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SO MUCH FOR ORIGINALITY
E.M. Swift
March 07, 1988
Yogi was wrong. Sometimes it is over before it's over. The unusual thing about the Olympic ice dancing competition was that the outcome seemingly was decided 11 months ago—after the 1987 world championships in Cincinnati. Then, as in Calgary, the gold went to the theatrical Soviet duo of Natalia Bestemianova and Andrei Bukin, the silver to their compatriots, Marina Klimova and Serguei Ponomarenko, and the bronze to Tracy Wilson and Robert McCall of Canada.
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March 07, 1988

So Much For Originality

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Yogi was wrong. Sometimes it is over before it's over. The unusual thing about the Olympic ice dancing competition was that the outcome seemingly was decided 11 months ago—after the 1987 world championships in Cincinnati. Then, as in Calgary, the gold went to the theatrical Soviet duo of Natalia Bestemianova and Andrei Bukin, the silver to their compatriots, Marina Klimova and Serguei Ponomarenko, and the bronze to Tracy Wilson and Robert McCall of Canada.

Last week's results probably wouldn't have raised any eyebrows, except that Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay, a brother-sister pair skating for France, threw the competition into a dither with programs as stunningly original as those of the legendary Torvill and Dean, who won the gold medal in 1984 and retired from amateur skating later that year.

Funny thing about that: Christopher Dean choreographed the Duchesnays' dance programs with a little help from Jayne Torvill. Four years after their entrancing Bolero at Sarajevo earned them a raft of 6.0's, Torvill and Dean, who were in Calgary doing commentary for Australian television, are still making the biggest waves in their sport.

The controversy started on the night of Feb. 22 with the original set pattern dance, which this year was a tango. One tango was pretty much like the next until the Duchesnays took the ice. Wearing a gray-striped blazer and a white scarf draped rakishly around his neck, Paul, 26, looked every bit the gigolo. The 24-year-old Isabelle, the femme fatale, wore a sexy black dress. Their tongue-in-cheek tango—refreshing, comedic, melodramatic—nearly sent the roof bucking right off the Saddledome. Glassy-eyed spectators, who had been sitting on their hands all evening, leaped up in a standing ovation. Thereafter it was back to tepid tangos.

The message was clear: Ice dancing, with its numbing repetitions of rhythms and steps, cries out for creativity and verve. The nine judges, however, shot the messengers. They left the Duchesnays in eighth place, just where the two had stood after the compulsories the day before.

The Duchesnays, who since 1982 have trained in Oberstdorf, West Germany, which is where they worked with Torvill and Dean, caused an even greater stir with their freestyle program the next night. Wearing costumes designed to look like torn animal hides and skating to African music that was strongly percussive, they transported the audience into a world of survival. They were the hunters and then the hunted, fierce and tribal, wild and frightened.

Like it or not—and the audience loved it, awarding the Duchesnays a second standing O—it was certainly not an eighth-place performance. But that's where the judges (whose overall mind-set was so intransigent that the order of the top 13 remained unchanged for all three phases of the competition) again left the Duchesnays. The disparity in their scores—from 5.7 to 5.2 for technical merit and from 5.8 to 5.0 for artistic impression—showed that most of the judges had no idea what to make of the startling program. "They're not being punished," said Lawrence Demmy of the International Skating Union. "I don't think they're being understood."

The judges were invited to a press conference but declined to attend. Rumors surfaced that the Duchesnays had been penalized for employing illegal handholds and unsuitable music. "Absolute rubbish," said Demmy, who would have placed the Duchesnays second in both the freestyle program and the original set pattern dance.

"To be innovative, you have to break the rules," said U.S. skating coach Ron Ludington. "Torvill and Dean never lived by the rules. But they were the best skaters ever, so nobody denied them their medals. When they turned professional, I felt that the judges wanted to go back to strict rules. The Duchesnays got caught in that."

One judge who broke from the pack was Nancy Meiss of the U.S. On both nights she gave the Duchesnays their best marks. "I thought they were absolutely outstanding, and I saw nothing illegal," said Meiss. "The French took great chances. I think judges have to be open-minded and accept new things."

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