Books: Snakecharmers in Texas — Souls on Ice: Torvill and Dean [was ‘Ice-Dancers’] |
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Souls on Ice : Torvill and Dean

Tomorrow in Ottawa the World Championships commence in which Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean will defend their ice-dance title for the last time, so this might not be the only article on the subject in today’s newspapers. But it will be the only article on the subject written by someone whose own talent for ice-dancing is beyond question.

It was at Peterborough last year that I invented the difficult ice-dancing manoeuvre now generally known in the sport as ‘landing on the money’. The rink was crowded and I was attempting to astonish my small daughter with sheer speed. Twenty-five years had gone by since I had last skated, but all the old style was still there — ankles touching the ice, nose level with the knees, arms flailing. Tripping over some young fool’s trailing skate, I took off, sailed high, and fell with my body so perfectly arched that my upper thighs were the first part of it to hit the ice. The small change in my trouser pocket was driven through the flesh almost to the bone. The purple bruise could not only be seen for weeks afterwards, it could be read: ELIZABETH · D. G. · REG · F. D. · 1976.

So what follows is essentially a tribute from a fellow-skater. But by now, however distinguished one’s qualifications, there is no hope of attaining piercing new insights into the art of Torvill and Dean. A whole literature already exists. In addition to John Hennessy’s excellent book Torvill and Dean (David and Charles, 1984) there are deeply researched magazine articles without number, down to and including Family Circle’s indispensable analysis of how Jayne cossets her dry skin, ‘cleaning with RoC gentle milk and tonic and moisturising with Clinique’. All one can do, while quietly cosseting the embossed bruise on one’s thigh, is to attempt a synthesis.

A big help in this department is a newly rush-released video called Torvill and Dean: Path to Perfection (Thames), which features all the glittering routines in which they have given us so much, plus several prime examples of the interviews in which they have very sensibly given us so little. Jayne’s definition of the difference in character between Chris and herself is obviously the longest sentence she can, or at any rate wants to, utter. ‘He panics and I don’t.’ The video thus reminds us directly of what the book and articles admit only by default: that these two speak a language beyond words.

Ice-dancing, until recent years, was barely respectable. Pairs skating, its snootier elder sister, was not only athletically more taxing but had an apparent monopoly of aesthetic clout. Indeed ice-dancing wasn’t even an Olympic sport until 1976, by which time pairs skating was a full decade into the era pioneered by the Protopopovs, the Russian couple whose name sounded like a moped misfiring, but whose skating was so lyrical that you couldn’t wait to see them again.

There was no problem about seeing them again because they won everything for years on end, but in fact the epoch they inaugurated had them as its apex. Ten years or so onward, another pair of Russians, Rodnina and Zaitsev, similarly creamed all opposition, but their awe-inspiring athleticism was no more lyrical than two mastiffs fighting on a flat-bed truck moving at 60 mph. Zaitsev was Rodnina’s second partner and it was easy to believe rumours that she had eaten the first.

If anyone was going to top the Protopopovs it would have been two young Americans wonderfully called Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, but injury cut short their career. Even had it continued, they would have been obliged to expend much of their energy on aerobatics. That was and is, in too many senses of the word, the catch: in pairs skating the man lifts the woman up, drops her and catches her. Or he throws her away and she does three turns in the air before landing on one blade. Or three and a quarter turns before landing in the audience. In pairs skating the stunts are there for the doing and time spent on just looking beautiful costs points.

But while waiting in vain for the spirit of the Protopopovs to be reincarnated in the pairs skating, the dedicated voyeur gradually noticed that ice-dancing had outgrown its original jokey status. British couples had always been prominent in this branch of the sport but their approach, to the art-hungry eye, looked strictly Come Dancing, with lots of hand-posing from both lady and gentleman, the catsuit-clad buttocks of the latter tending to be flagrantly salient. The Russians, once they put their collectivized minds to it, rapidly took over the rink, principally by fielding some sensational-looking women with long legs joined to short waists. The man’s job was to show the woman off. Called something like Bustina Outalova, she was exuberance personified, obviously having been raised in a luxury one-room flat full of bootleg Beatles records.

Jazz and rock, still forbidden fruit for the Russian ballet dancers, were allowed for the ice-dancers, who, like the gymnasts, were judged to inhabit an idea-free realm in which Western influence was tolerable. Besides which, no Russian ice-dance couple ever dreamed of uncorking a hep-cat sequence of steps without following it up by a homage to the Soviet folk-dance tradition involving a lot of heel down, toe up, and arms folded. Anyone who has sat through an all-Soviet folk-dancing display in the Kremlin’s Palace of Congresses knows how a single evening can seem like an entire five-year plan, but when the jollification took place on ice it was redeemed by bounce. Also the heel-kicking fervour of the quick bits favoured languor in the slow bits by way of contrast, with the world champions Moiseyeva and Minenkov looking particularly classy. Among their awed admirers in the late 1970s were the new young British couple from Nottingham, Torvill and Dean — he a policeman, she an insurance clerk, but they, in their double heart, already a single conduit of artistry.

