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Florence in Words

Ice-skating Number Two

I’ve waited a bit to write about the final women’s ice-skating competition, to let it all sink in, perhaps. And I was rewarded by another glimpse of the Russian youngster, Adelina Sotnikova, who won gold, this time more relaxed, more beautiful to watch as she danced gracefully with a yellow banner. This performance seemed very different from the one scored for her winning gold. That night my impression was of her energy, her bursting into jumps endlessly, and though I was not counting, she did jump more than she needed to, as I learned from the newspaper accounts, which reported that she had deliberately—and with forethought—racked up more points than her competitor, the regal Uma Kim from South Korea, who had seemed unbeatable to me.

And so I have read carefully—and tried to ingest—the information about how such competitions are scored, and how a clever skater, energetic and without falling, can in a sense manipulate the scoring professionally, even honorably, by squeezing into her choreography several more than the required jumps, especially difficult jumps in a series. Perhaps it is better to have the details of scoring schemes rather than “impressions.” Still, it’s never going to be “clear,” is it?

Uma Kim, who is a mature woman, and a “lady,” said she was satisfied with second place, and that she would skate in competitions no more. Adelina, we may be sure, will be back next time, perhaps along with her compatriot, Yulia Lipnitskaya, whose performance was exquisite the first time I saw her, and similarly strong in the finals, except for her fall. She seemed artistically perfect, and her blurring spins unmatchable even by Adelina.

And the others. I thought Caroline Kostner from Italy, who took the bronze, skated beautifully to “Bolero.” Similarly, the two Americans, who wound up in 4th and 5th places, skated well, though they could not match the scores of those who had gone before them. Even Mao Asada from Japan could not beat the opening scores of the three winners.

Here’s a postscript that has nothing and everything to do with the Olympic ice-skating I have been enjoying. I went last night to the movies for the first time since the surgery in mid-November. I went with Louise Meriwether to see one of the Academic Award nominated films, “American Hustle.” I disliked it from its opening scenes and continued to regard in amazement its status as worthy of a nomination. I thought it lacked anything that one could point to as worthy of remembering. Actually, I had a feeling rare for me in any performance: I wanted to leave at once, and would have, were it not for Louise. And her story is emblematic of what I am trying to say. She had seen it, but didn’t remember it until the opening scene of a man pasting on his toupee, and then she gasped and said she had seen it. I would have left with her, but she insisted on staying so that I might see the film.

So we stayed and I continued to feel that I was watching some of the ugliest aspects of our American culture, and to no point: nothing but lying and cheating, even when intentions are allegedly to catch liars and cheaters. And all revealed as ugly, so ugly as to be hopeless for a viewer like me, who can only turn away and say, why, why, why must we make heroes out of villains? And I have not mentioned the twenty minutes of ads for newer films, all violent, if not brazenly murderous, seemingly even more unredeemable than “American Hustle.”

So I went home and turned on “The Red Shoes,” an old film that happened to be a Saturday night special choice of Turner’s Classic Movies, and it was redemptive, cleansing for me. To recognize meaning, to see beauty, to hear music, to marvel at dance: all immensely pleasurable, enduring in memory, never tiring to see again and again.

Moira Shearer’s dancing reminded me of the ice skating, and I went from there to watch Adelina and others skate with pleasure.  Read More 
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Olympics skating at Sochi 2014

Gracie Gold
Yes, I have been watching the Olympics, and not only my favorite ice-skating stars. Some of the skiing has also caught my attention, the slopes terrifying, even from my couch. I continue to admire the resilience of skiers who are not put off even by a seemingly bone-breaking fall, and go on the slopes again. Other aspects of the games seem both frightening and still more impenetrable to me—variations playing on the edges of danger, and sometimes, as in the narrow speedway for one or two hurling bodies, the skill capable of winning gold seems totally impenetrable to the (ignorant) observer. From time to time, I watch and wonder especially when ice skating is not on.

Men’s skating proved the most shocking event, and not only because the Russian star, Evgeni Plushenko, who had led easily with at the beginning of the games, could not, in his second short program, move for the pain he felt. He left the ice, and then sent a formal notice of “retirement.” His first short program, in my view, was one of the most beautiful performances I have ever seen. It made the question—“Is figure skating an art or a sport?” irrelevant. Who could have known that, even then, his body was in pain. He seemed perfection. But what made the evening of his retirement still more shocking was that the three excellent skaters who followed him onto the ice, seemingly unnerved by the opening for gold of Plushenko’s departure, all fell—uncharacteristically—on their first jump. The first skater fell so hard that his body banged into a wall and lay inert for more than a few seconds. Then he rose, wobbled a bit, and finished his program—along with many other jumps—amazingly well. Well, I thought, his was a reaction to the Russian star. But the two who followed him—I wish I had notes before me—also fell on their first jumps, and then continued.

As I watched the ice-dancing, I thought about the skills of the Americans, and admired the Canadians and the others. It’s a far different skill or sport or art from the ice-skating single performances with their death-defying jumps that used to be simple axels and now require four twists or at least three in the air before coming down with elegance—and popping up again for at least one more jump, if not two. Ice-dancing requires two people to move in harmony not only clasped to each other, but, with far more difficulty, separately, “side-by-side.” I can’t help wondering how couples learn to do this beautifully. Do they count? Have they watched themselves filmed? How many hundreds of repetitions does it take to work out one minute of such complex movement? Viewed from my couch, the skaters seem relaxed, the movements easy. This evening, there were no falls, only perfection. And the two Americans, still in their teens, who have been dancing together since they were children, are they not perfection to watch?

I think back to the first night of ice-skating, when I watched the women’s short program and saw the American Gracie Gold for the first time in Sochi. Her performance was perfection. She is 19 and at her first Olympics. From where has she acquired not only the perfection of performance, but the poise, even seemingly comfortable poise? And then, the Russian fifteen-year old, Yulia Lipnitskaya, appeared for the first time, slight, short, hair tightly braided to her skull, a seemingly fragile figure. The jumps were birdlike, graceful, but what was unmatchable were her spins, so rapid and agile as to become a blur even on the screen. And one could only think: at fifteen? How could that be? (More to come.)

And for me, the question: why do I enjoy, even “love,” ice skating when I have never worn a pair of skates. Even when I roller-skated, I never “danced.” Is it like the ballet, like diving, sports or arts that demand grace of movement, even perfection, none of which I have ever had? Is it totally inexplicable? A pleasure not in my own body, no, not at all in my own body. But a pleasure in my being? What does that mean? What is being? Does it all go back to the idea of beauty, and the associated idea of pleasure in beauty?

I am thinking back to the first night of ice-skating I watched, the women’s short program, when the young American whose name is “Gold” skated for the first time with a perfection perhaps no one could have predicted, since it was never clear that she should be at the Olympics on the U.S. team to begin with. But that night in Sochi, she was perfection, and of course, forever that performance will be viewable whatever . Read More 
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