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The Enhanced Experience

My friend wrote and asked if I thought the networks were enhancing the sound of the skate blades on the ice to make it more “real.” I had also noticed the increased sound of the blades. Later, she forwarded me a link to the SVG Blog titled “Live From PyeongChang; Karl Malone, NBC’s Director of Sound Design, on the 2018 Games” outlining how they placed microphones in the ice and then further adjusted the sound mix. On the one hand, their efforts to create a balance of the sounds in the “field of play” (ice skate sounds, the crowd, and the music), does enhance the viewing experience. It’s really amazing what they’re able to do! At the same time, it made me reflect in general terms on “the enhanced experience.”

We live in a space where we watch scripted reality TV that provides us with more drama, the truth booth, and multiple simultaneous perspectives. Now, it seems that “live TV” needs to be enhanced as well (since it can’t be scripted – at least not entirely). In fact, there is an Enhanced stream on the Olympic Channel. I’ve tried to watch it, but I can’t. It creates a split screen environment that distracts from the immersive experience of watching the event. Here’s what I see when I look at the Enhanced screen (with my own comments further enhancing it, of course)…

skating enhancedI wanted the image of the skater to fill the frame. The mounting technical score reminded me of our current overemphasis on athletics and point-scoring to the detriment of the artistic side of skating. The fun facts about the skater were sometimes nice to know, but I’m happiest doing my research independently, because it leads down unexpected paths, instead of passively taking in what someone else decides should be important. I will say I enjoyed watching the reaction of the coaches, as it often mirrored my own. At the same time, the coaches inset took me out of the event, by reminding me that there are always multiple viewers with something at stake watching a particular skater (her coaches, her fans, and the those who are rooting against her).

Perhaps, in the end, the enhanced stream scares me a little. It’s dangerously seductive. I remember when a Current vs. Leader points inset screen first appeared at the top left hand corner of my network broadcast screen shortly before the Sochi Olympics. I taped a piece of paper over the corner of my TV to block it out. In time, the paper fell down, and I got used to the inset. In fact, I started checking it after every jump, sometimes missing a step sequence or spin that I later had to try and catch in the replay. And yet I kept glancing at the inset, thinking “oh, I can watch the entire skate again later on YouTube.” It bothered me how quickly I was adjusting to a multiple screen experience and becoming dependent on knowing that everything was available at any time somewhere else on the web. “Straight skating” was starting to feel like a durational video.

So, after my foray into the enhanced experience, I returned to the standard fare. I watched the Olympics channel (no Tara and Johnny hype). I watched every skater, from every country, from the start to finish, with former Australian National Champion Belinda Noonan commentating alongside in her straightforward way. Other than her voice, I was able to make up my own mind about what I was seeing, just watching the skaters, and I relished both the challenge to not “click away” and my freedom to be an amateur skating viewer again.

Dream Podium (Women)

To accompany my Dream Podium (Men) post I’m creating a Dream Podium for the women. In this post, I act as the dissenter: sometimes I think I’m the only viewer left that remains unmoved (even repulsed) by the awkwardly artless but technically proficient Russian skaters that will undoubtedly dominate the podium this evening. My Women’s Dream Podium is even less likely to happen than my Men’s Dream Podium, but that’s what sublime imagination is for.

japans-satoko-miyahara-competes-in-the-figure-skating-team-event-picture-id916768802Satoko Miyahara (The Minimalist) Gold Medal

Simply put, I think Satoko Miyahara is the class of the field.

Satoko manages to balance delicacy and precision with knowing grace and controlled passion. She has extremely high body awareness, and her movement sometimes reminds me of Sasha Cohen, containing both perfect lines and great extension. Satoko knows how to fully extend her arms and legs and allow the viewer to enjoy the shapes her body makes. Simultaneously she has the ability to create sharp, angular forms and employ staccato movements to accent musical moments. Her expressions are understated and wise, yet vulnerable. She brings a quiet passion to the ice that you have to take time to explore and understand. I often have to watch her performances twice to realize how she’s achieved the effects she creates. Her skating strength is in the nuances.

