Young Artist's Showcase 2
By: Terri Milner Tarquini
The Young Artists Showcase (YAS2) completed its intense online and live competition for the second year, fulfilling the wishes of its creator, Audrey Weisiger. Her goal is to encourage and nurture blossoming choreographers and to keep the memory of a famous choreographer alive.
“This competition is all about finding the hidden gem and giving them the opportunity to create and learn and show and grow,” Weisiger, the World and Olympic coach, said.
And show they did. Five competitors in the Grassroots division (14-20 years of age) and eight competitors in the Champions division (21 and over) were selected from resumes and video bios sent in from all over the United States and Great Britain. The selected competitors were then given five separate challenges to be choreographed, performed, taped and put on YouTube once a week. They pulled out all of the stops for challenges that ran the gamut from “Make ‘Em Smile” to “All Tied Up” to “A Brian Wright Tribute.”
Wright, who passed away at age 42 in 2003 of AIDS, choreographed for skaters such as Kristi Yamaguchi, Scott Williams, Michael Weiss and Michelle Kwan.
“Keeping Brian Wright’s legacy going in this way was important to me,” said Weisiger, who had the competitors study Wright’s work, as well as watch clips and read excerpts of interviews. “There’s a difference between how things were done then and how they’re done now. It’s important they know that and that they know who he was and what he meant to the sport.”
Under the International Judging System (IJS), with its increased emphasis on awarding specific levels for difficulty, many feel the current performances are missing the choreographic passion and diversity of the past.
“I understand they had to do something to quantify things and probably the only way to do it is give a level 3 or 4 for going up, down, all around,” Weisiger said. “But what we have now is kids doing math on ice. We have lost what I call ‘the soul’ of the program.”
In the Champions division, bringing soul and so much more to performances ranging from a high-energy version of the Nutcracker to a piece portraying four puppets discovering a human heart, the winner was Adam Blake, 23, of Knoxville, Tennessee.
“This has been the biggest learning experience in my choreographic career,” said Blake, a principal skater for Disney on Ice for the last five years. “It was such an amazing experience.”
Judged on a five-star rating system, the competitors were judged at different points in the competition by some well-known names in figure skating, including Sarah Kawahara, two-time Emmy winner and choreographer for the 2002 Winter Olympics opening and closing ceremonies; John Zimmerman, Olympic pairs skater; Karen Kwan Oppegard, international ladies competitor; and Tom Dickson, winner of PSA’s Choreographer of the Year Award multiple times.
“Tom gave me a one-star rating on one of the challenges that I got higher scores on from the other judges. But that one star made a huge impression on me and I learned a lot from what he said,” Blake said. “And when you have Dan Hollander, the king of on-ice comedy, judging the comedy challenge, you just know that you are so lucky to be getting that type of feedback. It’s all about making the choreography as relatable as possible so the audience can actually feel something.”
But how does one integrate feeling when incorporating a prop such as a Champion Cord into the performance, as the competitors were required to do for the “All Tied Up” challenge?
“It always inspires choreographers when you have a prop to use in your piece. I think it was also a challenging prop, as most use a simple hat or chair,” Michael Weiss, two-time Olympic men’s competitor, and judge for the “All Tied Up” challenge, said. “I think, as skaters and choreographers, the best thing for development is to be challenged to work outside your ‘comfort zone.’ A lot of the skaters surprised themselves at how fun and beneficial the challenge ended up being.”
The challenges presented themselves in ways never imagined for Grassroots winner Amanda Hofmann, 16, from Seattle, Washington, who was training as a senior lady for sectionals at the same time she was choreographing and submitting her challenges on YouTube.
“It was crazy. I did all of the challenges in basically two weeks because I was going to be gone at sectionals,” said Hofmann, who choreographed and skated to such songs as “Purple People Eater” and “Stairway to Heaven. It was such a great chance to express myself and really grow.”
As a “Project Runway on ice,” as Weisiger called it, the idea of putting the YAS2 competition on YouTube was tailor-made for this competition at this time.
“It was all about economizing for the participants. Let’s face it, skating is too expensive. Most families cannot afford an elite competitor so a lot of young choreographers are struggling. I wanted to make participation affordable,” Weisiger said, regarding the $75 entry fee, which entitles all applicants, whether selected or not, to a critique from a master judge. “Also, the internet is how this generation gets all of their information.”
YAS2 also presented a rare opportunity in figure skating: a completely fair component to the competition. Known as the “Secret Talent,” the Champions finalists were given the same piece of music and the same skaters to choreograph for; as were the Grassroots finalists. The programs were then performed at a live show in Washington, DC, in December, with the judges not knowing who had choreographed the pieces until the winners, Blake, who won $2,500 and the chance to showcase his work at Rockefeller Center; and Hofmann, who won $1,000; and runners-up Robert Mauti (Champions division) and Erynn Komes (Grassroots division), were announced.
“I wanted something that was 100 percent fair,” said Weisiger, who thinks up all of the challenges with the “approval of loyal and honest friends and colleagues.” “The best part was how different all of the interpretations were. I think everything these kids do is just amazing.”
The skaters for the Champions division were Melissa Gregory and Denis Petukhov, married ice dance partners who won four silver medals and two bronze medals at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships and competed at the 2006 Winter Olympics. The skater for the Grassroots division was Emmanuel Savary, who won the 2009 Intermediate Men’s U.S. Champion at 10 years old and was the 2010 U.S. Novice Men’s Silver Medalist.
“Choreographing for Melissa and Denis was amazing,” said Blake, who is currently also working on an all hip-hop and trick-skating show called “Freezestyle.” “And it showcased what is so cool about choreography. Robert’s piece was so different than mine. That ideas could be so different to the same music is what I love about choreography.”
“I had never really choreographed for someone else before so it was such a different experience,” Hofmann said. “But Emmanuel is such an amazing skater and he picked up on everything so quickly, it made it so great. And I loved watching what Erynn did with it as well. It was such a rush.”
Unfortunately, it’s a rush that might not be able to be felt by a third year of Young Artists Showcase competitors.
“Financially, it’s a bomb,” Weisiger said, noting the long list of judges for the various challenges and for the live show who donated their time, money out of her own pocket and even solicited Facebook donations used to pay for airfare. “I’ve pursued corporate sponsorship, but haven’t gotten it yet. That’s what we really need.”
Interested competitors or sponsors can contact Weisiger at firstname.lastname@example.org to express interest in YAS3.
“I’ll do it again if I hear that the interest is out there. It’s so worth it,” she said. “We’re investing not just in skating, we’re investing in youth.”