Detour via Moscow on the way to the top for French dance team

France's Nathalie Pechalat, 25, and Fabian Bourzat, 28, perform to music by Claude Challe for their "Mummy" exhibition routine.

French ice dancers Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat are showing determination as they work their way to the top. They left their coaches, of ten years in Lyon, France to move to Moscow last summer, knowing that it wouldn’t be easy to adapt to a foreign country. They couldn’t speak the language and the lifestyle was quite different than that of their former home.

This season, the team placed third at Skate Canada and second at NHK Trophy, and narrowly missed qualifying for the Grand Prix Final. However, just before Christmas, they took their first national title at the senior level in the absence of the injured Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder, and are now aiming at a podium finish at the European Championship.

“At Europeans, our goal is to skate a good program with all we can do and to get a good score,” said Bourzat. “The battle will be tough but a spot on the podium is something to envision.”

Last year, the French felt they needed a major change in order to achieve their goals. “We’ve trained with Sasha (Zhulin) for three weeks in the summer (2007) and one week before Worlds last year,” Pechalat recalled. “We realized that it worked very well for us because he really worked with us on our weaknesses. We felt he could help us to progress.”

When Delobel and Schoenfelder decided they wanted to continue, Pechalat and Bourzat felt there was no room for them in Lyon. “We felt we couldn’t progress anymore,” said Pechalat, “and so we decided to leave for Moscow. The Olympic Games are not far away now and this was the time to go.”

The team moved in in July, and the transition wasn’t easy. “We had a lot of stress in June, July and in August,” explained Pechalat. “We’ve been training with Muriel (Zazoui) and Romain (Haguenauer) for ten years and it was not easy to leave them. We had a good working relationship with them. But it is our career and we had to make a choice. We told ourselves we had to go.”

The team realized the change wouldn’t be easy. “When we did the summer practice with Sasha, we stayed in the outskirts (of Moscow),” recalled Pechalat. “The hotel was really bad, we knew nobody, and we had no friends.”

Currently, Bourzat shares an apartment with German ice dancer Alexander Gazsi, who trains with them in the same group, while Pechalat rooms with a Russian artist who wants to study French. On top of the problems of daily life, the couple had to adapt to a different way of training. “We went from two and a half hours of practice in Lyon to easily five hours, including stretching and ballet,” said Pechalat.

The skaters felt physically challenged with the change. “We asked ourselves if we could take it because we weren’t used to it,” said Pechalat. “All these changes happened at the same time. We had to digest all the organizational problems such as the visa and financial issues. The practice is much more expensive than in France. It is a big sacrifice on each level. It became slowly better in the beginning of September. Now we can physically deal with the practices and we know our limits.”

The team now feels that their move has paid off. They train with the creative and innovative Alexander Zhulin, who coached Russia’s Tatiana Nakva and Roman Kostomarov to Olympic gold in 2006, and with Oleg Volkov. Experienced skaters, such as World Champions Oleg Ovsiannikov and Maxim Staviski, are visiting the practices as well and give important advice.

“Every day when we leave the ice rink we know that we have learned something,” observed Pechalat. “This feels really good and this is why we are happy that we went there. In Lyon we were under the impression that we had entered the dynamics of repetition. It was doing and redoing but not necessarily learning something new or going further. Maybe it was just the routine because we’ve been there for so long.”

Bourzat also credits the frequent ballet lessons for their progress. “To have the opportunity to stretch your legs and to achieve more amplitude is very important for what we are doing on the ice, and I think it has improved our skating a lot in terms of width of movement, flow, and the finish of gestures.”

Pechalat and Bourzat are the top team in a group of four international senior level couples from Russia, Germany and Bulgaria. “It’s fun,” said Pechalat. “The four senior couples represent four countries and we have the feeling that we are a real team. At the same time we are learning from each other. With the lifts for example, we’ve discussed a lot with Alex (Gazsi) to find solutions.”

