Interview With Christopher Nolan
Since turning professional in 1988, Christopher Nolan has enjoyed one of the most whirlwind and rich professional figure skating careers out there, alternating between performing and choreographing with the precision of a skater effortlessly switching from an outside to an inside edge. Creativity and hard work catapulted Nolan from an "amateur career" that was highlighted by two trips to the Canadian National Championships to starring roles in Disney On Ice and Willy Bietak productions, as well as a featured performance in Toller Cranston's farewell show (and a feature in Cranston's book "Zero Tollerance", where Cranston described Nolan as one of skating's "great unknowns"). Nolan has performed with the Ice Theatre Of New York, in Scott Hamilton's "Upside Down" TV special, at Knott's Berry Farm, choreographed industrial shows in Montreal and competitive programs for American Open Champion Doug Mattis. Nolan's love of performing and of the sport coupled with his endearing and intelligent outlook on the sport are surefire reasons why if you didn't know his name before, you'll remember it now. It's a name you'll be hearing a lot of in the coming years if you care about the sport:
Q: What can you share about your eligible skating career and your most memorable moments?
A: I really didn't flourish in the competitive world although I did have a few good times at seminars and hanging out with a few friends watching events at competitions. My time on the ice was usually a horrific time - I usually shut down. My nerves were debilitating - either my knees locked or my legs turned to Jello. In general, I never enjoyed the competitions. My best memories of those years were always the creative moments spent with my coach Thom Hayim, especially when I would work on putting together a new solo. When he would tell me it was time I needed new music the anticipation of what it would be would kill me. The night before I would be having my lesson where the music would be unveiled for the first time I would barely be able to sleep. It was like Christmas. Thom always used orchestral music and never the usual top 40 - "Prince Valiant", "La Nuit Est Une Sorciere", "Grand Canyon Suite" and "Scheherazade" to name a few. It was my early musical education and I never disliked a piece he presented. I remember following him around the ice as he would have a choreographic steam of consciousness moment. He was always so creative and uninhibited on the ice and still is to this day. He always approached things from a different angle. There was always something special in the number but the main goal still got accomplished. I loved my short program - the music was "Miserlou". I kept it for about 5 years. It was so well received not to mention I loved the music and the program itself. The year I got that short my eldest cousin made my costume. He was a clothing designer and it was his first foray into figure skating. The costume was based on my back sit spin with one arm straight up in the air and the other straight toward the ice. That doesn't seem to mind blowing now but in 1983 it was ground breaking My cousin designed a simple navy blue outfit with a raglan sleeve cut and on the arms were two stripes in yellow - one thick one and the other just piping running parallel, made for a great barber pole effect. One of my other favourite moments was skating in club shows. One year I did a number to "Money" from"Cabaret and at one point I pulled a string of Monopoly money out of my sleeve and threw it across the ice and then pulled it back wagging my finger at the audience. Needless to say, I learned about production value early on in my career!
Q: Where did the decision to turn professional for you come about and what was the transition from one 'world' to another like for you?
A: I decided to turn pro the summer after my second and last Canadian Nationals. I trained in Vancouver with Ted Barton that year and was skating really well. I had new programs, a new look, a new feel. I got to Nationals and blew it! I was notorious for just doubling my jumps, not even popping. I could tell how disappointed Ted was because he really believed in me and I let him and myself down. My nerves and my head got the best of me. It's amazing how expectation and obligation can manifest into mind numbing self-doubt and snap your self confidence in two. I just wanted to leave the building and get on the next flight to nowhere. I don't doubt that a lot of skaters can relate to those feelings. Alas, the competitive forum was not the place for me. When I joined Disney the transition was so easy, seamless actually. My friend from competition days, Mark Hird, was there and he was a great help. I joined with one other guy just a few days before Christmas and was in the show within days. I remember waiting behind the curtain with the full ensemble and thinking how I was going to remember all the steps and then off we went. I never looked back. I loved skating again, loved skating after the shows, loved rehearsing and loved backstage... old show poodles smoking in their robes by the coffee stand. I loved travel days and loved getting into a new city and trying to figure out the lay of the land. I loved everything about it.
Q: As a principal with Willy Bietak, I can only assume you took a crash course in selling skating as entertainment. What is life performing with a touring show or on a cruise ship really like - the good, the bad and the stuff you reserve for a tell all book?