I’m tired of Satoko getting dogged for “small jumps.” They’re lovely jumps, and while much smaller than those of her competitors, they are tight, and light, and I’d rather see her fully balanced, mature, sophisticated programs over and over than a bunch of triple jumps hung on an empty choreographic scaffold. When Satoko jumps she rotates so quickly that it looks effortless. Her footwork floats across the ice; it doesn’t seem to grind down into the surface and slowly lurch along like that of many of her counterparts. Her speed in her spins is also joyous to watch, her layback in particular. The current rule set is a disadvantage for her, and that’s a shame.

Lastly, I want to note the way Satoko responds to her music, for I am impressed with both her unique musical choices and her ability to interpret various scores. Even when she skates to well-known themes, like tonight’s program to Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” she skates to edits that are more complex than the expected array of musical highlights. I still remember her standout long program from 2017 to a mix of Holst’s “The Planets” and “Princess Leia’s Theme” by John Williams. The classical and the contemporary – the 19th century meets science fiction. Regardless of the score she chooses, Satoko skates to the subtle musical themes, picking out single notes to accentuate, or long phrases to ground her step sequences. Watch for her to use minimal movement to maximal effect, and recognize her flexibility, the speed of her spins, deep edges, complex transitions, great ice coverage, and magical footwork. She currently sits in fourth place after the short program, and it would be amazing to see her stealthily capture the bronze.

 

carolina-kostner-of-italy-competes-in-the-figure-skating-team-event-picture-id916766046Carolina Kostner (The Wise) Silver Medal

Carolina’s been skating an amazingly long time! Pyeongchang marks her fourth Olympic Games. She’s a master of what she does, and a wonderful example of tenacity. Hyped for the Torino games in her native Italy, her disappointing programs were painful to watch. Four years later, her long program skate at the Vancouver Olympics was possibly the most disastrous I’ve ever seen, containing no less than three falls. So, when she captured the bronze medal in Sochi for her mature “Bolero” I was thrilled. Now, she’s back for more.

At 31, Carolina skates as a woman among girls, and it shows in the way she expresses herself on the ice. Her interpretation to “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” by Debussy is one of the best I’ve ever seen. Tall and willowy, she makes use of some classical hand movements to channel Nijinsky’s original choreography to good effect. Her skating is both strong yet somehow somnolent, she seems to be moving in slow motion, or underwater, yet in fact she is skating more quickly that almost everybody else. She also has a sensual, almost sexual quality to her movement that her 15-year-old competitors just can’t carry off.

Sadly, Carolina made an error on her combination jump in the short program, and currently sits in sixth place. Her hopes for the podium are slim, but I believe her desire to share her joy in movement and musical interpretation with the audience are still strong. Look for her long lines, enraptured expression, and almost languorous way of moving. Bellisima, Carolina.

 

HCNFIAV6CZG5TO62W34Y2P5KYMMirai Nagasu (The Gladiator) Bronze Medal

Sitting in ninth place, Mirai has no realistic hopes for the podium. Still I can dream of the Russians falling down and Mirai’s triple Axel coming to life! I was saddened by her dramatic miss in the short program but heartened by the way she recovered from the fall and skated well from that point on. I’ve never seen her express so much emotion, and it’s making her skating and connection to the audience stronger than ever. Mirai seems an introverted diva, a bit shy, actually, and I feel sometimes she has trouble fully expressing herself to the audience, even as her emotions are welling up inside. She can get distracted, and psych herself out. But at these games, she’s been completely present.

I saw her wear her heart on her sleeve in her Mixed Zone short program post-skate interview, where she bravely answered questions with tears streaming down her face. As she put it, she feels she let her team and her country down but is proud she attempted the big jump. The interviewer in the Mixed Zone, in a moment of journalistic empathy, assured Mirai that she hadn’t let anybody down, which only made her cry harder. In the end, Mirai said she’d have felt regret if she didn’t go for the triple Axel, and I thought that was brave.

Mirai skates incredibly fast and has a natural way of moving that never seems forced. There are no flailing arms or coltish, bent legs careening around at odd angles. She lives up to her larger than life music from Miss Saigon, and her costume is appropriate, bold, but not flashy. What I wish for Mirai is for her to GLADIATE, to go big, and to skate to her full potential. Her dream finish would be her successful skate, and I would hope she would enjoy every minute of it.

