Catching up with Marie-France Dubreuil

April 10, 2023
By Reut Golinsky
Photo © International Skating Union (ISU), Jay Adeff/U.S. Figure Skating, Reut Golinsky

Marie-France Dubreuil is, of course, mostly known for her work as a coach and choreographer at the Ice Academy of Montreal, which she opened with Romain Haguenauer and her husband Patrice Lauzon. But in Sheffield, when she found some time for our talk, I was mostly curious to discuss her choreography works outside the Academy and the ice dance. We also touched on some other topics, like working during a pandemic, new branches of their school and new rules introduced to the ice dance this season.

I wanted to start by thanking you and your school for reaching out to Ukrainian skaters. Of course, first of all I'm talking about Mariia Holubtsova and Kyryl Bielobrov who now train in Montreal, but also about encouraging Oleksandra Nazarova and Maksym Nikitin to come to Worlds 2022. I know your students were part of that effort.

Yes, we have good leaders in our school. I think Gabriella (Papadakis) was leading this movement a little, asking all the girls if they had extra stuff that they could bring to them. And it was a nice moment at the World Championships to see them there and to see the support [they got]. And everything that was organised so that they could have a little bit of voice through their skating. I think it was important that they showed that there's war in Ukraine but there's still hope, the youth of Ukraine need to see that life keeps going, too.

Yes, you gave them hope and this feeling of normality. Can you tell me a bit more about the Ukrainian team you're coaching now?

Mariia and Kyryl have been in our school since July, and I think they've adapted very well to Montreal and to the group there. They stayed for a couple of weeks at Marjorie Lajoie's parents, where they were in a very nice family set up, they had their space and learned a little bit of French. Everybody's doing what they can to help right now. Olivia Smart also helped them, because she's now here [in UK] to do "Dancing on Ice", so they're staying over at her place that's closer to the ice rink which makes it a bit easier. We do what we can to support and help them through this tough time and hopefully they can benefit from training with world-class skaters every day.

One of the topics I wanted to discuss with you is the choreographies you do for other skaters. I only heard this for the first time earlier this season, but is that true that you work with only one single skater a year?


When did this rule start and how do you decide?

Well, it's just because I have a lot of work with my own students. But when I started to work - sometimes with one pair, sometimes it was one boy or this year it was Kaori (Sakamoto), - it just kept me a little bit fresh. And it challenges me. I'm so used to working with four arms, four legs, two heads and creating shapes with two bodies that I find that choreographing for a single person actually makes me work a bit more and stretch myself out in different ways. Because everybody that asked me, they're looking for something a bit different and special. So once in a while when I get a request like this I agree, I dig deep, I see what they do and try to put my little "touch of magic" in what they do between jumps. Because jumps are jumps, I mean, it's hard in single skating to actually package a full program because technically it's challenging. But there are a few [skaters] out there that really care about this little special touch.

And because they care, they come to you...

I think so. (smiles)

How does that work? They usually come with the layout of all the elements, and you try to build from there or do they give you a full freedom?

I always like to talk to the skaters and coaches to know what their technical strategy is and then my job is to create a flow between the elements so it can just flow well from one thing to the other.

You have Kaori this season, you worked with Peng Cheng and Jin Yang for two seasons and you had Nathan Chen.

I also worked with Julianne and Charlie (Séguin/Bilodeau).

And when Charlie changed partners, also with him and Liubov Ilyushechkina. When I searched through ISU profiles, I also found out that you worked with Shawn Sawyer...

Yes, I did! He was probably the first single skater I worked with, but for women Kaori is my first.

So how did the work go? And why did you choose "Elastic Heart" for her?

The first little challenge Kaori and I had was that she doesn't speak English. When she came to Montreal, she had a couple of musical pieces she liked because I always love to see playlists of what the skaters like. I thought she needed something feminine but strong, but also vulnerable and strong. So, I was looking for such a combination. I have to admit that for a long time "Elastic Heart" has been on my playlist of things I wanted to do. And then, when we were on ice playing with some music and I couldn't find what I was looking for, I said: "Ok, do you like Sia?" And she said: "Yes!" I proposed to her to take a break from the ice, to go to the studio and just try to move, to dance. I called my best friend and colleague Sam (Chouinard) with whom I like to work, and I said: "We have a challenge, she doesn't speak English, but I'm sure if we start moving then the language won't be a problem."

So, we got into the studio, started moving to this Sia's piece and I was impressed: "She can really move!" She has emotion, her spine is mobile. I like that her new short hairstyle makes her a bit edgy and different. It all just started to show up. We found a different colour to give her. She is now 22 (was at the time of our talk - ed), so she's really growing into being a strong woman. I think everybody always saw her as almost a technical machine. And I thought maybe it was time they would see the vulnerable woman, too. Because when you're an athlete you almost always have to show only your strength. So, we played a little bit with this, and I think it really came out nicely.

Did you see her perform it?

Yes, I saw Skate America.

And what's next? Do you send her comments afterwards?

Yes, usually via WhatsApp - because it does translation well - I give her comments and I really hope I get to see her one more time before Nationals or during the second part of the season.

It's been fun working with her, she tries everything. I like her new look; I like her direction. Now she is really starting to lighten her legs and arms. I think this program helps her to show all her layers, her strengths but also elegance at the beginning and emotion in the middle and some fun dancing at the end. This program has everything needed to grow well. But you know it's like a child, I "gave birth" to it and then she has to grow with it, grow the program to its full potential.

