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Sarah Kawahara: Interview
- Published: July 3, 2004
Sarah Kawahara’s innovative work as an ice choreographer is widely acclaimed within the world of international figure skating and was brought to the attention of a larger audience, in 1997, when she was the first ice skater ever, to receive a Best Choreography Emmy Award for ABC’s Scott Hamilton Upside Down. She has choreographed Scott’s programs since the beginning of his professional career. In his autobiography Scott Hamilton, Landing It! he writes, “I owe Sarah my entire professional skating career. She’s a genius.”
She received her second Best Choreography Emmy in 2002 for her ice choreography in the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympics.
She also received the American Choreography Award in 2002 for Outstanding Choreography for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympics.
Growing up in Montreal, Kawahara excelled in a variety of disciplines; piano, violin, ballet, jazz, drama and figure skating. She studied with Osborne Colson in Toronto and at the National Ballet School of Canada and later attended the Banff Centre of Fine Arts in Alberta, Canada, for six seasons.
Kawahara joined Ice Capades, at the age of 17, as a principal skater for the next seven years. She soon became resident coach. Kawahara’s unique artistic style was noted by members of the skating elite such as John Curry, Toller Cranston and Peggy Fleming. Sarah became Toller Cranston’s muse for the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) TV special Strawberry Ice and choreographed and starred in Toller’s CBC special A True Gift of Christmas and skated in John Curry’s PBS special Peter and the Wolf.
Impressed by her inspired choreography, in 1980, Peggy Fleming asked her to choreograph her new production show, An Evening on Ice, for the headliner room at Harrah’s, Lake Tahoe. The show won such praise and attention that Sarah was approached by Shipstad Productions to choreograph and perform in Ice, produced for Radio City Music Hall in New York, starring Peggy Fleming, Robin Cousins and Toller Cranston.
These first two high profile choreography projects soon led to a prominent career. Sarah choreographed Concert on Ice starring Dorothy Hamill, Tai Babilonia, Randy Gardner and Scott Hamilton and the national theater tour of Festival on Ice starring Scott Hamilton. Soon she became head choreographer for Ice Capades for five seasons.
Sarah is known for her cutting edge interpretations as well as inspired integration of other ice show aspects such as costumes, sets, props, lighting and music. “All the members of the creative team meld and fuse together,” she says. “I’m interested in all the layers of the show. One of my goals as a choreographer is to get the audience to feel the sensation of the speed in skating, as well as the dance elements.”
She has choreographed programs for skaters such as Kurt Browning, Ilia Kulik, Michelle Kwan, Kristi Yamaguchi, Dorothy Hamill, Nancy Kerrigan, Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, Gordeeva and Grinkov, Oksana Baiul, Klimova and Ponomarenko, and Victor Petrenko.
In 1995, Sarah choreographed the Disney CBS TV Special, Nancy Kerrigan, Special Dreams on Ice for Rick/Mill Prods.
In 1996, Sarah was asked to choreograph for Oksana Baiul and Victor Petrenko in the Rickmill/Disney CBS TV Special The Wizard of Oz on Ice. That successful collaboration with Kenneth Feld productions, led Kawahara to four touring show productions, The Spirit of Pocohontas, Hercules on Ice, Disney’s 75th Anniversary and Feld’s Anastasia on Ice.
Kawahara added the three ABC TV specials, Reflections on Ice: Michelle Kwan skates to the Music of Mulan (1999), Michelle Kwan skates to Disney’s Greatest Hits (2000), Michelle Kwan, Princesses on Ice (2001), and the NBC (2002) special Scott Hamilton and Friends to her ever growing resume.
She choreographed Michelle Kwan’s Long and Exhibition Programs for the 2002 Winter Olympics.
As director/choreographer Sarah’s work can be seen on board the Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines ice shows, Ice Jammin’ and Planet Ice on the ships, The Voyager and The Explorer of the Seas.
She directs and choreographs the production numbers for Tom Collins, Champions on Ice tours.
In fall of 2003, Sarah has added Holiday on Ice to her list of accomplishments. She co-directed with Robin Cousins and choreographed the 60th Anniversary Show Diamonds for Holiday on Ice.
