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I sat down with Jeremy Abbott at the Denis Ten memorial show in Almaty last week to talk about all things skating. Since retiring from the competitive arena in 2017, life has been a mixed bag for the four-time U.S. champion.
What does it mean to you to perform in Kazakhstan at the Denis Ten memorial show?
I am really happy that I could be here to be part of the show. I did Denis’ shows in 2015 and 2018. He created this event in this country and he really brought the whole world to Kazakhstan. It’s really an honor to be here and to be a part of it, especially now as a tribute to his legacy.
In the show, you are skating to a Michael Jackson medley and “Pure Imagination.” Why did you choose these two pieces?
The first piece — the Michael Jackson medley — his parents requested that I skate to it. It was an exhibition number that Denis did back in 2009. I made this program specifically for this show. The second piece is one that I’ve been skating all season. The orchestra will be playing it live and it’s very beautiful to hear the live music with this piece. I picked it because the lyrics of the song…I felt really embodied Denis and his spirit.
It was an emotional day going to the monument and the cemetery. How did you feel about that?
Yesterday was a very emotional day being the one-year anniversary of Denis’ death. Actually, being here where everything happened and to be with his parents and his friends and his family, they all had something to say and though I couldn’t understand a lot of it, you could feel their spirit and their love through their words.
When we went to the cemetery I felt much more at peace, much more introspective. But it really actually hit me the most when we came back to do the dress rehearsal. Hearing the live music and watching everybody skate — just remembering last year with Denis and how much passion and how much of himself he put into his show.
When we were doing the dress rehearsal I was crying through half of it because it really hit me then. But, I’m so happy his family decided to do this.
What have you been doing since you retired from competition?
The first three years for me were a little slow. I did have a lot of shows, which I was happy about, but I would have long periods of time that I didn’t have work and I would get a little nervous. I would skate and try to maintain my shape, but when you don’t have something on the horizon or a goal it’s kind of hard to maintain that motivation to push and to fight for something.
I just kind of adopted the attitude of … I didn’t have a specific direction. I wanted to continue performing as much as I could, and I came to the point where I decided I would just say yes to every opportunity that excited me and that offered me a new experience. From there, I decided I would just kind of start to find my joy and my passion and find a new path, even if it took me away from skating. That’s OK as well. But right now, everything has been very much involved with skating and I’ve been very much enjoying all of it. I feel very lucky.
And I’ve been very, very lucky this year. I’ve been invited to teach at a lot of camps, and doing more and more choreography, which I love. And I’ve been doing lots of shows. So from the time Stars on Ice started in April until basically December, I will be home a total of five weeks.
What are you teaching at the camps/seminars?
A little bit of everything. I love teaching skating skills, the basics are my favorite because I feel like they don’t get worked on nowadays. Everything is about making the kids jump as much as possible. It is amazing when you see kids, teenagers doing quads. It’s incredible what they can do physically.
But, I feel like a lot of what makes skating so special, and what makes a skater solid, what gives them longevity and a solid foundation, gets missed. When you’re a kid it’s boring. You don’t understand why you have to do it and you don’t understand the importance and the purpose, but I kind of love to make the kids do it and try to make them understand how it’s all connected.
It’s not like, OK, you’re just skating here, then you’re just jumping here, or you’re just spinning here. It is that the foundation of skating is all tied together and what I teach from just a basic stroke to a three turn is going to beneficial and useful when they get to the jumping and spinning. Because every jump and every spin is based off on one turn and one push, where your alignment is and where your body is in space. It’s very important and I really like to teach that.
Who have you done choreography for recently?
I worked with all of Vincent Restencourt’s skaters in Pennsylvania this year. I did Gracie Gold’s programs last year, which she didn’t end up using so she’ll keep them this year. She only did the short, once. Hopefully, we can touch them up and make them fresh before the season starts.
That was actually an amazing project and I loved working with her. Regardless of what will happen with the rest of her career, I felt I gave her something special that was just hers and that she could keep for herself moving forward in whatever aspect that is. I was very proud to be part of that.
Then I did some choreography at a camp in Egna, Italy, and also when I was in Andorra I did a few long programs for a bunch of European skaters. Each one was unique and very fun. I really like to kind of get into the mindset of the older kids. I love what they’re feeling about their skating and really try to bring more of themselves to the ice rather than ‘here is your step and go.’
I want them to have a connection to what they’re doing and to understand why I ask them to do a certain thing. I want to know what they are feeling and where their headspace is so that I can give them something that they connect with. If they connect with it, it’s going to connect with the audience and the judges better.
Do you choreograph your own programs?
Some. I worked with Benoit Richaud on one of my exhibition programs this season, “Pure Imagination.” I’ve worked with him for a few years. He’s a good friend and he’s invited me to many of these camps. Then, the other one I was doing on Stars on Ice and which I will do at “Friends on Ice” and a few other shows is a song called “Weathered” by Jack Garrett. I worked with Michelle Dolley on that one. She is the girlfriend of Elladj Balde and is an off-ice dancer. I went to California to work with her and we collaborated to translate her movement to the ice. We took some of my steps and her movements — it was a lot of fun.
I actually really enjoy working with dancers because the translation is so different. You can tell, even if you didn’t know, that it was a floor dancer that did the choreography. There is something a little different, something unique about the program or the performance because it’s just a different mindset, a different vision. I always find that a fun challenge and I really enjoy that.
I would love to do more choreography. I really do enjoy it and I feel lucky when people ask me.
Do you still follow competitive skating?
