by Jacquelyn Thayer
After an undefeated comeback season in 2016-17, silver at December’s Grand Prix Final has only further stoked the Olympic goals for Canadian ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir ahead of next week’s Canadian Tire National Skating Championships, where they’ll aim to win their eighth title as senior competitors.
“We don’t plan on coming second at the Olympics like we did at Grand Prix Final,” said Moir in a conference call today. “So we kind of went back to the drawing board. We’re excited to showcase a lot of new elements for us and a couple of big [program] changes that we’re really excited about.”
The most notable? Music edits in the back half of their Moulin Rouge free. With “Come What May” to this point ending the program on a soft, subtle downbeat, the goal now is greater Olympic audience appeal via “a bigger, more theatrical ending,” with the love story, as presented through Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman’s vocals, more heavily emphasized.
But if popular appeal is a goal with this refreshed ending, the central aim in skating to one of the sport’s more well-worn musical selections has been to upend conventional expectations.
“We knew with Moulin Rouge as music that we would have to really take a different approach choreographically,” said Virtue. “We really wanted a sort of sleek, modern, contemporary aesthetic overall.”
The emotional range progressing from “El Tango de Roxanne” to “Come What May” — incorporating jealousy and aggression, passion and a more romantic love — demanded careful interpretation. “There’s so much to tell and we’re trying to tell that a little more physically than anything,” continued Virtue. “So just having various points of departure throughout, incorporating those tango movements while also trying to think, okay, what would be the normal approach to this specific beat or this melody or something, and trying to go in a different direction.”
Hip hop and contemporary dance instructor Sam Chouinard created the program’s overall look on the floor, with skating choreographer David Wilson and coach-choreographer Marie-France Dubreuil then shifting it to the ice.
“At this point, it seems we’ve sort of established a particular style of moving on the ice and we kind of wanted to stay away from that, in a way,” said Virtue — a particular challenge given a lengthy and diverse body of work. “I know that we get into a more lyrical feeling in the second half of the program, but we wanted to make sure that when we took the ice for our third Olympic Games, we weren’t the same team — it was a different Tessa and Scott, moving differently, expressing differently, skating differently, and that’s what we continue to strive for.”
More specific technical details on any tweaks to the free dance and their highly intricate Latin ballroom short dance remain to be unveiled at next week’s Nationals. But the holistic adjustment has been one of “opening up” choreography in both programs, a change inspired by their own video reviews. “There were some parts where we just felt suffocated in the movement, and that showed on the tape,” said Moir.
The couple have also had a more direct hand in one program this season: an exhibition to the Tragically Hip’s “Long Time Running,” choreographed by the duo themselves the day of its debut at October’s Skate Canada International. Hip lead vocalist Gord Downie, who faced a year-long public battle with brain cancer, passed away little more than a week prior to the Grand Prix competition.
“It was really exciting to be able to kind of pay tribute to somebody who has really had an effect on Canada and the culture of our country,” said Moir, who, with Virtue, is an avid Hip fan. “So Tessa and I had been listening to the Hip in the rink for quite a while after Gord, and then it just felt right, you know? We woke up that morning, right after the free dance. I turned to Tessa and Marie-France and Patrice [Lauzon], and before Marie-France and Patrice got on the plane, I was like, I really want to skate to the Hip for Gord. And they all looked at me and Tessa’s like, for sure we can do that! And then Marie-France and Patrice were just like, well, we’re leaving now, so good luck.”
It required some special attention in gala practice, but came together as needed. “It’s pretty neat — we’ve never done a tribute program like that before and it still makes us feel very special,” continued Moir. “But we didn’t have a lot of time to prepare it. We were pretty stressed and a lot of thought went into that, you know? We kind of had to pull things together. But it was a neat process and Tessa and I did our best to make as good a tribute as we could in 12 hours.”
Despite the particularities of program revision, feedback, art and technique, the season — and the Canadian Championships — come down to one goal.
“You guys all know how we feel — we want to win,” said Moir. “We want to win Nationals first and we want to go on to win the Olympics. That’s the way it is.”