant for, right?).  They have, and so have we all its seems, become intoxicated with the equatorial fever of our garish new Coneflowers.  They would surely look at home in the tropics.

The problem is not just a matter of their shaggy tropical looks (in fact the absence of actual cones on many of these so-called Coneflowers), but of the persistent issue of garden toughness.  Even the rugged sounding Cheyenne Spirit series (available from seed as well as plants) have proven to be weak growers and better used as annual fillers than reliably hardy garden plants. They have certainly lost some of their prairie toughness along the way.  I have tried both nursery bought plants and seed grown Cheyenne Spirit, not to mention the Big Skys.  Most disappeared or never developed into full grown plants, and few have persisted into their 3rd year in the garden.  This year I’m going to be trying out a compact but thankfully not miniature new orange Coneflower called Adobe Orange.  Unlike the Big Sky’s developed in the Southeastern US, these have been trialed in Michigan and are rated Zone 4 hardy.  We shall see. (Update: We shall not see.  Walters Gardens reports crop failure in 2018). The good thing about these (in theory, see above) is that they maintain an old-fashioned Echinacea look.  They have a prominent cone and some petals that point downward (God forbid we grow anything so primitive and unstylish in our gardens these days).

Which brings me to a rant about the series of mop-head coneless Coneflowers that look like little more than bad dye jobs on top of bad hair days.  The ones with the mops and the long widely spaced petals look like a sad gappy daisy with a pom pom Zinnia or Mum dropped on top of it.  Please just grow Zinnias or Mums.  They still come in a wider range of colors and will probably last just as long in your garden without fading. 

There’s always an exception.  I have seen one very strong group of the Double Decker Echinaceas returning in a local garden, but then wouldn’t you know that the very ugliest and earliest purveyor of bad hair is the only one that seems to survive here.  It of course is in the traditional pink.

The fact remains, while our nurseries are full of these bold new Coneflowers our gardens are not, which is one of the best proofs that these plants are little more than an impulse buying scam designed to part you with your hard earned money. Plant porn indeed since in real life they are never as good as in the glossy pictures.  And have you noticed how many of the oranges fade to an anemic, grubby pink after about a week.  The greens turn pink and the oranges turn pink and the reds fade like dollar store hummingbird feeders after one season in the sun.

Here’s an idea.  You’d think having taken pink and yellow and white (the original Echinacea colors) and bred them into such a wide array of bold reds and oranges and so many nuanced pastels, that they’d be able to get the original pinky/purple Echinacea to a true purple.  That is what I am waiting for.  That is the evolution that would make the most spectacular of coneflowers, because it would preserve that pleasurable shock of contrast between the pink and orange that made Echinacea purpurea so irresistible in the first place, but turn it into a delicious complimentary color combination.

On our present course, we may lose our appreciation for what made the Coneflower so unique--it’s internal color contrast and, increasingly, the cones themselves for which these plants are known.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Olympic Figure Skating 2018: What I Saw at the Revolution

Torville and Dean’s iconic, Bolero, performed at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics, fomented a revolution in Ice Dancing, the most tradition-bound of skating’s competitive disciplines, and helped propel figure skating to a decade of unprecedented worldwide popularity, particularly in the United States. That popularity gave rise to a growing number of televised professional championships and ultimately to an expansion of the ISU’s traditional skating season into the current ISU Grand Prix season.

While the celebrated British ice dancers immediately left the amateur ranks following their gold medal performance and dominated the pro circuit as an artistic force for the next decade, it was Christopher Dean’s role as mentor and choreographer to the brother and sister ice dance team of Paul and Isabel Duchesnay that kept the flame of Bolero alive in the ballroom world of ice dancing. The tide turned in 1990 when the Duchesnays won the Free Dance at the World Championships in Halifax. It didn’t matter that they had finished second to the Soviet dancers Klimova and Ponomarenko. The top Soviet pair’s intricate dance to a medley from My Fair Lady looked provincial and quaint, an anachronism compared with the Duchesnays “Missing” routine, with its raw energy, unusual lifts and moving tableau of unique positions. By 1991, all of the top dance pairs, including the top two Soviet teams had joined the revolution and brought out programs in the so-called ‘avant garde’ style, with Klimova and Ponomarenko splitting with longtime coach Natalia Dubova over the dramatic change in artistic direction.
The apex of the ice dance revolution came almost as suddenly as it had arrived with the newly converted Klimova and Ponomerenko’s transcendant A Man and A Woman’ program at the 1992 Albertville Olympics. Along with Paul Wylie’s two classic programs and Mishkutennok and Dmitriev’s moving Liebestraum at the same games, it could be argued that figure skating as a whole had reached a zenith in terms of its popularity and overall quality at Albertville. The rise in popularity would continue in the shortened two year run-up to Lillehammer, when the summer and winter Olympics switched to alternate years. Once more, figure skating was the crown jewel of what would be a very memorable winter games. Even the shadow of the Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding controversy only seemed to enhance the mystique and glamor of figure skating.
