CALGARY, FEB. 23 -- Pure accident, some careful timing and a certain amount of acting like a fool all go into the art of free skating. Those flowing and seemingly effortless figure skating pieces that beget Winter Olympics medals for competitors are made up of a million brief moments of dance and required elements that hide the strain underneath the pretty outfits.
In the case of gold medalist Brian Boitano, four minutes at the Winter Olympics took six months to create, and sometimes eight counts of music constituted a day of work. The exhaustive process is part choreography, part unbending adherence to the rules of skating and part embarrassment, but the result can be heavenly.
"There are reasons for the moves," Boitano's choreographer Sandra Bezic said. "You don't just throw in an arm and a leg."
The forming of a long program, the crucial event that counts for 50 percent of the overall score, is laborious work, and more and more skaters are looking to choreographers to help them put some meaning and order into their skating. Formerly, it was not unusual to hear Tschaikovsky and the Beatles within four minutes.
"I once actually heard 'Swan Lake' and 'Gypsy' in the same routine," said longtime coach Frank Carroll, who produced Linda Fratianne. "It was the height of bad taste."
Boitano went to a choreographer after he lost his world title to Canada's Brian Orser last year because of a wooden performance. Bezic's first order of business was to select music and a concept that would suit Boitano, who at 6 feet tall is one of the larger, more grandiose skaters. That meant classical, powerful music would be best, which ultimately led her to choose Carmine Coppola's music from "Napoleon."
Boitano's strength has long been his technical skating, imposing triple jumps and combinations that earn him higher marks. So Bezic, Boitano and longtime coach Linda Leaver plan the skeleton order of his jumps, then Bezic links them in an artful, eye-pleasing way.
But she also is restricted by the physical limits and rules of skating. For instance, one spin takes 32 counts of music and up to 20 seconds. In another instance, at the 1:20 mark of the program, she had to edit in a slower portion to give Boitano a cardiovascular rest. Without it he would be too exhausted to complete the more strenuous parts.
The most that Bezic and Boitano ever accomplished in a single day's work was one minute. There were some days when they accomplished just eight counts of music. One section of 15 seconds of footwork took a week.
"Some days you can churn it out, and the next all you'll get is a few counts," she said. "But some days those few counts are worth it."
Bezic also had to pace the music so that it told a continuous story and did not become disjointed. Boitano's "Napoleon" had a total of 18 edits and eight emotional changes, moments where Bezic cut the music and then rejoined it to a later movement. The routine ends with a march theme, which she had to whittle away at. "It's the shortest march in history," she said.
Carroll tends not to think of the required elements until much later. His protege here was 20-year-old Christopher Bowman of Los Angeles, who finished seventh and could be a factor in four years in the 1988 Games in Albertville, France. Carroll starts with a concept and style of music for Bowman, a showman-like skater, and they then take the ice for what Carroll calls "feeling time," an improvisation.
"You get out there and act like jerks," he said. "You laugh and you fall down, and it's a trial. You have to be uninhibited, because you look stupid."
Choosing the proper music can be instrumental in making a medal performance, and some skaters have to be more mature before they can skate the complex pieces. Orser stored his militaristic "The Bolt" for two years. East German world champion Katarina Witt's version of Bizet's "Carmen" that she will skate Saturday night stayed in coach Jutta Muller's drawer for a year.
In preparation for the music, Witt studied "Carmen" exhaustively. She has even included the death scene.
"I looked at the ballet, I studied Spanish movements," she said. "This music demands more."
American bronze medalists Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard are among the most distinctive and innovative pairs in the world. They do much of their own choreography, with help from coach Rita Lowery. According to Oppegard, many of his ideas come to him just before he is falling asleep, and the next day they will work in a gym, ensuring the safety of the move before they put it on the ice.
And then there are moves that just happen. That was the case with their original death swoop, in which he lets Watson fall headfirst out of a lift, and then catches her just inches from the ice. She has scraped her nose and forehead doing the move, which originated in a practice session when he was swinging her around for fun.
"Sometimes it's a mistake and it turns out to be brilliant," Watson said. "It's experimentation."
The danger in choreography is repetition, and many routines, indeed, seem alike. For that reason, choreographers like Bezic, who rarely borrows from her other skaters, are increasingly in demand.
"You don't want to wake up one morning and say, 'Oh my God, they all look alike,' " she said.