Noted choreographer Sandra Bezic went looking for a novel element for her Niagara skating show last January and struck the motherlode.
She discovered Nexxice.
“I knew they were good,” Bezic said. “But I didn’t realize how good they were until I stepped onto the ice with them.”
Right from the first blush, when Bezic was with them at their training base, the Appleby Skating Centre in Burlington, Ont., she was “blown away” – just by their stroking exercises.
Watching them do this 30-minute, Anne Schelter-led work, in formation, 16-strong? Goosebump worthy. Watching them win the world synchronized skating championships several months later at home, in their own neck of the wood, in front of a throng of screaming, red-shirted, flag-waving people? Priceless.
Bezic was in the audience for the free skate, a spellbinding routine to “Rhapsody in Blue.” Dressed in black from head to toe, with the light sparkling subtly from their smoky shirts, a flip of deep cobalt blue kicking up from skirts as they moved, Nexxice finally executed the complex routine the way they wanted to all season. And now the world knows who they are, too: world champions of the highest order.
Their performance at the world event in Hamilton, Ont., in mid-April is perhaps a watershed moment not only for Nexxice, but for the synchronized skating world in general as it waits breathlessly for the International Olympic Committee to vote on its inclusion in July.
“I think we are maturing,” said Nexxice coach Shelley Barnett. “Our sport is maturing. We’ve been knocking on the door for a long time. But I also think we are getting more respect from other skating disciplines. That is something I didn’t see before, certainly not after 2007.”
Barnett was speaking of the year that the world championships last came to Canada in 2007, when the team finally won its first medal (bronze), in London, Ont. It was noisy there, too. But what happened in Hamilton was beyond compare.
People who had never watched synchro skating before tuned in. So did many of Canada’s elite mainstream skaters. Barnett noticed increased turnout for their team tryouts, and also registration for youth and beginner programs has tripled since the world championships. “Many of the younger skaters had never seen anything like this at this level,” she said. “And there is more enthusiasm and interest from parents who maybe didn’t quite get the full picture of what the sport could do for their children.”
Yes, Nexxice won, but it was the way they did it that sends shivers to the bone. Barnett said Schelter created choreography for the free skate that was complicated and required nuances of expression. “It had so many complexities and intricacies in the music that had to be brought out,” Barnett said. ”The team was challenged all year to find those nuances and to be able to control their movement enough to music.”
They wanted something challenging for the team, because Nexxice members were strong skaters, and the core of the team had been together at least five years. “They were capable of handling quite a bit,” Barnett said.
Bezic, known as the choreographer for folk like Barbara Underhill and Paul Martini, Brian Boitano, Kristi Yamaguchi, Kurt Browning, Tara Lipinski, Chen Lu and for years, Stars on Ice tours, went looking for Nexxice because she wanted local talent for her new Niagara ice show. She also wanted to mix things up in the show, putting new skaters with legends (Nam Nguyen and Kurt Browning), and mainstream skaters with synchro.
But when Bezic actually started to work with Nexxice, she was stunned by their skating ability. ”Their fundamentals are just unbelievable,” she said. “And their cohesiveness as a team, and their musicality, and their professionalism. They are in a class by themselves.”
In return for taking time away from a very important season for her show, Bezic returned to Burlington several times to help with Nexxice’s competitive programs. She saw the team work four or five hours at a time, with short breaks for ice-making, without a complaint.
“They are so respectful of the process,” she said. “They were completely delightful and fun and excited.” She found Schelter’s program composition so musical and it “made so much sense,” she said. “It was all balanced and beautiful and it had the restraint and sophistication and yet [the short program to MUD] was still fun.”
Bezic thinks Nexxice played a huge role in the success of her own show. “We never really get to see that calibre of skaters all together,” she said.
As for Nexxice, for the first time, at Bezic’s show, they felt a sense of inclusion. “It was really an honour to be recognized at the same level,” said Nexxice co-captain Lee Chandler, the lone male on the team. “We don’t have an Olympic sport yet, so to be recognized as elite athletes along with the big names like Kurt Browning and Tessa and Scott, it was really an honour.”
The two skating worlds traded stories about their experiences at rehearsals and the worlds collided with great cheer. Chandler heard Browning’s sage advice: to stay in the moment, to enjoy the training and the journey, to enjoy every single moment of the ups and downs through a long season.
The world synchro championships gave team members memories that will last them a lifetime. “It was kind of a whirlwind,” Chandler said. “That was probably the biggest crowd I’ve skated in, probably the most energetic crowd, in my skating career.”
The crowd, which numbered about 7,600 for their “Rhapsody In Blue” routine, started to scream as soon as Nexxice appeared from behind a curtain. They were on their feet, and waving the flags. “We were trying to stay as focused as we could,” Chandler said. “It was so loud. It was kind of just indescribable. The noise wasn’t really something that you heard. I was something that you felt. You could just feel the energy and the vibration right through the rink, when we were standing on the ice. It was an electric feeling.”
Then, they skated. “We worked countless hours to make sure that we did it justice and we skated it with maturity and poise,” Chandler said. “I think we can all be pretty proud. We went out and we owned it. We really didn’t hold back at all.”
Much of the team has committed to staying together for next season. Chandler says he’s finished, although he says if the IOC votes synchro skating in, he doesn’t want to close the door. He has a future as a coach and choreographer.
And it seems as if Bezic will never be the same again, like many, after having seen what a Canadian synchro team can do. “I felt like it was a shot in the arm for me to tag along,” she said.