Artistry was what they were after even in their first endeavours, although for a while it took a keen eye to spot it. They did well from the start, but with a lot of pace-changing razzle-dazzle like the Russians, while their costumes were still in the fine old British tradition of crotch-catcher catsuit for him and bumfreezer frilled frock for her. Their new trainer, Betty Callaway, was eventually to make all the difference, because she had the international connections which could secure for them what all artists demand by right — ideal conditions. But at the beginning the Callaway Connection manifested itself mainly in a comprehensive neatening up of what they could do already.

As research now shows, however, the two-person revolution was already under way. In 1981 Torvill and Dean became European and World Champions with what looked like a refined version of the conventional fast-slow-fast free dance programme, but with hindsight it wasn’t a finished product so much as a whole new heap of raw material. Sandwiched between the usual bravura displays of quick footwork there was a smouldering rumba to ‘Red Sails in the Sunset’. Here could already be seen some of the pay-off for the investment they had put in by taking instruction from Gideon Avrahami, a Ballet Rambert teacher who helped them make their arms and bodies part of the total picture.

The moment the pace dropped, Torvill and Dean looked different from any other couple. It was the same in the days of be-bop: playing flat out, the great names all sounded equally bewildering, but in the slow numbers Charlie Parker emerged as the unmistakable genius. You can dazzle people with technique, but you can’t move them. Torvill and Dean’s first all-conquering free dance programme was stunning in the fast bits, but in the slow bits it was better than that. The idea of making the whole thing slow, however, was still too daring, or too obvious, to be seriously entertained.

Torvill and Dean’s big idea snuck up on them, and on the world, through the OSP — the Original Set Pattern. As the experienced watcher of television ice-dance competitions has long been aware, this necessary preliminary to the free dance not only counts for a high proportion of the total marks, it absorbs a high proportion of the total inventiveness. Torvill and Dean made this more true than ever, to the point where their OSP began regularly transmitting a unified aesthetic charge which their free dance couldn’t match until the following year, if at all.

From 1981 onwards they were competing mainly against themselves, winning everything except the 1983 European Championships, from which they were forced to withdraw after a training accident in which Jayne fell flat on her back from shoulder height, with results even more painful than those engendered by the present writer’s famous thigh-dive on to the bunched coins. But they competed with themselves the way artists do, growing impatient with the merely spectacular, pushing the original to extremes, joining the intensities together.

Their first fully-thought-through free dance was the ‘Mack and Mabel’ routine, using undoctored music from the show of the same name. Here was the embodiment of their new prosperity. The Callaway Connection had by now won them a home-away-from-home in Oberstdorf, southern Bavaria, where they could get six hours’ unhindered ice-time a day on three different rinks, one of them with mirrors. The Labour-controlled Nottingham City Council had imaginatively granted them four years’ sustenance up to the 1984 Olympics. A few demented voices protested that they should therefore be training in Nottingham instead of Oberstdorf, but nobody sane wanted to see them condemned to the old, punishing, late-night sessions at the local rink. It wouldn’t have been enough.

Their gold costumes, on the other hand, were too much. Poised to begin, they looked like two packets of Benson & Hedges cigarettes in a refrigerator. But if the colour was garish, the cut was a distinct improvement on days of old. Erstwhile champion ice-dancer Courtney Jones had taken command of their general appearance. Jayne’s hem-lines were lower; contrariwise, her knickers were cut higher at the sides; the combined effect being a greater length of leg more decorously revealed.

Jayne is ten inches shorter than Chris and must stretch to match him on the long edges. She looks good doing so and never looked better than in the slow sections of ‘Mack and Mabel’. There was a central, essentially T&D moment when she, after describing a wide circle using him as pivot, pulled him towards her as if her strength was temporarily in the ascendant. The fast sections featured comparably witty moments — there was a celebrated passage where she lay across his back doing little weightless steps sideways — but your attention was not allowed to linger. The emphasis was on breathtaking, not heart-touching.

In their slow blues OSP to ‘Summertime’, however, the pace was cut back to the limit the rules allowed. This wasn’t dancing on ice — it was ice-dancing, a different thing. The tempo never varied but everything else did, with the movements forming an unbroken sequence which made you grateful that the rules said it must be repeated twice. Torvill and Dean, who admire Astaire and Rogers, with this routine achieved something comparable to the great Fred and Ginger dance duets in the RKO musicals of the 1930s. Dean, as Astaire was, is the innovator, and Torvill, as Rogers was, is the ideal partner, but a more instructive element of comparison is in the drive towards unity, a linking of highlights. Astaire simplified the photography until the whole routine could be filmed in one shot. Dean controlled the tempo so that there was no break in the emotional tension. Seeing the results, Fleet Street couldn’t believe that Jayne and Chris were not in love. Even more unbelievable was that this miracle of compressed visual eloquence was being accompanied by the mouth organ of Larry Adler, regarded by many experts as the most verbose man in England.

