It was a magical night in 1988 for Soviet stars Natalia Filimonovna Bestemianova and Andrei Anatolievich Bukin when they danced away with the Olympic title. The triumph was the culmination of 11 years of hard work and the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.
Throughout their career, the Soviet ice dancers mesmerized audiences with their intricate lifts, complex footwork and choreography that set them apart from their contemporaries. Innovative and unconventional were the “buzzwords” used whenever Bestemianova and Bukin’s names were mentioned.
Legendary Russian coach Tatiana Tarasova paired Bestemianova and Bukin in 1977. Her reputation as a taskmaster who demanded perfection from her students was no secret and in Bestemianova and Bukin she found the perfect protégés.
“Tatiana put us together as a dance team but initially she was busy with competitions so Andrei was my coach for almost half a year,” Bestemianova recalled. “He taught me the basics of ice dancing because I was a singles skater before. My first coach considered me untalented and ‘without prospect’ in singles skating. It was very difficult from a psychological point of view.”
Bestemianova said she and Tarasova had a mutual understanding from the beginning. “Tatiana and I always understood each other very well,” Bestemianova said. “She knows when to compliment and when to scold. She really breathed life into me. My former coach considered me untalented and “without prospect” in singles skating. It was very difficult for me, from a psychological point of view.
“It seems to me that with us Tatiana started to understand that ‘the children grow up’ and one has to listen to their opinion. It was very easy to work with her in spite of the hard coaching process.”
Bukin, who began skating at age seven, joined Tarasova’s group in his late teens. He described training with his former coach as: “Hard, agonizing, but always very interesting and productive.”
Under Tarasova’s guidance, Bestemianova and Bukin instigated an ice dance revolution taking the discipline to unheralded “theatrical” heights.
THEATRE ON ICE
From the outset, Bestemianova and Bukin looked beyond the choreographic mainstream and chose Soviet ballroom champions Irina Tchubarets and Stanislav Shkliar as their choreographers.
Tchubarets and Shkliar who worked with Bestemianova and Bukin their entire career created complex programs that were replete with innovative lifts and intricate moves. Known for their strong technique and remarkable unison, Bestemianova’s rubber-like flexibility was highlighted by the unconventional choreography crafted for the team.
But it was their theatrical performances that grabbed everyone’s attention and some were not in favor of the Soviet duo’s avant-garde programs.
“Critics of many countries referred to our performances in this way,” Bestemianova told IFS. “In 1985 Andrei and I lost all national competitions because of ‘too much theatricality’ of our “Carmen” program. But it’s simply how we saw dance on ice and we could not do anything differently.”
“Despite the critics we were then the same as we are now – fanatics of dramatic figure skating,” Bukin added.
Bestemianova and Bukin will also be remembered for sparking the controversy that erupted over skaters dying on the ice.
Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean’s final death-move in their 1984 “Carmen” program sparked a new trend in the 1980’s. Skaters from all disciplines started “dying” on the ice. Bestemianova and Bukin took it to the extreme and when Bukin died four times during an exhibition program. The ISU said enough; dying or lying on the ice was henceforth forbidden.
CHANGING OF THE GUARD
Bestemianova and Bukin danced onto the international stage at the 1978 Europeans, where they placed 10th but by 1982 they were battling it out for top honors with the British stars Torvill and Dean.
After claiming a bronze at the 1981 Worlds in Hartford, Conn., the duo skated into second place behind Torvill and Dean at the next three consecutive World Championships and at both the 1982 and 1984 European Championships.
The only competition Bestemianova and Bukin won between 1982 and 1984 was the 1983 European Championships which Torvill and Dean did not contest. Bukin described the win as the highlight of his career.
At the 1984 Olympic Winter Games in Sarajevo, the Soviet team placed second once again behind their British rivals.
But everything changed when Torvill and Dean retired following the 1984 Worlds. Ten months later, Bestemianova and Bukin received seven perfect 6.0’s for artistic impression and mined gold at the 1985 Europeans.
It marked the beginning of a new era - Bestemianova and Bukin never lost another competition during their amateur career.
In 1986, they chose a Rachmaninov piano solo, “Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini Melodies” for their free dance. Tarasova’s husband, Vladimir Kronyev, was the pianist.
Scott Hamilton, in his television commentary at the 1986 Europeans described Bestemianova and Bukin’s free dance as having an unmatched energy level. “They are dramatic, they are emotional, they are exciting and they are sexy,” Hamilton stated. “She is the focal point of this team.” Bestemianova and Bukin received four perfect 6.0’s for their performance and won their third European title.
