Kawahara Creates Movie Magic: Hall of Fame Choreographer has Crafted Iconic Film Moments

Editor’s note: Late last winter, SKATING magazine conducted an online poll of fans’ favorite ice skating movies. Results of that poll will appear in the June-July issue of SKATING magazine, which hits mailboxes the first week of June. In addition, several members of the skating community tell their backstories of what it was like to work on the set or behind the scenes of some of these popular movies.

Lois Elfman – 6/3/2019

When depicting sports in a film, authenticity is key. Before actress Margot Robbie, who received an Academy Award nomination for her lead role in the film I, Tonya, began filming, she spent four months working with the film’s choreographer, Sarah Kawahara.

Not only did Kawahara teach Robbie to figure skate, she meticulously re-created Tonya Harding’s skating programs. This involved teaching Robbie’s two skating doubles, Heidi Munger and Anna Malkova, the actual choreography as well as working with Robbie to realistically portray the former skater, fully utilizing all the skills the actress had learned.

“Margot is athletically inclined,” Kawahara said. “I took her basic abilities and tried to put them into the forefront and nurture it so that she would have an advantage when she had to skate. She’s a hard worker and she embraced the idea of being able to skate beyond just going in and out of a frame. That was advantageous.”

An Emmy Award winner for her work choreographing the opening and closing ceremonies at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City, Kawahara is a member of the U.S. Figure Skating, Skate Canada and Professional Skaters Association Halls of Fame. She worked with Scott Hamilton for decades, creating some of his iconic routines and choreographing the TV specials “Scott Hamilton Upside Down,” for which she won an Emmy, and “Scott Hamilton and Friends”.

Renowned throughout the skating world, Kawahara has created many individual programs and choreographed multiple television specials. She also choreographed and directed numerous ice shows for Willy Bietak Productions, including the cruise ship shows. Her first film was the 2005 Disney movie Go Figure.

“There is so much detail in what I do as a choreographer and director for shows, but when you do film the level of detail is so infinitesimal,” Kawahara said. “It’s broken down into tiny bits and then magnified. What may take five seconds [in a film] might take an entire day to shoot. There are so many different ways they need to cover the movement. It’s broken down into such tiny bits to get the emotional hit that they want.”

Many of Harding’s programs are captured on video or film, and Kawahara studied everything she could find. While keeping as close to the original as possible, she had to adapt some things to suit Robbie’s abilities, such as switching which leg Robbie used in one of Harding’s trademark high kicks.

The doubles were closer in height to Robbie, who is 5 feet, 6 inches, than Harding, who is 5 feet, 1 inch. They all wore body padding, which was particularly challenging for the doubles when doing triple jumps. Kawahara said the simplicity of 1990s-era skating took Munger and Malkova a bit of time to get comfortable with as they’ve grown up with the IJS.

“Tonya’s style of skating at the time was not decorated at all,” Kawahara said. “She was a fast skater and she spun really fast. I was lucky with Malkova because she’s a really fast, good-centered spinner. As young people who weren’t around in that era, it was interesting to hear their take on what they were looking at because I made them study the films as well.

“It wasn’t about just doing the tricks; it was about emulating the skater. Even though you’re a double, you have to be an actor and skate and stroke like this person.”
While I, Tonya required precise attention to detail and re-creating actual competitive skating, Kawahara’s work on Blades of Glory (2007) involved over-the-top comedy and a decidedly tongue-in-cheek approach to skating. She oversaw all the skating lessons for the actors, hiring Judy Blumberg, Susan Austin and Lisa-Marie Allen to work on their skating skills as per her specifications.

“I have my own set of shortcuts for teaching actors to skate, because I know what they’re going to need and what we’re going to shoot,” Kawahara said.

It varies from film to film how much skating the actors do, which is usually connected to the abilities of the actors. By example, in Blades of Glory actor Will Arnett (Stranz Van Waldenberg) was a good skater, and at points he skated with Amy Poehler’s (Fairchild Van Waldenberg) double, Tiffany Scott.

“Jon Heder (Jimmy MacElroy) really took to the ice and was a natural at it,” Kawahara recalled. “It was harder for Will Ferrell (Chazz Michael Michaels), but comical every day and he worked hard at it. He would look at me and say, ‘Backward crossovers are the most unnatural thing I have ever experienced in my life, and I consider myself an athlete.’

“Amy Poehler didn’t really like to skate, but she did it. With the small amount of skating — she could skate on and off — she could act up a storm and really sell it. I did this whole move where he lifted her and then she went down in between his legs, she reached between and he pulled her up. She could act her way through it. It was amazing.”

Kawahara used multiple skating doubles for the male leads — four for Ferrell, two each for Heder and Arnett — selected for their physical similarities to the actors because in some instances computer-generated images were used to put the actor’s face on the skater’s body. Also, ability to perform certain script-driven maneuvers came into play.

“In their narrative they wanted some crazy tricks,” Kawahara said.

Kawahara had the doubles on the ice with the actors several times, so each could see the other’s rhythm and movement.

“Actors are natural mimics, so it helped them,” she said.

One day, they were filming in an arena with about 800 people plus 1,500 “stuffies” (blow-up dolls) in the seats, and Heder and Ferrell performed a 90-second routine from start to finish. Kawahara said it was a wonderful moment because that was the one and only time they got to skate an entire program.

“It’s not just about the skating,” she said. “It’s about the lighting and the shadow and the angle and the actor’s expression.”

Recently, Kawahara has been working on the upcoming Netflix series Spinning Out. Season one consists of 10 episodes, seven of which will have skating. As opposed to a film that has one director, a series involves multiple directors and crews across the episodes.

“There are lots of skaters,” Kawahara said. In addition to Johnny Weir and Dylan Moskovitch, who have speaking roles, many skaters are involved in the action sequences. The film centers on a senior ladies competitor who has lost her nerve and is planning to quit when a Russian coach convinces her to become a pairs skater.

“It’s a lot of pairs skating,” said Kawahara, who in addition to skating programs choreographed dramatic moments that unfold on practice ice. “She’s a singles skater first, so I have singles skater doubles and I’ve got pairs skater doubles to reflect different levels of her pairs skating. When she starts to get better, there are different doubles. I have all those different layers.”
The Canadian pairs team of Evelyn Walsh and Trennt Michaud went immediately into filming after competing at the 2019 World Figure Skating Championships.

“In Spinning Out the skating choreography is bound to the story and what part of the story we’re telling,” Kawahara said. “For me, it’s music-driven and dramatically driven by dialogue. The skating is as integrated as I’ve ever seen it in a production. It is presented as an integral part of the story. They really wanted to get the emotional beat of the moment.

“It’s nice to have a learning curve at this point in my career.”

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