Day 6

A brief history of figure skating's most tasteless ideas

This week, a Russian figure skating duo came under fire for performing a Holocaust-themed routine. It's not the first time figure skating has been accused of being tone-deaf or even tasteless in its choice of subject matter. Figure skating writer and analyst P.J. Kwong walks us through the sport's worst offences.
Tatiana Navka, right, and partner Andrei Burkovsky caused a stir by dressing up in concentration camp uniforms bearing yellow six-pointed stars and heavily made-up to look bruised and frail. The performance was part of an episode of "Ice Age," a Russian reality show. (Channel One/YouTube)

This week, a Russian figure skating duo came under fire for performing a Holocaust-themed routine.

Tatiana Navka and Andrei Burkovsky were taking part in the Russian reality show Ice Age, in which a figure skating professional is teamed with a celebrity neophyte.

In their much-talked about performance,  Navka and Burkovsky dressed as concentration camp inmates, each wearing a striped uniform with the yellow Star of David sewn on. The pair was also heavily made-up to look bruised and frail.


Wife of Putin aide sparks outrage

As videos of the performance circulated online, people from around the world took exception to the motif, the costumes, the sounds of dogs barking throughout the routine — and the end, in which Burkovsky is killed by simulated machine-gun fire.

It's not just that this routine brought together figure skating and genocide, it's also that throughout the performance the pair held beaming grins. Even for figure skating this is over the top, but none of this stopped the judges from handing Navka and Burkovsky a perfect score.         

If you want even more controversy, Tatiana Navka is married to Vladimir Putin's chief spokesman.

This isn't the first time figure skating has been accused of being tone-deaf or even tasteless in its choice of subject matter. So Day 6 asked figure skating coach, writer and analyst P.J. Kwong to walk us through some of the sport's worst offences.

"When people are trying to be artistic and they're not artists it comes off as a huge cultural fail," Kwong says. "You take a subject as serious as the Holocaust and you add some sassy lifts and cool little arm movements — it just doesn't work."



The dangers of cultural appropriation

Kwong and the rest of the skating world were shocked by this 1997 performance by Alexei Yagudin. It  was supposed to be an Africa-inspired routine but came off as confusing and offensive.

For starters, it sounded like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the Lion King soundtrack and "Africa" by Toto had been mashed together for the soundtrack to this three-minute routine.

But the real controversy surrounded the 17-year-old's perplexing costume and use of a prop. Yagudin wore a painted bodysuit with tassels and carried what is almost certainly a banana for part of the routine.  


Domnina and Shabalin

The theme at the 2010 European Championships was folk dance and Russian ice-dancers Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin showed up with an Australian aboriginal-themed folk routine.

From the cartoonish choreography to the wildly exaggerated facial gestures to the outlandish costume, it was the highest form of disrespect.

After their performance, Aboriginal elders branded the routine as cultural theft, saying it was seriously offensive. But Domnina and Shabalin were happy with the routine and continued to use it in the Vancouver Olympic Games.

That same season, Australian ice dancers also performed to Australian aboriginal music — and it not only scored well, it was a hit with fans.


An ice dance tribute to 9/11

Talk about too soon. Just four months after the 9/11 attacks on America, Irina Lobacheva and Ilia Averbukh based a new routine on the tragedy.

Lobacheva and AverbukhIt considered it a tribute; they felt the weight of the moment and tried to turn that emotion in a free dance routine.

While it's difficult to come up with new ideas and bring them to life, Kwong says there are real dangers to representing somebody else's culture, and somebody else's tragedy.

"You have to make sure you hit all of the marks and in this case, I appreciate the effort but honestly, don't do it."


Holocaust dance routine: The one that worked

Julia Lipnitskaia is on this list for a different reason.

Yes, there are inherent risks to using controversial themes; but if handled properly, it can work. This is an example of a holocaust routine that did everything right.

In 2014, at the Sochi games, Lipnitskaia skated to music from the film Schindler's List. She wore a muted red coat, a nod to a memorable scene from the film. And she held a serious, if not sombre, expression throughout.

Kwong says it was a beautiful and haunting performance. She wasn't the only one who noticed.

Steven Spielberg, who directed Schindler's List, wrote her after her skate to tell her she had capture the movie's tone perfectly.