Challenging for the gold

Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat

French ice dancers Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat, who are well known and liked for their original and innovative programs, have come very close to the podium in European and World Championships in the past recent years. They placed fourth at the 2009 and 2010 Europeans, fifth at Worlds 2009, and fourth at Worlds in 2010.

The French team was edged out narrowly and actually finished third in the free dance at Worlds this year, and second in the free dance at Europeans in 2009. So it is no surprise that this charismatic couple is aiming for a medal this upcoming season.

“I don’t want to say too much about the past season as this is over, although there were some positive moments like the bronze medal at the Grand Prix Final,” Pechalat  said. “We narrowly missed out on a medal at Europeans and Worlds, but this motivates us even more to earn a medal in the new season – especially the gold medal at Europeans.”

“Coming in fourth at Europeans was hard, because we made an error,” noted Bourzat. “It wasn’t like we’ve skated super well. The others were just better. At Worlds we gave strong performances. Some people felt that we could have finished third, but the Italians (Federica Faiella and Massimo Scali) skated very well throughout the season. We have no regrets.”

The French have changed a few things in their preparations. For the first time their coach, Alexander Zhulin, will also choreograph their programs. Pechalat and Bourzat moved to Russia for training under Zhulin in the summer of 2008, but until now worked with French choreographers. They were also the first top dance team to announce their music choice for the free dance.

“We have decided to skate to Chaplin, and we decided to announce it to everyone via Facebook since we used this theme in Zhulin’s show (end of May in Moscow),” Pechalat said. “So things are clear now and we can afford to reveal our music choice early before the season. We are looking for originality and quality in the choreography and technique within our program rather than in the well exploited theme as Chaplin is a true classic!”

However, the parts of the Charlie Chaplin music they used for the show program aren’t the same they are using in the free dance. The choreography will also be very different. Knowledgeable observers noticed anyway that Pechalat and Bourzat recycled the choreography of their popular Circus free dance for the show.

Zhulin suggested the idea for a Chaplin free dance to his students a couple of months ago. “We’ve thought about it and then we came to the conclusion that it is a very good idea,” Pechalat said. “With this theme, we can bring across poetry and softness as well as gaiety and lightness. Later, all of us together and also (coach) Oleg (Volkov), we chose the music.”

Then the team began work on the program. “The advantage [of working with Zhulin] is that we have the step sequences right away,” Bourzat explained when asked about the difference between working with their coach and their previous choreographers who came from outside of the skating scene. “I think there are a lot more dance positions and connections in the program, as the judges like it, because he (Zhulin) knows the setting much better than we do. It has been going very well. I think it will be an interesting choreography and a nice theme.”

“We really appreciate Sasha’s (Zhulin’s) creativity, his open-mindedness, and his ear. So we have a program that fits us like a second skin and that we are able to perform technically,” Pechalat noted. “To put together a program on the ice didn’t happen to us in the past six years! Obviously we lost much less time transferring the footwork on to the ice. Now everything was logical and flowing. It was a great experience and made our collaboration with Sasha even closer.”

The new “short dance,” a combination of a sequence of the Golden Waltz compulsory dance and elements of the original dance to be introduced in competition in the upcoming season, remains still under the cover. “We’d like to keep it a little more secret for the moment as we are still thinking about the possibilities within these new rules,” Pechalat said. “We have constructed the program in a way we think it’s the best for us.”

The couple revealed that Spanish dancer Antonio Najarro, who created Flamenco programs for them and also Stéphane Lambiel, did the choreography for the short dance. “I think it is good that our short dance will be a pure dance program and our free dance will be more of skating and theater play,” Pechalat pointed out. “We’ll have two very different programs.”

Although the compulsory dances is not a separate part of the competition anymore, the skaters are still training it. “We’ll start (the short dance) with one of the elements, then we do the Waltz and so we need the transitions. We’ll continue to work on it, but maybe in a different way than we used to, less on the technique itself but more on the upper body movements to look good in the short dance,” explained Bourzat.

Najarro came to Novogorsk near Moscow in May to work with the French team on the short dance. The quiet village, not far from the bustling Russian capital, is currently the training base for Zhulin’s skaters since they had problems getting enough ice time in rinks in Moscow. Pechalat and Bourzat had ten days of vacation in June and did a show in France before joining Zhulin’s training camp near Riga, the capital of Latvia. In August, they plan to be back in Novogorsk. The couple will skate at the French Masters (September 30 – October 2) in Orleans, but might debut their programs the week before at the Nebelhorn Trophy in Oberstdorf, Germany. They have been selected for the Grand Prix events in China and France.

The post-Olympic season promises to be interesting and exciting, also due to changes in the rules. Pechalat and Bourzat actually welcome the new rule that demands that all music “must be cut/edited, orchestrated, or arranged in a way that it creates an interesting, colourful, entertaining dance program with different moods or a building effect” (Rule 601 Free Dance regulations).

“To be honest, I think that’s good,” Pechalat commented. “If you are watching (Tessa) Virtue and (Scott) Moir skating to four minutes of slow music it is fine, but if a weaker couple is skating to four minutes of slow music, it is boring. They (the judges and officials) don’t want to see programs like in the 90s. The top couples did great programs, but all that drama… it is this kind of program that they don’t want anymore as too many couples did them. I think the judges are fed up with this. We’ll see.”

Bourzat pointed out that the judges are looking for changes of rhythm within the program. “The music shouldn’t be depressive, but there is a loophole for the judges, as the rule states that the music has to be suitable for the level of the couple. In this case there probably won’t be a deduction,” he noted. To be sure that their music choice fits the new rules, the skaters had it checked by French officials.

Now Pechalat and Bourzat are looking forward to presenting their new programs to the skating fans at the beginning of the season and hope that this season will mark their breakthrough. In the past, the couple left open how long they want to continue competing. For now, they are definitely committed to the 2012 World Championships in Nice, France and don’t exclude staying in for the 2014 Olympic Games to make their dream of an Olympic medal come true.

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