Between Sarajevo and Lillehammer a generation of enormously popular and talented skaters and a number of vaunted rivalries were allowed to continue with the rise of professional championships. You had Rosalyn Sumners vs Katarina Witt, the battling Brians (Boitano and Orser), as well as Browning vs Petrenko, Klimova/Ponomarkenko vs the Duchesnays, and of course the ever-popular Torvill and Dean and the darlings of pairs skating, Gordieva and Grinkov. Before this era, and the arrival of cable t.v. sports, figure skating was something you got to see once or twice a season on network t.v. The U.S. Nationals and the Worlds, and every four years during the Olympics. Suddenly, figure skating was everywhere including prime time broadcasts of the new glitzy team competitions.
While the women’s final in Lillehammer had ratings with Superbowl numbers, this wider audience of the mid-late 90’s soon became disenchanted with the favoritism of judging and a system of scoring they didn’t understand. It has to be said, however, that these newcomers to figure skating fandom lacked some basic knowledge of the sport, say the difference between edge and toe jumps, or a camel and a spiral, or that attitude in a layback spin is the proper position of the free leg and not a sassy facial expression. Thus, they were focused more on what grabbed them viscerally. The kind of music and moves they found pleasing. So a kind of subjective imprecision was equally at work in what was popular with an audience. You could not expect judges to view Elvis Stojko’s Dragon program as an artistic equal to something like Rudy Galindo’s instant classic Swan Lake, and you could not blame the lay audience for questioning why Alexei Urmanov was given the gold over Stojko at Lillehammer. When I review both performances, I’m reminded that skating had become little more than a triple jump competition by the 1990’s, because neither of these men were as good pure skaters as either Paul Wylie or Rudy Galindo, two skaters of that era who were never considered in the same league as the big jumpers. It is appalling to see the empty choreographic space and telegraphed jumps you see in Stojko’s program, and the way he morphed into a hockey player as he raced around the ice rink between jumping passes. Even his fast footwork lacks technical refinement. And for a man so proud of his martial arts prowess, Dragon does not seriously attempt choreography that looks anything like a tribute to Bruce Lee. It’s opportunistic and lazy. Everywhere the rock and roll Elvis is present. Whatever Urmanov’s infelicities and flaws--the slow spins, stiff posture and overly mannered quality—Stojko’s inattention to good basic skating strokes, position, line and choreographic intent left the judges little choice. I remember rooting for Urmanov only because I could not stomach the elevation of what amounted to a thumbing of the nose at what skating was all about—line, edge, precision and the integration of a total technique into a coherent aesthetic. He never conceded to the stylistic superiority of the pointed toe or efficient crossovers, and eschewed anything he considered as the sissified aspects of the sport. Don’t get me wrong, he could spin and jump and he had speed, but because he eschewed many elements of good skating technique as embarrassingly beneath his masculine aesthetic, the judges basically told him, ‘Same to you, buddy.’
Professional championships, on the other hand, were the perfect place for people pleasing performances like Stojko's. Lots of gimmicks, camp, props and kitsch and plenty of rock n’ roll standards blazoned melodramatically through broad gestural choreography. These performances lost my interest pretty quickly, except for a handful of memorable ones, like Boitano’s darkly moving Music of the Night, because many of them were technically watered down, with fewer difficult jumps, less demanding footwork and spins, especially in the so-called artistic programs. If amateur skating of the 80’s and 90’s had become increasingly focused on jumps, you could say that the professional championships were far less demanding of overall technique, but just as respectful of a skater’s reputation and popularity and maybe even less accountable as to the criteria used in judging. It was perhaps the only instance I’m aware of where the standard for professionals in a sport was less rigorous and inferior to their amateur counterparts. This was mainly due to the primacy of entertainment here over true competition, a part of which was certainly a desire on the part of competitors to lighten the demands of an Olympic style training regime. Rosalyn Sumners stopped including triple jumps in her routines as a professional. Viktor Petrenko was a prime example of what happened to the sport as a whole. After a time in the professional ranks he'd begun to lose his hold on the audience. When it became noticeable that audiences weren't much moved by what he was doing on ice, he was forced to self-examine. What he concluded was that he'd spent too much time winking, flirting and hamming and not enough focused on actual skating, whereas, Paul Wylie, the man he'd beaten out for gold in Albertville, with his continued emphasis on complete skating and well-choreographed programs had supplanted him in the audience's affections. I recall hearing this discussed on one of those professional championnships in the middle 90's. You see, when it came down to it, the rigorous demands of amateur skating and the tension created by those more demanding competitions, had never been duplicated in the world of professional skating. Except for the very best artists in the sport, the overall product had a cheapened and meretricious feeling to it.
I believe this underlying lack of rigor, eventual overexposure and the judging scandal at the Salt Lake Games in 2002, contributed to figure skating's decline in popularity over the next decade and a half, right up to the present.
