Episode #63, Audrey Weisiger, Part 2

MARCH 2013
Part Two of an interview with Audrey Weisiger, Olympic-level coach (most notably of Michael Weiss and Tim Goebel), and creator of both Grassroots to Champions (G2C) and the Young Artists Showcase (YAS). In Part Two we discuss her collaboration with the late choreographer Brian Wright, the creation of G2C and YAS, her thoughts on how to get the dwindling American fan base back into skating, and her ideas on how to evolve the sport. 57 minutes, 31 seconds.

Thanks to Fiona McQuarrie for transcribing these interview highlights:

On working with choreographer Brian Wright: I was drawn to Brian’s work without ever having met him. He was already developing great artists in his own world, but I just hadn’t ever been exposed to it. We actually finally got to hang out together at an Olympic training seminar in Colorado Springs, and there was this instant connection and instant bond. We saw skating the same way, it was about the performance, not just did you land this or did you win. Plus he was just an amazing human being to be around. He was larger than life. He would walk in a room and everyone would instantly be drawn to him. And he could change the mood or clarity of a room just by his presence.

He had a lot of insight. He was terminally ill from the day I met him, and he lived his life every day as if it was going to be the last one. He never held back. He would have kids over to his apartment in Indianapolis, and he would show them movies — not skating movies, but important ones that he wanted them to learn from. He showed them Cinema Paradiso, The Sound of Music — it sounds kind of funny but that was his favorite movie — and all kinds of indie films. He created a generation of artists in US skating and a body of work that a lot of choreographers now look to. I use a lot of his artistic development and philosophy in my own work with students. And he was a dancer, he danced with A Chorus Line in New York and with Pacific Northwest Ballet. I think he never wanted to be an ice skating choreographer [laughs], he used to say to me, I am an actor. Well, okay, Shakespeare, if you’re an actor then you better get out there. I think it’s funny when we say there’s one thing we want to be and we end up completely not doing. He would say, I want to have my own one-man show on Broadway, and I’d say, well, hurry up. He wrote and wrote and wrote, and I have some of his writings that one day I’d love to turn into some kind of a one-scene, one-man show in his honor.

Toward the end he was really falling apart, and that was a long time ago when AIDS treatment wasn’t really advanced, and they just fell off piece by piece. And he wouldn’t let me see him. He would talk to me on the phone, this was about two years before he died. And the week before he finally died, he called and left a message on my voicemail, and for some reason I kept it. It says I love you, I miss you, I mean it, bye. He died a week later. There’s a great tribute on YouTube that Craig Heath, one of Brian’s disciples, created for the memorial service. It was really interesting because Brian’s memorial service had so many facets of his life. I’d heard about some of his colleagues in Seattle, where he worked for the Pacific AIDS Foundation, we knew of each other but we’d never met. And we were all there at the memorial, and I could see how widespread his reach was to the community of man, so much more than skating.

I miss him, I think about him all the time. Once I was whining to Peter Oppegard, who was also really good friends with Brian, Peter, I feel like he’s gone and it’s not the same any more. And Peter goes, oh, he’s still there. You put an outfit on and you hear in the back of your head, sweetie, is that what you’re wearing? And I have to remind myself even though he’s not here, he’s always with me. And that’s where Young Artists Showcase came from.

On Grassroots to Champions: My mission was to coach coaches, and it has a different twist than the Professional Skaters Association. My concept was to have the coaches and their skaters together working with these master coaches. If you look at our website and our staff list, we have some highly qualified coaches available to assist other coaches with their students. If I go in and the student is there, I’m on site with the coach, rather than the coach hearing me speak in some conference room and trying to glean something that would be of benefit to the skater back home. I call it a traveling skating school, and I’m so blessed that I’ve been able to persuade coaches to assist other coaches, like Pasquale Camerlengo, and Michelle Leigh, and Doug Webster and Nick Perna and Kori Ade. When I was coming up as a young coach, often I was like, gosh, I wish I had somebody I could talk to [laughs] because you’re kind of on your own, you know? And you are in competition with other coaches, so it doesn’t always work when you ask coaches to assist each other, because sometimes it turns around and bites you on the butt. You help somebody else’s kid and they end up beating your own client. So that’s a problem for some people. And yet I was always more about, look, we’re all in this together, and I love skating enough that I would just like to see some really good skaters out there. I would love for them all to be mine, but that’s not going to happen. So let’s all work together to have the best skaters we can possibly have, and let’s just be grateful that we’ve got these skaters. Brian was very much an influence that way too. And it’s getting better that people are realizing that we have to help each other. The sport needs to continue to grow and develop. I’m doing a huge seminar with Frank Carroll, and to have a coach of Frank’s caliber be willing to come in and work with any coach and their students for three days — it’s a marvelous opportunity.