In 1987 the duo went in a completely different direction with a comedic routine to music from “Cabaret.” Bestemianova recalled it was a fun year and gave them a different perspective. “It made training a lot easier especially leading up to the 1988 Games,” she said.
For the 1988 Olympic season Bestemianova and Bukin returned to a classical, dramatic theme with Borodin’s “Polovetsian Dances.
Toller Cranston, commentating at the 1988 Europeans, criticized their free dance costumes describing them as elaborate as possible which distracts from the basic skating skills.” Nonetheless, he described it as an “…excellent performance, executed to the very best of their ability. Certainly deserving of the European title.”
Bestemianova and Bukin received 5.9’s across the board for technical merit and seven 6.0’s and two 5.9’s for artistic impression.
PRAISE AND CRITICISM
Tracy Wilson, the 1988 Olympic and World ice dance bronze medalist recalled when she and her partner, the late Robert McCall, competed against Bestemianova and Bukin. “I would just be blown away every time I watched them. I would watch Natalia and Andrei skate and love every minute of it,” Wilson said.
Wilson cited her Soviet contemporaries as a major influence as she and McCall rose through the ranks. “Watching Natalia skate as I was coming up really turned me on to skating and to ice dancing in particular,” Wilson said. “The way Natalia was able to get a mood across … you were just drawn into her performances. I felt like I had a better appreciation of how regimented the discipline is technically, and I learned so much from her that brought more joy to my own skating.
“We became good friends early on. You know how you just find someone that you warm to instantly? Well, Natalia and I were like that and she was a little like a big sister to me,” Wilson added. “She had been there before and had a few more years experience and she took me under her wing and encouraged me. And though we were in the same competitions we were never, in my mind, ever competing against each other.”
Bestemianova and Bukin silenced their critics when they were awarded the Jacques Favart Trophy for their innovations in ice dance by the International Skating Union in 1992.
Bestemianova headed to the 1988 Games, her third consecutive Olympic appearance but the veteran competitor said Calgary was an eye opener. “I was astonished at the grandiosity of the Games in comparison with Sarajevo,” she said.
“In Calgary it took 15 minutes to walk from the place where I lived to the arena. The number of sportsmen participating in other competitions was frightening. My most vivid recollection is that during one of our last days there I finally saw the bright and happy sun for the first time.”
Bukin’s most treasured memory of the Games was carrying his nation’s flag and leading the Soviet team into arena at the opening ceremonies.
The atmosphere in the arena night of the free dance was electric. Bestemianova and Bukin put down a free dance that had the crowd on its feet.
Dick Button described the Soviets’ free dance as a quantum leap forward in ice dancing during his television commentary that evening. “I think it is very clearly in the tradition of a new kind of ice dancing - theme dancing,” he told millions of television viewers.
“The story is a battle of the sexes every year,” Button said. “He tames her but it is not easy. They ran, chased, captured, escaped, loved and hated.”
Bestemianova and Bukin scored 5.9’s across the board for technical merit. They received three 6.0’s for artistic impression but the judge from the Federal Republic of Germany gave them a 5.5.
When the medal was finally bestowed upon the Bukin he recalled it as an emotional moment. “I felt very proud for myself, my family and my country.”
Bestemianova said she felt terribly tired and at the same time relieved that it was over. “I was able to have other feelings only several days later,” she said. “When you are trying to win you do not think what you will do afterward. The aim is too big to distract.”
END OF AN ERA
“When I returned home from the Games, I kissed my husband (Igor Bobrin), embraced our dog and started to think about the upcoming World Championships,” Bestemianova said. “At that time they also started to invite us to participate in TV talk shows that had just appeared in our country.”
Three weeks after claiming Olympic gold, Bestemianova and Bukin captured their fourth and final World title and retired from the competitive ranks.
“The victory at the last World Championships in Budapest is my fondest memory,” Bestemianova said. “We went there without our coach and all the figure skating world wanted to change the champions, but we still won.” Betty Calloway, the former coach of Torvill and Dean, acted as the duo’s rink-side coach.
Bukin said he was nervous and uncertain about what lay ahead. “I felt it’s the end of my amateur sports career and I was worried because of the future.”
THE PRO SHOW
In the 1980’s Russian dance teams were not high on the agenda of skating shows but the duo scored a contract with Champions on Ice promoter Tom Collins. “We skated on his tour from 1982 to 1988 and did one last season in 1991,” Bestemianova said. “The tours that Tom organized were a real reward for me after the season. I loved them and have fond recollections.”
