Salomé Brunner and Stéphane Lambiel:
"We follow the music"
It was a quiet afternoon at an empty Vaillant Arena in Davos. Only Salomé Brunner and Stéphane Lambiel were on the ice. They were working on a new program to Kim Wilde's cover of "I'll stand by you" that Stéphane was going to perform in a week's time in St. Moritz. Same movements repeated over and over again, slight changes, different tries, lots of smiles and laughter; you could see how much they enjoyed this process of creation and their work together.
After this practice Salomé and Stéphane found some time for our talk. I have done interviews with both of them before. Of course with Salomé we have also talked about Stéphane and Stéphane has mentioned Salomé very often as well. But this time I had an opportunity to talk to both of them and ask them more questions about each other. We discussed programs they have created, their attitude towards choreography in figure skating in general, their rules and principles as choreographers, etc.
The conversation was interesting and lively, warm and informal, all this thanks to the love and respect these two people have towards each other. I'm really glad they continue to work together even after Stéphane has finished his competitive career. I wish them many years of fruitful collaboration and I'm looking forward to seeing new programs created by them as a team or as independent choreographers.
Salomé, we talked a year and a half ago and I asked you whether you think Stéphane will make a good choreographer. Do you remember what you answered?
Salomé: Yes, I said: "I'm sure!" (Stéphane laughs)
You also said it will take time, you thought he would start with this much later. Were you surprised...
Salomé: ...that he was so quick? Yes. I didn't reflect on it much, but I though maybe right now he needs to skate himself and then become a choreographer later. But he actually proved that he can do choreography and skate himself as well.
Did you see his programs?
Salomé: Not all of them. I saw his work with Daisuke.
Stéphane: She was at the rink when we were working.
Salomé: But I didn't see his other work, with the Russian boy...
Stéphane: ... with the Kazakh boy.
Denis Ten won Asian Games. Stéphane, did you see his performance there?
Stéphane: Yes, I saw his short.
How different is it from what you initially created?
Stéphane: It's very different. I recognized the beginning and some other parts of the program but most of it... I think he had to change a lot of things because of the system since we did the choreography before the rules came out. And I think it's normal to make changes in the program during the season. It was the same way when Salomé and I worked together and I made some changes, or her other students. It's usual for skaters to adjust programs to the system and to what is more comfortable [for them]. So I'm happy he found a good way to perform that program.
So we can't call it your program now or...
Stéphane: Yes, of course, it's my program. My choreography adjusted by Mr. Ten.
Salomé also told me back then that she is not sure whether you have enough patience to do choreography. What do you think?
Stéphane: Well, I was lucky because my first two students were amazing skaters, so I didn't need to be patient. Every time they tried something it was already what I had expected from them. But if I work with more skaters, I will probably need to be more patient.
Each choreographer has their own style and their own touch. Stéphane, how would you define Salomé's choreography? Not only for you, but for other skaters as well.
Stéphane: First of all, Salomé has very good sensitivity to music. She is very musical. And that's already a very important point for me in skating because that's one of the basic things. I mean, if you don't follow music, it is not possible to create choreography and to put emotions into what you do. And secondly, she wants to understand each skater she is working with. And for me that's also important. I was trying to do the same thing when I was working with Daisuke and Denis – to understand and to find the energy they are willing to put into the program. She always listened to what I wanted in my program, what type of energy I wanted to give. And with her experience and my vision and her vision as well we found a way... It's very important to have good ideas but it's also important to listen to the skater, because at the end of the day it's the skater who performs. So I think that's one of her best qualities; she's always there for you and listens to you...
What about her styles as a choreographer? Does she prefer any style? Maybe she is more classical or, on the contrary, more modern?
Stéphane: I think she has experience in all; she can do all the types of programs. I did almost all my programs with her and I never did two programs [that were the same]... Well, for example, right now we have the show in St.Moritz coming up and we have to put together a program very quickly, so we need to use some parts of [other] programs. But every time we have used a new style, we have been able to create so many different kinds of programs. I think she always wants to stay true to the music, that's her style...
