Ice Network

Nichol takes Chen through artistic rite of passage

American devoted to elevating choreography as Olympic season continues
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With the help of Lori Nichol, Nathan Chen continues to raise the level of his programs from a choreographic perspective. -Getty Images

Ask Lori Nichol, who has choreographed for skating greats from Michelle Kwan to Mao Asada and Patrick Chan, how current pupil Nathan Chen stacks up among these luminaries, and she doesn't hesitate.

"Look, he's extraordinary," Nichol said. "He's pushing boundaries technically and he's pushing boundaries artistically. And he does it in a very calm, cool, suave kind of way."

When Chen returned from Moscow after winning gold at the Rostelecom Cup last month -- notching a win over world and Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu in the process -- the first thing he did was pack his bags for a trip to Toronto to work with Nichol, who created his free skate to selections from the Mao's Last Dancer soundtrack.

"I've been focusing a lot on the artistic standpoint, the idea of the program, what I'm trying to portray," Chen said. "Honestly, it's a nice little escape from the jumps sometimes."

The 18-year-old won't unveil new technical content at Skate America in Lake Placid this week, and little new is needed after Chen hit six quadruple and three triple axel jumps in his programs in Moscow. But while he often leads the pack in technical scores, Chen trails Hanyu in the more subjective program component marks and stands a shade behind skaters like Shoma Uno, Javier Fernández and U.S. teammate Jason Brown. That's where Nichol comes in.

"I think he's working at such a crazy-intense level of technical with his jumps that his body, his mind, his emotions needed a little bit of a break," Nichol said of his most recent trip to Toronto. "We really focused on the use of the face in performances. We also worked on the foundation of artistry, the body line, and making sure each skill he needs is growing in concert with other skills, so it feels comfortable, not awkward."

Nichol and Chen added some choreography nuances to the free skate, often suggested by the skater.

"He was proposing things that were more than I thought he would be ready to do," Nichol said. "He was saying, 'I can add this, I can add that.' He is intrigued and enjoying doing more choreography, and that is a huge step and very encouraging."

Chen's artistic journey with Nichol began the end of May. The choreographer and her longtime music editor, Lenore Kay, had set aside "Brush Dance," a selection featured in Mao's Last Dancer, the true life story of Li Cunxin, a Beijing trained ballet dancer who defected to the U.S. in the 1970's.

"I was waiting for the right skater to use it," Nichol said.

Chen -- with his years of early ballet training at Salt Lake City's Ballet Academy West -- proved equal to the task, and Nichol added Igor Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring."

"Ballet gave Nathan a huge vocabulary," Nichol said. "He understands where his core is, he knows how the legs can move in different positions, both classical and modern. It's like being given 10 alphabets to work with. Plus, he picks things up very quickly and is very open-minded to try many different things, to arrive at those movements we both really know work."

On his media teleconference last week, Chen called his work with Nichol almost collaborative.

"When I first went to Lori, she would let me start my own choreography, essentially," he said. "We were kind of (standing) around in the middle of the ice and she would say, 'Do what the music calls you to do.' And she kind of took little tidbits of what I was doing and put them into the program, to see what I was comfortable with."

Chen's bread-and-butter -- the quads that rack up points -- take precedence.

"Hey, I love the jumps, and just as I would emphasize artistry in someone who is an artist but had trouble jumping, I love emphasizing the jumps," Nichol said. "Because Nathan is capable of doing so much artistry, I ask him, 'What do you need before this jump? What speed do you want?' I try to find the movement beforehand that could help him feel very comfortable."

During one of Chen's early visits to Toronto, Nichol introduced him to Tracey Robertson Hanford, a blade skills coach who has also helped 2010 Olympic pairs champions Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao, among many others.

"He really connected with her; he understood the philosophy that (blade skills) are the foundation of all the other skills we need, both technically and artistically," Nichol said, adding, "I wanted to attract his intellect to see what art was in skating, and see what aspects he could do in June, what aspects in July, what could come together throughout the summer. I basically felt I was putting seeds in the ground."

This fall, Nichol texted Chen comments and sent him articles about various aspects of performance. Her key words: repetition and consistency, especially in day-to-day training with coach Rafael Arutunian in Southern California.

"We talked about how it was very important in practice not to let go of those improvements artistically, so when he got to competition he doesn't have to think about those aspects and (he can) take breaths and focus on the technical," she said. "That would be the first major step, and I believe we saw a lot of that in Russia."

Nichol has little doubt Chen will make the most of this Olympic season. The teenager, who told reporters he was completing applications to schools including Harvard University, UC Berkeley and Stanford University, takes his new celebrity in stride: a Kellogg's Cornflakes' box, United Airlines' commercial and NBC promotion as a leading man of the upcoming PyeongChang Olympics are all part of the game.

"I like that," Chen said. "I'm glad I'm helping figure skating in the U.S. kind of blossom forth a little bit more than it has in the past. It's kind of been pretty stagnant over the past couple of years and I'm glad that with my technical arsenal, I'm able to bring some interest back to skating in the U.S."

Told of his comments, Nichol laughed.

"He's a cool cat," she said. "I love his courage under fire, I think it's fantastic. I love being part of a team, and Raf and I have great conversations. It's a happy group, a happy time. And that's what you want leading up to the Olympics."

With his win in Russia worth 15 Grand Prix points, Chen is almost assured of locking up one of the six men's spots at the Grand Prix Final in Nagoya, Japan, next month. 2016 U.S. champion Adam Rippon, who earned 13 points for a silver medal at NHK Trophy, is also firmly in the running. They, along with U.S. veteran Ross Miner, take on world bronze medalist Boyang Jin of China and Russian Sergei Voronov, the surprise winner of NHK, in Lake Placid.

Shibutanis eye second Skate America title

With a win at Rostelecom Cup early this fall, two-time U.S. ice dance champions Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani are favored to win their second straight Skate America title and qualify for their fourth consecutive Grand Prix Final and fifth overall. Their toughest competition will likely come from 2014 world champions Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte of Italy. Reigning world junior champions Rachel Parsons and Michael Parsons, and 2014 world junior champions Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, are also in the mix.

Three-time U.S. champion Ashley Wagner will defend her Skate America title against reigning U.S. champion Karen Chen, world bronze medalist Gabrielle Daleman of Canada, Japan's 2015 world silver medalist Satoko Miyahara, and up-and-coming young Russian Polina Tsurskaya. 2015 U.S. junior champion Bradie Tennell makes her Grand Prix debut.

Wagner, who won bronze at Skate Canada, could qualify for the Grand Prix Final with a gold or silver medal in Lake Placid.

"I can't just rely on having one medal with a mediocre skate (at Skate Canada). I need to go to Skate America and be solid and get on the podium," Wagner said on her teleconference last week. "Going into Skate America, I really put in the time and the effort to make sure I'm conditioned well enough so those little things that got lost at Skate Canada will be more apparent."

Two-time world champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford of Canada, and Germany's world silver medalists Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot head up a powerhouse Skate America pairs' field. U.S. champions Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier, seventh at Skate Canada, and 2015 U.S. champions Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim, fifth at NHK, are the top U.S. hopes. The Florida team of Deanna Stellato-Dudek and Nathan Bartholomay make their Grand Prix debut.