David Liu – One of the last true artists: An interview (Part II)

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C. During your career you represented a small figure skating federation, Taiwan. Were there any challenges associated with that? Is there anything you wish could have been different?

D. This is a tough question because sometimes, in life, things are the way they are and you make the best out of your situation. But certainly, skating is a very lonely sport, especially if you skate singles – you are out there all by yourself. And usually, going to competitions, you would have some support like a judge or a team leader. That was something I had to get used to not having. Me and my coach by ourselves were still happy with the opportunities we had to compete but given that, you see other federations, they have their judges, they had their team officials and it was one of those things that made me feel a little lonely in the sport sometimes.

But I’m not complaining. It gave me an opportunity to compete and that’s what I was there to do.

I’m still trying to think of how I wish things could have been different, but it is what it was, and now the association has grown a bit. We do have an Olympic and world judge and there are some really talented skaters coming up. The association also called me very recently as ask me to consult for them and I agreed. So I’m going to try to make the situation a little bit better, hopefully.

C. How do you think figure skating will develop in Taiwan and other Asian nations?

D. Well, in Taiwan or as they call it, Chinese, Taipei, there are more rinks opening now and there is also The Taipei Arena which is an ice rink right in the center of the city. It’s basically a big convention center. So there is a place for skaters to train.

I think after me, there have been some skaters who have done well, or at least placed internationally .The athletes are very dedicated and it feels very competitive there actually. Seeing how devoted they are, I think we are developing some really wonderful skaters. I really look forward to what the future holds – I can’t predict it for sure because I just started going back and am now starting to understand the system better and better with the help of the young skaters. It is really great that the kids in Taiwan are so resilient – they know how to work hard and they are very devoted.

For example, we have a young junior skater,  I think she’s only 12 and she can do all the triples. You’ll definitely be seeing her on the scene soon! She’s been traveling to Toronto quite a bit to train there during her holidays, and she also has a local coach. She is a very devoted young lady.

***

C. At the 1990 World championship, you were the last figure skater to formally compete in the compulsory figures event. What was it like? Earlier you said you were not very fond of school figures.

D. I felt pretty lucky. It was just by the luck of the draw that I was the last one. I think I skated okay? Sometimes during that era school figures weren’t all that objective in terms of the judging. It was like a precursor to all the judging controversy that was about to come. But during that time, just trying to get myself to the finals was a major hurdle. Not having an own judge or any spokesperson within the judges’ circle was difficult. I would imagine there are still countries that  have to face that.

And going back to 1990 Worlds, being the last to skate didn’t dawn on me. I mean, people talked about it, but I think it was only afterwards that they gave memorabilia, and there were reporters asking about it, so it became something that I’d been associated with for a long time. I was already nervous, so it didn’t really matter – whether you skate first or last, so you’re just happy that it’s all over.

Thinking about it now, I’m actually more fond of school figures because having taught a little bit and having coached, I began to understand those fundamentals, how they translate to the quality of your skating and your skating skills. And sadly, I find that that is something that’s really missing in today’s skating. I wish there would be a shift in going back to those basics. It’s more about the sort of the embodied kinesthetic awareness of your body and very basic elements of skating. Like holding an edge, where your free leg is, how to maintain it, how to find the flow and coordination, the cleanliness of your edges…

David Liu pictured after having skated the last school figures competition at the 1990 World Figure Skating Championship. Photo credit: Halifax Public Libraries.

Coaching over the past few years, I’ve noticed how just picking up the free foot off the ice, many of the kids had these funny positions that they put their foot in and it doesn’t lend well to their skating. So you kind of realize: “oh my gosh, we’ve taken that for granted”, and that’s something that you need to train and work on. And I’m sure, there are coaches that are doing that, which is great. However, I see skaters who can do incredibly difficult jumps, but still kind of look awkward sometimes, even skating in and out of turns.

C. Maybe it is not necessary to bring them back into competition but coaches worldwide can try to pay more attention to this aspect and incorporate it into the learning process? As you say, figures can really make a difference for skating skills and bring better awareness of your movement across the ice. And skating skills, just like posture, are not the most important components of a program, but they still strongly influence every part of it.