The new judging system created in response to the Salt Lake scandal, which was supposed to create an accountable basis for scoring, actually may have exacerbated the problems facing figure skating’s integrity as a sport. First, when the new scoring system made the judging anonymous, it allowed the problem of bias, and the possibility of inside deal-making between judges, to go underground, but it also created a component score that was as nebulous as the former 'artistic impression' and later named 'composition and style' score, but was equally used as the subjective element where favored skaters could be elevated by reputation if their technical skating faltered. More irksome yet, while there are very specific point totals for jumps, spins and footwork with levels of difficulty and grade of execution enhancing scores and specific deductions for falls and incomplete elements (and you can watch them tallied now right before your eyes after each element), there has never been a single explanation or demonstration of how the component score is derived from a skating performance. Or on what basis judges could project a component score pre-performance, as was done in comparing the programs of Medvedeva and Zagitova in Pyeongchang. Loosely it is based on the program's overall composition and balance, and within that the choreographic intent as it relates both to style and quality of technical and field moves in the service of a musical interpretation, and some important “intangibles” like the overall speed and energy of a performance and the impact it makes as a whole. But, with all the emphasis on picking up technical points there is a hectic and rushed, or crammed, feeling to today's programs, a busy and flailing quality that ignores the impact of holding out a move like an Ina Bauer, a Spread Eagle or Spiral all the way across the ice, or even holding a layback spin position with the correct attitude. A bit like that last sentence. In spins alone, the awarding of points for position changes has made the high-impact single position spin go virtually extinct. Interesting and difficult choreography like Russian Splits, Butterflies and Death Drops have all but disappeared from the repertoire, as have satisfying finishers like a good blurred scratch spin. After all, skaters have to conserve their energy for the big jump passes, and skaters just don't spend as much time on spinning. They take a tremendous amount of energy, are quite difficult to do well and don't garner that many points. But the biggest loser in this race for points is choreography and musical interpretation, which I'll address in some detail later on.
Another major change, allowing amateurs compensation for placing in ISU Grand Prix events, including the World Championships, has meant the creation of a rather long season of international events from September to March. While this has no doubt kept top skaters in the “amateur” ranks long enough to appear in an Olympics or two, it has also created program fatigue. By the time the Worlds roll around in March, you (and don't forget the judges) could possibly have seen the same skating routine four or five times. Let's just say that in today's skating world there are few programs that have enough subtlety in musical selection and depth in choreographic beauty to maintain interest over four or five viewings. When a performer should be unveiling a new program at the Olympics, or at least having done it only once before, say at Europeans or Nationals, many of today's performers are using two year old programs. You don't want the judges or the audience taking your performance for granted or feeling they've already seen it, especially at premiere events like Worlds or the Olympics. It simply will not have the impact of a new program. While there is no doubt a cost consideration in having a new program choreographed every year, the end effect of increased repetition is boredom for the audience.
On the subject of musicality, I couldn't help bringing forward the example of Paul Wylie's excellent La Valse short program from Albertville. This was a fine program to view the first time through, but admittedly Ravel's sophisticated waltz parody does not grab you immediately with it's cool Impressionist harmonic mode. However, having recorded it and watched it again later and as the music became more familiar and attractive to me, I began to feel this performance come alive even more the second time, so much so that I immediately encored it on my old VCR (this was 1992 after all). I was out of my seat at home applauding and electrified. It is still just as thrilling. The excellence of Wylie's movements, his rounded sweeping gestures and deep edges so perfectly captured the essence of this piece's fluid elegance that his interpretation had won me over to the music and the two things are now inseparable in my mind. He is the music.  Today's performers put the cart before the horse, selecting music that is supposed to win you over to the performance, as if artistic merit were settled by the choice of music. Watch Wylie's performance and see for yourself what makes figure skating an art form:
One of the other recent rule changes that has transformed the world of ISU competitions is the ability to use vocal music. This more than anything has radically altered the look and feeling of figure skating today, and overall not for the better. While performers and audiences may find a resonance with programs skated to Cold Play, Beyonce, or Ed Sheeran, not to mention old standards and show tunes, no matter what the musical genre, you must consider whether a piece of music has a suitable rhythm to capture choreography and whether there is any drama, forward movement or sense of climax, such as might create a high impact performance. Pop songs, unlike Swan Lake, are not created with choreography in mind, and so must be chosen with care lest they fall flat. That is one reason why skaters return to Swan Lake again and again. It never fails to enhance the drama of a solid skating effort. I have complained for years about the continued overuse of the same old classical numbers like Carmen, Swan Lake, Malaguena and Scheherazade (for good measure throw in Minkus' Don Quixote, Rossini and Offenbach overtures, and sadly, Nessun Dorma by Puccini). These have over the years become cliches. Swan Lake may be the only exception to the rule as from time to time it transcends cliché and inspires some of skating's freshest and most exciting moments, especially when some of its lesser known music is used. Some performances, like the Canadian pair Duhamel and Radford's skate to Adele's “Hometown Glory” mined true emotion from a contemporary song, but then it has a driving piano rhythm and builds to a soaring, melancholy climax. If you are going to feature pop music you have to be as selective and wise as when choosing from the classical repertoire. Unfortunately, there was little wisdom, or foresight on display in the musical selections at Pyeonchang. It was simply the most stultifying display of unskatable, uninspired mood music I have ever seen. Pop ballads with no pulse and new age instrumental numbers with no dynamic contrast, climax or choreographically friendly episodes made for a busy wallpaper pattern of jumps, spins and field moves pasted randomly over background music. And in the absence of music capable of supporting intricate choreographic patterns and sharp rhythmic movements, melodramatic facial expressions and sentimental gestures, as well as an endless, almost frantic, migration of meaningless flapping arms across the ice was offered in its place. Yet, while audiences may love these so called adventurous musical shifts away from the classical tradition, as extolled in a well-meaning, but not-so-musically-informed Sports Illustrated article, , why is it that skating's popularity continues to decline and the programs in the main are so unsatisfying? The problem is as much theoretical as it is a matter of musical taste and artistic judgment.
