How wistful it must feel when the loveliness of your signature piece becomes like “chalk marks in a rainstorm.” When you must move on.
Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier have left behind the outrageously beautiful “Vincent” creation of last season for new discoveries. And they have gone to exquisite places to find just the thing. At Autumn Classic in Oakville, Ont., this week, we shall see their encores: “Mack and Mabel” for their rhythm dance and Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” for their free dance.
Of course, they had to find new programs that would resonate with the eyeballs that watch them in the way that “Vincent” did. It was a magnificent example of their theme for this quadrennial, to do memorable, heartfelt routines they call “programs for the people.” It’s the best description they can muster. They can’t put a label on what made “Vincent” special, other than people become connected to the emotions and the feelings of the piece. It’s a kind of story telling that works.
The main stipulation for this season’s free skate: a Canadian artist was a must for the world figure skating championships next March in Montreal. Home turf. Their first world championship was in London, the previous time a worlds was in this country seven years ago. This one will be special. Gilles and Poirier feel they have more to offer than back then, that they are at the cusp of their journey’s purpose.
So now it’s time for Joni Mitchell, an iconic Canadian if there was one. An artist. A poet. A musician who tuned her guitar in non-standard ways, at first to accommodate the polio she suffered as a child. The blond prairie girl known for such intricate pickings on that guitar, then looser and more rhythmic as she grew older, sometimes using pressure slaps. An artist with a paintbrush, she designed her own album covers. At artist with words, she created endless bon mots craved by others. Her “Both Sides Now” is one of the most covered songs ever, with 1,200 versions. No wonder she got along so well with Leonard Cohen. Birds of a feather, indeed.
Coach Carol Lane, and Gilles and Poirier have been fans of Mitchell for a long time. All of them loved the 2003 movie “Love Actually,” in which Emma Thompson played the part of a stay-at-home wife who discovers an expensive necklace in her husband’s coat pocket and assumes it is her Christmas present. But the truth is, the jewelry is meant for a lover, and Emma gets a Joni Mitchell CD. (Not such a bad thing in my books.)
“She’s bawling in her room by herself and there is a moment when she has to put her face on and see her kids,” Gilles said. “And again, it was like this moment: everybody feels for her.”
Although Mitchell’s CD seemed to be second-prize to a distraught house wife, her work can lead Gilles and Poirier where they need to go. How can a program with words like this not be magical?
“Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I’ve looked at clouds that way.
But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way.
I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It’s clouds’ illusions I recall.
I really don’t know clouds at all.”
The little Lane-Gilles-Poirier camp has spent a long time getting this one right. (As they did last season.) “It’s been kind of a slow process for us because we’ve been tweaking our music to make it work for the rules,” Gilles said. “I think it’s a very intimate process between all of us and our coaches because I think we strongly believe that this is going to be a wonderful program for so many people in the same way ‘Vincent’ was. We wanted to keep it under wraps for a long time. I think both of us are very excited to show the world this new piece of art that we have created. And we just hope that we can do it justice.”
Imagine this: The choreography feeds off the words. “There is so much mirroring in this program, because there are two sides to everything,” Poirier said.
They also wanted to play with the song’s ambiguities, especially where each verse ends. In Mitchell’s words, she doesn’t really know clouds at all, or love at all, or life at all. “Well something’s lost, but something’s gained/in living every day,” she warbles.
“On one hand, that is sort of really devastating to admit that you don’t understand things and things don’t work the way you want them to,” Poirier said.
“But at the same time, it’s very freeing, to just let go and accept that you won’t understand things, that you won’t have control over things, that your life won’t turn out exactly the way you want it to.” So Gilles and Poirier play off these two sentiments in the choreography.
“It’s really part of growing up,” Gilles said. Indeed, they have grown as skaters. And as people. Life’s obstacles do that to you.
“We’ve had competition barriers,” Gilles said. “We’ve had disappointments not making the Olympic team on our first go. So there’s all these things we can finally pull from our own life and just lay it out on the ice and perform it.
“I think this is why we are starting to come into our own because we are real and this is us. And I think this is why this program will be so special to people, because people can go: ‘Yeah, things don’t work.’ But you keep moving forward. There is still life ahead. There is a light forward. Clouds keep moving. It rains, but then the clouds are really nice to watch. It’s going to be really special.”
They have searched for a very special recording of Mitchell singing “Both Sides Now.” Judy Collins made the song a hit before Mitchell ever recorded it for herself. In 2000, our Joni made yet another intriguing recording as a mature singer when her voice was huskier and she had the backing of a full orchestra. (Just try to find that version. It’s as scarce as pennies in Canada.) It was also the one used at the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Acrobats flew around the stage during the song. Each province had a portrait. When it came to Saskatchewan, where Mitchell was from, every time an aerial acrobat would touch the ground, a little field of wheat would spring up. Interpret that the way you like.
Doesn’t Mitchell do that to you?
“Vincent” will still always follow Gilles and Poirier in waves of dreams and schemes and circus crowds. Every time they performed “Vincent,” they felt a different emotional pull, from the audience, from themselves, from the situation they were in. Getting onto the podium at Four Continents was an incredible moment. “It was a moment that we felt we even skated better than nationals – and we felt nationals was such an incredible moment, and we laid down a great performance,” Gilles said. “We really felt that was our year, that we could be on top of the podium. But we went to Four Continents, and we gave it again. And it was being able to do it back to back and even stronger than the time before, made it even more special.”
They did the program during the Stars On Ice tour during the spring, although they compressed it. But they skated under spotlights and sometimes, when it was so black, they could not see the audience reaction. There was applause, yes. And a lot of screaming. But one day, the tour physiotherapist came to them and said: “Do you guys realize that you have had standing ovations four nights in a row?” Well, no!
“That was really cool,” Gilles said. “It was great appreciation for what we do.’ Vincent’ had so many special moments.”
“Vincent” allowed them to live so much, to grow up as competitors, and people. And it really showed them the direction in which they needed to move to grow, to keep pushing and climb up the ranks. The routine has endless good memories.
With all of the experiences behind them, and with a fresh look to this season, Gilles and Poirier say they want to “win everything.”
They want to be Canadian champions. They won’t get a tussle out of Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje who are stepping aside for the season (doing the popular Battle of the Blades hockey-figure skating television extravaganza, and other projects.) Their “Vincent” helped them defeat Weaver and Poje in the free dance at both Four Continents (they were second) and again at the Canadian championships (winning the free).
“We have our eye on the prize of being at the top of each podium this year,” Gilles said. “We have a lot of work to do to get there. But we think our vehicles are the right ones for the season. It’s just making that step closer and closer to the Olympic podium. This is just another step and there are two more seasons after this. We really need to make that climb.”
They want to make the Grand Prix Final this season, recalling the pain of missing it by a hair last year, the result of one bobble. This year, they will brook no mistakes. They want to be on the world podium. ‘These are all things we are looking at,” Poirier said. “These are things we need to take ownership of.”
They will do Grand Prix events at home in Canada and in Russia.
“Vincent” will always trail behind them. But it felt a little different when Gilles and Poirier did “Vincent” at a show at the end of July. It was the first time they had done it since the Stars On Ice tour in the spring.
“It just felt a little bit wrong, and not in a bad way,” Poirier said. “Not that we didn’t like it. But I think we’ve moved on a little bit. I think it’s always something we will cherish and look back on, and something we will probably want to keep doing. And I think people will want to keep seeing it.
“But I think at the same time, as we’ve created these new programs, we’ve grown so attached to them, I think they are where our hearts are right now.”