Salomé: Also, I think that the style of the choreographer depends on his or her ability to use all the different experiences and (various) ways of interpreting movements. They are very personal and if you feel this in your own body then I think you have unlimited possibilities.
Salomé, you were an ice dancer, but you choreograph mostly for single skaters. Is it because in Switzerland...
Salomé: Exactly! In shows I started to choreograph for pairs because I preferred it and thought it was much more interesting to work with two bodies. And then I started to work in clubs and there were not many ice dancers, so...
Stéphane, would you consider working with a pair or an ice dance couple? Would it be hard for you?
Stéphane: I think if I had to choreograph a competition program for pairs and ice dancers, it would be very difficult for me. Because I don't know about levels of the lifts, I don't know the technique. I can say: "Oh, that's nice" or "That's not nice", "I don't like this leg", "I think that would look nicer". But since I don't know how to get into these positions, it would be hard for me to find the technical ways of doing all those lifts. I would love to work for a pair or for an ice dance team, for sure, but then I need a technical assistant to work with me.
Salomé: Or maybe [to choreograph to] somebody who has already some experience [and can help with technical side].
When choreographing competitive programs, how much do you think about the points? Do you try to make it more "expensive" (to have more points)? Or maybe there are situations where you say: "We prefer to use the lower technical level of the element because it will look more beautiful"?
Stéphane: We always worked in the following way: we knew what technical elements we wanted to have in the program and after we had the timing of the elements, we just followed the music in between. We didn't think: we need more transitions here because there have to be transitions [in the program], it was more that music...
Salomé: ... asked for these transitions.
For example, they say that level four step sequences usually look ugly. You need to add so many different things to the steps to get level four that it's difficult to make it look beautiful.
Stéphane: We always tried to be aesthetic, that's for sure, because figure skating needs to be aesthetic. And secondly, we have rules – for level four we need to do that, that, that and we want it with musicality. If it's aesthetic and musical and you have all the things you need to get that level, then it becomes "expensive" like you said, we get an "expensive" footwork. But I think we didn't focus on points, we focused on elements that we needed to do in harmony with the music.
Salomé: But I also remember we were thinking really hard at times because we were not satisfied if it was not level four. We always tried to find something that is level four and still as beautiful as the original idea.
Stéphane: It's true. But, for example, in "La Traviata" we also took time to do three-turns. Three-turns are not very difficult and they don't really give you points, but we needed a part [in the choreography] where we had three-turns. We followed the music and it's what the music asked for. So we just went for it.
Salomé has mentioned a few times that she prefers not to work with direct rivals.
Salomé: Yes, it's a difficult situation.
And you, Stéphane, choreographed two short programs for direct rivals. Didn't it bother you?
Stéphane: No, I didn't see it like this. If you see like that, you can ask me why I choreographed for someone who was my rival.
Well, you are not competing anymore. Salomé said she didn't like these types of situations and I think that's why she choreographed less than she could have.
Salomé: I didn't want to be in this kind of situation in the dressing room during a competition. But Stéphane knew he was not going to be in the dressing room with these people. For example, I did a choreography for another lady while Sarah was still competing, but with this lady I knew that I was not going to be in the dressing room with her during the competition, because I don't think it would be right [to do that]. But if you just do the choreography and then just give your work to this person, it's different.
Because you're always more than just a choreographer, you are also a kind of a psychologist...
Salomé: In the situation with Stéphane - yes...
Stéphane: (laughs) It was a long relationship and we shared more than just our work on choreography together, yeah...
Stéphane, can you name some programs that you love that Salomé has created for someone else, not for you?
Stéphane: (takes some time to think) I love the pictures I've seen of Salomé when she performed... It upsets me that the only performances I've seen by her are the ones where she was on the ice with me. If I could turn back time, I would love to see Salomé's performances.
Salomé: And the stronger Stéphane got in skating, the more he grew artistically, the less I skated (Stéphane: Oh, no!). I wanted him to find his own steps.
Stéphane: But I still believe one day I will see Salomé on stage.
You can invite her to your show and choreograph for her.