Their free dance for 1982 was ‘Barnum on Ice’. It was rabble-rousing stuff but struck at least one fan as several hundred intricate steps backwards. The tempo was mixed but that was only to be expected: an all-slow free dance was still inconceivable at that stage. What grated was the mime. Michael Crawford was brought in to advise on how to imitate jugglers, wire-walkers, etc. They did all this very well, but for those of us in the audience who had been brought up in film societies it aroused terrible memories of Marcel Marceau. Also it transferred the source of the action to the upper body, instead of leaving it where it belonged, in that mysterious space between the boots and the blades, the inch of air through which you can see the speeding ice. The speed is transformed upwards into beauty, which the hands can do a lot to express, but not when they are pretending to juggle.

The white and ice-blue costumes, though, were an improvement on the gold fag packets, and there was an increased use of rubato, with no fixed intervals between the two skaters — they were always catching each other up and passing, sinking only to rise, rising only to sink again. They made the stiff-backed Russian couples look like sentries. The face-freezing moment, once again in a slow section, was when she, stationary on the toe of one skate, leaned on him while he drew a circle of maximum radius around her. Wanting a whole routine of beauty-spots like that was probably like wanting a whole meal of desserts, but it was hard not to be wistful.

They granted the unspoken wish in double measure, with the paso doble OSP and the free dance to Ravel’s Boléro. Each routine, in my opinion, is better than the other. The paso doble has a theme but it is not obtrusive. The ‘Mack and Mabel’ theme was a bit obtrusive because you had to know she was a comedienne; the ‘Barnum’ theme was very obtrusive because you had to know they were in a circus; but in the paso doble all you have to know is that she is not the matador’s girlfriend, she is his cape. It is not hard to guess this because she is dressed in a cape, a crêpe creation carefully weighted so as to drape properly at all angles. In the properly draped crêpe cape, she is flung about by the strutting matador. The moment of truth comes when he, trailing her behind him, takes three enormous strides down the long axis of the rink, stops on one skate and goes backwards.

But the paso doble OSP was the same thing three times. The Boléro free dance is just the one thing, steadily developing all the way through, the tempo constant but the variations manifold, the full organic wow. Once again there is a theme — something about two lovers chucking themselves into a volcano — but you don’t need to know the details. The opening sequence is enough to tell you that this is a story about two kids in trouble. They are running away from something. Perhaps it is their costume designer, who has gone mad with the blue paint. But no: the silk drapes lovingly, a big advance on the days when their outfits cost them every penny they didn’t have.

If the camera is in the right spot — and it is, in the version recorded on the Path to Perfection tape — you see a delicious moment not long after the start, when they come towards you with his arms folded around her from behind. She is wrapped up in him, head bowed. Then she seems to wake, slowly spreading her arms wide, which opens his arms too, because they have been holding hands. While this is going on they are picking up speed. At such a moment, which turns out to be the precursor of an unbroken sequence of moments equally expressive, Torvill and Dean look like figments of a love-sick imagination.

But they would be the first to admit that it is all an illusion. Jayne has a nice face but it is Princess Anne’s drawn by Charles Schulz. Chris, apart from his watchful eyes, has an indeterminate set of features betraying nothing of the immense physical strength with which he can wrap Jayne around his little finger while balancing on a metal edge not much bigger than the one he shaves with in the morning. Off the ice, they are beaten hollow by the average Russian couple: a rink-minx from Minsk toting a white mink muff, backed up by a tank commander built like Lenin’s mausoleum. On the ice they are transfigured from within.

And appreciated from within. Everyone gets the point. The international judges showed little resistance to this new British monopoly — not even the Russian judge, whose marking had been a point of interest ever since the night he or she gave six for technical merit after Zaitsev dropped Rodnina on her bottom with a thump that cracked the rink. More interestingly, ordinary people everywhere spontaneously decided that these two were the straight goods. While I was preparing this article, two men cleaning my office window knocked on the glass and indicated that they would like me to screen the ‘Summertime’ routine all over again. It was evident that their head-shaking appreciation had no element of ogling. Only Fleet Street feels cheated at being left out of the secret of whether Torvill and Dean go to bed together. (‘On St Valentine’s morning,’ wrote The Times correspondent from Sarajevo, ‘Dean gave his partner an orchid. We cannot know of what it spoke.’) Ordinary mortals, from the Queen to the window-cleaners, are responding to a deeper secret than that. Not many artists in any field can unite a nation.

