lunge: Toronto choreographer becomes figure skating's hottest
TED FLETT, Xtra
February 16, 2006
"Peekaboo! Peek-aboo! Peekaboo!" yells the normally
soft-spoken choreographer as his figure skater glides across the
Cricket Club's rink. David Wilson wants Paulette Holtham to gaze
charmingly in his direction, the same place the judges will be
positioned next season if Holtham's competitive dreams come true.
16-year-old has hired Wilson to choreograph her romantic long
program, set to Franz Liszt's "Libestraum" in an effort
to captivate the judges. She's getting her money's worth.
go straight for the heartstrings," says Wilson, "and
sometimes the jugular."
Torontonian's choreo-graphy is receiving praise this season. Despite
the pressure of the Olympic Games in Turin, Italy and a fussy
new judging system, his skaters are succeeding.
programs have been performed at the Olympics before, but this
is the first time his roster will challenge for medals. He has
worked with five of nine members of Canada's Olympic figure skating
team, as well as a US skater and a Japanese skater who are in
Turin, making him one of the sport's hottest choreographers.
Wilson, 39, is now preparing athletes for the biggest competition
is a breakthrough, given his own struggle with self-confidence.
His personal experience with joy, tragedy and heartbreak has given
him the emotional depth to channel genuine feelings into his skaters,
inspiring their movement. Yet the same turmoil -- coping with
family deaths and dealing with his homosexuality -- also laid
a fertile ground for his insecurities to bloom.
up in Nobleton, Ontario, Wilson was just five when his sister
took him to the local figure skating club's annual ice show. He
was immediately taken in by the spectacle but had a rude awakening
when his parents registered him the following season.
thought the show and costumes were everyday," he says. "So
it took a while to warm up to it."
skating began competing in regional events at the age of nine.
Alone on the ice, figure skating's solitariness helped Wilson
escape from school bullies and the struggle of realizing he was
he was six, Wilson's 18-year-old sister, Kathy, died suddenly
of a brain aneurism.
parents were happy people," says Wilson. "They had a
wonderful love between them but a lot of tragedy. I was the one
big thing that was not tragic, but I felt it so I always had that
duality inside of me."
foray into the competitive circuit was cut short when doctors
discovered a nagging pain in his left knee was something more
serious. Wilson has Osgood-Schlatter disease, an inflammation
of the tendon beneath the knee which limited his training.
frustrated by the diagnosis, Wilson also admits, "I also
really didn't have a competitive nature."
surgery to relieve his knee, he continued skating and began touring
North America with the Ice Capades at age 18.
where I fell in love with my skating," he says. The tour
company emphasized style and artistry, with innovative choreo-grapher
the ice, Wilson fell in love with Jean-Pierre Boyer, a fellow
performer from Montreal. Boyer's confidence gave him direction
and ambition and even convinced Wilson to come out to his parents.
Wilson waffled between touring Europe with Holiday On Ice, a prestigious
figure skating tour, and going to school for architecture or psychology,
Boyer was driven to make a career out of figure skating. After
five years with Ice Capades, the two settled in Montreal and started
choreographing young skaters.
about 10 or so clients, I started to think, 'Oh, this is kind
of fun,'" says Wilson. "I liked the invention and playfulness
came the ideal client. In Wilson's eyes, Sébastien Britten
was like a modern day Toller Cranston. Artistically aware and
versatile, the stylish young skater showed great promise on the
national and world scene.
also gave Wilson and Boyer a platform to showcase their work.
and Boyer split in 1994, an Olympic year where Britten's artistry
could not fully compensate for his technical inability, leaving
him in tenth place. Britten chose to continue training with Wilson,
which helped assure Wilson he was in the right career.
that year, Wilson's father died from pneumonia. Within another
18 months, his mother died, too, from a brain aneurism.
was like bang-bang, double whammy," says Wilson. "Losing
your parents forces you to dig very deep to survive, especially
when you're emotionally dependent on them, which I was."
that time, Brian Orser had become a struggling professional skater
and had lost the sparkle that won him two Olympic silver medals.
Observing Wilson's work, Orser contacted the amateur.
had begun to rely on my strengths and I didn't really want to
go outside the box," Orser recalls. "He helped me to
go everywhere. He saved me. He totally saved me."
appreciated Wilson's unconventional approach to choreography.
Rather than applying trademark moves to an athlete, Wilson draws
the strengths out of the skater.
do a lot of soul searching and try to be sensitive to what I think
might be the direction for a skater," Wilson says. "But
I try not to preconceive too much until I'm on the ice with them
and I try to make it as least patterned as possible."
biggest testament to a figure skating choreographer's success
is a World or Olympic medal. After Orser, a monumental opportunity
presented itself. With the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, the
country's figure skating federation was pushing Midori Ito to
make a comeback given the dearth of elite skaters since her retirement.
she was the first woman to land a triple-triple combination and
triple axel, Ito was never known as an artist. Enter Wilson.
had a chance to bring something new to her and I'm very good at
that because, being Mr Nobody, I always believe you can make a
difference and I'll work extra hard to get people to see themselves
as more than they think they are," he recalls.
the skating community would never see the transformation Wilson
orchestrated; Ito opted not to vie for an Olympic spot.
continues working with skaters in Canada, travelling back and
forth between Montreal and Toronto. He had long been working a
young skater named Jeffrey Buttle; the Sudbury native's musicality,
elegance and consistency raised eyebrows in 2003.
was earning credit with the new judging system introduced following
the Salt Lake City Olympics judging scandal. With the marks came
medals and pressure. That season, Buttle didn't make it to for
Worlds after he choked at the qualifier.
season, Buttle again elicited oohs and aahs from judges and fans
and was set to take on the world -- if he could qualify at the
national championships. Wilson had usually avoided the competitiveness
of championships but as his confidence improved, he reconsidered
realized I have to show the same amount of courage as I expect
out of them," he says. "I'm getting better at that."
trip to London, Ontario proved successful. Buttle won his first
national title and so did Joannie Rochette, another of Wilson's
fact, their performances were so spectacular that Canadian ice
dance champions Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon took
notice. Once considered long-shots for an Olympic medal, the duo
hired Wilson last year and are now considered podium material.
three Canadian champions bound for Turin this fall, Wilson's talent
and ability to handle pressure was tested again when a recent
phone call came from the sport's most glamorous: American Sasha
favourite for gold, Cohen's advantage is her chutzpah and musicality.
But her Romeo And Juliet program wasn't showcasing those qualities
to her liking. With-in days, Cohen was on with ice with Wilson,
incorporating his suggestions for movement and music editing.
was the most high pressure situation I've ever faced and I dealt
with it," he says. "More confidence."
month, Cohen debuted the reworked program and won her first US
national championship. While flowers, gifts and applause showered
Cohen as she took her bow, commentator Peggy Fleming gushed, "I
love the rechoreographed program that David Wilson did. I think
never heard the comment. He's been too busy.
think it's important that the clients I work with are more famous
than me so that they can make good use of my work and make it
their own," he says. "I don't want people to hold on
too much to 'Oh, he worked with David Wilson.' "
with Holtham at the Cricket Club, Wilson is busy finessing a possible
2010 Olympian. "Happy feet! Happy feet!" he yells at
Holtham. She responds with a burst of fast footwork.