One question that hovers over the past and future of figure skating is whether its art is better achieved as a form of dance or as a form of theater. As dance, its emotion should come from the conjunction of music and movement. The performer creates a presence, through a distinctive style of movement, posture and technique, representing the character or sound world of the music and absorbing the audience into that world in an unselfconscious way. As theater, emotion might well be transmitted by broad gestures and facial expression that corresponds more literally with the words of a pop song or a situation related to the theme of the music (as you saw in Medvedeva's emotive Anna Karenina program at Pyeongchang, complete with train whistle), and the choreographic connection to these theatrical elements tends to be more closely related to upper body gesture and facial expression than a pure synthesis of music and technique. The performer projects a personality (their own in the case of the late, Christopher Bowman) or character and attempts through a highly stylized choreography to express this character throughout the program. There are performances that combine elements of both (a degree of mixing is actually pretty common), but by and large, every figure skating performance falls into one or the other of these general modes of expression: dance or theater.
The effect of what we will call the introverted, or what could be called the objective interpretation, is that when all goes well and there are no distracting mistakes and breaks in form the audience may well become transported deeply into the world of the music, riding along on the momentum as if they'd hitched a ride on a skate blade and they themselves are now part of the performance. This happens because the performer rather than drawing attention to themselves, draws the audience into the interior world of the music. Great examples of this introverted style at it's best are the great Paul Wylie (see La Valse above), Janet Lynn,  Torville and Dean, avant garde Klimova and Ponomarenko, late amateur Angela Nikodinov (when she wasn't overcome by nerves), Rosalyn Sumners, Michelle Kwan, Brian Boitano, increasingly in his professional career, Jeffrey Buttle, and Mishkutenok and Dmitriev. The latter's moving Liebestraum at the 1991 Worlds was in my opinion the greatest pairs program ever skated.
There is a cool unsentimental calm in Mishkutenok and a very romantic passion in Dmitriev, the effect of which creates a compelling tension that belies their tight unison and the close contact they maintain throughout the performance. They do something in that program that is seldom seen in skating. After all of their difficult moves are completed and the music has already reached it's climax, they hold the audience spellbound in the quiet moments of the Liebestraum's coda. The poignancy of the final 30 seconds almost knocks you over, beginning with two held poses-- one with Natalia in a cantilevered full back bend, and Artur behind her in an outside spread eagle, which then transitions to a forward cantilever, with Natalia bent over like a rag doll and Artur in a spiral guiding her. At the end of the spiral he releases her with a gentle push at the moment of a chilling chord change, as if surrendering his dream of love. The movement is so subtle the wrong camera angle misses it, but this sublime moment of surrender still produces shivers almost 30 years later. In the final moments of consolation, she returns to him and they complete the most beautiful death spiral sequence ever choreographed. There is such awareness of the potential for choreographic impact, meaningful movement and emotional nuance in every moment of this performance it is beyond compare. There is the 1991 Liebestraum and then there is everything else that is merely pretty, clean and technically impressive in pairs skating.
This introverted or objective style is in sympathy with the mode of the best in the arts, because it takes a body of good skating technique (essentially athletic skill) and a host of appropriate field moves and sensitive choreography and connects them in a unified musical vision that's sum is essentially artistic. That is, it has something to say about the human spirit, which fittingly for a non-verbal performing art, is often a sublime aesthetic feeling that defies words altogether. But it does so without self-conscious plea to the audience, or without recourse to forced or faked emotion (that is to say, without sentimentality).
This brings us to the extroverted, or, what we might also call, the subjective style. In using theatrics like illustrative (rather than abstract) gestures, stylized choreography and facial expressions, it takes on the subjective viewpoint of a personality or character and projects that to the audience. In the most overt examples, this projection of emotion may not be related to skating technique and how it is integrated into a unified musical interpretation. This seems inferior on its face for a couple of reasons. For one, facial expression is a form of acting, not skating. Second, the projected emotion is in a sense forced on the audience, because it is made explicit what the performer wants the audience to feel, and because moreover it has not been earned through the hard work of matching technical and field moves to their best musical advantage, and doing so in a style that creates a convincing and organic connection to that music. Neither choosing an emotional piece of music, nor making emotional faces means you have made that connection with the music or the audience. There is nothing easier than that. To rely on this is a form of artistic cheating. So while the extroverted style that relies heavily on facial expression and broad illustrative gestures (Chaplinesque shrugs, hands on the heart to express love, stylistic motifs that are a little too on the nose, like matador bull-fighting moves with Spanish flavored music), while it goes for a meaning and connection to the music that is easily understood by the audience, it is essentially sentimental. That is to say, it is formulaic and tries to call from the audience an expected emotion or recognition, usually one that is quite obvious or trite.
