Have you ever watched figure skating and wondered who choreographed the athletes’ program? Well, meet Sam Chouinard, a Canadian choreographer who works with some of the world’s greatest skaters. For the 2022 Beijing Olympics, he collaborated with athletes from the US, Canada, China, Spain, France, Great Britain and Japan. Most notably, Chouinard choreographed the free “Rocket Man” program for gold medalist Nathan Chen and worked with French ice dance teams Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron on their short program which helped them to all-around gold.
How did you get started with the choreography for figure skating?
Figure skating is not my practice. I can move on ice on roller skates, but just for fun. Seven years ago, I was introduced to the sport through my ballet teacher, who has coached athletes at the Ice Academy of Montreal. It was one of the first years hip hop was used. The school owners asked if I wanted to play with their skaters, and they liked the work I did.
What is your dance training?
I majored in contemporary, jazz, musical theater and hip hop. I don’t master any of them, but I’m a good chameleon for all kinds of shows. This was very helpful when I started choreographing for ice skating, synchronized swimming, and gymnastics. Work with Cirque du Soleil touches on all of these dance styles.
How did it feel to help Nathan Chen transition from ballet to hip hop on ice?
This guy is a genius, he is so brilliant. We really wanted to bring the party vibes out of this show. This is the Olympics — you want to make people feel something. When you know your competitors, if you want to stand out, you need to think differently.
How is your process?
We always start with a bunch of choreography and map it to the music. Once we have a lot of moves, let’s play on the ice. When I was first starting out, I had a tendency to put break dancing all over the place, but I just cut the flow. I realized that what looked best in figure skating was this speed and slide.
Do you find the choreography for figure skating challenging?
There are so many rules. The biggest challenge is making sure we can score notes and then take the dance to a higher level. So they can dance technique and not look like they are trying to imitate the dance, but actually dance. This is one of our strengths. I feel the Russians are very strong technically, but when you look at their performances, the way the choreography is done is more technical.
How do you help skaters develop their art?
It’s really a chore to get them to understand weight transfer and get grounded. How can you feel your ribs, your core, and use that so we don’t look too straight or stiff? The more you dance, the more you sell your show, and the more you sell, the more you can polish your technique.
What is the choreography of the competing skaters like?
This is very difficult for me because I want to give 100% to every couple. But it’s up to them what they will do with the material I give them. It’s fun to watch my moves, but it’s also fun to watch them digest and become yours.
What are some of your favorite shows that you’ve choreographed?
Moulin Rouge to Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir have a special place in my heart because it was my first Olympic program and we won gold. One of the coolest ones to make is the free Chock/Bates program. The other is Janet Jackson. United Kingdom one for HI Lion King it’s a lot of fun choreographing for a Broadway vibe, and then there’s Gabby/Guillaume with waacking.
How did you also start the choreography for the Canadian synchronous swimming team?
The world of the Olympics and sport is a small world. I don’t know anything about synchronized swimming, but I’ve watched a lot of videos, and even if I can’t physically do it, I probably have a pretty big imagination. We work to train and clean the arms. At Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, where they train, if you go down a few steps, there’s a window under the pool, so I can see underwater.
What are you working on now?
We are still with our team which is not in the Olympics but going to the World and we are also preparing the youth team. I’m renting a Disney movie as a choreographer — it’s going to be a Christmas movie. I also booked a Cirque show in Montreal. The most interesting thing recently was that I was hired to be the main choreographer for a full season of a TV show in Japan, they also asked me to be the artistic director, which was my first time becoming an artistic director. I am very excited and nervous, but also ready to take on a challenge.
Any suggestions for dancers?
Don’t limit yourself. Dance can be used in many different ways and in many forms of art. Figure skating is not the rink I thought my life would be, and it turns out that just being open has brought things into my life that I never thought possible.
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