And what about Peng Cheng and Jin Yang, you worked with them for two seasons.

That was harder because it was only via Zoom, that was one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life. It was only via Zoom which sometimes didn't work so well, and we had translators there. So, I had many "filters" - translation, screen... I wish I'd had the time to be on ice with them...

But why did you agree to do this?

That's a good question! (laughs) I don't know, I just liked the challenge of it. Patrice and I have been friends with Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao, we toured together for "Stars on Ice". And when Hongbo and Xue asked if we could help with something, of course, we said "yes". And it was challenging but, you know, everything was challenging during that time, nothing was easy.

I actually had a question about that period, because I remember talking to your students, Wang Shiyue and Liu Xinyu. And they told how there was a time difference, they were on their own...

Yeah, it was a really tough time, and they were almost locked into a [sports] village for a long time, they couldn't see their families, friends. It was a really tough situation for them to survive those two years. And working via Zoom, you know, it's cold in a way. And for us, coaches: you look but you can't see speed, you can't see depth of edge...

Yeah, it's crazy. But then it's crazy how much you succeeded to do in these circumstances...

We had no choice, so we did.

I also wanted to ask you about Nathan Chen's "Rocket Man", for me personally it was one of the significant pieces of his career.

Oh, good!

How was it for you seeing him skate it at the Olympics, it had that winning aura about it when he skated it, and you knew you had a part in that.

Well, I don't see it that way though. You know, he skated "Rocket Man" in 2019 and that's when I created it. And the Worlds that season were supposed to be in Montreal, and I was super excited because he won everything that season with this program. And I was really excited for him to become a world champion with it. And then when the Worlds got cancelled, I was like: "Damn it!" I think three days after Worlds in Montreal Elton John was supposed to come to Montreal and I bought VIP tickets. I was so excited; it was going to be the perfect ending to that season! And I always felt like this program hasn't got its "end result".

And then Nathan called me during the spring before the Olympics and he wanted to do a program with me. But it was still complicated to travel, there were still a lot of regulations, and everybody was a bit worried of getting sick when they travelled so at the end of the day I said: "We can try [to choreograph] via Zoom, I've done it." But he said: "No-no, I think I'll just work with the choreographers in California." And so, he did a program there. And then later, when he called me to say that he really wanted to go back to the "Rocket Man", I said: "Yes". And I thought: "He's going to win the Olympics with it." I already had this vision that if he goes back to it, it might work.

And in the end Elton John acknowledged your work, invited him to his concert.

Yes, it was so cool. I'm happy because I think this program was a little bit like what I did with "Elastic Heart", it had all the components: it had the nice piano, a melody everybody can recognize and then it ends with edginess and dancing, so it also attracts the younger generation. It shows that it is possible to do ice skating and dance a little bit of hip-hop, something more modern. When I first thought of this program it was about bringing many of generations together, so that everybody could find what they like in that one program. And then Nathan really embraced the challenge. It was funny because I said: "What do you think about Elton John's 'Rocket Man'? I did the montage." And he right away said: "Yes, let's do it!" And it came together very nicely and quickly. We worked a little bit with Sam off ice, on the hip-hop piece especially, so the choreography got a bit of that flavour, and it was the best way to wrap the program.

Let's talk a bit about your Academy. It's really inspiring to see your work and the growth of your school. And I loved how your students don't want to leave the sport when they retire, and you open opportunities for them, to work as coaches. There is a branch in London, Ontario now, with Scott Moir, Adrián Díaz and Madison Hubbell. Are there plans to open more?

I don't know. This also happened because we all couldn't travel so Scott started teaching in London and we said: "Okay, let's expand in Canada." We were stuck at home for a while and when you have a chance to work with champions like Scott or Madison... It was a privilege to teach them and now we have a common vision, so it just made sense for us to help them grow into the coaches we knew they could become and give them a "fast track". Because it takes time to build a school, but we've done it, we've spent ten years on the basic organisation of a school. And then we could just transfer it to another place and put the right people there and then it's going to grow much faster than what we built. If we can shave off some "building" time, then it's easy. And also, we were getting a lot of requests and couldn't fulfil them. So, it's nice to have another school to say: "No, we're full, but you have a great option." And the London school spent three weeks in Montreal in July, we really trained as a big camp. Storing energy like this is great for everyone.

I noticed that during this event, during practices and competition, you really give Scott his own space.

He is the head coach. But I'm always standing between Romain and Scott. If he needs something he just grabs me by the arm and we work together but he's the head coach of the London school.

The very last question, this recent change of rules in ice dance, where do you feel it's going and what was the point of changing something once again?

I'm not sure I'm the right person to answer that...

But for you as a coach what do you think was better?

I don't know... This year was very confusing for me, I think some of the rules were not very clear and at the beginning of this season there were a lot of calls that were really [strange]... I hope we get something that will just stay until the Olympics because it is a little bit frustrating to always have new rules, especially for lifts that get very complicated and hard to keep our skaters safe. Especially the ones that can't do spread eagles and do a change of pose on one foot. Some of the rules are tough to accommodate while staying aesthetic, musical, original, and safe...

Well, I'm sure this is just another challenge you will overcome brilliantly like you always do. Thank you so much for this talk.

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