This is what good choreographers can do: They knit music with movement and form and art. They tie all skating elements into a point of view. They lift crowds out of their seats. They keep crowds in their seats, mesmerized, while pins drop silently.
Canada has a lot of choreographers who can do these things, but the most recent one to join the pack, alongside the biggies, is Jeffrey Buttle, 2008 world champion, 2006 Olympic bronze medalist, always known for his artistic flair and his sensitivity to music.
He’s becoming a big deal.
“I think Jeff is one of the great talents in choreography,” says Sandra Bezic, who is, herself, one of the great talents in choreography.
“His work is rich, original and versatile,” said she, notable for memorable routines done by Barbara Underhill and Paul Martini, Kristi Yamaguchi, Kurt Browning, Josee Chouinard, Tara Lipinski, Lu Chen.
His work, said Bezic, always pushes skaters to be better. “He’s made a huge impact already and he’s raised the choreographic bar,” she said. “His work is fresh, contemporary and exciting. I’m a huge fan.”
Bezic said he did do a little work for her “Battle of the Blades” television show and she wishes he had been more available to do more. She asked for him every season.
Last season, U.S. champion Ashley Wagner got a taste of the Buttle mystique during the Stars on Ice tour, when Buttle became head choreographer for the first time. (He had been assistant the two previous years.)
Buttle created all the group numbers last season, as he has done this year, and Wagner had to work hard to master all the steps and the choreography. “I really feel that it helps me as a skater, because Jeff is definitely not an easy breezy, simple type of choreographer,” she said. “It’s difficult and it challenges me.”
In the beginning, Buttle had no aspirations to become a choreographer. He had been studying chemical engineering at University of Toronto. But when he began working with choreographer David Wilson in 1999, he found Wilson’s passion for the art was infectious. “I fell into it,” Buttle said.
Even while he was still skating competitively, Buttle was already choreographing programs for other skaters. He designed routines for a couple of young girls living as boarders with his family in Barrie, Ont. And he took on work for the long program of a young Korean skater, Yuna Kim, the year she won the world junior title.
“It was difficult at first with the language,” Buttle said. “But with choreography, luckily, it’s a lot of show and tell. Language is unnecessary at times.”
Before you knew it, Buttle was choreographing short programs for two of the sport’s top male skaters, Yuzuru Hanyu and Patrick Chan. Both were completely different skaters, so Buttle went in completely different directions for them. The two traded world record scores for those Buttle programs all year. That success put Buttle firmly on the map.
For Hanyu, Buttle chose “Parisian Walkway,” because he thought it was Hanyu in a nutshell. Hanyu had a “wild abandonment” in his skating, Buttle said. But he was shy. “It was incredible to watch him loosen up a bit and have fun with it, especially in such stressful conditions,” Buttle said. “It was one of those programs that if he didn’t commit to it, it could have been pretty bad. But he really committed to it.”
Chan arrived after his mother asked Buttle to choreograph an exhibition routine for him to Chopin music. But Buttle thought Chan needed something more dynamic, to match the power of his style. Buttle suggested a Rachmaninoff piece that he had always wanted to skate to, similar to a Rachmaninoff that he had done in a short program, too, during the 2004-2005 season. Chan liked it so much, he asked Buttle to turn it into his short program for the following year.
“Sometimes it’s not the most ideal process,” Buttle said. “When you have to cut things out, it diminishes the piece somewhat, but the piece, for once, really fit and it really came together.”
Right from the beginning, Buttle had an impact. “I didn’t realize how quickly I would be able to accomplish as much as I have,” he said. Now, working with Stars on Ice, he has to track the movements of at least 12 skaters, not just one.
Buttle has been stretched physically during this tour. He choreographed group numbers for the cast in Japan, Canada and the United States. After the Japan tour, he flew back to Halifax with five of the 12 skaters on the Japanese tour, arriving at midnight, and started rehearsals the next morning. “It hit like a stone wall around four in the afternoon,” Buttle said. Fortunately, Scott Moir, who had done the tour in Japan, helped out teaching steps.
Last season, Buttle was quite busy, creating 10 to 12 routines for eligible skaters. This year, he’d like to reduce the number to focus more on touch-ups. He’s a perfectionist, after all. Before the Stars On Ice tour ended, Buttle was already doing music searches.
For now, Buttle searches for life balance. He doesn’t want to work all the time. He wants space to breathe, and to spend time with new husband, Justin Harris, who he married in February. Buttle has also joined a recreational hockey league in Toronto, although he had no prior experience playing hockey. Unlike Kurt Browning, he’d never even worn hockey skates. “I like the team mentality because I’ve never had that before,” he said.
And one of these days, Scott Moir wants Buttle to choreograph a routine for him and Tessa Virtue, too. “I have been a big fan of Jeff’s skating for years,” said Moir. “Probably one of our favourite performances ever was watching Jeff win in 2008. I think he’s really explored a different avenue and a new avenue with his choreography.
“He’s so creative. We always knew that. But he always pushes himself and tries to do new things. And he’s trying to do something to make people think, which in skating, is badly needed.”
So life is good for Buttle these days. He’s clearly in demand.