It’s really interesting, I’ve had coaches come to my seminars without their students, and they say to me, now I don’t want people at home to know I’m here. And I’m thinking, and that’s because…? And it’s because the people at home, wherever home is, would look down upon the fact that this coach doesn’t know everything. Well, we don’t know everything, and how do you get better? Through educating yourself and allowing your students opportunities. So I think that’s really important for people to understand. We’re here to help them. I’m retired from competitive coaching now, but when I first started this back in 2005, there was a sense from some of my detractors that I was just trying to increase my stable, like this was a shopping trip, I was out fishing for students. Now people realize that’s not the case, because I’ve been trying to extract myself from being a head coach for a long time, and I think it’s really about the true sense of service, where we are here to help you. Sometimes the coaches even need backup with the athlete and the parent, explaining that it’s going to take a while to get such-and-such, so don’t get frustrated. If they hear it from an Olympic coach, sometimes it puts their mind at ease.

We have this great camp in the summer, we have a fantastic staff, and it’s a boarding camp so the kids come in and train together and live together for one week. It’s a lot of work, but for a lot of kids they would never get the chance to train on the same session with a Jason Brown or a Ryan Bradley. And we have a group number at the end of the camp, and every participant is included. These things are meaningful, they are more than just skating. We have a leadership course, we have the history and language of skating, and we even have a table etiquette class. The kids are like, no, not the eating class again [laughs], but to me that’s part of learning to be a functioning professional. And I package it as part of sports. I say, look when Michael was an Olympian, he got to go to the White House and he had to sit there and have lunch with the President. So you’d better have good table manners. We happen to be teaching skating, but we’re making people. And that’s one of my proudest accomplishments with Grassroots to Champions.

This allows me to stay involved in skating without that invisible umbilical cord attached to a single athlete. For a number of years, wherever Michael went, I had to go. You don’t get to schedule which competitions you do or what dates they are, you’re ordered to go. And I’ve missed vacations and holidays and birthdays because of my clients’ schedules. And I was at that point where I was like, I’d like to live my own life on my own schedule. Someone said, why did you start doing this? And I said, well, this allows me to come and go as I please. I’m not teaching full time at home any more, I don’t have any more full time students, so at home I’m kind of on vacation, which is great. I do have people coming in to work with me, and I’m choreographing, but I don’t have the daily responsibility. For coaches that are considering retiring, give me a call, because GTC is ever expanding.

Rachael Flatt was a little tiny tyke, maybe eight or nine years old, when I worked with her at a GTC seminar, and she still remembers some of the things I showed her many years ago. I remember that cute blonde smiley face, very determined little girl, and I said to Nick Perna, I don’t know who she is, but this one is going to be good. And that’s fun, it’s been so much fun. I feel like the grandma coach, because you go into these facilities and you see these little kids and you don’t know who they are. But you see them and it’s like, hmm, I think you’re going to be good [laughs]. You see the fire in their eye, and then when you see them on television, it’s like, I told you so. We’ve had Kiri Baga, Jason Brown, Kate Charbonneau, and the most recent one is Kaetlyn Osmond. I saw her last spring at Ravi Walia’s rink, the one in the Edmonton mall. It’s the largest mall in the world and there’s a seal show right next door to the rink, with trained seals flying through the air going erf-erf-erf. And I’m thinking, I’ve been to a lot of unusual facilities, but this is really different [laughs].

On the Young Artists Showcase: I felt like the IJS guidelines were creating a look on the ice that was becoming more and more the same. I’m not faulting the skaters and the choreographers at all, but when you’re given a pile of ingredients and you have to pick from it to create the most advantageous formula for yourself, you’re going to start seeing a lot of the same ingredients repeatedly. I wanted to do something that was completely in the other direction, for the next generation of choreographers to not worry about having enough rockers, twizzles, counters, illusion loops, whatever. If you want to do eight double axels in a row, then do it. If you want to do a spin that’s just a plain outside camel, then do it. I don’t know if you remember, but one year at Nationals, a skater named Jennie Walsh did a spiral, on a flat, all the way around the perimeter of the rink, without once changing her position. And the crowd went absolutely nuts, because they knew how hard that was to do, and it was just magnificent. You can’t do that any more. You don’t have a time in a program to do that, and plus it’s not worth anything. So my purpose was to give skating the opportunity to have a different look.