Upcoming in 2004, she will direct and choreograph a theatre show for Bietak Productions, Broadway on Ice with guest stars Dorothy Hamill, Nancy Kerrigan and Rudy Galindo.
Sarah makes her home in Westlake Village, California with her husband, Jamie Alcroft and their three children, Alysse, Hayley and Thatcher.
Flashback: What is your first memory about figure skating?
Sarah: Coming home from ballet class and seeing skaters on an outdoor rink. They were skating in the sunlight and crisp air, with colored ribbons on one shoulder, fluttering in the breeze. I was six. I really wanted those ribbons…
Anonymous: What made you decide to become a choreographer?
Sarah: I loved performing so passionately. It was like air to breathe and food to eat for me. I knew I did not want to perform past my “prime” as I knew it, and thought that I needed to keep this passion for what I do in my life and somehow continuing it in another form.
Judy T. : Hi Sarah. Do your children or any other family members skate?
Sarah: My three children all know how to skate well enough for pleasure. They skated in the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the Salt Lake Olympics 2004. They are very involved in music and dance and baseball. My husband, Jamie, can also get around well enough to play the “father” in one of the Snowden Specials. Jamie does voiceover work and is one half of the comedy team Mack and Jamie.
kasia16: Being a choreographer is one of my biggest dreams. What are some important keys to becoming a good choreographer?
Sarah: I think one of the most important things to learn is to work with and create for different body types and body tempos other than your own type. In the beginning, the tendency is to try and create a clone of what you feel yourself, if they can emulate your movement, great. It’s a start. But no two people move exactly alike and there is always the challenge of working with a body type and body rhythm that is totally different and make them look better. It’s important to step back from your work and look at it from the audience or judges point of view. What do you feel from what you see? Many times the skater feels the emotional impact one way and it reads another. You have to reach your audience or else your work become too self indulgent.
Fan from Connecticut: How do you think skating choreography has changed in the past 20 years and what direction do you expect to see it go in the future?
Sarah: In the past 20 years, choreography in skating has really improved. There is much more of an awareness of the contribution it makes to a skater’s performance. However, creative skating as a pure form outside of competition seems to have less of an audience, at least as far as variety shows are concerned. Star shows and product-tied shows have taken the favor of the public in the last decade. I’d love to see the television specials use a story or fantasy. Then it focuses on the expression and drama of skating and gives us something different from the skating competitions and solo formats.
I’d like to see the skating world not lose sight of the magic of skating. The “art” in the sport is what should make the sport so hard to judge. And sometimes by simply trying to get everything a level 3, it may be busy for the sole sake of content. The art may at times be in the level 1 move, which may be more aesthetic and musical.
Joe: Is it really $10,000 or more to choreograph an elite skater’s program?
Sarah: It varies person to person. Everyone has their own rates.
Angela: Do you voice any opinions when a skater strips down your choreography to its barest form, making it a pale imitation of the original concept?
Sarah: I try not to put myself in that type of situation. When I work with a skater I need to know why that skater is coming to me. If it is for decoration, then they are better off with someone else. If they are not interested or do not understand the intent, then the choreography will go away.
Jerri G. : I used to skate at East York Arena when you were still competing. I remember spending one session looking for your contact lens on the ice! I’ve followed your career with a lot of interest and continue to admire your creativity.
Sarah: I loved skating at East York. Those were really my formative years. Studying with Osborne Colson all through those years and now to this day we still talk on the phone every couple of weeks. I got contacts when I was twelve and I remember those searches on the ice. The days of hard lenses, not the soft disposal ones of today.
Toni R. : Hi Sarah! I just want to start out by saying I love your choreography! It’s so entertaining! Is Scott Hamilton easy to choreograph for? I’m sure after so many years it must be difficult to come up with something new?
Sarah: Thanks Toni! Scott is really the best to work with because he is so willing to work hard at something new. You have to be willing to go through an awkward stage when learning something new in order to grow and develop something different. He has always understood that process and always saw the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m glad you enjoyed our work together. Coming up with something new has never been a problem for us. I guess there seems to be so many avenues to explore and we continue to get excited to try something new.
