Ice Network

Creating the Program: Zhou, team hit reset button

Skater, coaches decide to scrap 'Romeo + Juliet,' select 'Moulin Rouge!'
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With little time to spare before the start of Champs Camp, Jeff Buttle choreographed a new free skate for Vincent Zhou. -Vincent Zhou's Instagram (

Despite months of work and tons of tender loving care, sometimes a new program just doesn't quite fit. Although Vincent Zhou and his coaches liked his Romeo + Juliet free skate, as the summer progressed they began to realize they needed to rethink it.

"Every skater will come across this at some point in the year," said Jeff Buttle, who choreographed Zhou's short program. "You need to listen to the feedback. Sometimes, when I was still skating, I would love the program, but it just wasn't working for me."

Zhou had had a great first outing with both new programs at Skate Detroit, where he landed two quads in the short program and four out of five in the free.

"Vincent loved the program, I loved the program and many (other) people did as well, but after Skate Detroit, people questioned whether it was the vehicle to take Vincent the furthest this season," his coach, Drew Meekins, said.

The decision made, Zhou needed to get a new free skate done very quickly, in time for Champs Camp, which took place in Colorado Springs last week. Turning to Buttle for help was an easy decision. Besides having worked with Zhou this season, Buttle was already planning to attend Champs Camp.

"We were thrilled that Jeff was available and willing to choreograph the long," Meekins said.

With little time to spare, Buttle said that the first step was to analyze what hadn't been working with the Romeo + Juliet program, to pinpoint what the problems were and figure out how to fix them. The next step was to pick a new piece of music for the skater, who will turn 17 in October.

"The maturity of the (Romeo + Juliet) music was so demanding for someone so young," Buttle said. "We found something with a similar idea, a romance, a love story, but it's a little bit lyrical and lighter. He identified with it more."

While choosing music earlier this year, the team had considered music from the movie Moulin Rouge!, and now they returned to it.

"It was one of the ideas Vincent brought up again when we discussed a new program. I think his words were, 'I adore this music,'" Meekins said. "He clearly connected with it and felt strongly about it."

"We wanted a long program with lots of character this year, and I think this is perfect," Zhou said.

Buttle and Zhou spent three long days on the ice working on choreography, and finished the new program just about 12 hours before Zhou's monitoring session at Champs Camp. Along with Meekins, Zhou's other coach, Tammy Gambill, was in town, and Marina Zoueva also spent a bit of time working with Zhou.

"We continued to refine and tweak the whole week, even on the warm-up for the monitoring session," Meekins said. "We were able to get not only a wonderful program but a lot of polishing and refining pretty quickly."

As with the earlier program, Zhou will be playing a romantic lead. In this case, he's interpreting the poet Christian, played by Ewan McGregor in the movie.

"We tried to not be too complex with the character; we only have 4 1/2 minutes to get all the elements in," Buttle said. "It's not a ton of acting -- it's more the emotions and the feeling that come through."

As soon as he thought of skating to the music, Zhou re-watched the movie. In doing so, he was particularly struck by how deeply emotional a story it is, and he admitted that expressing that emotion will be one of his greatest challenges with this program.

"People have said that when I skate they can see that my emotion is very internal, like sitting in the corner of the room huddled up as opposed to standing out in the pouring rain and screaming to the sky," Zhou said. "The latter is the one we're trying to get me to do."

"The thing I notice the most is how much Vincent connects with the music, the storyline and the concept," Meekins said. "It's almost shocking to me, even though the program is only a week old, how much he connects with it."

Zhou got embarrassed when asked if he is a romantic person, but admits to writing poetry -- just like the character he portrays.

"I feel emotions clearly, and I think writing them down helps as a form of release," he said. "I think poetry is a beautiful way of expressing emotion, so I think that qualifies me to play Christian."

Along with all the emoting, Zhou will also have to do a whole bunch of quadruple jumps. Those take time, but Buttle has done his best to interpolate difficult and intricate transitions into the program.

"The choreography is very meaningful," Zhou said. "It's almost like a mental staircase through the program. I start with 'Nature Boy' -- the lyrics introduce you to the character of Christian, so it's a great way to start the program -- I transition through a slow part with no lyrics, and it builds to an amazing ending that gives me chills every time I listen to it."

At this point in the season, Zhou is working toward his fall competitions. He has had a preliminary conversation with a costume maker and has been getting his new boots broken in. Training all those quads wears boots out fast; last year, the skater went through three different pairs.

To try and avoid a repeat of last season, Zhou spent the summer months breaking in three new pairs of boots. Still, he was forced to withdraw from the Philadelphia Summer International in early August due to bad blisters on his ankles.

Meekins remains hopeful that the new boot strategy will pay off down the line.

"It's new territory, with the amount of quads skaters do," Meekins said. "We're happy we did it, because this could have been December...imagine! It's still early in the season now."

Despite the late change of plans for the free skate, Meekins feels that the process, from beginning to end, has been helpful.

Meekins said, "We learned a lot from the Romeo + Juliet program, not only about pacing the elements but what it's like to do five or six quads in a row, how you have to rest and recover, how you function mentally, how the placement of all the elements affects the jumps. We came into this new program with a lot of information that helped us design a program that really optimizes all these things, a program Vincent could perform even better, both artistically and technically."