And now we have these challenges, because it’s hard to evaluate apples and oranges. So I say, like, this particular challenge you have to have something that you would use to sit on, now make up a piece, you can have music with lyrics and the camera  at the side of the rink, now go. It’s a little bit like Project Runway for skating. I have to give them something, otherwise we’re just looking at pieces. There’s another part of Young Artists Showcase called Quest for Creativity, where there are zero rules and guidelines other than that the piece has to be two minutes long. This one is not evaluated because I think it’s really hard to evaluate something like that. If you went to an art gallery and you saw a Renoir and a Picasso and a Lichtenstein, well, they’re all completely different. But people get to pick their favorites. Our favorite last year was Liadan Emmert, this little eight-year-old girl from Santa Monica, who skated to Intergalactic by the Beastie Boys. It was absolutely stunning. We had people, amazing choreographers themselves, looking at this little eight-year-old with their mouths open.

The Young Artists Showcase is a commitment. It’s a series of challenges that culminates in a live final. And I’m very proud of myself for thinking of this concept, because I’m not an Internet person, I’m very bad with technology. When we started the first couple of series, I had never uploaded onto YouTube before. And my husband was like, honey, you don’t know what you’re doing. And I was like, but I have friends who know what they’re doing [laughs]. I have a crew that helps out, but it hasn’t been easy. I would like to do it in a different format, so if somebody out there believes in the project and would like to be a corporate sponsor, please give me a call. Because if we could fund this differently, we wouldn’t have to use YouTube.  We could do it on an actual WebTV format like Ice Network, where it’s live streamed. When you work on YouTube you’re at the mercy of your Internet connection, and sometimes there are music pieces that are not allowed. We had some choreographers put their pieces up on YouTube and the pieces would not play because the music was restricted or blocked. I am so proud of the kids that participated, because they feel like a family, and they help each other out. It’s two o’clock in the morning and they’re phoning their competitors to help each other post their pieces by the deadline. Kurt Browning has judged twice now, and he’s just such a huge supporter of the event. And poor Kurt and I just don’t do well with the Internet, so here we are struggling to upload stuff [laughs].

People have bought into the concept, they’re enjoying the work of these young choreographers, and the choreographers themselves say it’s life-changing. It’s something that has helped them with their careers. Kate McSwain, she’s excellent. I was in Los Angeles and Christa Fassi said to me, there’s this great new choreographer I’m using, she’s fantastic, her name is Kate. And I said, Kate McSwain? And I had this big smile on my face because I knew that Christa didn’t know anything about Young Artists Showcase. In my mind, Kate is a graduate of that first season. Garrett Kling, he was sitting at Nationals this year, and someone walked up to him and went, I know you, you’re that guy from Young Artists Showcase [laughs]. To me, that was huge. We had people from Europe watching, from Russia. Our winner last year was Mark Hanratty from Christopher Dean’s show Dancing on Ice, so we had our first international participant in the finals last year.

One of the drawbacks that I now see is that the caliber of the work that’s being produced is so high-quality that it can be intimidating for a young choreographer. Bebe Liang participated in the first season and she was thinking about participating in the second go-round, but she was very honest with me, she said, I was really nervous to do this. So I think it’s important for people who want to do it to understand what they’re getting into. It’s a commitment of about two months of creating pieces and posting them. We have five challenges, but you have to complete them in two months, and you have to find the talent to skate your pieces. You might be a skater yourself but you might not be able to do what you’ve got in your piece. Robert Mauti last year, he got Rory Flack to skate one of his pieces. And another contestant, Emily Tuttle, wasn’t even a skater herself, she’s a dancer. That gives a really unique look, when it’s cross-disciplinary and they come from their world into our world. There’s a singer-songwriter, Connor Garvey, I’m a really big fan of his music, and I had the kids create pieces to his songs because I love the music and the message he brings to his work, and I wanted to promote his music so people would hear it. Dan Joyce, one of our judges, was a principal with the Mark Morris dance company.

