A look back at Nathan Chen's ballet beginnings

A young Nathan Chen holds a girl's hand - Credit: Courtesy of Ballet West

A young Nathan Chen holds a girl's hand – Credit: Courtesy of Ballet West

Editor’s note: The following article first ran on icenetwork.com in 2017. It is being re-published with permission as a look back at Nathan Chen’s balletic beginnings that contributed to him becoming the 2022 Olympic gold medalist.

Search the internet for still pictures of ballet legend Rudolf Nureyev dancing “Le Corsaire.”

Then compare your findings to screenshots from the first 30 seconds of Nathan Chen skating his short program to music from that ballet.

In several instances — especially in the time before Chen begins jumping — the parallels between the skater and the dancer are striking. There are moments when Chen’s arm carriage, known as port de bras in ballet, and the positions of his feet are virtually homage to Nureyev’s performance.

That is not surprising, given that Chen and his choreographer/coach, Marina Zoueva, put together the program after spending hours looking at YouTube video of Nureyev in “Le Corsaire,” a mid-19th century ballet to the music of Adolphe Adam.

“We basically modeled it right after Nureyev and tried to make [it] as similar as possible,” Chen said.

That Chen can reflect Nureyev seems surprising until you talk with people who taught him and danced with him during the 6 1/2 years he studied at Ballet West Academy in Salt Lake City. It surprises them that some figure skating judges apparently find it hard to recognize the artistic ability, musicality and dance skills they saw in Chen soon after he enrolled at the school as a 7-year-old.

Listen to Madison Young, 18, runner-up in the prestigious Prix de Lausanne ballet competition last year and now a member of the Houston Ballet company. She and Chen danced together in Ballet West productions of “The Nutcracker,” “Swan Lake” and “Sleeping Beauty.”

“If he wanted to be a dancer, I have no doubt he would be amazing, a star,” Young said.

SEE MORE: Nathan Chen earns gold with stunning 218.63-point free skate

And to Ballet West children’s ballet mistress Cati Snarr, who has been an on-field choreographer for the last 10 Super Bowls and teaches ballet to many figure skaters.

“He has perfect placement (relative positioning of his torso, head and limbs), perfect turnout (hip rotation) and natural kinesthetic awareness that some kids never get,” Snarr said. “Everybody that saw him dance wanted to cast him.”

And to her son, Jake Duke, a senior dance major at the University of Utah.

“He would have excelled really fast and probably have been a professional dancer really, really young,” Duke said. “Everything came so natural to him. He had a very distinct body awareness and was so disciplined, so precise, that he would have skyrocketed.”

All this is not meant to suggest that Chen, 17, may have been the next Nureyev had he not given up dance for figure skating, in which he is a contender for the gold medal at the world championships that begin Wednesday in Helsinki, Finland.

Figure skating has long taken precedence over his other extracurricular activities, which also included piano, violin, hockey and gymnastics. The ballet teachers saw in him a level of dedication and an ability to quickly grasp new concepts that, when added to his physical coordination, seemed to guarantee success in whatever pursuit Chen chose to focus on.

“It surprises no one here that Nathan is where he is in skating,” said Peter Christie, director of education at Ballet West.

Chen began taking daily classes in ballet — as many as six per week, Christie said — to help his skating. But he did not see it the way most skaters do, as just another box to check, along with sessions to work on strength, flexibility and endurance.

“I did ballet because I really enjoyed it,” Chen said.

A young Nathan Chen and a girl fight over the nutcracker
Courtesy of Ballet West

As in everything he did, even at an age when most boys would be bouncing off walls, Chen took the ballet classes seriously.

“He had a level of concentration unusual for his age,” said Ballet West Academy faculty member Heather Fryxell, a former Atlanta Ballet and Southern Ballet Theatre principal dancer who first taught Chen when he was 7. “Because he was so focused, he was able to excel quickly.”

Wrote the Salt Lake Tribune in a 2011 review of Ballet West’s “The Nutcracker”: “Madison Young as little Clara and Nathan Chen as her mischievous brother Fritz were marvelous.”

He was 12 then. The ballet training has stuck with him since, to such a degree that Chen regrets not being able to show it more because of the program-consuming athletic demands that come with being an elite figure skater.

