Hongbo Zhao: Art, Sport and Games

Susan D. Russell

After more than two decades on the ice, Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao moved into new roles with the 2014 edition of “Artistry on Ice,” co-hosting the shows for the first time.

Aside from that role, Zhao was the artistic director and also performed a vocal duo.

In its five-year history, “Artistry on Ice” has become the standard for ice shows in China. “Other countries want to learn from us. Korea is one of them, because it needs to prepare for the Pyeongchang Olympic Games,” Zhao said. “They asked us to share our experience with them. We are very proud of this.

“This is not like other shows that just combine individual programs. The specialty of ‘Artistry on Ice’ is its unique themes. Skaters and performers choose their music and programs dependent upon each year’s theme.

“We added a three-dimensional element this year, which worked in concert with an on-ice projection technique,” Zhao explained. “Audiences in the high positions enjoyed a fantastic overall view, which was different from those watching the skaters from a close proximity.”

This production now attracts some of the world’s top skaters and the ever-expanding audiences are a testament to its success. This year, Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and Evgeni Plushenko pushed the bar a little higher.

The “Love is Life” theme this year coincided with Valentine’s Day in China. Zhao said that knowing skaters such as Stéphane Lambiel and Johnny Weir well and understanding their characters made it easier for him to design this year’s show around that theme.

Weir’s performance to “When Love is Gone” which was inspired by the 1993 Chinese film “Farewell my Concubine,” is a prime example, Zhao said. “We told Johnny about this year’s theme and we introduced him to the music and told him the story of this film. He liked it and wanted to try this Chinese element for this new program.

“We knew that Johnny could take control of this program and express a distinctive performance, because he has had so many unique styles in his past programs.”

Following the national sport association’s desire to promote northern ice sports in southern China, “Artistry on Ice” has been focused on showcasing the sport to wider audiences in the nation’s southern region.

Zhao announced that his goal in the future is to hold 10 shows every year. He has been approached to produce the show in a number of cities like Chengdu, as well as his hometown of Harbin. Zhao explained that any possible dates clashed with other sporting events that city was hosting.

Moving forward, Zhao said he has a lot of ideas for the future and wants to design the show around storylines and/or musical productions such as “Carmen” and “Les Miserable.”

“We travel around the world to watch many different shows every year,” he said. “We want to learn, get more experience and take our show to the top level. At some point we would like to produce it in a bigger arena.”

Now that Qing Pang and Jian Tong have retired, the Chinese figure skating team faces a time of renewed growth. Young athletes like Han Yan and Zijun Li are starting to be noticed on the international stages, but they still have a lot of distance to make up to rank with the world’s top skaters.

“I think that ‘Artistry on Ice’ provides Chinese skaters a platform to present themselves and also to learn from the many champions who perform in the shows. It is a good opportunity for them to improve their standards,” Zhao said.

Shen and Zhao are major proponents of China’s 2022 Winter Olympic Games bid and are using their star power to promote this by holding many skating-related activities.

But there are many places that China needs to invest in if it hopes to host an Olympic Games. In southern China, many cities have public rinks and figure skating has become quite popular with children, who are drawn to dance and music, but they lack qualified teachers and professional athletes.

“After we won gold medal in Vancouver in 2010, many unexpected places built rinks,” Zhao explained. “We see lots of people skating wearing costumes, but they need professional instruction. China needs more backup talent to build a professional system like in North America.”

Zhao said that when he was still an athlete, he wanted China to submit a bid to host an Olympic Winter Games. Now that he is a coach of the Chinese national team, his dream of attending an Olympics in his home country is strengthened. But he knows that if China is successful, the pressure will be huge.

“In the last five years, ‘Artistry on Ice’ has helped build the foundation for China’s application to host a Winter Olympics,” Zhao said. “Ice sports have a public popularity in the whole country, not only in northeast China. This show promotes figure skating also in southern China — in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and even in Taipei.

He also believes that the level of figure skating will take a giant leap forward if China wins the 2022 Olympic bid. “If we can be successful in our application to host a Winter Olympics, ice sports will develop 30 years earlier here in China,” Zhao said. “Our winter sports are not as strong as the summer sports, so we need more people to put in a lot of effort.”

There is always hope in China.

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