“It was a pleasure to participate in those tours,” Bukin added.
Wilson recalled that Bestemianova and Bukin were very popular with their COI contemporaries. “We hung out together on tour. Natalia and Andrei spent a lot of evenings with Brian Orser, Brian Boitano, Katarina Witt, Oleg Vasiliev, Elena Valova and Rob and I,” Wilson said. “We would often get together wherever we were and would all go out and buy strawberries and ham and cheese and whatever to have a picnic in one of our hotel rooms.”
Bestemianova and Bukin had joined forces with Bobrin, the 1981 European champion who had founded the “Bobrin Ice Theatre, Moscow Stars on Ice” show in 1986. “There were so few professional competitions for ice dancers we had no choice but to turn in another direction,” Bestemianova recalled.
“When we first started performing with Ice Theatre it only toured in the Soviet Union, but in 1988 things changed and we went on an extended European tour,” she said. Following the success of that tour, the troupe decided to test the international waters and for almost two decades have performed throughout Asia and North and South America. Bestemianova is the producer, designer, costumier and a star of the show.
Bestemianova and Bukin turned to coaching and choreography and worked with Italian dancers, Federica Faiella and Massimo Scali for a period of time. “At first it was difficult to start coaching after skating but then I liked it,” Bestemyanova said. “I love people whom I work with; it always seems to me they are the best. Massimo and Federica grew up before our eyes. We helped then when they skated as juniors with other partners. It was a lot of luck to work with such talented sportsmen – you don’t have to explain much, there’s no language barrier.”
In 2006 Bukin competed at the 11th International Paektusan Cup in South Korea. “I competed with two partners, Ekaterina Davydova and Ekaterina Proskurina,” he enthused. “It was a festive event in the form of a competition.” Bukin and Davydova won the prize for the best performance.
The duo put their skills to good use as the coaches of the celebrities in Russia’s reality TV show “Dances on Ice” in 2006.
Bestemianova, 48, has been married to Brobrin since 1983. The couple has no children but Bobrin has a son, Maxim, a surgeon, from a prior relationship.
Bukin, 51, said life with long-time love Elena Vasyukova and their son Ivan Bukin has made him very happy. Following in his father’s footsteps, Ivan is an ice dancer. “Ivan is a good dancer. His partner is like Bestemianova-the-second,” the proud father said. “I was their coach at first but now they work with Irina Zhuk and Alexander Svinin.”
In 1988, Bestemianova, Bukin and Bobrin wrote a book entitled "A Three-Member Duet." When asked the motivation behind the project, Bestemianova explained.
“Unfortunately, the book is only in Russian,” she said. “The first part ‘Natasha and Andrei’ was written after the 1988 Olympic Games but changes in our country prevented the book from being published at that time.
“Then Igor and myself wrote another book that was not published either. And it was only after the third attempt that we managed to do what was needed. The first part remained without changes and the second part of the book, ‘Natasha and Igor,’ was rewritten. It tells the story about our theatre and our family.”
Bestemianova and Bukin show no signs of slowing down. Aside from their worldwide touring commitments with Moscow Stars on Ice the duo choreographed the routines for Russia’s reality TV show “Dances on Ice” in 2006 and in 2007 Bestemianova was a member of the judging panel for the British reality show, “Dancing on Ice.”
“We are still skating now and skating much,” Bestemianova said. “We do not compete because we do not want and it seems that dancers have no longer professional competitions. But we are still skating!”
When asked who her favorite skaters are, Bestemianova did not hold back. “I admire Evgeny Plushenko. It’s the same admiration as I felt for Toller Cranston many years ago when I was a small girl,” she said. “It’s not very modest but I will confess that first I fell in love with Bobrin as a figure skater and then with Bobrin as a person.”
Asked if there were there any skaters he admired during his era Bukin responded: “Natasha Bestemianova.”
When asked their views on the current status of ice dancing, both expressed dissatisfaction.
“Today both the specialists and the sportsmen forgot about individuality and completeness of the programs,” Bestemianova said. “And I would like to answer those people who say that it’s because of the new rules. Why did the Bulgarians and the Lithuanians continue to create their images on ice even under the new rules?”
Bukin said he would like to see more creativity and not what he described as “obligatory” free dances. “It’s boring now,” he said. “There are a lot of talented and hard-working skaters but only some of them will become Olympic champions. We wish them the best of luck.”