A prime example of this sentimentality was in the opening moments of the Canadian pair, Kirsten Moore Tower and Michael Marinaro's long program at Pyeongchang. Moore Tower dramatically clutched her chest and heaved in a way that made me wonder if she had indigestion, was having a heart attack or was about to vomit on ice from a case of nerves. This is one of the problems with overacting or really bad acting; it tends to be misread or be seen as unintentionally comical. Worse yet was the attempt to claim some emotional power before they'd even cut an edge in the ice. (Their Olympic performance is viewable at; as the first of the final 16 pairs in the long program; this is the same program skated at Canadian Nationals with most of the overacting cut out by the close-up views)
The program itself was unpretentious and well-done (the bit of bad acting a superfluous distraction after all), except that it was set to exactly the kind of warm and pulseless instrumental music that was so commonplace in these skating competitions. There was one little step sequence near the end that was amenable to choreography, but it only served as contrast to what was missing from the rest of the program and an example of how music in figure skating is becoming merely ambient, rather than dramatic. The fluid, legato strains of the music held so few dynamic cues that any one of their jumps, throws and lifts could have come anywhere in the program and it would have made absolutely no difference. What then do component elements mean, that is, the idea of structure and balance, when there is no apparent design, musical or otherwise, behind the presentation of elements? What then does musical interpretation mean?
I mentioned Medvedeva's Anna Karenina performance before. It fit into the category of acted emotion, rather than skated emotion. It's not that she doesn't have style and elegance, but she belongs to that ilk of point grabbers who have sacrificed choreographic impact and the power of simplicity, for hectic constant motion and change of position. She and Zagitova both cluster their jumps at the end of the program for maximum points (Zagitova is far worse), but in doing so create artistically and technically unbalanced programs where nothing much happens for the first one or two minutes. Then a barrage of jumps is clustered in a way that does not maximize their musical/choreographic impact, and feels crammed. There is no adequate space around them to given them impact or make the program structurally comprehensible. It amounts to a gaming of the scoring system as well. What does it prove if you do difficult jumps at the end of your program when your legs are still fresh from conserving energy for the first two minutes. It would show more stamina if she had done three or four difficult jump combos in the first half of the program and then done an equal number at the end. But, because of the rules the judges have to award bonus points. Both of these programs were over-marked in the component scores and left me dissatisfied, though at least Zagitova's artistry was skated rather than acted and took advantage of the dramatic elements in the music, albeit in the predictable mode of Minkus-speak. Medvedeva's attempt at psychological drama only succeeded at melodrama. And the ending felt abrupt and anticlimactic. Having said that, I will also say that I have never seen a 15 year old skate with the kind of maturity of technique or polish that I saw in Zagitova. She could truly be the best ever if she would take more time to let her field moves and technique breathe, balance her programs, choose more weighty music than Minkus' Don Quixote and then really feel that music down in the soul of her skate blades. In all of the best performances, the skaters seem rooted in the ice. Her performances still feel too much like flitting about on the surface. That's perfectly normal for fifteen, but let's not exaggerate its quality or artistic merit.
The problem is that many times, figure skating's judges have come down on the side of the theatrical performer over the dance interpreter, the extrovert over the introvert. The subjective style over the objective. They have chosen to elevate too often a shallow, inferior method or art making. Anett Potzsch over Linda Fratiani in Lake Placid 1980, Katarina Witt's meretricious Carmen in Calgary1988, Petrenko over Wylie in Albertville 1992, Oksana Baiul over Nancy Kerrigan Lillehammer 1994, and Tara Lipinski over Michelle Kwan Nagano 1998. Judges have at the same time, especially with the new scoring system, given preeminence to triple-triple combinations and quadruple jumps. Essentially they have guaranteed that increasingly, technique in the very narrow sense of jumping, will win out over complete skating. And a cheap theatricality, or even pure sentimentality (Medvedeva), is placed on par with an integrated musicality in the component score. This is a mistake that does not serve skating well and could be another reason for the sport's continued decline. You will not get many Boleros, Liebestraums or La Valses unless you encourage them. If you cannot win with a program that excites and moves people through a balance of truly excellent technique and artistry, be it not completely jammed with the visual confusion of bonus point clutter, then nobody is going to try to create one. It doesn't pay. You also will not get Boleros, Liebestraums and La Valses if they are skating to La Bamba, Love Story and The Blue Danube. If you were to look at what are widely considered the top ten skating performances of all time, or even just ten classic programs of the past fifty years, you would find that almost all of them were skated to serious music, often classical, instrumental music. That is not to say, skating must be wed to the music of the past. Indeed there are many great film scores, an entire 20th and 21st century classical corpus that remains untapped, plus jazz and much world music that is being composed today that has to be better than a static, love sick pop ballad without a pulse, or some saccharin new age music that's not fit for anything but annoying people whose calls have been put on hold.