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While the Olympic Athletes from Russia may sweep gold and silver, I’m just not buying it, from either one of them. Not Zagitova, or even Medvedeva. The commentators seem to have a script they’re reading from, giving credit for artistic expression when there’s really not much there beyond a spangled tutu (Zagitova), or over investing in a kind of sophomoric expression and gangly skating that leaves me unmoved (Medvedeva). Someone’s got to dissent. More on why the Russian’s are missing from my Dream Podium after the competition.

Dream Podium (Men)

As we head into tonight’s long program, I’ve hurried to write up some notes on the men’s short program, which aired yesterday. For fun, I created my Dream Podium. The Podium is not likely to occur, but I can imagine it just the same.

Dream Podium (Men)

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Shoma Uno, Gold: Shoma’s skating exists at the crossroads of Adam Rippon and Misha Ge. Flamboyantly theatrical in costume and gesture, I also feel Shoma’s deep investment in every performance. I enjoy his excellent posture, the way he fully extends his limbs, soft knees, and smooth ice coverage. His upper body is exceptionally still as he moves across the ice. He has a way of hooking the landing edge of his jumps (actually I think a bit of a flaw) that makes me exhilarated and nervous. I would love to mic his coach, who is always smiling and sometimes even laughing aloud in the Kiss’n’Cry. I think Shoma gets so upset when he doesn’t skate well that she spends a lot of time cheering him up. Look for an emotional performance with possible tears at the end. Shoma currently sits in third place.

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Javier Fernandez, Silver: Javi! What’s not to love! The Gene Kelly of skating has perfect body line and an expressive but athletic approach. Extremely charismatic, he embodies traditionally masculine sexiness with a comic vulnerability. His Charlie Chaplin “City Lights” short program was a masterpiece, unique, charming, and strong. I love the way he looks out into the audience as he performs and draws people in. His powerful jumps sometimes finish quite low in the knee and a little squirrely, which leave me gasping in fright. Finishing just off the podium in fourth at the 2014 Olympics, I feel it’s Javier’s time to medal. He currently sits in second place.

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Adam Rippon, Bronze: Adam is sitting in seventh place after the short program, so this outcome is practically impossible! But, that’s what Dream Podiums are for. I’ve watched Adam for over a decade. He’s one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever seen skate, and one of the most beautiful skaters. I thought he’d be going to the Vancouver Olympics in 2010. No. I felt certain he would be a member of the 2014 Sochi Olympic team, but again, no. I’m overjoyed that he’s finally skating well and able to show off his true capabilities. When I first saw his short program to an Ida Corr remix I was a little put off. It was so tacky! Didn’t he know? I had loved his Debussy program to “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.” What was up? Then I heard him interviewed. He called “Let Me Think About It” “club trash from 2007 that he wasn’t afraid to skate to.” I finally got it. His mix of sluttiness and pure elegance combined with an almost insolent address to the judges breaks new boundaries in figure skating. His tweets and comments are both hilarious and intelligent. He takes up a position that Johnny Weir made possible, but marred with numerous wince-worthy comments and actions. OK, so maybe it’s not just Adam’s impeccable skating that makes him my dream medalist. It’s also how he represents. Thank you, Adam.

Mirai’s Magnificent Moment

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I’m a little behind in my writing, however, I would like to go back to the Team Event which concluded Monday, and Mirai Nagasu’s magnificent short program skate. Even as I predicted that Mirai’s performance at the Olympics might create a definitive moment (oh, snap!) I had trepidation as to how her competition might actually evolve.

As she took the ice, I held my breath. While she’d landed her triple Axel in practice, she’d never successfully completed a clean skate that included the jump. Could she pull it all together in a single pressure packed moment? I was also concerned that she’d put too much emphasis on mastering a single athletic move, a case of putting all her eggs in one basket. What if she failed!

Then I tried to rethink my expectations. So often, it appears that figure skating requires women perform under a kind of insane pressure, enacted within a very restricted definition of femininity (thinness, youth, balletic ideals) but also tied to a singular, limited definition of career and success – advance quickly to the top and then quit at the top (a la Tara Lipinski). Let no one see a weakness.