Eltro: What type of music inspires you?
Sarah: I tend to like dramatic music with contrasts in tempo and instrumentation. Inspiration comes from the pictures the music paints for me. Stylistically, I can conjure up pictures and be inspired from all different genres of music.
Toni R. : I recently re-read Ekatarina Gordeeva’s book My Sergei and she said you choreographed a program for them. Which one was it?
Sarah: I did a few ensemble pieces for Stars on Ice tour in which they took part. Another one was a piece in the Nancy Kerrigan Dreams on Ice TV Special (1995). I did a piece with singer Bryan Adams and a piece to the music from Pocahontas which we shot outdoors in a field in Sun Valley for a Disney TV Special.
Anonymous: How do you pass your impeccable sense of dramatic timing onto a younger skater (i.e., that isn’t Scott Hamilton)?
Sarah: With a young skater, you need to find a common chord of communicating. Need to speak the same language (which is not always your own language). You have to find a way to speak their language so that you can find a way to express the “beats” and importance of the drama of the moments in a way that they can relate to. If they can understand in their own terms, then they have a chance of getting there. You can’t just demand a certain timing or treatment. It will never have any depth if they don’t feel the “beat”.
Sharon: I saw the dress rehearsal of COI in Binghamton and it occurred to me in Rhapsody that, thanks to your choreography, many of the skaters were more than one with the music, they were THE music. Their steps punctuated and illustrated the sounds produced by the instruments. To me very Balanchine-esque. How much has ballet influenced your work? Thanks for the great show. Very, very good this year.
Sarah: Thanks so much for noticing. The Rhapsody concerto was a piece that I’ve been waiting to do for a long time with Champions. I’ve been studying music and ballet since childhood. I’ve watched many ballets (classical and modern) and operas with avid enthusiasm. When it’s right, the movement really does become orchestrated into the music. I’ve always approached my work from this symphonic viewpoint. The music really holds my hand and leads me along.
Toni R. : It must have been such an honor to be the choreographer for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games. After you got the basics down, how long did it take for everyone to come together and skate it correctly?
Sarah: It was an amazing experience to choreograph the ceremonies. It was a real Rubik’s cube, fitting the pieces of the puzzle together. The ice size of the rehearsal arena (Steiner Arena) was about half the width of the performance size. So I would rehearse the groups in halves. With the Children of Light and also with the Eagle hockey skaters, we worked with groups of 60 skaters at a time. When we were able to rehearse in the Rice-Eccles Stadium on the actual performance ice surface, in December, I fit the pieces together. It took three months of ice rehearsal, six days a week, to put it all together. The logistics backstage of coordinating the dressing and changing and holding rooms and moving hundreds of dancers, skaters, animals, props in and out was as amazing as what was out front on the stages. Everything was dependant on everything else. Coordinating, integrating and fusing the dance pictures with the ice pictures were an immensely important focus.
Toni R. : Why did you choose the skaters you did to skate in the Opening and Closing ceremonies?
Sarah: The ceremonies was a volunteer-based event. I found skaters of young and old in the community (figure skaters, hockey skaters, hockey teams, speed skaters, referees, coaches, students, homemakers, doctors, realtors, and sometimes entire families), that could skate and give their time and enthusiasm. This was an important part for the creation of ceremonies on the ice. I was allowed to bring in 40 pro skaters on an honorarium and I had a team of three core assistants and seven secondary assistants, all of which skated in the ceremonies.
Eltro On MKF: How was/is your experience working with Michelle Kwan?
Sarah: Michelle and I have had a wonderful relationship. I have been able to be a part of her growth. Doing the TV Specials for her was especially fun because we both had freedom to explore in an unrestricted creative environment.
Anonymous: Is Michelle Kwan quick to learn the movements that you choreograph for her?
Sarah: Michelle is a good emulator. She takes direction well and has a good eye for movement. With all her experience, her pickup is very good.
Anonymous: Did Michelle Kwan approach you about choreographing her Olympic program? Whose idea was it to use Scheherezade? How did the concept come about? How long did it take to choreograph the program?