Russian skaters since the mid-1980's have risen in the ranks of singles skating (the men most notably in 80's and 90's) and more recently the women (mainly since Sochi). I mention the Russians because they include some of the most technically proficient skaters in the sport, but also in my opinion the most artistically overrated performers as well. Beginning with Viktor Petrenko and Alexei Urmanov, then Ilia Kulik, Alexei Yagudin and Yvgeni Plushenko you had five consecutive Olympic champions and not one of them contributed much stylistically to the sport. Perhaps early Petrenko's courtly elegance before he became overly mannered. Urmanov was also mannered, stiff-jointed beside, and a weak spinner too. Kulik never matured and was more of a big jumping puppy dog on the ice with poor stretch and mediocre posture. Yagudin was the most honest skater of the bunch, with good flow out of his big jump combinations and very fast footwork, but stylistically he was more of a ham than an artist. Clearly relishing the teen idol relationship with his audience, the way Petrenko did before him to his own detriment. Plushenko had a wild slash and burn style that was sort of the progenitor of today's crammed, arm waving perpetual motion programs. His fast footwork was so frantically embellished by arm movements it distracted from what was happening with his feet. His Najinski tribute program was presumptuous (and more pretentious than Stojko's Bruce Lee tribute) because he never really moved like a dancer or incorporated dance style successfully into his skating, the way Paul Wylie did with ballet and Rudy Galindo did with jazz dance.
Their elevation in the sport was in part a continuation of a kind of Pro-Russian skating fundamentalism (read as long-standing favoritism if you will) and the complete capitulation of the sport to the preeminence of jumps over all other technique, first triple jumps in the late 80's and early 90's and then the quad jump more or less for the last 20 years in the men's field, with a definite acceleration since Evan Lysacek won gold at Vancouver in 2010 without one. It will invade the women's senior competitions by the fall of 2018.
Which brings us again to where the sport is today and these most recent games in Pyeonchang. Having viewed NBC's coverage of figure skating here in the US I have to comment on the Tara and Johnny show. Clearly the eccentric qualities of the pair--former U.S. Men's champion, Johnny Weir, and 1998 Olympic Champion, Tara Lipinski, with daily fashion coordination and poodle fop hair-pieces to boot--were a whimsical bit of pop-cultural confection aimed at capturing meme-gobbling millennials and pitching figure skating (a sport bound up in convention) as something sassy and cool. I don't know if it's working, but the execs at NBC figure it's worth a try. They have strong skating credentials and there is something refreshing after all about skating commentators who don't take themselves so seriously. They were both praised and criticized for not mincing words about some of the performances in the team competition, but I think the criticism got to them somewhat, as I noticed a bit more cheer-leading as the competitions wore on. Maybe it was the Olympic spirit. There were times when I wished they'd risen above catty aesthetics to address more substantive matters, like noticing how unskatable the musical selections were rather than approving of anything by Beyonce (Lipinski) or shallowly pronouncing that a piece of music was too dark for a particular skater, as if it were eyeshadow (Weir), rather than pointing out that a skater can pull off any kind of music if the choreography is right for it and delivered with conviction. On the other hand, Johnny Weir can be surprisingly deft with a simile, such as when he said that seeing a cleanly landed jump was as beautiful as looking at freshly mowed grass. Overall it was working for me until the men's competition. Then the two of them began to obsess about quad (four revolution) jumps with a kind of reverence reserved for Jesus' miracles. “Look at that quad,” was exclaimed more times than I'd care to repeat. It would have been more interesting to learn Weir was talking about a skater's muscular thigh. There were graphics about how many quad jumps might be landed in this competition compared with the past and how steeply the trajectory had risen in the last four years since the Sochi games. And they kept referring to it as the Quad Revolution.
Of course, Tara and Johnny would have been too young to remember it, but I'm sure they can find the video on You Tube of Kurt Browning completing the first quadruple jump in competition 30 years ago in 1988. By rights, Browning is the real revolutionary and it's hard to see something that has been in figure skating for three decades as a revolution. As a matter of fact, by 1998, just 10 years after Browning landed the first quadruple jump, Timothy Goebel had landed three quads in a single program and was nicknamed 'The Quad King'. Nathan Chen, the new 'Quad King' landed five quads at the 2018 U.S. Nationals. So it's taken 20 years to go from 3 to 5 landed quads in a program. That's no revolution, that's incremental progress. Since then, for the record, Chen performed six at the Olympics and again at Worlds, and it's true now that every quad has been landed except a quad axel. Back in Goebel's day it was only quad Salchows and Toe Loops. But the point remains.
