Ice Network

Creating the program: Zhou's choreography set

White puts finishing touches on U.S. silver medalist's 'Romeo + Juliet' free
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Charlie White has worked tirelessly to choreograph the perfect free skate for reigning U.S. silver medalist Vincent Zhou. -Courtesy of Drew Meekins

This article is the second in a series that follows Vincent Zhou as he creates his free skate for the 2017-18 season.

Vincent Zhou, along with his coaches and choreographer Charlie White, decided at the end of April to use music from the 1996 movie Romeo + Juliet for his free skate this season. In early May, while on a week-long break from his responsibilities with Stars on Ice, White spent five days in Colorado Springs choreographing Zhou's program, with coach Drew Meekins joining them on the ice for much of the time.

White may be an Olympic champion ice dancer, but he is somewhat new to choreography. Having worked mostly with singles skaters, he relies on the memories from his own time as a men's competitor.

"I've done a few programs," said White, who competed in singles until the age of 17. "I've worked with a couple of Japanese skaters and some of the younger skaters in Michigan. What I bring is the eye that we ice dancers have for transitions and the importance of telling a story."

The first step in his process was consulting with Meekins and Zhou on the order of the elements. 

"You kind of draw out a rough pattern in terms of which direction you'll be going to make sure you have good ice coverage," White said. "Sometimes at the end you're like, 'Oh crap, we didn't get into this corner enough.' You want to be cognizant that you're not missing anything the judges will be looking for."

On the first day of the process, White began the on-ice choreography with the first moments of the program.

"We didn't worry about an opening pose, but we thought about what we're going to say at the beginning," White said. "To give people a reason to care, and to want to continue watching, you have to have a bit of a hook and let the energy flow from the idea."

From there, White put on the music, and he, Zhou, Meekins and movement specialist Katherine Hill skated to it, improvising and coming up with ideas together. 

"Everyone was free to do whatever interpretation they wanted, and then Charlie stopped the music and showed me what he did, and I would try it," Zhou said. "And then Charlie was like, 'Let's change the position of this arm, I want the shoulder facing in this direction.' It's a very organic process."

On each successive day, the team began with Zhou skating the choreography from the day before. When White was sure Zhou had it down, he moved on to the next section.

"Charlie is great with details," Zhou said. "We just kept on polishing. He went down to the last bit of detail with a hand position. He's really good with that stuff."

"What I focus on is making sure that each step makes sense into the next one," White said. "I like it when it makes sense in terms of body music, transfer of weight. I try to use the skater's natural inclinations of what they like to do, how they like to move. Together, we find the best way of expressing the music while maintaining that fluidity."

The opening piece of music is powerful, and then it transitions to a slow section, set to the song "Kissing You."

"The first section is about as strong as a piece of music can be. It creates an amazing effect and ends in an explosion of sound," Meekins said. "And right after that, a single piano note comes in, and it's so dramatic. Vincent comes out of a quad, and he dives into a lunge that turns into a knee slide and comes to a skidding stop. It captures the change in the music and feeling so well." 

Zhou singled out the closing step sequence as one of his favorite moments of the program.

"Charlie's choreography for the footwork has a lot of use of the body and the arms to show power and emotion," Zhou said. "I really like doing that to the music. Last year, both programs were relatively slower pieces, so this is a nice change of tempo and style. There are sharp, strong movements. It's a really powerful feeling." 

It was White's mission to lend more of an abstract concept to the program and not try to tell the story of the movie or play.

"There are moments throughout the program that will be indicative of reaching for Juliet, the emotional spectrum that Romeo would have to deal with, when your passion overrules all other senses," White said. "You have to be a little bit crazy to have the amount of passion it takes to sacrifice everything to be the best you can be, and to make the Olympics. We kind of instilled that into the program and into the character."

After the five days of choreography, Zhou trained for a few weeks and then traveled to Michigan to work with White and White's own coach and choreographer, Marina Zoueva.

In Canton, Zhou worked extensively with Zoueva on execution and emotion.

"There isn't a better person that you can work with," White said. "I told her, 'Marina, whatever you think, we'll make it work.' She would call me at the end of his lesson and talk about what she liked, what she thought should change."

Zhou, who will make his Grand Prix debut at Cup of China in November, plans to show his new programs at Skate Detroit later this month. While in town for that competition, he will do some fine-tuning with Zoueva, who said she is pleased with the program so far.

"It's very strong," she said. "The program looks like a senior program. The move from junior to senior is difficult: You have to show your maturity -- not just the tricks but the whole package. The movements are bigger. Potentially, Vincent has huge room to show everything."

Zhou's longtime coach, Tammy Gambill, is overjoyed with how the free skate looks.

"I thought it was fabulous," Gambill said. "I thought it made Vincent look more mature. I was a little bit leery about the music because it has been used a lot, but after I saw Vincent skate the program, I saw that he had great passion for it and he loved it. I felt that he could make it his own."