Bourzat agreed, adding, “In this group we all have our strengths and weaknesses and I think Sasha and Oleg know exactly what everybody is doing and what they need. We are also able to look at the other couples and find things to learn from them. So even if not everybody is competing at the same level, we still take something from them and the other way round. For example, there are Natalia (Mikhailova) and Arkadi (Sergeev) who have been working for years on the basic skills with Sasha, and have a way of gliding and a way of moving that we don’t have yet. These are things we have to work on and that we learn from them every day.”

The new French Champions have made a name for themselves thanks to their creative programs. Last year their theme was “Craziness”, set to electronic music which told the story of succumbing to madness. The couple has been choosing their own music and ideas for programs for the past few years, and this season’s circus-theme free dance is no exception.

“This dance started to come into being with the beginning of last year’s free dance,” revealed Pechalat. “The people really liked our dance last year, and they were saying that it is something different. But maybe it was too dark, too stratospheric, and so we were asking ourselves what can we do to change from this. We were looking for something more visual, more colorful, more fun, and we talked about it and suddenly thought of the circus as a theme.”

The dancers put it together with Julien Cottereau, a clown who performed with the famous Cirque du Soleil. “I think we had the best week of our whole career! We had so much fun,” she laughed. “The advantage was that we didn’t work with a choreographer, but with a clown,” added her partner.

However, the dancers were in for a big disappointment at Skate Canada, not only because they skated poorly and were ranked third, but also because they received rather low levels for their lifts. They obviously take pride in their lifts that are usually well received and get high scores. Now they had to change their new lifts.

“When we changed the lifts after Skate Canada, we had a difficult time to take back the old lifts that we used two years ago,” sighed Pechalat. “There is no evolution when you have to go backwards.” “We invested two, three months in the beginning of the season to work on lifts that are different and more difficult and take much more energy in the choreography,” added Bourzat. “To come to competition and to get a level two, because the lift doesn’t completely fit the criteria for a level four is really disappointing.”

The French feel too restricted by the rules and are sometimes frustrated by the limits they set to creativity. “For us, this is a problem of ice dancing,” said Pechalat. “What is expected from us technically and strategically doesn’t really correspond with what we want to show with our skating and what the audience enjoys. There is always a lack of balance. The more years that pass, the more rules there are, and it becomes more and more difficult for us to find a balance. The choreography, the music, the costumes – this is our favorite part of ice dancing. For us, it’s really about creativity from A to Z.”

As for the costumes, they also have a lot of input and tell their costume designer what they want and need. For the free dance, they were looking for a “costume change” in the middle of the program to reflect the change of mood from the sad clown to the cheerful clown, and so Bourzat’s brown jacket suddenly had yellow sleeves! “The sleeves (of the jacket) go inside,” revealed Pechalat. “Even I, when I watched it on the video, had to think for a moment how they disappeared.”

The French have been a couple on the ice for eight years now, ever since Muriel Zazoui put them together. Both skated in her group before with different partners, and both didn’t like the idea of skating together too much in the beginning.

“When she told me that my new partner was Fabian, I said, ‘No, that is the worst case’, because we didn’t like each other. We weren’t friends at all,” the dancer recalled with a smile. “But I told myself it is a chance to have a new partner and I should at least try it. So we skated together, but we didn’t talk much. Slowly we became friends and spent a lot of time together.”

“I’ve been even longer with Muriel,” stated Bourzat. “I came to practice in her group during summer since about 15 years. After I finished school, I moved to Lyon and skated there with another partner for two years. Finally, Muriel put Nathalie and me together.”

“I knew that she was a suitable partner after the tryouts we did,” continued Bourzat. “The lines, the speed, the couple as a whole – everything was well matched. She was quite calm on the ice, so I told myself, ‘Well, even if we don’t get along too well, at least she will be calm on the ice and we can do our job’. She grew up. She has changed and from being in contact with Marina (Anissina) every day, she picked up something from her.”

They competed in juniors until 2002 and then worked their way up into the senior ranks. Now the big goal is to do well at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. “The real question is if we want to continue after that,” said Pechalat. “A lot depends on the physical side and also on the development of the rules in ice dancing. I’m asking myself a lot of questions because of the rules. I am very frustrated. We’ll see if we still can be creative and can put on a show, and if we are in good shape and still are motivated to keep going.”

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