Figure Skating is an athletic competition and it is important that athletes break boundaries in their sport. In figure skating this only seems to apply to jumps however. Why is it nobody is pushing the boundaries of spinning the way Lucinda Ruh did and footwork the way Scott Hamilton, Paul Wylie and Kurt Browning did in the 80's and 90's?  Or the way Yagudin and Plushenko pushed each other with their internal footwork competitions in the early 2000's.  Footwork and spins have actually regressed in the last decade.  Did you notice that just about every skater had virtually identical spin combinations (all inferior imitations of the spins Ruh executed incomparably in the late 90's). Everybody, men and women, had some kind of pancake spin, doughnut spin (usually with the hip dropped unatractively when the blade was grasped), catchfoot Layback, Biellmann spin, A spin, or I spin. The Biellmann epidemic is related to the catchfoot layback epidemic because the catchfoot layback with the bent (rather than turned out) knee is so predominant now and usually is used as a transition to a one or two handed Biellmann. It used to be the Biellmann spin was dramatic and unusual, but now that everyone is doing it (and I assume being flexible enough to do one is a prerequisite)'s quickly becoming a cliche. And with the lack of musical choreography the spins are not always positioned for optimal effect and you end up saying, 'Another Biellman? Ho Hum.'
How every skater came to adopt this basic combination of spins is most likely related to scoring. Everybody is doing the same difficulty level positions in combination to ensure point parody in spins. If everybody does the same combination, nobody can get an advantage (except in degree of execution) in the relatively modest point haul allotted to spins. So Spins are never going to decide a competition.
What I saw at the revolution were many mediocre, slow and often poorly centered spins and almost no perfect unison in side by side pairs spins (the worst I've ever seen, even among the top five or six pair teams). I did not see a single blurred scratch spin at the revolution either. Not really. And only about two or three skaters who performed the layback with the free leg in attitude. And it is extraordinary when two men, Adam Rippon of the U.S. and Shoma Uno of Japan, had better laybacks than anyone in the women's competition. I didn't see a footwork sequence that really took my breath away with speed, difficulty and musical moment. It was mostly softer turns executed at moderate or slow speed.
What seems like the real revolution (or palace coup as the case may be) is the absolute elevation of the quad in terms of points awarded just for attempting one--in the form of a high base mark. So even when you miss you might get a decent number of points if you had four full revolutions, despite a step out or a two-footed landing. What I saw at the revolution was the worst and most aesthetically unwatchable men's competition in figure skating history. A veritable splatfest. There were so many falls on quads from skaters who clearly had not mastered them but felt compelled to add two or more of them in their programs that you only saw three or four clean programs in the entire competition, and I saw them all. Thirty short programs and twenty-four longs. It was an embarrassment to the sport. But, there was not much sharp commentary from Weir and Lipinski about this fact. Only a kind of awe about the quads that were landed.
Revolutions seldom succeed, and some of those that do succeed get off the track, have mixed results, or are poorly founded and eventually lead to another undesirable state. Even the ice dancing revolution started by Torville and Dean in 1984 ultimately failed, because the end result no longer looked like dance. It wasn't. It wasn't about fast difficult technical footwork anymore but eye catching lifts and tricks, and, at it's worst, overt political statements. When you take a look at Bolero now, for all its mesmerizing power and originality back then, it was technically inferior to their Barnum program from the year before. That was their real masterpiece. Bolero had a striking look and emotional power at the time, but it does not hold up as well to skating scrutiny. I was a little surprised when I watched it again to find that Dick Button had said as much, very tactfully, in ABC's 1984 Olympic broadcast. One of the things that has made figure skating such a draw is that it is capable of supporting revolutions, factions and controversy. In the past that was enough. But a looming sense of something incomprehensible and wrong in the way the sport has evolved seems to have eroded some of the old thrill.
Compare videos of the skaters of the 1970's with those of today, however, and you would have to admit that speed and jumping have improved, but other aspects of skating (holding edges and creating line) have deteriorated.  The spins may be more unusual, but not necessarily better centered or faster.  Overall the standard of athleticism and overall flexibility is better today than ever before.  On the other hand, more difficult jumps are not always well-executed.  The Lutz jump, for instance, is being done incorrectly by many skaters. They don't hold the back outside edge until takeoff but change to inside before takeoff.  What is sometimes referred to as a flutz. Having said that, I watched John Curry's gold medal performance at Innsbruck again and was amazed at how slow, simple and lacking in thrills it is. It has a perfection of style about it, but it is achieved by the exclusion of technical risk and by a very simple choreography. It's a very sedate and safe kind of skating.  It doesn't bristle with the athletic energy, dangerous speed and drum-tight stretch you see from start to finish in Paul Wylie.  There's no comparison.
It is important to remember that school figures (the tracing of  figures on the ice--once as many as 12--while changing feet, and performing turns) were once central to the sport, thus the name Figure Skating, and that the move away from figures occurred for two basic reasons:  one they took too much time to perform and judge as the number of competitors increased, and when Figure Skating events were finally televised, they were not what audiences wanted to see.  Furthermore, there was a major disconnect between the results of the competition and what the audience saw in the televised free skating program. Competitions weighted toward compulsories meant that specialists in figures often won the competitions at the expense of superior free skaters.  But the evolution away from this was gradual, significantly from 1968 until late 1990 when compulsory figures were eliminated from international competitions altogether.  The striking case of Janet Lynn was a flashpoint in the transition, because now, after the emergence of the balletic Peggy Fleming and the musically expressive Lynn herself, the potential for Figure Skating to emerge as an artistic form was being fully grasped. Figure skating had found it's medium and an audience. This was Figure Skating's great revolution and evolution, but has it ultimately failed the sport? 