Sarah: Frank Carroll and Michelle asked me to choreograph her Olympic program. Scheherazade was chosen by Frank and already edited. I chose the concept of Michelle portraying the storyteller. I had a book from my childhood of 1001 Nights that I gave to her to read. I had two weeks to set it and then worked with her a few times after it had settled in.
Kim: Hi Sarah, love your work. I know that you choreographed Michelle Kwan’s Olympic long and didn’t have as much time as you would’ve liked with her due to working on the Opening and Closing ceremonies of the Olympics. Did you like or were you satisfied with how the program turned out?
Sarah: In the heat of the moment, I thought Michelle skated very well. Some of the detail in the choreography had been sacrificed because in competition, the technical content will always take priority over the intricacies of choreography.
Her overall artistry still had great impact.
Jimmy: I love the choreography that you do for a skater, especially Michelle’s Scheherezade. I was wondering what goes on in your mind when you choreograph a program and what is your source of inspiration? Thanks!
Sarah: My inspiration usually comes from an outside force, like a painting or story, or some shapes in nature. I draw from the imagery. Then I like to ask the skater, ‘What are we trying to say?’ because I feel that gives an emotional focus to the piece. What is the music trying to tell us? What words does it speak? And then, how can we say it together?
Anonymous: I thought your choreography to Scheherezade never got its due. My favorite part was when she held the outside edge of her spiral longer than usual, then took it right into the combo spin. Were you frustrated by the seemingly frequent changes that were made to the program? How would you advise a young choreographer who finds herself in a similar situation? How do you exert control over the process without squelching the skater’s ideas? Thanks for your time!
Sarah: How interesting that you to remember the spiral in to the spin! It was a difficult entry into the camel spin (her opposite direction) and then have to step into the combo spin. Many times in high level competition the calculated risk factor outweighs the creative factor and the skater or the coach chooses to go with what is more sure, or cleaner or more understood in their eyes. As a choreographer, you have to understand those dynamics and try to accommodate the skater and the coach while still extending your paintbrush into the program.
Anonymous: Some skating fans have different ideas about what type of music would suit Michelle in a very stressful Olympic season. Since you have worked a lot with Michelle on her TV specials and skating programs, I wonder if you have ever suggested any particular music to Michelle for the Olympic season?
Sarah: I have not had that opportunity for the Olympic season. I do think Michelle is a much more mature person coming into the next Olympics and she will be able to use that to her advantage.
VIETgrlTerifa: Hi Ms. Kawahara! I saw the program you created for Michelle Kwan in COI, You Raise Me Up and I absolutely love it. I noticed in that program, you have Michelle doing a lot of one-foot skating and moves-in-the-field. I was wondering if you choreographed it that way to prepare her for the demands of the new Code of Points Scoring System where one-foot skating and programs with a lot of in-betweens will score high? Also, will you be doing any competitive programs for any eligible skaters next season? Thanks so much!
Sarah: I’m glad you liked Michelle’s You Raise me Up. When you do an exhibition program sometimes it’s just nice to be free to express without limitations. It gives you an opportunity to take a chance with a new series of moves. I choreographed Beatrice Liang’s short and long program for this upcoming season.
Anonymous: The exhibitions you have done for Michelle Kwan are BRILLIANT. Would you consider working with Michelle again for competitive programs?
Sarah: I would love to.
Bijoux: What would you like to see done for Michelle to bring back the lovely choreography of earlier years? Can Michelle progress as an artist after so many years as the 6-7 triple jump competitor eligible style?
Sarah: I think as long as you are on this earth, there is every reason to continue to grow as a person, an artist, and as an athlete. It’s a question of focusing on, what more do you want to say, to express, with what you do.
Eltro: Do you prefer choreographing competitive or exhibition programs?
Sarah: They are different experiences. I enjoy the challenge of working with restrictions as you do when doing a competitive program. I also love having the freedom to create an exhibition program.
Bethany: What has been your most favorite program that you’ve choreographed?
