Finally, after 11 years, it was time to do “Evita.”
It just happened. The stars were aligned. Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier wanted to do “Evita” 11 years ago when they first teamed up, but the time was never right.
It’s so right, they used it to win the Skate Canada International on Saturday with a flurry of points, 128.47 for “Evita,” for a score of 215.70 overall, leaving their closest competition, the lively Lilah Fear and Lewis Gibson of Great Britain 6.52 points behind them.
Marjorie Lavoie and Zach Lagha, Canadians in the wings, won their first Grand Prix medal, a bronze, with their exquisite “Nureyev” routine. Standing ovations for all.
“Our first season together was the first time it [Evita], came up,” Poirier said. “And it’s come up a few times since then. And it never felt like the right moment.”
After all, it’s a complex story, for many reasons.
“First you kind of have to decide, since we’re two people performing it, she’s obviously playing Evita.
“And you know, am I playing Che [Guevera, Argentine revolutionary)? Or am I playing criminal Peron [Eva Peron’s husband, Juan Peron], who are the two main male characters in the story and in the musical. And that’s a big choice to make.”
The next task was to select the right pieces of music to tell a complicated and difficult story. “And I think that was the hardest part,” Poirier said.
They started tinkering with a music cut for the 2020-2021 season, the first season of the pandemic. But then their preparation time dwindled and they just didn’t have enough time to develop it in a way they could sell it and “really do it justice,” Poirier said.
So it went back on the shelf as Gilles and Poirier dealt with COVID, an Olympic season, expectations after winning a world bronze medal and the grind of it all.
To start with, the Olympic season is always a pressure cooker. For everybody. “This is what we’ve been through in our experience every time, whether it’s gone the way we wanted to or not,” Poirier said.
“We definitely put added pressure on ourselves because we felt going in as world medalists, that we could win a medal and that was something we really cared about, and we wanted to direct our full energy towards.”
Also, just trying not to catch COVID leading up to the Games took a special toll on the team. Poirier calls it the hardest challenge. “The communication around it was very strict,” he said. “I think it was very easy to feel potentially paranoid.
“In that period, we felt isolated and on edge,” he said. “It was something you could definitely take some mitigating measures, like masking, keeping distance away from people and manage who we were with, but it isn’t something as entirely under our control in the way that training is. I think that felt particularly stressful. Going through that process coloured our experience. Every athlete was in that position, so it was not unique to us, but it was definitely an additional challenge this Olympic season.”
After failing to win a medal at both the Olympics and at worlds, Gilles and Poirier joined the Stars On Ice tour, where they could play to crowds they had missed for the past couple of years. They found it really enjoyable, but at the end, “we were definitely tired from the accumulation of it all, and the whole season, from not really having much off time,” Poirier said.
They took an unprecedented six weeks off, when they might in the past have taken two or three. They did things that recharged them, spent time with family, travelled, and other non-skating activities. Gilles got engaged.
At the end of those six weeks, however, they didn’t have an inkling of how they were going to feel. They had been so burnt out. But they did find one thing: “We were having an absolute blast performing for people [at Stars On Ice],” Gilles said. “And that kind of sparked our interest a little bit in possibly skating again.
“But even talking about it was so hard because we were just like: ‘I don’t know. I don’t know. Am I ready for this? Can I do this again.’ But I think that the moments we created during Stars and the moments we had with the cast, I think it was really like: ‘Wow, we really do love this. And maybe there is some possibility that we can continue to love this. And let’s take the time to reset, be human, come back and see if we wanted to do it.’”
They hadn’t even talked to the coaches. During the six weeks off, they would hear questions: ‘Are you coming back? Do we have programs?’
Gilles and Poirier met a few days before they got back onto the ice and the coaches blurted: “We don’t even know your decision.”
The skaters replied: “We didn’t know our decision until about three days ago.”
Normally the team has music ideas in January before the season starts. When they started, they would know what they were doing. They would have a plan.
They got back on the ice on the second week of July. “We just kind of showed up with nothing organized, no plan, no music ideas,” Gilles said. “We hadn’t even talked about it at all. And we just allowed ourselves to skate for that first week. And slowly but surely we, obviously we had to make decisions because time was a-ticking. But we didn’t rush.”
They didn’t feel they needed to be totally ready for the high performance camp. They knew a Challenger event was out of the question. There was even a possibility in their minds that they wouldn’t be ready for the Grand Prix season at all. They just wanted to make sure that everything was how they wanted it to be.
They went in blindly. They just wanted to skate with joy.
They took a long time adjusting small technical things to conform to new post-Olympic Congress rule changes. They wanted to make sure they would get the top levels.
They worked alone in Scarborough, under the radar. Nobody talked about them. Nobody seemed to wonder. They liked that. They needed that.
“We just want to be able to enjoy the process and not get too competitive and too all over ourselves if things don’t go well,” Gilles said. “We just want to enjoy the process this year and we’ll see what comes.”
It’s working so far.
Their rhythm dance was a hit, getting the fifth-highest score in history at first performance. Gilles says when they step out on the ice to do this modern, sexy Latin rhythm, they start smiling. “I think that it is going to be infectious and I think the audience can really get tied in,” she said.
With “Evita,” they finally found the exact cuts they wanted to portray the story. Gilles starts with a tender moment, as they crouch, her hand resting on Poirier’s knee. Then they sweep around the ice, Gilles in the brightest red dress on the planet, rather simple, Poirier in an army-green shirt. Their GOE piled up at every element.
“Evita” just kind of created itself, out of air, out of their emotions. No choreography was forced. The programs flowed together quickly. The moment was there.
That gave them confidence. They are also rested, mentally healthy. “Everything is right where it needs to be,” Gilles said.
Their next Grand Prix is in Finland. Gilles said: “I think we expect to be in medal contention everywhere. That’s where we aim. There are still things we want to accomplish and things we want to do.
“We’re trying to focus on the feelings and the emotions we create throughout this season and hope the medal comes. It was very much results-focused last year and trying not to get COVID. It was easy to get swept away in that mindset.”