From the Archives: Mark Pillay

Pillay with Austrian pair team Miriam Ziegler and Severin Kiefer in May 2016. (Photo from Ziegler and Kiefer on Facebook.)

by Jacquelyn Thayer

Author’s Note: In summer 2015, I interviewed several top choreographers from the figure skating world for a feature in Dance International magazine’s Winter 2015 issue. Due to space limitations, some great insight was left on the cutting room floor — until now. In a new series, Moving in Measure delivers a closer look at these hired guns and creatively-minded coaches bringing real dance to athletic pursuit.

It’s choreographer Mark Pillay’s footing in contemporary dance that’s shaped his approach to a very different sort of choreography — that for competitive figure skating.

“When I was dancing and studying dance, I learned how to talk about movement, and I learned a vocabulary to describe movement,” he said of his time at Simon Fraser University and work with additional choreographers. “It’s a lot of metaphorical language, and there’s also a kinesthetic language, and I think that is what really I took from my dance program — learning how to speak about dance and to teach dance, and how that kind of information can be conveyed to skaters or dancers in a kind of varied way.”

Performing for Serge Bennathan, then artistic director of Dancemakers, Pillay — a skater growing up — formed another plank of his dance philosophy. “There was just something about being a dancer in his work that I felt really inspiring about how he created — he created in a very collaborative way,” he said.

It was a direction that Pillay at the time failed to grasp that he’s now come to find most meaningful. “[Bennathan] said to me ‘I want to see you making choices with your face,’” said Pillay. “I remember being like ‘What does that mean?’ But I get it now. It’s about intention, about moving with intention and choosing to move into this movement or move into that.”

Even more compelling for Pillay as a spectator have been works from leading forces like William Forsythe and Israel’s Batsheva. “There’s a lot of bad dance out there,” he said with a laugh. “But Batsheva in particular — they were just so raw and I loved it. I loved how gritty it was.”

So the challenge for Pillay comes in taking that intentional, artistic drive, that sense of raw energies and original movement — and applying it to the highly regimented, highly rulebound world of competitive skating. Some of Pillay’s best-known work in the field has come for singles (like popular U.S. man Richard Dornbush) and pairs skaters (such as 2014 Canadian Olympians Kirsten Moore-Towers and Dylan Moscovitch), whose two-and-a-half- to four-minute short or free programs must incorporate multiple high-flying elements alongside comparatively brief footwork sequences and transitions filling space between the elements.

But only having come to competitive ice dance choreography in 2014 with a program for former Canadian team Nicole Orford and Thomas Williams, Pillay’s found more room for creative enterprise even given an entirely other set of technical requirements.

“In pairs and in singles, you’re always so tight on time,” he said. “The pairs have huge set ups, it’s just busy for singles.” Ice dance, by comparison, makes time for what he calls moments. “In dance, you have two step sequences, three lifts, and a spin, basically” — all elements, along with the side-by-side rotational twizzles, which lend themselves to far more choreographic interpretation than the physically regimented jumps and more rule-bound spins and lifts demanded by the other fields.

“Especially when it came to editing music — I felt like I had a lot more time to set a mood,” he continued. “So that’s actually been really fun and a big surprise to me. I didn’t know it was going to be like that.”

But if ice dance allows for more musical emotion than, say, a men’s free program packed with 11 multi-revolution jumps, it carries a special set of limitations, most notably a required audible rhythm and a change in tempo and mood.

“My music editor, Gordon Cobb, is a wonderful editor, and there have been times where he’s had to create another track to go within the music to really show that there’s a beat in the music,” he said. “Sometimes I think it is a little bit of a shame that we don’t get to use just anything for the world of ice dance, but ice dance is dancing and dancing needs a beat. It does restrict you a little bit, but sometimes those restrictions are helpful because the world of music is vast and you can end up just looking and looking. Having those restrictions sometimes makes it a little easier in a way.”

And there’s another central difference that Pillay must consider. While scores for ice dance rely in significant part on technical execution (reflected in the Technical Element Score), successful element execution is far more fraught in a pairs or singles program.

“The kids have to land their jumps, they need to skate clean and that is the name of the game, because they’re not going to get any kind of artistic scores if you’re not hitting your elements,” he said. “From the choreographer’s standpoint, I just feel like when it comes to singles and pairs, it’s very much like you’re thinking about ‘Okay, how can they land their jumps cleanly and how can they get these elements done cleanly and does this skater need power to land those jumps? Does the skater need a quieter kind of tempo to get their jumps done cleanly?’”

Whether ice dancers or pairs, his skating clients have been swift to note Pillay’s control over the music selection process, and Pillay is ready to acknowledge the importance of a choreographer’s say. Armed with an extensive library and a wide musical palate, he’s prepared for any program need.

“It’s very rare that someone pitches the idea to me,” he said, while allowing for general direction — such as one coach’s request that a program allow an ice dance team to perform in a more extroverted manner.

“When you’re starting out, you’re a little bit more flexible, but now I’m kind of like ‘No, this is what it needs to be,’” he said. “When people come to me with an idea that I don’t like, I’m like ‘This isn’t a good idea, because I don’t feel connected to it and I’m the one who has to create to it.’”

But maintaining that vision once it’s set into form is its own effort. Working on a traveling basis — with clients based internationally beyond just North America — Pillay’s encountered one problem special to the skating choreographer: upkeep. With skaters competing his work anywhere from three to perhaps eight or more times in a late summer to early spring season, programs can and sometimes must shift with the demands of accurate execution and in response to feedback from the judges and technical specialists responsible for scoring the athletes.

“The world of upkeep is a very, very important world,” he said. With Pillay’s local clients, retired pair skater Elizabeth Putnam provides some assistance. “She works with all my clients in Vancouver. We have a very good relationship and she sees the program when it’s done and she gets it — she’s like ‘I know now what you’re going for.’ And when I travel around, sometimes it’s a ballet person that I’m having that conversation with. But essentially, I go and do all my choreography and then I do a whole bunch of upkeep, and that is almost a year of work.”

The work of the skating choreographer is often freelance, with many unaffiliated with a specific skating school or regular set of clients. It’s a manner of employment that’s led one family member to suggest a website or similar outlet to promote his work — an approach Pillay finds unnecessary in this line of creation.

“In a way, every time you set a program, it’s like your portfolio,” he said. “It’s word of mouth, and that’s how I have found all of my clients: people have seen my choreography, they ask who it is, and then they get a hold of me.”