D. I don’t think it’s going to happen unless people get credit for it. If it were up to most coaches, it will probably happen. But when you’re met with the reality of time and how much stress and emphasis  is placed on landing those jumps, which is important for sure, there’s no requirement for a certain standard or quality. Even though in the judging system there is a separate component for skating skills, it would be nice if there was a set standard that skaters can meet by the time they get on the elite level.

I really did not like school figures when I was competing because I didn’t understand the meaning behind them. When you start teaching, you begin to really understand, breaking it down to skating in its simplest terms. Since we were trained that way, we did not have to think about basic skating skills, like the way we hold an edge, for example – it had just grown into a natural habit. Fast forward to nowadays, the skaters who have never trained school figures do not have these habits – you have to remind them simple stuff like how to turn out their foot all the time. They’re not at all motivated to do that because they don’t gain any points off it. And people don’t really give much praise on that – you seldom hear stuff like ”oh, you have such lovely free leg position!”. They would mostly marvel at the triple or quadruple jumps you landed.

But then, imagine doing a program with no jumps and spins: it forces you to have to be creative and use music to try to tell something with your skating, create shapes, maybe utilize the ice differently – there is a whole world of things to be discovered there. And certainly, there have been skaters who displayed that excellently – like Stephane Lambiel, for example, who is also one of my favorite skaters to watch. He’s a beautiful skater, and he’s super creative in that sense.

This is how skaters can start exploring alternative forms of expression. I find this a very exciting concept because the skating language vocabulary hasn’t really changed – just like ballet, it’s an archaic language. But the difference with ballet is that there’s contemporary ballet to counter it – modern ballet takes the classical movements and, stripping them of the rigid rules, it allows them to evolve. Whereas, in skating, there are still the six jumps. Some jumps like the walley, you don’t even see in programs anymore because they get no credit – this seems to demotivate skaters from trying something new and creative.

***

C. You have had a very remarkable career as a choreographer: you have collaborated with Ice Theatre of New York, you have choreographed TV and live ice shows, worked with legends such as Midori Ito, Lu Chen, Brian Boitano and many others, you have created ice spectacles worldwide… Where do you find the inspiration for choreographing?

D. Hmm, it really depends on who your audience is and who is your subject matter – whether it is for a competition or a show. It is really important to be able to serve the subject. For example, if I’m creating a show then it’s all about my imagination and what I can bring to entertain to keep someone’s interest. The big ice spectacles and shows are always great fun but also really taxing and challenging because you’re not just pushing an individual skater but also concepts and technicalities like lights, props and projections. After I am done with such a show, I always need a long break.

When I work with skaters, it’s really important to be able to recognize who they are, what their strengths are, and then I take it from there. Just like with psychotherapy, it’s a collaborative process and good choreographers have that natural ability to listen to the skater and to find the happy medium. You need to have the experience and the sophistication to be able to pair them up the right type of music and to imagine how they can continue to grow as an artist. Since a lot of times they don’t devote much time to that, your job is much greater: you need that foresight and that instinct. For example when I hear a piece of music, I go: “Oh, it reminds me of this person, they would really skate well to this”.

If you feel confused and have no idea what to do, you can always ask the skater – you need to make sure that both of you are on the same page regarding the music choice since a skater must feel comfortable performing, otherwise it’s an upward battle. So there is always so much negotiation going on.

C. Do you prefer to follow a specific direction in the creative process or to work with more freedom when choreographing?

D. With different projects, you have different circumstances and restrictions so it is not so important that there is a hard and fast rule to follow as much as that there is collaboration. When you find the right collaborators, it pushes you and it creates something that goes beyond your own habits and imagination. So I really love the opportunities to collaborate with people that I click with.

Because of my dance background, I did have a chance to work with a choreographer named Helen Li, she’s a contemporary dance choreographer here. I worked with a company called City Contemporary Dance Company, and together we did a piece called Plaza X based on a book called Einstein’s Dreams. Creatively, it was very satisfying a project for me to do, I even had the chance to narrate part of it, in addition to performing.

I’ve also had opportunities to work and co-direct for the company Ice Theater of New York, and to work with many different choreographers in New York, in the dance world. That was also very rewarding. When creating shows on the stage, each project is different and you have to learn to be versatile. As a result, my interests have grown and expanded a lot. In the beginning, when I first embarked on that journey, I just loved to explore ways of moving in an interesting way and that led me to further develop my dance skills and vocabulary.