I do a little bit, as a choreographer. Probably not as much as I should, but I watched Worlds and a lot of times we’ll have the Grand Prix or Junior Grand Prix playing at the rink. So, in between sessions I’ll sit and watch. But I prefer to watch skating live. I don’t know why. As a child, I never could watch enough skating, everything that was on TV I always wanted to watch. I wanted to see everything. Now I don’t like so much to watch skating on a computer or on TV. I find it — this sounds terrible but it’s not a reflection of the athletes of any standard — a little boring. But, when I watch it live, there is so much energy. You can see the speed and the power. It doesn’t translate the same way on TV. It’s very different.
I’m like, skating is boring and I don’t like to watch it — and then when I watch it live, I fall back in love every time — shows, competitions, it doesn’t matter.
What do you think about the current developments, particularly in men’s skating?
I find it very interesting. I hear so many complaints about quads and about the artistry of skating going down and nobody skates anymore and blah, blah, blah. I feel very different actually because I kind of was a bridge between two generations. When I was coming up you were either artistic or you were athletic. You fell into one category or the other and that was that. Simple. This is an artistic skater and this is an athletic skater.
You did the quads or you didn’t. It was very black and white. And now it’s like … the men who do the quads, they have so much artistry. They all try to bring a different style and a different mindset and I don’t see anybody doing the same style year after year. They’re all trying to push themselves with music and movement, with style and choreography, as well as pushing the boundaries of the athletic side of the sport. I actually love watching men’s skating.
Not everyone is my cup of tea, but I can appreciate the effort that they’re putting in because nobody did that many quads before — and if you did quads, you kind of had to find a formula. You had what you were good at and you did it, and you performed and it was very cut and dried. I love watching everyone really try to explore these days.
Do you have any favorites?
I love Nathan of course. There is something really special about his skating. His short programs each year really impress me. The long program — when you’re trying to do six quads I can understand you can’t do four minutes of choreography, and that you need some down time to focus to do that. I understand that it’s not going to be the most artistic long program in the world, but still… .
Nathan has really developed a performer I feel.
Yes, absolutely. As I was saying it’s not going to be the most artistic program in the world, but he still pushes the boundaries to perform and keep the musicality, even with the amount of quads that he does.
I love Shoma Uno’s intensity. He has such an abandon. It is like you watch and you’re almost afraid that he doesn’t have control, but he does. He finds the line between complete freedom and control and it’s really cool. Yuzuru is Yuzuru. He is amazing of course.
There are so many men and they’re all so good. When you look at Worlds and you go down to the middle or even down lower in the rankings, there are men who do quads. Oh, Kevin Aymoz. I love his skating! He has a style that is unique and he can do things with his body that no one else in the world can do. And he can still can do triple Axels and quads. It’s very, very impressive. If he can manage the jumps his skating and his style would be one of the best in the world. I think that sometimes our sport is dependent upon the jumps, but someone like that is very special and should be valued for what he can do. I hope to see his components and his scores go up this year because he has something. Even if he doesn’t do all of his jumps, he does something that nobody else can do and it’s very, very cool.
The ladies are now doing quads. How do you feel about that?
I think it’s impressive. I would love to see them continue to do quads after their bodies change — that’s the hard part. It’s very easy to rotate when you are very, very tiny but when you start to gain a little muscle and you start to become more of an adult it’s much harder. If they can maintain that technicality through their growth, that will be very impressive.
Don’t get me wrong, it is still impressive now, but when you become a woman and start to skate as a woman, the emotion and the whole picture of the performance changes — it becomes more mature. If you can maintain that level of maturity and the technicality, that would blow me away, absolutely, without question. So, I would love to see these girls continue to do what they do, hopefully injury free as well as develop their style, their artistry, their skating skills and a level of maturity. That would be most impressive.
I think the ladies are amazing. They’re pushing their technical boundaries and they’re pushing their limits. More and more do the triple Axel and more and more are trying the quad, which is very cool to see. But I have to say, I don’t think the ladies are pushing the artistic boundaries as much as the men. The men are doing these things and pushing the artistic side, pushing the musicality and trying new things — things that are unusual or that are out of the box. They are trying new styles, new choreographers but I don’t see the ladies doing that as much. So I would love to see that.
I miss a “Carolina.” I miss seeing a complete woman on the ice. She knew who she was and she could bring her emotions and everything else to the ice. I loved watching that. Also, Kiira Korpi… and if you think back, Michelle Kwan. Obviously, these women weren’t doing quads or triple Axels, but from the moment they stepped onto the ice they just brought such a presence and such a performance. They had every aspect of skating covered — it was a full picture — and I want to see the ladies doing that. I want to see them push those limits, push those boundaries.
Right now everything you’re doing is connected to skating, but you said you’re also open for exploring other directions. Like what?
I’ve done a few speaking engagements and they were fun. I get very nervous to speak, but as soon as I start I feel much better. I love theatre, music, dance — I had always kind of thought I want to be in skating my whole life — which I still do — but if I were to go in another direction… .
Ar one point I thought maybe I would go back to school or something because I wasn’t doing many shows and things were very slow. I thought then I might have to change direction because I can’t do what I want to do. It would be very interesting to go to school for stage direction and production. That would be fascinating and beneficial if I wanted to produce my own skating shows. Just to have that knowledge and be able to produce and direct a different type of show with a different kind of vision — not one on the stage — but just a little more unconventional than what we’re used to. I thought that could be fun and it would be a fun challenge to take on.
So if anybody wants to give me money to start a show, I’ll be happy to do it.