What makes good choreography? When a skater steps on the ice to perform a program the jumps and spins are the main component on everyone's mind. After all, both judges and random spectators can tell if those are performed to the desired grade of execution. But what about the space between? A program's art is not derived from its jumps and spins, but rather from the quality of skating and interpretation intertwined with the fundamental elements.
Technical expertise can not redeem a program that fails to convey a theme. The theme need not be a story or even a specific emotion, but rather a feeling generated by movement to music that stays consistent throughout the program. Highs and lows are essential, but they need to build the motif. Piecemeal choreography can have moments of brilliance, but ultimately subsumes to chaos.
The music must support this motif as well. Light and airy movement to heavy opera is unsettling and does little go help presentation quality. Thus, not all skaters can skate to all types of music. Some more lyrical skaters lack the fire and extroverted passion to take on Carmen while others should stay away from choreography that depends on sustained movement and flow.
The task of the choreographer is not to reinvent the skater, but rather to find the qualities hidden within. Initial awkward movement does't necessarily mean that a skater can not find a path to grace. I have coached a number of skaters away from stiff movement into meaningful expression through motion.
I do not believe choreography is a strictly physical endeavor. For a skater to successfully interpret the music in a meaningful way, he or she must understand cognitively what is occurring. As I mentioned before, this doses not mean a story must be interpreted, but rather that the skater must mentally understand the motif being presented. In brief, there must be meaning behind movement.
As an example I turn to one of the greatest choreographers of all time. While Ballanchine's choreography sought to convey the beauty of woman in the amphitheater of ballet, his works occasionally felt bereft of any greater meaning. This is not to say his creations were unremarkable. They were revolutionary, but only the select few can pull them off with the proper aplomb to create a sense of ethereal beauty.
Skaters encounter a similar disconnect if the choreography focuses too much on the elements. Perfect jumps and spins are rare and pulling off seven or more perfect triples in competition is unlikely. Thus, if every crescendo requires a flowing jump exit the program is likely to often fall flat. The ideal choreography masks the elements within the program. They become supporting features to the motif, not the main event.
In this manner, the jumps can be woven into the footwork and spiral sequences. At no point should the skater be moving across the ice doing only crossovers. No matter now minute the movement, something interesting should always be happening. Transitions are not to move from jump A to jump B, but rather to connect the choreographic motif from A to B.
The constant movement is an entirely different experience for the skater. With each second of the program now important, the fitness requirement dramatically increases. Skaters must train the jumps and choreography together. Jumps practiced outside the framework of the motif do little to train the muscle memory for performance. This is not to say regular training should not occur. It should, but training segments will lead to better results than merely trying to drop the elements into the choreography at a later point.
A number of these suggestions are already followed by many coaches, but some of the most essential are not. Often the motif is left behind or simply never considered. Programs lacking this cohesion can be good, but they will always fall short of sparking truly great performances. Skaters need appropriate movements for the right reasons. As we go out in the world and create beautiful pieces for our students and ourselves we would do well to member this basic tenant.