And I consider that young people, in addition to the competition, get an education. You get to hear Sarah Kawahara evaluate. And the kids can’t wait to see each other’s work come up. Last year we had an assignment to use a ball. Bebe had a basketball, and some people had footballs, and there was a piece with a dodgeball. And then you got to hear what Sarah Kawahara had to say about each one, and I consider that an education, because you’re learning from the master. We’ve had so many great judges participate, Tom Dickson, Lorna Brown — I am so honored and humbled that these people would take the time. And some of them are way more YouTube savvy than I am, so it’s no big deal to upload videos, but for others [laughs], I was videotaping Sarah’s head off my computer onto my phone and then uploading it on YouTube. It was a challenge [laughs]. But people seem to understand that we’re still in the developmental phases of this particular project, and I would hope to make it legitimately without technical glitches some day.

And if somebody believes in it and would step up to be a sponsor, that would be great. The cost is more in the final because we have to fly people into the facility, allow them private time to work with their talent, and then put on the show. And the other expense, that none of the kids have ever complained about, is that some of them have to rent the ice so that they can shoot their piece. And some have to drive or fly around to work with people, and that’s expensive. So if I could come up with an allowance for the contestants to use toward maybe hiring a videographer or flying in somebody or flying themselves somewhere or ice rental — I’d like to have some money for the contestants and then some money for the final so we could put that on in grand fashion. Our final this year will be in Washington DC at the Fort Dupont holiday show.

On how to get skating’s fan base back: I recognize that we have to have guidelines and rules and regulations. But one of the things that I would love to see, and this is just out of the box, it has nothing to do with the ISU or anything, is an event where you let the kids that are fantastic athletes and the best at jumping compete at that. They tried to do that a while ago, with an event called Top Jump. And then you could have an event for the kids who are more of the artists and have the kind of performances that make you hold your breath. There would be no requirement for technical, if you wanted to do jumps you could, but you wouldn’t have to. So you’ve got kids that are great at jumping, and the kids that are artistic, and then you could have a final overall, kind of like gymnastics. There would be some minimum requirement but it’s the overall champion.

Maybe then we would get kids that could stay in the sport longer. The new system dictates that you have to be good in so many areas, and the flexibility for a lot of kids has been almost career-ending, with some of the injuries. And Michael has been very honest with me, he says, if I had to skate now, I couldn’t. This is a guy who couldn’t touch his toes pretty much, but he could get through because the flexibility wasn’t as demanding, the spin positions weren’t as contorted. So now it’s like you have to be good at yoga, which is the spinning and some of the footwork, and you have to be good at quads, so you have to be like Michael Jordan with that kind of athleticism, and the performance skill of a John Curry or a Janet Lynn. So it’s hard to find those people. Yes, there are those people, but there’s probably 10 of them in the world, and I’m talking about keeping kids in the sport. And there are probably a lot of kids who would love it if they didn’t have to do a program but could just learn to do quads, and could go out there and do those. I think Tom [Zakrajsek]  told me that Brandon Mroz can do one quad of everything. So he could be the world champion of quad jumping, you know what I’m saying? Why not? Let that kid enjoy what he’s accomplished. There were kids in our era that were fantastic jumpers but couldn’t get through a long program. Let them win something. There’s a lot of girls that are great spinners but can’t do a double axel. Well, let them win a spin contest, or be in an artistic event.

We’re losing our fan base because I don’t think people understand what’s going on. My mom has been watching skating all of her life and she loves it, but she’ll call me up now and say, I don’t understand what just happened. And I go, Mom, I have no idea, I can’t explain it [laughs]. And if you’re immersed in the sport, you know to go look at the protocol and read about the pluses and minuses and the GOEs and the components — but the average skating person, they’re not going to do that to try and figure things out. We have to make it a little bit more user-friendly for people to get their head around. Like a football game or a baseball game, where it’s pretty obvious who’s winning and who’s not winning.

