Ari Zakarian: "I always welcome people who are ready to take risks"┬á
Although a former skater himself, Ararat (Ari) Zakarian is now mostly known as Evgeny Plushenko's agent, and his name usually appears in media because of his decorated client and friend. But I wanted to take this interview in a different direction and asked him more about himself; what else he is doing and who else he is working with. And there's plenty to find out as not many of us know that he, for example, speaks French and Japanese, and composes music! We also talked about figure skating and show business, about new directions in both and discussed which things are important to him when he creates his own shows. And of course we couldn't omit the disputable (or not) results of the Olympic Games in Vancouver.
When we met at the Nebelhorn Trophy and the European Championships last season, you were wearing an additional "hat"; that of Armenian team leader. Tell us about figure skating in Armenia!
There is a small figure skating federation in Armenia, led by one person who has dedicated his whole life to it. Unlike other small federations our skaters are all from Armenia. But there is not enough ice or organized practices and everything is pretty complicated. But I personally plan to soon take part in this project and will do maximum to change this situation. I think we will have someone already for Sochi 2014 [to represent Armenia]. The company which bought the Armenian Ice Palace is ready to help us too.
There was some talk about opening an Evgeny Plushenko skating school in Armenia.
Yes, we had such an idea a few years ago. But then Zhenya got busy preparing for the Olympic Games, other competitions and shows. But we mean to go back to this project, we will try to support it and send good coaches, help in creating the correct system for skaters' preparation. Mishin will visit sometimes; he has huge experience which can help us a lot. At the moment it is more like an action; we announced that we are ready to start helping out, we took this step from our side. Now we hope that people on the other side will make the right decisions and start acting. Then we will start working. The children in Armenia have a huge desire to skate!
Everybody knows that you work with Evgeny, but what other sportsmen are you collaborating with?
If we're talking about skaters there's Peter Tchernyshev and Naomi Lang. It took a lot of efforts to convince Peter to come to Russia to take part in some TV-projects (ed. - Tchernyshev participated in "Skating with the stars" and "Ice Age" on Russian TV), but in the end I was right; I knew this would be good for him. I always think in favor of a sportsman, or of an artist to be more precise. Peter could have become a good choreographer in the United States during that time, but he didn't have opportunities to skate and perform there. And he got lots of them in Russia!
One of my goals is to develop not only figure skating, but extreme skating; skating which includes different stunts like jumping over cars, or different kinds of acrobatics on the ice. I'm interested not only in skaters, but in acrobats; people who can make full stadiums stand on their feet during performances, non-ordinary personalities. Like Alexey Polishchuk and Bert Cording for example. This was the pair I created while Vladimir Besedin was retired. First it was very hard to put them together, but I think they worked it out. Or people like Sergei Yakimenko, the only person in the world who jumps over cars and does some other unique acrobatic elements, or aerial acrobats Chesna.
I personally took part in the first World Championships of ice acrobatics in 1997. It was called "American Open" and was produced by me and my American partner Scott Williams.
You can jump over cars too?
No. But me and my friend Akop Manoukian were so to say pioneers in this field when we decided to move from figure skating to ice acrobatics and showbiz. We performed all over the world: in Tom Collins' "Champions on Ice", "Ice Capades", "Disney's Champions on Ice" and others. Type my name in YouTube and you will find videos of our performances.
Do you still put your skates on?
I can still do a triple jump. Last time I performed on the ice was at a show in Yerevan in December of 2008.
During the rehearsals I'm always on the ice. For example, at the Russian National Championships in St. Petersburg I choreographed the opening and closing numbers. All the group numbers for our "Kings on Ice" tours were also created by me. Last year we even used music which was written by me in collaboration with the violinist Edvin Marton.
You compose music? Wow...
Yes. Last season you could see my name in Katarina Gerboldt's profile, in the music listing for the short program (ed. - According to her biography on the ISU site it was "Fanatico by Ari Zakarian and Edvin Marton"). She heard it by chance and used it for her program; I even didn't know about it. But that's OK, I forgave her.
What all does your work as an agent include?
The main goal of my job, as I see it, is, while using my experience and knowledge, to help the athlete to reach maximal results. And also give him an opportunity to earn some money if it doesn't interrupt his advancement. For example, since last season I've been working with Fleur Maxwell, and she's already taken part in many shows in Europe. I won't add somebody to the cast of my shows just to "fill in a gap", but only if I see that this person has something interesting to offer the audience. It's of less importance if he or she is among the top ten skaters in Europe. When I create a show, I always think about what the audience would like to see.
And what, in your opinion, does the audience want?
The audience is different in different countries. Before every show I walk about the arena for 10 minutes. I check out what kind of audience we have: of what age, in which mood they came; what the weather outside is like, what the city is like┬ů All these things influence my decision what to perform and what to change in the show that day. Like if it's snowing outside or people are in a festive mood, then we will add something more spectacular. If people seem more melancholic that day we will accent something more dramatic.
I almost never do the show according to some predefined program list. I can often decide to change something in the middle of the show; I can go to my artists and say: "Guys, let's do something else, something funnier today!" I can do this because the participants of my shows are high class professionals, and they usually have more numbers than they perform during one show.
And, as I mentioned before, I'm always in favor of something more "athletic", I want the show to include risks, sport records, maybe even something aggressive. Grotesque, power - these are closer to my vision.
Your philosophy is similar to the one Evgeny chose for himself: emphasis on technical difficulty, like all those quadruple-quadruple or triple Axel-quadruple combos he tried during his practices...