And not even Torvill and Dean can do that for more than a few minutes. After the World Championships they will presumably turn professional; a move which has so far meant, for the great skaters, the loss of their grip on the public imagination. John Curry and Robin Cousins have mounted imaginative professional ice shows, but you have to go to see them — apart from the occasional television special, they don’t come to you. Also it is hard to believe, despite frequent protestations from the newly wealthy ex-champions, that to be freed from the artificial restrictions of the sport is to be released into the untrammelled possibilities of art. More likely it is the sport’s strict rules which provide the obstacles inspiration needs.

Torvill and Dean have level heads and will survive their success. Whether the sport will survive their success is another question. Women’s figure skating never fully recovered after the reign of Peggy Fleming, who set a standard of expression which left everyone who came later straining for effect. The same applies to John Curry’s impact on the men’s figure skating, which Robin Cousins could reproduce but not exceed. As for what the Protopopovs did to the pairs skating, it was all summed up in one moment, when she floated towards him in an arabesque and he, with a flick of the fingers, sent her, her stately pace unchanging, all the way around in a slow wide circle and back to his extended hand. That, without leaving the ice, was as high as pairs skating ever went, although in the years to come every lady competitor learned to balance her pelvic girdle on the gentleman’s upstretched finger and pretend to be an aeroplane, usually a MiG 21.

Which was why Torvill and Dean chose ice-dancing instead of pairs — because you didn’t have to spend half the routine just gathering speed for a lift or a jump. But even in ice-dancing there might be a limit to expression. It is the fate of all the art-sports that the period in which they are more art than sport is restricted to a few years.

Only the innovator makes art, and the great innovator tends to exhaust the opportunities he creates. As Torvill and Dean rest in Oberstdorf before their final challenge, the rest of us are doomed to follow in their footsteps, of which the most memorable, surely, were those three long paso doble strides down the ice to stop on one skate. At Peterborough next Saturday afternoon I might try that myself, if my thigh is better.

(Observer, 18 March, 1984)

Postscript (i)

Scarcely was this piece irrevocably published before Bestemianova and Bukhin revealed themselves as Torvill and Dean’s worthy successors, not just for technical merit but for artistic impression as well. I was, moreover, unwarrantedly deterministic about what happens to ice-skating after it turns professional. The following year, the World Professional Figure-Skating Championships were shown on television in Britain for the first, and so far only, time. It immediately became clear that the Protopopovs, to take only the most salient example, had in no way lessened their lifetime commitment to an art writ in water. If one is to age with dignity, on ice is no doubt the place to do it, but to do that and to create new beauty at the same time merits applause.

(Snakecharmers in Texas, 1988)

Postscript (ii)

To take the art-sports seriously was probably the most serious thing I ever did as a journalist, because it looked the most frivolous, and so, in those pre-post-modern times, could not be done without risk to the reputation. A cannier operator would have kept such enthusiasms for the pub. But I had always been impressed and consoled by how the aesthetic thrill could turn up in unexpected places. All too often it hadn’t turned up in the expected places — in almost the entirety of Schoenberg after Verklärte Nacht, for example — and although I tried to be confident about blaming the desert for being arid, there was always the chance that I should have been blaming myself for being stupid. From the art-sports I took heart. They proved that creativity is indivisible. The skaters, the divers and the gymnasts reminded me that what I read in books, saw in pictures and heard in music had all started in a fundamental human compulsion to give dynamism shape. If I had been blessed with a better gift for what I do, I would never have needed reminding. I would have seen the evidence every day, in that snow-boarding lout who nearly took my head off at Aspen, or a girl I knew in primary school who could skip salt-and-pepper backwards with her arms crossed. There are moments in Shakespeare when he sets three or four ideas all travelling at once through each other’s trajectories. He couldn’t have been thinking of Bach, who wasn’t born yet. But he might well have been thinking of a juggler he stopped to watch on the way to work.

None of this means that the idea of a hierarchy of artistic achievement is meaningless. It really is more important to listen to Beethoven’s late quartets than to re-run your tape of Greg Louganis finding the most intricately beautiful way down from the tower to the water. But the two events are products of the same urge. There is no hierarchy of impulse, and although it is all too true that very few people can make art, they make it over a much wider range of activities than the doctrinaire aesthete would like to allow. Not to accept this awkward fact can be a killing restriction to criticism, which depends on discrimination in the second instance, but is lost without receptivity in the first. The bad critic is almost always the one who has no real aesthetic enthusiasms outside his field, and who has convinced himself that the artists inside his field felt the same way. But they didn’t. They were interested in everything, even when they didn’t appear to be.