There’s that uncomfortable moment in the kiss and cry, and you know it’s because they’re reviewing things, and you see the athlete and the coach squirming because it’s taking longer that they hoped, and then the score comes up and boom, it’s the score you wanted in your head — that’s the perfect kiss and cry moment. I don’t see anything wrong, as the scores are being finalized, with putting up on the jumbotron, this is what got upgraded or downgraded, or got higher GOE, or the elements — it should be public. I think if it was more public, people would understand it more, like, oh, she didn’t get the spin. And maybe then there’d be some dialogue, like why didn’t she get the spin, oh, she didn’t hold it for three revolutions so it didn’t count. It might involve people, because before when you heard the marks come up, 6.0, 6.0, 5.2, boo — you got the audience to be part of the adventure. And letting them see on the jumbotron, oh, they’re reviewing the triple lutz, that would get people arguing, oh, that’s right, no, that’s wrong.

I’m not so naive as to think that 6.0 wasn’t the perfect system and there wasn’t politics, but one of my reservations about the new system, even though it’s new and it’s a work in progress, is that it changes so rapidly. They just changed the minimum score requirements to enter Worlds this year, and that just happened a few weeks ago. So you’ll be in the middle of choreographing a program, and then you’ll get this directive, oh, we changed the rules, and now the forward inside sit spin isn’t worth anything any more. Which it shouldn’t have been in the first place, but it was in there for a number of years, and so I spent all this time teaching my kids to do something that I had been trying not to have them do, and their parents’ money — that was very aggravating for me. And I realize this sounds kind of petty, but things change so rapidly that it’s hard for us to come up with a look that is appealing, that everybody likes. I wish they would get rid of that one spin position, I think we all know which one it is [laughs], and I understand that sometimes you run out of options as a choreographer, so you’re like, OK, bend over, buddy, yep, there it is [laughs]. And I’m not against people who can do it well, we’ve seen some people do it excellently. I think maybe Emanuel Sandhu or Stephane Lambiel performed it a number of years ago, and that was very cool. But now, there’s a handful of them that should be doing it, and the rest of them should not do it. My feeling from an audience perspective is that if you’re making me feel uncomfortable watching you, then you shouldn’t be doing whatever it is that you’re doing right now. When I’m watching some kid grabbing and struggling and hopping around on the ice, it’s just like, ugh, don’t do it.

I don’t think that there’s a perfect system, but I think we can come up with something that will allow for more freedom and creativity. If you do a quad lutz, you should still get a lot of points, because they’re hard to do, without question. But I don’t know what the answer is. The Young Artists Showcase is an area for the kids just to play, and I just think there’s this newfound freedom when the kids get to put some music on and — I was that kid, later on, where the music came on and suddenly I was doing someone else’s program, which didn’t always go over very well. But some people are just naturally able to put on music and interpret it and make cool stuff. That was Brian Wright. And I think the Young Artists Showcase taps into that side of their personality, and a lot of the participants really enjoy being able to play with their choreography. Bebe created this fantastic piece with a basketball, she had some of the guys from the rink play a basketball game on the ice, and it was so clever and so much fun. And in my mind, I was like, that should be in somebody’s ice show.

And the other thing I realize is that some of the kids who come out of competitive skating are not prepared to go into professional performing. They’re not good enough performers to be in Stars on Ice, they wouldn’t be able to even be the star of the cruise ship show, they need to work on their performance skills too. And for the choreographers who someday will be creating those pieces — Doug Webster is running around the world choreographing for Dancing on Ice over in Amsterdam, and then for the Ice Theatre of New York, and then the Dollywood thing down in Tennessee. So he has a wide range of the kind of art that he can create, and he also choreographs for competitive skaters. If they come out of the competitive world now, I think it’s hard for them to choreograph outside of that box.

When we started the Young Artists Showcase, we had the younger kids, the grassroots division, send in their audition videos. And the kids were literally doing the step sequences and spiral sequences from their programs, and they looked like IJS programs, and I said, no no no. None of that counts any more, don’t do any of that, because that’s not going to get a good review. Let go of what you were raised on. That’s all they know. Amanda Hoffman, who won the grassroots division of Young Artists Showcase II, she choreographed a great short program this year to Stairway to Heaven, and props to her. But her audition piece that she sent to me, it looked like she was doing IJS kind of stuff. And I said, no, this is not what you’re going to be doing. You need to rethink what is art on ice. So my concern is, ten years from now, what is skating going to be looking like. And I don’t know the answer.

About the Author
Yup, I’m a skating fan. But I’m a skater too. I compete nearly every year in the U.S. Adult Figure Skating Championships, and am always thrilled to see my other skating buddies there. In my real life I work in marketing for brands that make positive changes in the world, and a mom of two rambunctious boys.

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