From the Archives: Pasquale Camerlengo

Pasquale Camerlengo with Angelika Krylova and long-time students Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje at the 2014 World Figure Skating Championships. (Photo by Chris McGrath for Getty Images AsiaPac)

by Jacquelyn Thayer

Continuing our cutting room floor series, these insights from Pasquale Camerlengo were captured during a June 2015 interview.

As a competitive ice dancer in the 1980s and ’90s, Pasquale Camerlengo took early initiative in the creative end of his sport, collaborating in his own choreography while working under coach Michael Webster.

“I think it’s the nature of talent that I always had,” he said.

Indeed, though an accomplished competitor — including a top five finish at the 1992 Winter Olympics with partner Stefania Calegari — Camerlengo’s greater celebrity has come from his two decades of work as choreographer, or coach-choreographer, to some of the world’s best in both ice dance and the freestyle disciplines of single and pairs.

Despite the early creative ventures, it hadn’t been part of his long term plan. “In the past I actually never thought I’d become a choreographer, but [coach] Carlo Fassi came up with this idea and said ‘I would like you to work with my students,'” he said. “It was quite successful from the beginning and I decided to keep doing this thing.” Camerlengo subsequently worked with the teams of coach Muriel Boucher-Zazoui in the early part of the 2000s before establishing his own base with wife and world champion ice dancer Angelika Krylova.

Frida, 2004-05 free dance for Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder

The demands of creating competitive work across the skating world, mapping out a jump-centered freestyle program versus a step-focused ice dance routine, requires a certain versatility of any choreographer. For one more oriented in dance, work with singles can take advantage of a skater’s particular gift for interpretation, with programs as distinct as these 2011-12 pieces for world medalists Daisuke Takahashi to Blues for Klook and Akiko Suzuki to Die Fledermaus, highlighting their respective strengths in sinuous movement and rhythms or lighter classical work — and in both cases taking pains to integrate those required elements most naturally with the music.

Blues for Klook, 2011-12 long program for Daisuke Takahashi

Die Fledermaus, 2011-12 long program for Akiko Suzuki

Between the set-up and execution for elements like jumps and spins, Camerlengo estimates that a singles or pairs skater might have about 45 seconds of free time in the more than four minutes that constitute a long program. “They have to pretty much get the speed to get into their jumps, so there is not much choreography in this moment, but it’s mostly stroking the right way in order to gain the speed that they need to execute the elements,” he said.

And skating solo, or out of hold, can have its advantages compared with ice dance. “Pairs have lots of odd moments where they are skating just side by side — they don’t deal with another person,” he noted. “So even if the deepness of the edge is not perfectly equal every time, it doesn’t really matter. Ice dance is much harder, because you have to do everything with another person.”

While Camerlengo as choreographer has often worked as a hired gun, some of the most satisfying efforts have come with the ice dance teams he and Krylova have coached full-time at the Detroit Skating Club in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

“It’s a way to know them better, to know their qualities and what they can do better or what they cannot do,” he said, whereas it may be harder to deeply know an outside client’s abilities or limitations. “So it helps.”

Such an established relationship with an experienced couple can also factor into the “painful” annual process of program selection — such as steering an athlete away from potentially unsuitable music.

“I always bring this example — somebody goes to see the movie Titanic and they come out the next day with the soundtrack of Titanic, and I say ‘Good. Okay, now do you want to interpret a boat that is sinking — what is the story?'” he said. “‘Because at the end of all this, it’s a love story like another one but this music may be not really the best for you.’”

Likewise, it can mean a marriage of true minds between coach and skater.

“Sometimes just randomly, you’re driving in the car, you listen to a song and it’s ‘Wow, this song is amazing, I like it,'” he said. “Then you call the skater and say ‘Did you hear that?’ and he or she was listening to the same thing and says ‘I love it, let’s do it.’”

Though such an occurrence can occasionally backfire among students. “Sometimes it can even be having the same idea, and they want to do exactly the same thing because the two teams are similar and it can become a little bit harder,” he noted with a laugh. “Which means you make a choice — to who goes this or that?”

Construction itself is driven by some balance of a selection’s own demands — and those of the International Skating Union, with judges potentially more inclined to allot high Grade of Execution marks to elements placed best with the music. “The elements also have to be visible from a certain angle from the point of view of the judges and technical specialists,” he said.

What was once for Camerlengo a more linear beginning-to-end process is now built around element placement.

“So for example, we have a special music that really calls a rotational movement, so it can be a twizzle, can be a spin,” he explained. “Then there is another part of the music where there is a highlight in the music, and I would try to place a beautiful high lift on this. So that’s what is first — decide where to put the elements on the phrase of music, the beat, the steps, the step sequence. That is the principle thing.”

The Legend of 1900, 2012-13 free dance for Alexandra Paul and Mitchell Islam

Transitions, those connecting moments of greater creative freedom, follow. And ice dance doesn’t tend to take into consideration one additional concern that arises in freestyle construction. For single skaters, he said, “we try always to respect the timing that the skater has in order to not give them too much fatigue on the first part to execute the elements, to be comfortable in their timing to get the key elements.” Here, where actual execution is the fundamental concern for a judging panel, a jump needn’t be placed with a propulsive musical moment for any reason beyond artistic satisfaction.

Ice dance also means the more specified requirements of the short dance, with a requisite pattern dance and rhythm usually based on a ballroom style (or, in the case of this year’s blues, a social partner dance). While Camerlengo expresses a particular passion for choreographing Latin styles, any specialized form is also a prompt to call in more expert reinforcements, whether for individual programs or group sessions.

“What they have to learn, mostly, is the style — the style you have in a Latin dance is different than the style you have in a rock and roll and different than a pas de deux or a tango,” he said. “So the steps at the end really change a lot when you go on the ice — you cannot reproduce the same steps that you do in the ballroom. But the style is what comes up immediately, no matter what they do. That is the most important thing.”

Farrucas/Un Amor, 2012-3 free dance with Timo Nunez for Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue

The final goal? Cohesion.

“You have to create the perfect chemistry between the two things, because even in ice dance, the element itself has to be beautiful,” said Camerlengo. “So it has to be creative. The element has to look like part of the choreography.

Liebestraum, 2016-17 free dance for Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker

“Every single thing has to look like choreography from the first second to the last,” he continued. “Obviously it depends a lot on the maturity of the team and it depends a lot on their skill. For the young ones, we can see separation, like when they’re doing something technical or when they’re doing something artistic. But in the senior level, world-level competitors, we don’t see that difference much.”