A: First of all, I want to say I love working for Willy. I joined Broadway On Ice in 1990. He is always supportive and nurturing of anything I do; I'm really lucky to be in the Bietak family. I never had the feeling of "I have a lot to learn" when it came to show skating. The process and the product I took to easily. It felt like I had always belonged in the environment. It felt natural. I never felt a culture shock going from competition to performing. I loved it the whole scene. I loved and still love touring. I work very differently now than when I was in my 20's. Then I took my abilities a bit more for granted and loved the "social" aspect of it, although I always worked hard and put in extra time. When Madonna's "Truth Or Dare" came out I was performing at King's Island with my dear friends Doug Mattis and Darin Hosier. We all went to see it and we laughed because the backstage drama and the lifestyle of touring was the same, just a different budget and star attraction. They had better hotels too. I always loved rehearsing as a skater even more than before. I love the process of perfecting. My party days are over. I'm on the sleep bus now (not the party bus). I need rest and I have to pay attention to how I want to feel in performance. No more late nights or "just one glass of wine" after the show. Some people consider it uptight or anti-social not to go out for drinks but I want to feel my best for the show so I can be in the moment and really take it all in. When I was younger I thought it would last forever and now I know it won't so I would like to be as present as possible when on stage. I wish I had been more present when I was younger... you live and you learn. My ship experience is very different to those who are in the cast. I go on the ship to install the show. This could take up to 5 weeks depending on what ship I'm on. These days I will tag team with other choreographers to either start or finish work. Some ships I go in just as support to another choreographer who is installing the show. My life on the ship is teach the show, sleep, teach the show, sleep, teach the show, workout, sleep, teach the show, maybe see the sun, teach the show... I won't comment on the lives of the cast members. In my mind they all eat, sleep and live the ice show and only the ice show.
Q: Enjoying a huge boom in the 1980's and 1990's, professional skating opportunities that afford skaters and choreographer to showcase whatever work they feel needs an appreciative audience have dwindled over the years. What's exciting is that it's something that seems to be changing, with ProSkaters hosting the first real live professional competition in years in 2014 and a lot of new things popping up. To sum it all up, why did pro skating as we know it die and how can it be effectively revived?
A: My former coach, Thom Hayim, recently said to me (and I agree 100%) "OVER EXPOSURE". There was a hunger to see skating when the only things that were televised were Nationals, Worlds and Olympics. There was no YouTube, no live streaming, no Grand Prix event every weekend, just 2 events a year and Olympics every 4. The only way we could see live skating was with the touring shows. There was a mystique to skating. The opportunity to see a World or Olympic medallist was in a show, usually Ice Capades or perhaps Disney. I was lucky to see Toller live when he skated in our club show. John Curry and JoJo Starbuck rehearsed at our rink when the ProSkate tour came to Montreal. It was exciting! They all seemed so otherworldly and untouchable when I was young. I also think that due to the nature of the athletics of skating and the need for a prepubescent world champion the longevity of champions is much shorter, especially the ladies. How can you follow a skater's storyline for more than a year? I do think skaters (and not all) are in it for very different reasons these days. I remember a very high-ranked skater once said they wanted to be in the top five at Worlds so they could get an apartment in New York. I thought 'awesome'... and went on getting ready for the show.
Q: When you say skaters are in it for different reasons these days, do you think that this generation of skaters has stars with the kind of star power that previous generations had?
A: I look at how skaters contribute to skating outside of coaching. Obviously show skating is where my interest lies. I think Patrick has a great future professionally and Yuna Kim is an anomaly. Stephane Lambiel is doing some nice work. We'll see if Virtue and Moir use their notoriety in any major way. Scott Hamilton did an amazing job with Stars On Ice but it's for A list skaters who perform primarily exhibition style with a few ensemble pieces. Skaters like John Curry, Robin Cousins, Toller and Torvill and Dean all had the respect and vision to move show skating forward using an ensemble. John Curry's company was something only the best show skaters were chosen for, Robin had Electric Ice and now ICE and was involved in countless other shows and Toller's TV specials were ground breaking at the time. They all influenced professional skating. I saw Torvill and Dean's 6.0 tour. It was the show that blew me away and was something I would have loved to have been a part of. They used their ensemble beautifully. They also created the most stunning Bach pieces with Yo Yo Ma for television. It's inspiring! All these skaters are artists and performers and make us aspire to a life of skating after competition. I don't know if skaters today have that type of influence. There are some that could but that remains to be seen.
Doug Mattis' "Hypnotize" program choreographed by Christopher Nolan
Q: You choreographed Doug Mattis' BRILLIANT "Hypnotize" and "Imitation" programs, which I just love. They make me smile! From where do you draw inspiration for your choreography?
A: Doug and I are a very collaborative team when we work together. I love movement that looks good... pretty simple. I know I did like the idea of the dream pushing and pulling him in different directions. I think we got a bit of the feel of drifting in a dream state. Thankfully I had been to a few hypnotist shows that were so big in the 80's and 90's! With any competitive piece you still have to get the job done with pockets of interest. Doug was the mastermind behind "Imitation". The imitating part choreographed itself. I did most of my work on the last jazz section. It was just fun movement with no story needed. I love jazz and I think I move best to that genre.
Q: You were the original skater to perform Douglas Webster's "Transitions" with the Ice Theatre Of New York. How did you first become involved with Ice Theatre Of New York? How has it changed skating for the better?
