Behind the Program, Ep. 6: Manta and Johnson, 2016-17 Free Dance

by Jacquelyn Thayer

In ice dance’s current sea of soft lyricals, a free dance with some grit is bound to stand out. And from a team whose last free showed a buoyant, vintage bent, the contrast is even more striking.

Karina Manta and Joe Johnson, seventh at last season’s U.S. Nationals and bronze medalists at 2015’s Autumn Classic International, their debut international event, opted with choreographer and 1984 Olympic champion Christopher Dean to take a new tack as they entered their second year at the senior level — and the chance to demonstrate some diversity, after making that initial mark with a Scott Joplin-scored ragtime dance, proved a driving goal.

Musical selections for the team, based at Colorado Springs’ Air Force Academy, are a group effort; all parties should ideally feel connected to a choice. “We want to skate to pieces Christopher feels inspired by as well as music we are passionate about, so at the start of this year, he gave us a playlist, and we all worked together to narrow down our favorites,” said Johnson.

The inspiration struck with a hard rock classic from Aerosmith.

“The choice actually came quite naturally,” said Manta. “Christopher, Joe, Patti [Gottwein, the couple’s coach], and I were all together off ice listening to music, and ‘Dream On’ just shuffled onto Christopher’s iPod, and in a really cheesy and cliché manner, we all kind of looked at each other and said, ‘This is it!’ I think it’s a really powerful song that resonates with a lot of people, and I know Joe and I both feel truly connected to the program.”

Dean, who also created a free dance to the piece in 2006 for Trina Pratt and Todd Gilles, agreed that the selection helped show a different dimension for the team.

“They are still a new and young team discovering their strengths and I think this music and theme is part of their evolution and maturing into a stronger dance team,” he said.

The two debuted their free dance at July’s Lake Placid Ice Dance International, following it up with another run-through at August’s Dance Chicago club event, where they improved their technical mark by almost three points from the first outing. The early mileage — in advance of their first-ever Challenger at the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic — is a component of the larger matter of honing a difficult piece. Manta describes the initial choreography process with Dean as one of “athleticism.”

“Joe and I always joke about how tired our bodies get in the off season when we first start choreographing, just because Christopher brings some of the most innovative and original movement to the table and it always takes time for your body to adjust to it,” she said. “Meanwhile, he can still execute all of it to near perfection — he’s such an incredible athlete.”

And time, she continued, is fundamental to program growth.

“Another aspect that I think has become really important to our process is trust — we’ve learned that Christopher’s work isn’t choreography that nicely falls into place after a week or two,” she said. “It takes a lot of time, and belief in the process, but its unbelievably rewarding when things do start coming together.”

Dean, who must work on a more irregular schedule with choreography clients who train elsewhere, appreciates the consistency of choreographing for a couple at his own base.

“I have found that building a relationship with a team, and getting to work with them on a day to day basis allows for so much subtlety in what you do as a choreographer and being able to hone the work, constantly making small changes that can make a difference,” he said. “I once read that a good painter, the first 10 minutes are critical, but for a great painter it’s the last 10 minutes. So being able to be there on a constant basis makes a big difference.”

The team has a solid extended support staff. Gottwein oversees general training and technical work; Dean their polishing and periodization schedule. Two additional former ice dancers of more recent eras — five-time World and Olympic medalist Ben Agosto and 2012 U.S. National pewter medalist Logan Giulietti-Schmitt — aid in additional training of individual elements.

“After all is done at 12, we work with trainers off-ice at the National Strength and Conditioning Association for our cardio and strength training, and we do a light workout on Saturday with Sunday being a total day of rest,” concluded Johnson. “Ballet and Gyrotonic mix in, alternating by the day.”

But if their material has proven athletically rigorous, the harder-edged movement also carries its fair share of aesthetic challenges.

“People don’t necessarily associate rock music with typical ice dance movement,” said Manta. “So translating the music to movement in a way that still has qualities associated with ice dance, while also staying true to the character of the piece has taken a large investment of time and care. However, we think it is well worth the time, and it is going to create something truly special as it develops throughout this season.”

Whatever additional concerns may arise, Dean thinks a right music choice is fundamental for the skaters’ inspiration and motivation — the season’s first major step.

“Then you have to be passionate and honest to how you feel about the music and choreography,” he said. “You will get feedback and criticism, and you take that on board, but at the end of the day it’s the team that has to stand up and perform what they think is the best they can be. That is being true to themselves, and if they can do that having evolved through all the processes of competition and critique and say we believe in what we are doing and we did our best, that is the measure of progress and maturing.”

For Manta and Johnson, this year’s direction has evoked a natural passion.

“I know that it is by far the most I’ve ever enjoyed skating a free dance, and Joe and I both feel so personally connected to the music and choreography,” said Manta. “We just enjoy skating the program, and that’s a really important thing to come readily when you’re training it everyday.”

CORRECTION: The article initially misidentified Manta and Johnson’s training base. They train at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.