Yes, he did indeed try all those things. We often meet and I show him video tapes from the '80s, like some from 1981-82 with Robert Wagenhoffer, a legendary skater who already passed away. We watch him and we are amazed at the things he could do then. Not only him, we watch a lot of such videos and always try to find something interesting.
I love to watch old skating recordings; I can do this for hours. If there is an interesting show somewhere I can fly halfway across the world, like from New York to Japan, to watch it just because it is interesting. I saw all kinds of shows in Las Vegas, and I know all the backstage set-ups of those shows, methods and technologies involved. I'm learning all the time and trying to improve in this direction. Because being an agent I want the clients I work with to be interested in what we do and to earn the money they deserve.
Some people complained that the tickets for the Russian shows last spring were very expensive.
Unfortunately, we didn't have enough sponsors; we were supported only by the Czech-Russian Bank, but didn't have any other significant financial aid. If we compare that to other shows around the world, where they usually have five or six sponsors, we were very constrained in what we could do. And our intention to do a spring tour in Russia rather than only two shows wasn't possible in the end. It also depends on the fees of the cast. With smaller prices I couldn't bring the cast together that I wanted, and without one of those guys the show wouldn't have been the same.
Also, if you check statistics of show tickets in Moscow, we had average prices.
Do you also work with people who are not related to skating or to the ice at all?
Yes, I'm working with this young violinist, Edgar Akopyan. In March he had a solo concert in Moscow. We try to make the concerts different, with some unique stuff. And you can say I'm also Edvin Marton's agent. We are already like a family; we've worked together for ten years.
Any other interesting projects and plans on the way?
At the moment I'm busy organizing a tour of Russian cites at the end of October. The format will be similar to what we had in the spring, maybe with even more accent on male skaters who will skate two programs each. I know people loved the "Four Kings" number, so we will show it again with the "kings" being: Zhenya, St├ęphane Lambiel, Johnny Weir and Ryan Bradley. I'm really glad Ryan will join us this time, his free skate with two quads(!) at Nationals really impressed me and he is such a crowd pleaser. Other skaters and acrobats who will tour with us are: Isabelle Delobel/Olivier Schoenfelder, Fiona Zaldua/Dmitry Sukhanov and Vladimir Besedin who is back and will join his partner Alexey Polishchuk. I hope that the newly created Russian pair Tatiana Volosozhar/Maxim Trankov will skate too, but they still need to get permission from the Russian federation. As they can't compete internationally until Worlds, I think this might be a good opportunity for them to try out their programs on the public.
And in a more distant future I'd love to create [a competitions of] long and high jumps on the ice; or to create "comical championships" with award for the funniest program. I want to contribute to developing acrobatic and extreme skating.
I always look for a direction full of surprises, innovations, something which might interest the audience. Not only classical figure skating for which we already have Zhenya.
How many more years do you think Evgeny will skate?
If he gets support from his country, I think he can stay in the sport until 2014. He has this spirit, this unbelievable personality which amazes me each time anew; I never met anyone like him.
You mean like a competitive spirit? Something which doesn't let him skate only in shows?
Not only competitiveness. He is very stubborn. He could pull himself up and lose weight in such a drastic manner; he was able to leave all his parties, the social life he had and fully dedicate himself to practices. He could forget everything he had and live a very hard, demanding schedule. For three years he didn't wake up earlier than one or two o'clock in the afternoon, and now he sometimes needed to wake up at six o'clock in the morning.
If someone asks me about his participation in the Olympic Games in Sochi, I will answer that to 90% it's possible. If he persists, he can do this, I have no doubts. I see the needed energy and determination. He is very professional; he knows how to control his body: he can adjust his weight in a few days if needed, to work out needed muscles. It also depends on the rules which will be defined by 2014: might happen they will be changed in a way that there will be no sense in trying. Or on the contrary there might be a chance to fight [for the medal]. It depends on how much he will want it, how high his motivation will be. Before Vancouver his motivation was extremely high; he was very often humiliated then and wanted to prove himself to everybody.
So his biggest motivation was anger and a will to prove that he is not the person portrayed in media?
No, not anger. But his will to be in the place he deserves to be, the will to show that his place is on the ice. Skating is what he knows and does very well.
As you know, at the moment he was announced ineligible for ISU events. He recognizes that he made some wrong decisions back then; he still hopes this situation will be resolved positively, but he needs help from the Russian federation in this.
He recently did shows in Japan while he still practised hard every day and performed triple Axels and other complicated elements in his programs. Because first of all he is a sportsman. He feels great about competing. He has courage. It's good for him. Good for us. And good for the country, he is a really big patriot. And also a good friend.
What do you think about the result of the Vancouver Games?
I'm really glad for Zhenya. Considering the very short time he was back to competitions, this was a miracle. 99 percent of people wouldn't be able to do something like this. His victory was first of all in the fact that he came on the ice and showed such wonderful skating.
Do you think the results were fair?
I think many factors played a role in this: new rules, new judging system, new politics, all the people who really didn't want him to repeat his success. But the competition was good. Lysacek skated clean, and according to the rules he fulfilled everything needed. Of course, there were many emotions and feelings back then, but I don't want to comment on that now, it's already in the past. What was important is that Zhenya proved himself as a serious skater who was able to be prepared for that season. Maybe towards the end he didn't have enough energy, but I can understand him, it was very complicated for him. And still, this was a big victory for him.
I would like to wish all skaters to be healthy, to forge ahead and if they can jump quads, this would be great. I always welcome people who are ready to take risks.