A Perfect Program: Patrick Chan’s Chopin LP

Skating fans are pretty lucky. Every season, there are many good,  and often great, programs to enjoy. Once in while, a perfect program happens. It’s a rare and special thing: When the right piece of music and the right choreography all come together at a particular moment in a skater’s career. When it happens, the program becomes part of the skater’s success, even part of their public identity sometimes. A perfect program may become iconic; a part of skating history.

The most perfect program of all time has to be Torvill/Dean’s Bolero. With its spellbinding music, innovative choreography, and Torvill/Dean’s intimate chemistry—plus the fact that it happened in an Olympic year and carried them to perfect 6.0s at that Olympics—because of all that, Bolero was more than great. It was the perfect program, at the perfect time, for Torvill/Dean.

Perfect programs are rare. Last season, there was one—Papadakis/Cizeron’s Mozart FD. This season, there are many programs I’d consider memorable—Mao Asada’s Madame Butterfly LP, Yuzuru Hanyu’s Seimei LP, Gracie Gold’s El Choclo SP, Volosozhar/Trankov’s Bollywood SP, Sui/Han’s Farrucas SP, Papadakis/Cizeron’s “To Build a Home” FD, the Shibutanis’ “Fix You” FD.

But to my mind, the sole perfect program of the season is Patrick Chan’s Chopin LP. I feel like this Chopin LP is a gift to Patrick’s fans, and even to Patrick himself. It’s like a celebration of his comeback. The thing that makes the program so perfect is the way it matches Patrick’s individual skating style and, perhaps, the way it fits this particular moment in Patrick’s career.

First, there’s the purity of the music. There are no big orchestral flourishes in this Chopin music; no crescendos from 20 string instruments. There is only the solo piano. What type of sound could be better suited to Patrick Chan’s skating? As a performer, Patrick doesn’t need (or, perhaps, want) showy melodrama. His pure basic skating is so exceptional, so renowned, that it doesn’t need embellishment. Just watching the play of Chan’s blades on the ice is a treat, a special experience, akin to witnessing a master class from an expert. Surely, the simplicity of the solo piano is the perfect match to the virtuosity of Chan’s basic skating skills.

Patrick-edge

Patrick working an edge

Patrick is not playing a character in this Chopin LP, nor telling a story, as far as I can discern (or have read). In this program, he expresses the mood and tempo of the music very purely, with no plotline. This is in keeping with the composer’s own approach. Frederic Chopin did not title his compositions, classifying them only by number and type of work. (The pieces chosen for Patrick’s LP are Etudes, Op. 10, No. 12 in C Minor; Preludes Op. 28, No. 4 in E Minor; and Scherzo No. 1 in B. Minor.) Presumably, Chopin wished his listeners to hear the music on its own terms and draw meaning from it; Patrick’s program echoes this intention.

And this Chopin music is no tinkly, lyrical, pretty piano piece. On the contrary, the pieces chosen for Patrick’s program are strong, powerful, even muscular in sound (especially the first and third sections). Again, what could be more evocative of Chan’s skating? When Patrick leans on an edge, it’s not ever a slight or gentle lean. He puts the whole weight of his body into every edge; and transfers that weight to the next deep edge without the slightest hesitation or loss of speed. Only an athlete with the greatest strength, power, security, and control can skate in this manner. So, this music represents the perfect choice for Patrick: Simple in presentation, yet strong in execution and effect. Chopin was a pianist renowned for his technique and skill; his compositions reflect this. “Chopin’s music include[s] the frequent use of the entire range of the keyboard, passages in double octaves, swiftly repeated notes, grace notes, and the use of contrasting rhythms between the hands.” One virtuoso meets another in this program.

Patrick Chan

The beauty of a simple crossover  (AP Photo/Wally Santana)

Chan’s Chopin LP opens with Etudes Op. 10, No. 12 in C minor, one of Chopin’s most famous works. The mood of this piece is turbulent, powerful. The etude is dominated by the left (lower) hand of the pianist, which moves insistingly, relentlessly up and down cascades of notes. Friederike Muller, student of Chopin, wrote that the composer “demanded the strictest adherence to rhythm. He hated all lingering and dragging.” Certainly, there is no dragging or slowness in Patrick’s interpretation. In this section of the program, Patrick’s lower body is like the pure expression of the pianist’s left hand–constantly turning, moving, pushing, at a very rapid pace. Meanwhile, the restrained movement of Patrick’s upper body expresses the spare melody of the pianist’s right hand. This symbiosis between skater and music is moving.

In the second part of the program, set to Preludes Op. 28, No. 4 in E Minor, the mood shifts. The left hand no longer dominates, and the focus is on the beautiful, plaintive melody. After the music change, Patrick stops, opens his arm wide toward the audience, then does so again. It’s as if he’s inviting us in, pulling us in, to share this part of the program with him. Such a simple, lovely gesture. Patrick gives us soaring moments in this section: the lovely circular spread eagle right after the exciting 3Lz/2T/2Lp combination; the triple Salchow landed directly on a climactic chord in the music. And his big triple loop is a showstopper. Patrick exits this jump with such smoothness; then turns on the same foot and abruptly stops, stretching into a beautiful position. The move is so simple, yet elegant and breathtaking, and demonstrates once again his complete mastery of the blade.