“When I watch my skating when I was younger, I definitely see all this balletic movement and this artistry come through,” Chen said. “When I watch my artistry now, it’s like, ‘Yes, it’s still there,’ but at the same time, I’m so focused on the jumps, it takes away from it.

“If one of our best dancers did the same (free skate) program I’m doing with the five quads, the program quality will decrease because of the amount of athleticism involved.”

Look at his free skate closely, and you will see Chen assume, however briefly, each of classical ballet’s five basic feet positions. But there is little reward in holding those positions for any length of time the way competitive skating is judged today.

The five quads are among the 12 jumps Chen executes during his 4 1/2-minute free skate, which also includes three spins and a footwork sequence, to the “Polovtsian Dances” section from Borodin’s opera “Prince Igor.” It is his remarkable jumping ability that has catapulted Chen to a U.S. title, Four Continents Championships title and Grand Prix Final silver medal, all in his first season as a senior international skater.

At Four Continents last month, Chen first planned to do only three quads in the free skate, partly because he wanted to show a more artistic style.

“If I did a program with just triples, I think people would see I have the artistry,” Chen said. “It’s just all the quads that takes away from it.”

Fryxell sees it anyway. So does Russia’s Tatyana Tarasova, who has coached Olympic champions in singles, pairs and ice dance. In her TV commentary at the Grand Prix Final, where Chen won the free skate and finished second overall, Tarasova said she loved how he performed his free skate.

“I would be shocked if they didn’t see him as an artist, with his gorgeous line, his fluidity, the carriage of his arms,” Fryxell said.

“He can land quads with a beautiful position so it looks effortless. You almost don’t realize he is doing a quad until you look at the replay.”

While skating purportedly tries to balance sport and art, the current scoring system puts a tremendous premium on jumping, with big numbers awarded for quads and a bonus given for jumps performed in the latter half of a program. At this point in his career, with young legs and youthful fearlessness making it easier for him to launch himself into the air, Chen fully understands the value of being imbalanced.

“If you can do that many quads, how could you not make that a big element of what you are doing?” Christie said.

(Perhaps coincidentally, Nureyev, who was a relative latecomer to dance, was dismissed as too wildly athletic at the start of his career, and his stunning jumps and spins always would be among the hallmarks of his dancing. Of course, he wasn’t doing quads. Given the restrictions imposed by taking off from a standstill on a floor, three revolutions in the air has been the limit in ballet.)

Chen’s ballet teachers feel his quick mastery of ballet jumps, called tours, and of its spins, called pirouettes, came from his skating. He would constantly be practicing them in a corner of the room during breaks in ballet classes.

It was rare, Christie said, for 11- to 13-year-olds to do double tours, where the takeoff comes from a knee bend (plié) and the landing finishes with another plié. That was among the reasons teachers moved Chen into advanced classes, with much older students, almost immediately after his mother, Hetty Wang, first enrolled him in the ballet school.

“Nathan could do tricks I would ask adults to do, and then he would go, ‘Is this supposed to be hard?'” Snarr said with a laugh.

Chen also could take on a stage persona far different from his personality, a trick most performers need years to master, especially in an art form without words. That was evident in the two roles he played in different Nutcracker productions: Fritz, who is impish, and Drosselmeyer’s nephew, who is the opposite.

“As Fritz, he had to act how he thought he shouldn’t act, because Nathan was such a mature person from a very young age,” Duke said. “As the nephew, he could bring his own personality to life. It was great to see him being himself on stage as well as being in the character.”

Chen credits his older sisters, Alice and Janice, who also danced, with helping him “get outside himself.”

“I’m not naturally the Fritz character, but everyone wanted that role because it’s one of the bigger roles,” Chen said. “My sisters really helped me understand that when you’re on stage, you’re not yourself — you’re a different person.

“That’s something I was able to do in Nutcracker and something I’m trying to translate to my skating as well.”

Don’t expect Chen to do something dramatically out of character on the ice in the immediate future. Just appreciate the subtleties of what he can do now, subtleties often overwhelmed by his extraordinary jumping.

“I would be surprised if Nathan ever is a flashy performer,” Christie said. “What will come as he ages is a quiet, simmering sort of presence, a dignity, a princely elegance.

“The fact he has had so much dance in his life from early on already sets him apart from so many kids in skating.”

SEE MORE: Nathan Chen sets world record short program score

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