I have studied and experimented with many different techniques like Jose Limon technique, Graham technique… In 2007 I came across a dance movement language called Gaga and since then I’ve been practicing and teaching it. The choreographer who invented the movement (Ohad Naharin) started a training program to teach this technique. So I went and lived  in Tel Aviv for about a year and a half to learn it. And it really opened up my mind to looking at movement, dance and performance very differently. I used to approach work in a more rigid way but now I am led mostly by the desire to explore and collaborate.

C. What, in your opinion, is a good approach to discovering and highlighting a skater’s strengths in a program?

D. Well, I think first and foremost, communication is really important, as well as the level of the skater. By the time you’re working with highly competitive international skaters, you have to know their skating and bring out those strengths and highlight what they already possess. In Gaga, we talk a lot about unlocking what’s already within an individual. And we have a lot that we’ve built up over the years, but it’s really about whether we can access those capabilities or not. There are some techniques about freeing up a person but it takes time.

So if you have an opportunity to work with the skater for a prolonged period of time, it is a great advantage. You really need to get to know that skater, what makes them excited, what makes them click – I think that relationship is so important. If you come in and just push a program on a skater, it might work if you are lucky. But more often than not, it ends up a program they have to practice really hard and memorize, and in the end it looks like they’re just going through the motions – this type of program is not satisfying. The program must become their own, they must feel it – that is what I consider success.

With show pieces, like the programs created for the Ice Theater of New York, you choreograph pieces and then the skaters that you employ perform them and have to learn them. It’s different with this repertory because of the rehearsal process that we have – for them, it is about understanding the movement, the motivation behind it, all the nuances. The pressure of competitions is absent so it is an entirely different process.

To sum up, with highly competitive skaters, it is really about knowing them individually and how to serve their talent – after a while, my creation is not the center pieces anymore, it’s about the way I use it to help the skaters show off the very best of themselves. On the other hand, in a professional show like the ice theater, it’s about your own expression – pushing those creative boundaries and really exercising your fantasies.

C. Out of all the skaters you have collaborated with and choreographed for, who did you enjoy working with the most?

D. (Laughs) This is an unfair question because I really enjoyed working with all of them! And I’m not saying that to be politically correct. It’s true – I feel so lucky to have had those chances. Maybe at the time I didn’t realize what great opportunities I had because when you’re immersed in that circle, you see the skaters all the time, they are your friends and then you want to do well for them. The creative process is simple – I say to them: “Oh, you know, I heard this piece of music, I really think you would be great in it” , and then they take a chance with me because they trust me. And when it’s successful, it is very satisfying.

With Brian (Boitano), it just all happened so quickly and so organically. Oddly, it was one of those programs where I had the idea in advance: he skated to Hernando’s Hideaway, and he has mentioned before that it’s one of his favorite programs. I had this idea and when I heard the music, I just thought: “it’s almost like he’s like an Italian mobster” (laughs) – it was kind of a crazy idea, but it really worked, we had a great time and were really happy with the program.

Different skaters, different needs. Take, for instance, Midori Ito  – I don’t think my concept of wanting to highlight certain strengths about her skating matched her vision. A large part of the working process also involved finding what she was comfortable doing. After having some experience with choreography, I realized that a lot of times it is difficult for skaters to experiment artistically –  when they know what works for them and you ask them to do something that isn’t what they normally do, it’s a big challenge. If they are willing to follow, then that’s wonderful, but very often there is so much negotiation involved.

C. What are some of your favorite ice shows that you have choreographed?

D. I’m very keen on some of the galas that we’ve created in China. There was especially a show called WIWA, which is an abbreviation for “Wind and Water”. Nathan Chen, who was 10 at the time, was cast and I made him the star of the show. It was a type of a contemporary take. We didn’t have a lot of rehearsal time but I am still really proud of the work we did in terms the production value for its time. It was done in 2010 – wow, it has been nine years ago – time passes in a blink of an eye…

C. Yes, exactly, by the time you know it, Nathan Chen is two-time World Champion! There was even a feature recently in International Figure Skating magazine which covered your collaboration in 2010, back when he was taking the first steps. Can you share a bit about working with him at such a young age? Did you know from the beginning that he was going to be a star?