Sarah: I have too many favorites to pick one. Some first choreographic adventures that changed my life include: Aerosmith’s Walk This Way for Scott Hamilton (this was the first adventure into to Rock ‘N’ Roll for me); Scott Hamilton’s Lounge Lizard/I Love Me composed by Larry Hart; Original piece for Scott Hamilton scored by Chick Corea; Night on Bald Mountain – principle ensemble arena piece and Chess – huge scale arena piece, Ice Capades; Deep Forest opening production at the Luxor Hotel, Las Vegas; Bolero – Champions on Ice; Step in Time production – Scott Hamilton’s Upside Down CBS TV Special; Fields of Gold – Michelle Kwan; On Golden Pond – Tai and Randy; One Rock ‘N’ Roll Too Many – Dorothy Hamill; Diamonds – Holiday on Ice; Light the Fire Within – Opening Ceremonies Salt Lake City 2002 Winter Olympics.
Helen: Have you ever worked with Christopher Dean? If so, what was it like?
Sarah: Chris and Jane guest starred in my Chess production in the Ice Capades. They were very into the dramatic concept. Very thorough and consistent in their work with the ensemble and very into the details. A joy to work with.
azca: How do you handle a situation where a skater requests to use a particular music selection that you are unfamiliar with or does not move you? Does it upset you if you aren’t satisfied with what you’ve done to it, even if the coach/skater is very satisfied? Conversely, does it upset you if the coach/skater changes the choreography?
Sarah: If I feel the piece is not a good choice, I will say so.
Angela: Do you think that variety and originality is decreased when one choreographer creates programs for more than ten elite skaters in a season?
Sarah: Depends how versatile and conscientious the choreographer is, in giving each skater a different look. From a strategic point of view, you lose the edge on strategy, because there cannot help but be a conflict of interest.
Anonymous: How do you get a skater to use music and choreography that is outside of their “tried and true” comfort zone?
Sarah: The skater has to be ready to take that chance. Sometimes it can be from outside one’s own experience, from exposure to other walks of life, or other art forms that can open a person’s eyes and inspire them to that point.
Anonymous: Can you use choreography, choice of music and costume to change or re-energize a skater’s established style in the eyes of judges?
Anonymous: Do you have any opinions/comments on the impact of Code of Points (COP) on choreography so far?
Sarah: I hope that the importance and education of the “callers” is seriously studied. Thus far, the focus has been the judges. Now with the implementation of the callers, the identification (particularly in the dance competition), is paramount to achieving better judging standards.
Anonymous: I’ve noticed that many competitive amateur skaters often reuse their previous season’s short or long program. Do you think this hinders their overall growth as an ice skater? Or even diminishes the importance of choreography in the eyes of the audience and judges? And do you think such recycled programs should receive some deductions in technical ability and artistry?
Sarah: If the skater has not gotten a full season out of a program for a reason (such as anan injury), then I think it does the skater good to stick with the program and experience the full development of the program into a second season. In that case it would only help the growth of the skater. It should not be discounted that the more one performs a piece, the more depth from a performance aspect the skater can explore. That is, if the piece has considerable intent beyond mere content.
Anonymous: Are there any particular skaters you loved working with because they thought like a choreographer, had versatility, etc.? Was there a particular choreographer that had a special influence on you?
Sarah: Osborne Colson is a skating teacher and creator that I studied with since the age of nine. “Mr. C.” has been a very strong influence in my approach to life and my work. He taught me to embrace change with an open mind and introduced the concept of “design in space”, texture, and color which are integral parts of choreography.
Paula: What projects are you currently working on?
Sarah: I have just opened Hot Ice at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, Calif. It will run 12 weeks until Aug. 29, 2004. I will be doing a theatre tour for Willy Bietak Productions, Inc. called Broadway on Ice this fall and Champions on Ice in the spring of 2005.
Paula: What advice would you give to skaters on how to “shop” for a choreographer?
Sarah:There is a difference between a stylist and a choreographer. Know the difference – it will help in your search.
Paula: Thank you for your taking the time out of your busy schedule to answer these questions, Sarah. Is there anything you’d like to add?
Sarah: Thank you for this opportunity to hear people’s thoughts as well as answer their questions. It’s been a pleasure.