Salomé: But it has to be very slow! (everybody laughs)
Salomé, Stéphane mentioned that at the end of his career he wants to do a tour with his favourite programs. Which programs would you advise him to take?
Salomé: To this tour? Actually, I have to think more about which programs I would not like him to take (Stéphane laughs), because I would really love him to include most of these in that tour.
Except for which ones?
Salomé: It's hard to even remember. I think the ones he didn't care for so much. They were not in his repertoire for long, they were there for just a few months. And sometimes I still liked them but he already didn't. For example, the one that everybody now skates to – "Once upon a time in Mexico".
Stéphane: It was not very long [in the repertoire]...
I really loved the "Geissel Drama" program, the one that was performed at Skate Canada 2006.
Stéphane: Ah, "Geissel Drama"... (reminding to Salomé the name of the composer) Lauterburg...
Salomé: Lauterburg, yes, this was quite short.
Stéphane: Two... maybe two times.
Salomé: I was just thinking about this program some time ago and I was wondering what happened to it because it was such an original idea.
Yes, and the music was very interesting. Unfortunately, it wasn't one of Stéphane's best skates...
Stéphane: I didn't feel comfortable [with it]...
Salomé: Maybe it was the music that didn't make you feel at home somehow.
If a skater chooses a piece of music that you don't like, what do you do? By the way, Salomé, did it ever happen with Stéphane?
Salomé: That he brought music I didn't like? No, it was never that I didn't like it; it was maybe that at first I couldn't understand why somebody would choose such a piece of music. (laughs)
Was it that awful?
Salomé: Not awful, but I just didn't get it. I think it's because of difference in tastes. People have different tastes, but when I started working with that music I learned to see its beauty.
So you won't say: "This music?! No!"
Salomé: It has happened to me a few times, actually many times. Not many times with Stéphane, but with other skaters. But I still always try to work with that because, like Stéphane said, it's important that the skater would feel the music and want to skate to it.
And what would you do, Stéphane? It didn't happen now, right? You chose their music?
Stéphane: Well, I tried to convince Denis not to take the tango. He wanted that piece. I told him: "Maybe... we can do something different?" (laughs) I was probably not very convincing. I didn't find good words, I don't know...
So then you choreographed for the music that...
Stéphane: ...that he chose and it was great because he really wanted to skate to it and I could see it when I was putting on the music and he was on the ice. He showed me a lot of things and convinced me to take it. If I didn't like the music and I had to push him to skate to it, then I would have said: "Maybe we should try something else". But I could see that he was into it.
My last question is about choreography in general. What are the basic rules of choreography? How do you decide which moves look good and which don't?
Stéphane: Well, it's not very difficult to learn. Salomé can teach you very quickly.
If it's that easy, I would be glad to learn!
Stéphane: I have Salomé in my mind every time I see pictures. I'm like: "Oh my God, Salomé would hate that picture" or "Salomé would say that arm is not nice". For example, very often when I do "La Traviata" I hear her voice in my mind, reminding about the arms because I know that my elbow is "broken" (Stéphane bends his arm so that it has an acute angle) and I know that it doesn't look nice. And I can see that afterwards on pictures: "Oh, my arm doesn't look like Salomé wanted".
Yeah, but why does Salomé want this? I mean, why is it not nice this way, but it is nice the other way?
Stéphane: It's not hard to understand. It's because of the energy: if your arm is here (bends his arm again), your energy doesn't go further. And if your arm is here (stretches his arm), it's deeper, it's longer, it's more powerful. And that's what I've learned from Salomé.
Salomé: It is about energy and about style and also feelings. It's about whether the movement feels right to the music or not. And this is perhaps more difficult to explain.
It's something you need to learn and feel yourself... If I want to choreograph a program, what should I do?
Salomé: Probably just try it...
Stéphane: But maybe if you like a "broken elbow"...
... sometimes in modern dance...
Salomé: ... you can use it, of course, yes, yes...
So anything is possible, but you should...
Salomé: I think anything is possible; it's just how you put it together and what feeling it gives you. You're free.
Stéphane: You can be a choreographer, we give you a permit!
Thank you! But I'm afraid not many skaters would come to me...