Anton Shulepov is a 23-year-old skater who has been raised in this highly insular, superficial culture, so he apparently didn’t know better than to skate to the music from “Schindler’s List” in a costume that was half-Nazi camp guard and half-doomed Jew with a yellow Star of David on his chest. Surely some worldly adult should have stepped forward and told him: “Stop it. Stop the music. The extermination of six million people for how they prayed is not a subject to treat with theatrical flamboyance.” But nobody in skating did that. Instead, they nominated him for a prize for “best costume.”
Does it seem pretty trivial, a figure skating costume? That’s exactly the problem. It diminutizes the subject. Some designer thought it was a good idea to dress Shulepov this way. Someone actually said, “Let’s put him in something holocausty and genocidy to go with the theme.” And so, a young skater with no conception of the original crimes sailed around the ice and turned the Holocaust into “essentially a prop,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League.
The resulting outcry forced the International Skating Union to issue an apology this week for the “bad sentiments” caused by the costume and its nomination for an award. At the same time, the sport’s governing body offered a thoroughly insincere defense. It was all a misunderstanding, the ISU said. It was Shulepov’s other costume, the one from his short program, that “should have been presented for voting.” Riiiiiight. It was the black turtleneck they meant to nominate.
The ISU’s excuse would be more believable if this sort of thing weren’t so common in skating. In the past few years, the tasteless use of catastrophe-as-ornament has become rampant. One young lady at the world championships skated to a soundtrack that included real audio and sirens from the Sept. 11 attacks. Two ice dancers dressed up like Aborigines. A French couple sailed onto the ice in clothing smeared with fake blood and ash to skate to “Les Misérables.” What’s next? Skating to “Strange Fruit” in hemp?
Yet figure skating also can be so creative that it’s a near art. Confession: It’s secretly my favorite sport. The greatest athletic performances I’ve ever seen have come on the ice, where the championship moment is intensified by the magnificent disguising of the athleticism, the effort of the strenuous leaps and spins landing on a knife blade cloaked in musicality and fabric. Brian Boitano as Napoleon, Gordeeva and Grinkov to “Moonlight Sonata,” Katarina Witt’s “Carmen.” No athletes have soared higher in my memory.
The Washington Post’s indelibly great fashion commentator, Robin Givhan, has pointed out that when clothing “stops being a direct dialogue about hemlines and silhouettes and turns into something that is impressionistic and even poetic, it works its magic in the subconscious, drawing out the good and the bad.”
Something like that happens with the athletic body in skating. It’s the most ephemeral and yet strong human performance in all of sport, and the costuming is part of creating the illusion, of covering the raw muscle. That’s not a bad thing.
The point here is not to strangle competitive daring or creativity, and say that skaters should only perform to Puccini and Gershwin in safe taupe. The question is, where do you draw the line between a thought-provoking performance, one that’s meant to be poetic tribute, and trivialization? Givhan, who has seen designers flirt with similar offenses with striped pajamas or camouflage, says: “My general feeling is that everything can be a source of inspiration for creative expression. However, with that freedom comes immense responsibility. The designer should understand the nuances of what they’re exploring, the history, the repercussions.”
What makes the score of “Schindler’s List” magnificent remembrance instead of trivial scavenging is exactly that: Every note in it sounds consecrated, from John Williams’s lamenting homage to 19th century European music to the hollow cry of the violin of Itzhak Perlman, son of Polish Jews, drawing his bow like a sword through your heart. No wonder so many skaters want to move to its passages. They no doubt hope it will uplift their performances.
But if you’re going to take on that music, you’d better understand and honor its meaning enough not to use the Star of David like a damn spangle.
The unpleasant irony is that there are scores of rules that govern costumes in skating, from the length of skirts and cut of trousers to beads and fringe. They’re all about technicality. None is about dignity. Skaters fashion their routines and costumes with all of the sincerity of Renaissance Festival milkmaids and less fidelity to their subject than average Civil War reenactors.
Shulepov’s costume does a certain amount of special damage, just as those Holocaust-themed Christmas ornaments on Amazon do. It contributes to the debasement of fact and the unfeelingness of denialism. It renders the terribly important event unimportant. “You diminish the singularity” of an Auschwitz, Greenblatt says, when you use it “to accessorize something banal.”