D. Well, he certainly was a prodigy. He was just so intelligent, so hardworking, smart, talented… I really believe he would’ve excelled in anything that he wanted to do. For instance, when I got to know him a bit better I realized he was multi-talented – he was an amazing pianist, he played chess competitively, he studied ballet… I don’t even know how he managed to do all of this at once while being a successful competitive skater at such a young age.

Kristi Yamaguchi was the one who introduced me to Nathan –  she was so sweet, she said: “David, you have to see this little boy from Utah, he reminds me so much of your skating. And he also takes ballet.” And I was really intrigued with that and knew I had to go to US Nationals to see him skate. There, I had the opportunity to see him and witness him becoming a novice champion – I knew from that moment that he was going to be an amazing champion one day. I also realized he was going to be a great asset for the show so I tried to get in touch with his team to convince them. Then I flew over to Utah and talked to his family and him: they were all very excited about the opportunity to participate in the show, and I also stayed there to choreograph a program for him.

It wasn’t something difficult or complex, but a little story about the journey of a boy who wanted to experiment with wind and water, about his fantasy of meeting all these different people and flying in the wind and playing with water. Since we had limited preparation and rehearsal time, I chose the music for the remaining skaters and allowed them some freedom to prepare the performance framework. But with Nathan, I spent more time teaching him the choreography.

I also prepared another piece for him to perform with Richard Dwyer, who must be in his eighties now. He’s an amazing and very famous show skater, kind of like a staple in figure skating – they nicknamed him “Mr Debonair” because he used to always hand out roses to ladies in the audience; everyone knew him. So I thought it would be great to do a number for the two of them, like a grandfather and grandson, older and younger generation meeting – their number was set to Singing in the rain. It was really endearing to work with Nathan because I just knew he was very special.

C. In addition to being active in both figure skating and dance as a choreographer, teacher and consultant, you also mentioned that you are a practicing psychotherapist nowadays. What drew you there  and again, does the knowledge previously acquired as an elite athlete help you in this new endeavor?

D. When I was skating, I worked a bit with a sports psychologist and then I had a counselor – it was really helpful. I never really quite got into sport psychology because I felt it was a little too textbook and academic. I did not have counseling regularly but later on, as I started teaching dance, I wished I had –  it was so intriguing to look into how we create habits and learn, and why there is congruence of what we want to do, and yet we can’t seem to do it even though we desire very much. Where is that gap? Even in terms of discipline – I sometimes joke that I used up all my discipline when I was a kid because now I find certain things very difficult to change! The entire process of change is very interesting.

As I look back at my skating career, I wish I had more knowledge about the thought distortions that we all face in our lives and what are some strategies or techniques to balance them. Positive psychology can be very helpful – it is based on building on your strengths and replacing negative notions with helpful coping mechanisms.

I was working with students at the academy and I was a little frustrated. Then I started going back into therapy for myself, and my therapist actually suggested that I would be a great counselor; he recommended me a program as well. So I went back to school, finished a masters in counselling and then I started my own practice. Now I am also involved with a local counselling center.

I am continuously curious and learning –  now I’m really interested in movement therapy and creative expressive arts therapy. There’s so much more out there to explore – hopefully I’ll find my focus. But right now I’m working a lot with clients experiencing anxiety and stress problems – those are major issues that everyone seems to have. And even in skating, the sport is just so anxiety-ridden…

I even told my association that I would be happy to take on the role of a team lead and to be able to support the skaters psychologically . Additionally, I feel like the training also needs some time to develop: you can’t expect yourself to be so resilient if you’re constantly being told this isn’t good or you’re not doing this well enough. I look forward to be able to assist with that part.

C. You bring up an excellent point – you cannot apply a one-size-fits-all training to everyone. You need to take some time to understand the person well so you can take into account their specific circumstances and tailor the training approach.

D. Yes. It needs to be a case by case kind of approach. Also skaters deserve an outlet to be able to process these feelings and anxieties. Very often they just shove it in the background because they don’t want to face it – avoidance is one of the major perpetrators and a precipitating factor for anxiety, stress and depression. It is essential that those problems are addressed so that a skater or an athlete, or whoever, doesn’t go so far into it before they recognize it – this way they will be better able to prevent it.

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