A: The very first thing I did when I turned pro was call Moira at Ice Theatre Of New York. I can't remember exactly how I had heard about them but I called and she said to come to New York and take class. I took the train from Montreal (11 hours!) and stayed with her skating partner Patrick within walking distance from the old Sky Rink. Little did I know I'd be taking class with John Curry! I think that changed my life. He was very official when he taught class. I don't remember speaking to him and I just tried to follow the best I could. I watched him on a free skate session and I remember him taking his guards off, placing them on the boards and skating away, such intent in every move he made right down to just taking off his guards. I'll never forget it. Moira was great and gave me an open invitation to come and work with Ice Theatre Of New York. It wasn't until I went back years later as a guest and eventually as a company member that I really got to work with them. Doug Webster was fantastic to work with and Judy Blumberg put me through my paces. Rehearsals were always fun, intense, crazy and hysterical. I remember Doug and I working on our tango in the corner and we would laugh our heads off and Judy would not be happy with us... we were reprimanded on numerous occasions. Ice Theatre Of New York was a great place to work with amazing choreographers (dancers and skaters) and be involved in experimental pieces I would not otherwise have the opportunity doing. I really got to expand my language as a skater and push the way I moved, especially in "Transitions". "Transitions" is a number other than "Secret" that really pushed me emotionally. I really had to go to an emotional place. I had to truly surrender myself to Doug's direction and vision of the character. I think everyone that has ever skated "Transitions" would say the same thing. I wanted to do it justice for Doug. We all wanted to be our best because we knew it was a deeply personal and emotional piece. Over the past few years I would have liked to do some work with Ice Theatre Of New York but I always had schedule conflicts. I have a special place in my heart for them.
Q: Is the current IJS judging system acceptable? How do you THINK competitive skating should be judged?
A: As Willy Bietak said, "once they took away the 6.0 they took away the drama". I think there is less accountability due to anonymity and I especially hate how on NBC shows the points accumulating in the corner of the screen. We know the marks before the skater knows... talk about anti-climatic. I also think they should bring back the classic 2 minute short. Ahh... the added stress of only having 7 elements and sometimes blowing the last and most simple of elements. The events were fast-paced, stressful and dramatic. When you strip down skating and simplify it you have nothing to hide behind and your real skill and expertise of the language is revealed. Most skaters are not that interesting if you were to replace all their jumps with doubles.
Q: Looking at the skating at the Sochi Olympics, what was the good, bad and ugly in your opinion?
A: The good: Mao Asada's long. The bad: The men falling so much. The ugly: the Facebook and Twitter firestorm about the judging... and wearing gloves to compete! Hate it!
Q: Who are your three favourite skaters of all time and why?
A: Loaded question. I have different favourites at different times and all for different reasons. No one skater is everything for me. How about 3 categories (although there are more in my head) and I'll pick one skater out of numerous skaters in each category? For precision, John Curry. For sensuality, Cindy Stuart. For versatility, Kurt Browning. There are SO many great skaters who have had an influence on my skating I wish everyone could have seen them skate at one time. There are some really exciting new young and dynamic skaters that I love as well who are very motivating to be around.
Q: To be asked specifically by Toller Cranston to perform in his farewell show doesn't just happen. What is your relationship with Toller like and what do you respect most about him as a skater, artist and person?
A: Actually, I invited myself. I was skating at the Cricket Club one day and Toller was there practicing (along with an 11 year old Shawn Sawyer) and he told me he was there trying to get ready for a TV special in a couple of weeks. I said to him "I can't believe you're having a TV special and you didn't ask me to skate!" He asked to see what I was working on and I skated "Secret" for him. After I had skated the number he asked how long it was. I told him 4 minutes in two movements. He said I would have to cut it down and that it was too self indulgent even for him. To which I answered, "I refuse to compromise the integrity of the piece. All or nothing." He pushed me aside and simultaneously said "OK, you're in." I met him at a very young age. He and my coach Thom grew up skating together, and then got to work with him a few times as a professional. Whenever we cross paths we usually have a good laugh. I do like that he pushed the boundaries and really brought dramatic performance into the rink. I admire he has no inhibitions when he skates, especially when he interprets. I have been privileged to see him in action on a few occasions.
Q: What is the program "Secret" about?
A: "Secret" was really a personal piece for me and the most cathartic and visceral piece I ever created. It was the first and only time that I put something on the ice that was happening at that very moment. I received some information in confidence and I couldn't digest it immediately. I wasn't sure how I felt about it and went though a few emotions until I got to acceptance. It was a very clear and effortless piece to create. I was even surprised with how quickly it came together.
Q: What's one thing about you most people don't know?
A: That if I could do it all over again, I would be a dancer. This does not mean I don't love skating but I have always been drawn to the lifestyle, dedication and sacrifice dancers make. I would love to feel and know that experience.
Q: Word on the ice is that you've got some massive things planned for skating. What can you share at this point?
A: Being injured right now has made me sit down and start working on some things I've been wanting to do for a while. Getting my thoughts organized can be an arduous task at times. They are in the fetal stage and I am just trying to get through the first trimester before I feel they are something I can talk about with the masses. One thing I do know is that I'm not done with this body yet and would love to skate more. I have always believed that skaters over 40 still have a lot to offer. I think so many people lose touch with their skater selves and I want to stay connected as long as possible (don't worry, I do have friends who will say "get off the stage" at the right moment). I will always consider myself a skater first.
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