As a woman of a certain age, I regularly feel like I’m being overtaken by youthful competitors in the workplace, or in my art career. Often, I feel like I have failed. Lately, I’ve been wondering how I might redefine what I do in a way that’s differentially meaningful to me, allowing myself to set new goals and move forward on something more closely approximating my own terms. Perhaps Mirai’s choice to learn the triple Axel was not just a desperate attempt to score enough points to win against a younger field. Perhaps it was a way of giving herself a new goal, of saying “if I continue to compete, it can’t be to catch up to my former Olympic 16-year-old self. It must be to create a new kind of performance, where I express who I am now.” Succeed or fail, she was going to try something new. The triple Axel became both an event and a metaphor.

So, when Mirai went into her forward edge (after twice tripping slightly, nervously, setting up the jump) I was both completely on edge, and strangely relaxed. And then it happened, up, up, up, and around and around and around and half a rotation more she turned, landing beautifully to the crescendo of the music! She had just made skating history, becoming the first U.S. woman to complete a triple Axel in Olympic competition! She had also just written the next chapter in her own history, presenting herself as she is now, instead of as she had been.

The fact that the rest of her program was flawless was more than frosting on the cake. It showed me she had found a new ability to concentrate. Just has she had not allowed her moments of failure to deter her, she did not let her moment of success distract her. For the remainder of her skate she performed with strength and style. She was able to show everything that she could do. I don’t even remember her eventual placement, which was not first (she was overtaken by a mechanical tutu wearing Russian 15-year-old skating an unimaginative back-loaded program to excerpts from the ballet Don Quixote) because in that moment traditional expectations of Olympic success no longer mattered to me.

How will Mirai fare in the individual competition? I’m trying to remain calm. I hope she can continue to perform to her highest standard. However, even if she falters, she will be already gliding down the ice toward her next set of goals.

Training

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At the start of the Olympics, I try and write down when my favorite events will be scheduled so I don’t miss anything. As I was clicking through the programming screens I came across a scheduled event titled “Training.” Training as a scheduled event? It seemed like a lazy way to increase viewership/ratings, or, alternately, to fill our 24-hour need to stream. At the same time, I remember being mesmerized by the ballet students (the “dancing ladies” as I called them) practicing at the barre at Interlochen when I was a little girl.

Feeling a bit media-manipulated, but also curious, I clicked on “Training: Figure Skating Team Competition.” An almost empty image filled my screen. The ice rink, imperfectly framed. No aerial views, no sweeping long shots or exciting angles. No close ups on perfectly made up faces cracking under pressure or exhibiting transcendent smiles at the end of perfect programs. Just a seemingly random portion of the rink and a mostly empty arena. Nothing was happening. Suddenly, action. A skater glided across the ice, coming into the screen on the right and exiting on the left. Soon, other skaters began to dip in and out of the corners of the screen, giving me fleeting glimpses of their moves. It was magical.

The ladies were training for their first event, the team competition. No costumes, no spangles. Just leggings and fleece tops. Skaters performed fragments of their programs, falling in and out of character, completing a difficult jump, only to skate aimlessly away instead of following up with theatrical choreography. Bits of music played in the background. Each skater’s music was featured in turn, so she could better approximate how her program might feel later in competition. A skater skidded to a stop at the side of the rink to take off her sweater. She looked out at her competitors on the ice, the back of her head and tousled hair framed in a way that would have been called “poor composition” in critique. Two women skated to just right of center on the screen. They began to bow to the empty seats in all four directions. They were practicing their curtseys! At one point, it appeared they even bowed to each other. It seemed a fitting acknowledgement of the hours of lonely, unseen effort required to master their difficult sport.

After some time had passed, an announcement came over the PA system: would the ladies please clear the ice? Their practice session was ending. The Zamboni appeared and slowly circled the rink, leaving a trail of perfectly smooth ice behind it. The swirls and curves their skate blades had created were quietly erased.

For me, watching “Training” (like training itself) required both time and patience, but offered its own quiet reward (an alternative to the highlight reel).

