by Anne Calder | Photos by Robin Ritoss & Julia Komarova
Madison Chock & Evan Bates teamed up in July 2011. Both had successful careers with their previous partners, plus gold medal performances at the 2008 (Bates) and 2009 (Chock) World Junior Championships.
Two and a half years later they were named to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic team after winning silver at Nationals in Boston. The following season was a breakthrough both internationally and at home, winning gold at two Grand Prix events and silver at the Final. In Greensboro, NC, they won the 2015 National title before collecting silver at the Four Continents and the World Championships. The team was on a roll.
In September, they won gold at the 2015 Nebelhorn Trophy with a short dance to “Dark Eyes” and a free program to a Rachmaninoff piano concerto. However, the glow of victory quickly lost its shine. Feedback suggested their short dance did not fit the intended rhythm.
With three weeks until their first Grand Prix event, Team Shpilband produced the third short dance of the season. Unfortunately, the dancers spent so much time playing “catch-up” with the new program, the tweaking to the free dance was more a ‘lick and a promise’.
It was an exhausting experience for Chock & Bates. They had never been in such a challenging situation before, with so many changes.
Prior to Nationals in January, they had their first solid month of practicing just routines with no more adjustments. Unfortunately, they lost their U.S. title to the Shibutani siblings and slipped to third at the World Championships.
The team then decided it was time for some bold moves.
Bates reflected on the season.
“It was a tough one for us – not just the results, but also with the training, the performances and the competitions,” Bates said. “We were frustrated. In the end we medaled at Worlds. We were able to feel good about ourselves, but it fueled the fire for us to search a little bit and look within ourselves and see what it was we needed to change – what we needed to find in order to get back on top of the national podium. It was getting more and more competitive, so we needed to find a new departure from what we were doing.”
“Both programs (this season) are edgier, especially compared to last year,” Chock added. “Everything was long and soft, and this has power in a different way. This is more sharp and more demanding – dramatic for us – I guess more modern.”
Short dance rhythms selected for 2016/17 were Midnight Blues plus one or more of the following: Swing and Hip Hop.
When Chock & Bates chose hip hop for their second rhythm, they wanted a top-notch choreographer to guide them through the unfamiliar waters of the genre. The natural choice was Rohene Ward, who unlike many choreographers could take the hip hop program from the floor to the ice. He didn’t just give directions; he skated and danced the popping, locking and breaking hip-hop moves.
The team was familiar with Ward since he had programmed a Beyoncé number for them for the 2016 Stars on Ice tour.
“Since Rohene skates and is a great (hip hop) dancer, it melds really well,” Chock explained.
Together they picked the music – “Bad to the Bone” and “Uptown Funk” – and Ward created.
They spent the summer working with the Colorado-based artist learning the footwork and lingo that were inherently instinctive to Ward’s persona but strange to them.
Unlike previous short dance rhythms, it didn’t come with a written set of instructions. Ward personalized the dance moves, and Chock & Bates spent hours on the floor and ice perfecting their unison and unique style.
“When it comes to choreography he (Ward) is so creative that it made it very interesting working with him,” Chock said.
The team wanted to go a little outside the box with their free dance. Coach Igor Shpilband picked the song “Under Pressure”, which was a collaborative effort between the rock band Queen and David Bowie, and suggested Christopher Dean as the choreographer.
Shpilband’s friend In Russia actually orchestrated the middle section. He and his band did a remake of “Under Pressure” and thought it was a great skating piece.
“That slow part is completely original,” Bates said. “We told Christopher about our music choice, and he thought it was a winner. The stars were just sort of lined up.”
“Putting it together with Christopher and working with Igor really felt natural for us,” Chock explained. “It’s a different style. We’ve done more romantic programs – more classical – and this is a departure from that.”
“We were thrilled to work with Christopher,” Bates added. “He was exactly what we needed – a fresh start – a new set of eyes – a new brain. Going into it, we were a bit nervous, but he was great. He was very invested in all concepts – even about the costumes.”
Rohene Ward and Christopher Dean are both based in the Rocky Mountain foothills of central Colorado. However, living along Interstate 25 is their only common denominator.
“Going from Rohene to Christopher was very different,” Bates said. “When we were in Colorado, their ice rinks were about a mile apart. It was nice and convenient for us to be able to go from the Air Force Academy (Dean) to Monument (Ward), but we couldn’t have made a bigger switch.”
Bates continued with his comparison of the styles of both artists.
“Rohene comes up with things in the moment. Christopher is very thought out. It’s not that Rohene doesn’t plan – they have a different style.”
“With Christopher, we planned this program for months before we even stepped foot on the ice – talking about music – talking about concepts.”
“With Rohene, we were literally at the rink, and we picked our music, and then we stepped on the ice.”
“It’s really (two) different worlds.”
“Rohene is a different kind of thinker,” Bates added. “He hasn’t worked extensively with ice dancers until this year. It’s really amazing to see his brain working. He’s spreading his wings as a choreographer, and we are really excited.”
“Christopher Dean challenged us,” Chock said.
“Just the name is intimidating – the reputation – but the minute we stepped on the ice, he made it about us, about our program,” Bates added. “He was giving all of his ideas and positive energy to us.”
The team has modified a few areas since their last competition in Russia.
“We took Rohene with us to the Rostelecom Cup. Afterwards, we touched up some of our choreography in Novi. We plan to revisit with Christopher after the Final, but we have enhanced some pieces of our free dance and look forward to showing our changes in Marseille.”
“Under Pressure” is a different genre from the free dances of the other top ice dance teams. The team dared to be different and has no regrets.
“We are happy with our decision to try a new genre this season. It was important for us to show a new side of our skating and ourselves. With the depth of ice dance, in order to stand out, you have to do something different. We feel “Under Pressure helps us do that.”
“It’s such an iconic song. When Bowie passed, it became relevant again. Even now you see his culture. People are more accepting of being different. It’s his whole mantra. What he was about. These programs are different for us, too.”