The golden era of this revolution in skating was roughly between1980 through Albertville in 1992, where skating had achieved a relative balance between speed, strong fundamentals, challenging technique and a high level of artistry.  But remember all of the skaters of that era were trained in compulsory figures.  Post Lillehammer you have the first generation of skaters that had never learned to do figures.  In this new milieu, the size and difficulty of jumps became paramount with the judges. It wasn't just that jumps were esteemed over all other technique. Some skaters of high reputation landed a lot of difficult triple triple combinations and some quads, but often they hadn't really mastered the edges or good landing positions. It was as if the height and distance of jumps were the measures of superior technique. Elvis Stojko and Todd Eldredge were guilty of landing some big ugly jumps. Oksana Baiul could not perform a triple Lutz and yet won a gold medal. It is one of the maddening things about figure skating.
Figure skating may not need a revolution, but does it need compulsory figures again to return to the quality of it's best days?  Has the loss of these fundamentals contributed to the loss of many treasured qualities in skating and a decline in the sport's popularity?  Or is it a circumstantial case and is the real culprit the overemphasis on jumps?  After all, is it not possible to teach the fundamentals of edge control and stroking without including compulsories in competitions?  If it is really indispensable in developing sound technique, why isn't it being taught?  There are many elements of other athletes training regimes that are essential in developing hand/eye coordination, quickness, stamina, strength, etc. that are not part of the competition itself.  That is we don't keep score during practice, and furthermore we don't want to watch it as an audience.  Athletes need repetitive training to progress, and coaches want to observe it to measure progress.

I think it was correct to remove compulsories from the competition. From the perspective of an audience they are meaningless. That is to say unless you could stand right over the marks, it would be pointless and dull to watch 30 skaters trace the same figure 8 from rink-side.  The minute differences in tracings would not make a bit of visual difference from afar.  I think it's clear that as figure skating entered the television age, that audiences would have scratched their heads and walked away if they kept awarding gold medals to the Trixi Schubas over the Janet Lynns.  When it came down to it, compulsory figures did not make Schuba a better free skater than Lynn.  For it is one thing to control an edge and trace a line at slow speed in a quiet rink; it is another thing to control that edge after 3 airborne revolutions at high speed before an audience and a panel of judges on national t.v.  School figures may demand technique and concentration, but they are not athletically demanding.  So then, it could be fair to say that training in school figures helped Janet Lynn become a better skater, but the fact that she didn't excel at them in competitions ended up being a really inadequate way of judging her skill as a skater. Unless the figures themselves were going to remain the point, why were we using them to judge skaters?  They had a place as a form of discipline, but skaters like Lynn and Fleming showed that there was a beautiful art form to be explored in free skating.  That was the point.  That was the revolution. 

I don't want to see compulsories make a comeback in competition, but if a coach like Brian Orser, who grew up with school figures, thinks they are so valuable, then he should be teaching them on the practice ice to his growing list of Olympic champions.  Just consider that Paul Wylie, perhaps the most complete skater in the history of the sport, would not have won an Olympic medal had not the compulsories been eliminated by the time of the Albertville games.

There has always been this tension between figure skating the sport and figure skating the art.  The traditional origins of the sport as a pure technical display has always been in conflict and a little suspicious of the artistic side.  When the emphasis switched, I think judging became fixated on the jumps as the new school figures.  The thing that keeps figure skating a sport, the most inarguably athletic element in it, that keeps it from slipping into pure subjectivity (which is part of the nature of art itself).  It is not an unfounded fear.  All the more reason to develop a more complete respect for all the technical elements of the sport and to place a more objective standard on the artistic element by not disconnecting it from technique (the way subjective interpreters have with facial expressions and obvious gestures).
What figure skating does need is a much more balanced and honest scoring system with more emphasis on spins and footwork, edge and line, and high value in the component score for difficult field moves that do not receive a technical score. There should be no anonymous judging. Skaters should get credit for what they complete and not for what they plan or attempt. There should be higher component scores for actual choreographed programs and deductions for not making any real effort to match moves to music. There is a technical aspect to this called timing, and there is high risk in creating a program that demands you be in perfect sync with the music from start to finish. Today's ambient music style denies skaters the impact and excitement, while absolving them of the discipline, that comes with precision timing. Finally, figure skating must decide once and for all (how impossible is that in a subjective sport) that it should elevate the objective interpretation of music over the subjective presentation of character. This will reward musical interpreters over mere personalities, give us the thrill of feeling the emotion of music come to life through that hard won synthesis of athleticism and genuine musicality, and it will bring fans back to this most distinctive of sports—one that dares also to be an art.