The Power of Mirai

After the US National Championships aired, a friend wrote and asked my opinion of the outcome for the lady’s competition. I thought about Mirai Nagasu, and what it means to occupy a position of promise, fumble under the weight of expectation, and endure a very public failure, only to redefine your relationship to your sport and find new ways to persevere in the face of adversity.

I remember seeing Mirai skate in the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, where she narrowly missed a medal, yet still seemed thrilled with her result. She was heralded as the future of U.S. Figure Skating and predicted to win gold at Sochi. Over the next four years, her skating faltered. However, at our 2014 U.S. Championships she rallied. I remember her explosive joy in the Puffs Kiss’n’Cry when she placed third, only to be followed by a tearful exhibition performance after she had been informed she had not made the Olympic team after all. She had been passed over for a skater who had finished fourth, but who had experienced more recent competitive success. Ashley Wagner had the better CV. Advertisers had also invested tens of thousands of dollars placing her in numerous Olympic ad spots, and her face represented a number of mega-brands. Ashley was the better headliner.

Mirai’s career seemed over. Overnight, she had become too old. She was in effect told by the USFA “you’re no longer good enough.” However, instead of retiring, Mirai continued to compete. I wondered why she persisted, because, at least at first, she skated unevenly, and sometimes appeared disaffected on the ice, kind of like she was over the whole competitive skating thing. I was wrong. She was quietly setting new goals for herself at home, working with Jeffrey Buttle to choreograph new and beautiful programs, and mastering the most difficult triple of all, the triple Axel. At age 24, she had become one of the “old ladies” of figure skating.

Mirai’s dogged perseverance, her comeback in adulthood, beyond the space of her teenage precocity, is a beacon that may help redefine what might constitute a successful career or relationship to one’s sport/art. Mirai claimed the power to decide when to quit, taking it from the skating federation/youth culture/coaching predictions/success machine. In her case it paid off in an Olympic berth. Regardless of her Olympic outcome, hers is a story she is demanding to write herself.

“I, Tonya” and Memories of 1994

I lived in Boston in 1994, and the Nancy/Tonya scandal was not just National news, it was Local news. We got twice the reporting! I remember talking about this a lot with my just-post-art-school loft-mates. At the time, we mostly saw Nancy’s grace and Tonya’s bad taste. But there was something else afoot that was harder to pinpoint. The story was not as simple as good vs. evil.

I still think maiming your competitor (or planning to, or knowing someone else was planning to, or had done) is unconscionable in sport. Despite the sympathetic presentation of Tonya in “I, Tonya,” I can’t forget the fact that Nancy was attacked and the tremendous effort that was required of her to rehab and deliver her Olympic performances.

What today might easily pass as reality TV seemed radical at the time, almost unimaginable. A plan so poorly hatched and badly botched by goons it was a joke, delivered in minute-by-minute updates by a fickle media. Something also felt a little scary – Tony Kent Arena was just an hour’s drive from where I lived. My roommate Nan and I talked about personal safety in public spaces, something we had never discussed before. Although the situation ostensibly revolved around the rarified sport of figure skating, the subsequent events also revealed cracks in a larger system (class in America, the media/sport complex, the 24-hour news cycle, the ballerina fixation).

What I appreciate about “I, Tonya” is the way it helps articulate these fissures. Perhaps precisely because it starts with a disclaimer (an opening title sequence reveals that the script is “based on irony-free, wildly contradictory and totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly”) and then uses an almost Rashomon approach to conveying divergent narratives, “I, Tonya” allows us to look at the events leading up to the Lillehammer Olympics with greater complexity.

Back on the loft floor, we discussed the Nancy/Tonya situation nightly, looking for some ultimate truth, scrutinizing the actions of both women as conveyed to us by what we clearly understood to be self-serving news programs. While we saw Nancy as the victim, we simultaneously mocked her crying. While we were horrified with Tonya for what we suspected was her involvement in a series of grotesque events, we also knew she was being pilloried, media screwed.