The program closes with a final section set to Scherzo No. 1 in B Minor. “Chopin saw the scherzo as ‘breathings of stifled rage and of suppressed anger,’ according to Liszt.” Here, the driving force and edginess of the first section return. Patrick’s dramatic step sequence into a death drop echoes the power of the music. And his rotational speed in the final spin matches the churning tempo perfectly. The program ends with as much power as it started with. There is never a moment when Patrick’s speed slackens; he maintains the same stunning pace throughout.

Patrick-death-drop.jpg

A powerful death drop  (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press)

When there is no stated character or storyline to a program, the viewer is free to interpret. My own “concept” of this program? To me, it almost represents the story of Patrick Chan’s comeback. Patrick has been very candid and honest about all the emotions and challenges wrapped up in the comeback process. “There was one moment when I called [coach Kathy Johnson] in panic mode,” he said earlier this season, “being like, ‘Why am I even doing this? I shouldn’t even be coming back. This is so stupid, I’m so frustrated.’ ” The comeback hasn’t been easy, and it took Patrick months to feel comfortable again competing. To me, the first turbulent section of the program almost represents the first difficult months of the comeback. The second, more elegiac section could represent the peace Patrick has found as his performances have improved, reaching a very high peak at Four Continents. And the last, stormy section might represent the growing pressures and unknown future of his comeback.

I guess that’s how I see the program, and that’s why it seems so perfect for this exact moment in Patrick’s career. There is nothing extraneous now: Patrick has said he didn’t come back for medals or for record scores, but for the skating itself. So this powerful routine, embodying skating at its purest, is surely the perfect program for this season. Bless choreographer David Wilson for creating this program for Patrick!

Like almost all the “perfect” programs I can remember in skating, this one is genius in that it brings out the absolute best in Patrick. The program has been hugely successful for him. We’ve now seen it five times in competition; each time, it’s been better than the last. At Skate Canada, it was already gorgeous and almost clean, but there were a few moments when Patrick didn’t quite hit the musical accents. At the GP Final, Patrick was much more on the music, and the program was a great recovery after his poor SP at that event. At Canadian Nationals, it was better still—and for the first time this season, Patrick was able to complete 2 quads in the program.

Then, of course, came the masterpiece at Four Continents, widely lauded as among the best men’s programs seen in the last few years. What an incredible 4 minutes it was in Taipei, every moment near perfect. I loved how the crowd spontaneously applauded not only Chan’s jumps, but also his beautiful camel spin and footwork sections, acknowledging his mastery. And technically, the program was his best yet, with Patrick landing not only 2 quad toe loops but also, for the first time in a long time, 2 triple Axels in the LP.

In general, Patrick has skated this program much more cleanly than previous LPs. During the 2011-2014 era, Patrick’s LPs were often marred not only by jump errors, but by occasional stumbles and falls on footwork. That has not been the case this season. Except at the early-season Japan Open, Patrick has been remarkably clean in this LP, with hardly any pops, falls, or other jump errors. And since Japan Open, there hasn’t been a single bobble on footwork. Patrick looks incredibly sure-footed with the program; it’s as if it suits him in every possible way.

Patrick-Canadians

The costume completes the picture  (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press)

I even love the costume, the final version of which was introduced at the Grand Prix Final. It’s understated, modern, and masculine. I love the fitted long-sleeve T-shirt top. The subtle gray/charcoal pattern adds interest, and the sparely applied beads along the chest and back are just enough to highlight his movement. The wide neckline is flattering, and the black leather band around the neckline finishes the shirt off nicely, coordinating with the leather insets on Patrick’s pants. The insets are stylish and enliven an otherwise plain pair of black trousers. The whole costume is subtle and restrained, yet gorgeous, like the program itself. (Plus, it looks very comfortable to skate in– a bonus!)

I’ve watched this Chopin LP so many times now, each time loving it more. It’s my favorite program ever from Patrick Chan, by a wide margin. I’m very much looking forward to seeing it live next week in Boston at Worlds. Will it be the most brilliant performance yet? Who knows? But no matter how many jumps Patrick lands, I feel certain it will be a moment to remember.

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5 Responses to A Perfect Program: Patrick Chan’s Chopin LP

  1. A beautiful article Claire. I know I’ll watch Patrick skating this program differently now. Can’t wait for worlds! In the mean time I’m about to watch his 4C’s skate – again!
    Alison

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Anna says:

    Thank you, Claire for this beautiful article. You did a great job! And definitely it’s like you’ve read my own thoughts, ’cause I feel the same to Patrick’s Chopin. And also like to name it “Revolution”. Thanks again for a excursus to Chopin’s music and his habits as a composer. All comparisons are very accurate. The costume is stunning, understated, masculine and elegant indeed.

    P.S. It’s just a pleasure to read such literate and wise articles.

    Like

  3. Thank you, Claire for this beautiful article. You did a great job! And definitely it’s like you’ve read my own thoughts, ’cause I feel the same to Patrick’s Chopin. And also like to name it “Revolution”. Thanks again for a excursus to Chopin’s music and his habits as a composer. All comparisons are very accurate. The costume is stunning, understated, masculine and elegant indeed.

    P.S. It’s just a pleasure to read such literate and wise articles.

    Like

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