Nancy and Tonya both seemed trapped by a double standard. Our society demanded they fit the same template – to be little girls in pretty boxes – while being unable to acknowledge that in fact neither fit the mold.  Nancy was a hockey-loving, blue collar tomboy, guided toward figure skating as the more acceptable kind of feminine expression on ice (women’s ice hockey was included at the U.S. Olympic Festival for the first time in 1993). Tonya was working poor from a left-coast state other than California (the kind of person mainstream America doesn’t seem to want to admit exists). The difference was that Nancy was more able to fulfill a role (makeover, ballet ideals, dental work, Vera Wang costumes) that Tonya refused/could not afford to take on. Both were going to Lillehammer.

The short program aired and I was glued to the TV. However, during a commercial break I wandered into the common space to hang out with my loft-mates. It turns out they were also watching. My roommate Nan, like me, loved ballet and enjoyed figure skating. We thought Nancy was superior to Tonya in every way. However, our roommate Steve, who could care less about body line and perfect dental work, loved Tonya’s jumps and thought she was fierce. Didn’t he see her bad hair and tacky costumes? No. He thought the whole thing was bullshit. He said all the skaters looked the same (with the notable exception of Surya Bonaly, whose athleticism and non-classical program he also admired). According to him, all the others wore practically identical tutus with spangles, bunheads, and fancy makeup. This came as a shock to me. I realized how invested I was in a narrow kind of definition of appropriate femininity. Was there space for both grace and toughness? Was there more than one kind of good?

I knew I lived in a culture that problematized femininity, agency, and, power. The Nancy/Tonya scandal reinforced this, and I recognized I had a personal stake in the unfolding drama. Watching was emotional. Nancy’s post-Olympic caught-on-tape Disney snafu (“This is dumb. I hate it. This is the most corny thing I’ve ever done”) made me wince. What a spoiled brat! At the same time, it was like calling Disney out. Fuck the fairy tale. And Tonya walking out on her interview with Connie Chung? I felt that Tonya was guilty of involvement. At the same time, I had never seen anyone get the best of Connie Chung and her tiresome “gotcha” journalism before. When Tonya took off her microphone and said “I’m done” she was brilliant. Fuck the media circus.

How does the Lillehammer story end? With an international viewership sick of American drama. Tonya fell apart with a skate lace problem that involved starting her Jurassic Park program with a mistake and then begging for a restart. She finished in 8th place. Nancy finished second to Oksana Baiul, and was later caught sulking and making snarky comments as she waited for the medal ceremony. After that, there was Nancy’s Disney meltdown. All of this was captured on camera.

Why do we struggle seeing Nancy as a victim? Because we’ve decided she’s not the right kind of victim. Why must Tonya fail? Because she can never live up to the ballerina image she’s supposed to embody. Both are caught up in a media spectacle where they fall short of their impossibly constructed public personas.

Instead, they live in media-limbo, never forgotten because their stories are never resolved. Tonya has her career ruined for life but is rehabilitated by a film and goes to the Golden Globes. Nancy’s stuck doing interviews about the attack (and I would think also being reminded of her Olympic sized loss) over 20 years later.

Why would Margot Robbie chose to make “I, Tonya” now? To someone who grew up on a steady diet of Olympic sized Cinderella stories made in the media the answer seemed obvious. Everything indicates that even at a temporal distance, 1990’s problems surrounding expectations of gender norms, social class, and the impossibility of claiming agency within a media that insists on generating their own limiting soundbite stories for women remain deeply entrenched and still resonate.

Who am I, a Nancy, or a Tonya? I think we need to ask what each choice represents. Am I a woman who subverts myself so I can play by the rules, only to be undone by my too human messy shortcomings, which extrude like ointment oozing out of the sides of a band aid? My imperfect self is destined to be exposed, and the revelation will get me thrown out of good-girl heaven. Or am I a woman who breaks the rules to engage in a fight I know I’m doomed to lose from the get-go, because I have already been told that those who don’t conform can never succeed on their own terms? Non-conformance also gets you thrown out of good-girl heaven. Fuck the binary. While I would never beat someone with a stick or otherwise engage in an illegal act to try and ruin their career, I am also ready for some expanded choices. I think “I, Tonya” tries to open up a space where we can think beyond the historically defined Nancy/Tonya binary and start to imagine what those choices might be.