BY KENT MCDILL
The Professional Skaters Association Hall of Fame celebrates the achievements of storied and successful coaches, most of whom have taken individual and pair skaters to championship levels of figure skating prowess.
Sarah Kawahara is in the PSA Hall of Fame primarily for her skill at getting dozens, sometimes hundreds, of skaters to perform well enough to present a full-blown story, often with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
One of the most renowned and celebrated figure skating choreographers in history, Kawahara is the 2019 inductee into the PSA Hall of Fame.
“It is just amazing,” Kawahara told PS Magazine. “I’m just so tremendously honored. I never dreamed my career would take me here. My only regret is that I cannot share it with my dad (Hideo Kawahara, who passed away in 2011), who helped me get here, who was instrumental in training me, coaching me, to make me who I have become.”
Kawahara’s career as a choreographer has been saluted by organizations outside of the realm of figure skating. She won an Emmy Award for the choreography in the television show Scott Hamilton Upside Down in 1996, and was again awarded by the Emmys for her work on the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
Filmgoers are very familiar with Kawahara’s work probably without knowing her name. She was the choreographer for the Will Ferrell film Blades of Glory and served the same role for the widely praised biopic I, Tonya. She has just completed work on a Netflix film entitled Spinning Out.
But Kawahara’s career started as a choreographer for individual competitors, and had a long-standing professional relationship with Hamilton, which led to the first Emmy award. Over the years, she choreographed professional shows that included for Hamilton, Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Robin Cousins, Nancy Kerrigan, Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, and Oksana Baiul.
Kawahara sees much of her work as one about storytelling, which goes a long way toward understanding how she approaches coaching groups for performance differently than when she has coached individuals for competition.
“When you are working with a group of people, it is a symphony,” she said. “Everybody, each person is responsible for their own instrument, and the proficiency for how they play their instrument adds to the sound, the look, the emotion of the piece. They are skating together in a symphony. For me, I am the conductor. When I am doing production work, like with Disney or any live production. That is essentially my approach.
Sarah presents on-ice at the 2009 PSA Conference & Trade Show in Orlando, FL.
“When I work with one person, the demand is the same, except I am working with one person. The play I am working on is different.”
When prodded to do so, Kawahara found it difficult to select one choreography job as her “crowning glory”, but cited the Winter Olympics task for amusing reasons. For the widely praised Winter Games in Salt Lake City, she choregraphed the opening and closing ceremonies as well as Michelle Kwan’s long and exhibition programs for the games.
“I was able to use all my experiences working with stars and working with major productions, as well as doing camera work for television specials,” she said. “I was able to use all of my experience in all the different mediums rolled into one project.
“For that project, I stripped the community of every possible person who could skate forward,” she said with a laugh. “I came in with all of these grand images, then, after I auditioned about 1,000 people, the most important question I needed an answer to was “Can you stop?”
And she laughed again.
In a huge simplification, there are two kinds of performances for large groups: synchro-choreography in which every skater needs to move in identical form to the next, and the story-telling sort in which every skater is providing unique visual input as part of a large group of skaters.
“There are times when you want their different colors, you want their different talents, and you use the fact that they are different to your advantage,” Kawahara said. “There are times when you want them to be alike, and then it calls upon their classic background and training. They all have the same basis for the most part to harken back to, and then you add imagery which will be new but still call upon their commonality.”
Photo by Vicki Luy
Kawahara is quick to salute the thousands of coaches who worked with the skaters she uses in her productions who created the base of skills upon which she calls when those skaters are hers to work with.
“I have worked with so many generations of beautifully trained skaters, and I reaped the benefits of their talents and have been able to create stories and pieces of television and movies on many different levels of the art form because of their experiences they bring to the table,” she said.
Over the years, Kawahara has picked up the skills necessary to work closely with video professionals in order to design and present her shows in the best light for video work. She currently works with the Royal Caribbean cruise line to present shows they provide for the massive ships, and those presentations take advantage of the latest in video presentation technology.
“It is really fun for me,” she said. “We can really go to town. We have a very current level of technology with video projects. We have had drones. It brings production skating into the 21st century.”
Kawahara laughed yet again when discussing the challenges she faces when filming skating performances for movies and television, when there is a personal story attached and the skating is primary to the story of the main characters, as when she worked on Blades of Glory or I, Tonya. She spoke of the challenge of filming the emotion of the skater to create the drama while worrying as well about the proficiency of the skating performance.
“The writer is sitting down and writing a story and thinks ‘wouldn’t it be great if they did this (skating trick)?’, and then that becomes my job,” she said. “I train the actors, and they have different levels of proficiency, depending on the actor, so some can do more than others. Then I have a double that can really skate, but who can be that person, that character. You have two people portraying the same role performing different skating tasks.
“I had five doubles for Will Ferrell (in Blades of Glory),” she said. “it depends on what trick you need to have and not everybody can do all the tricks that are written for the story.”
Kawahara makes her home in Los Angles, where she is on the staff of the Ice in Paradise rink when she is not every place else that exists where skating needs to be presented in grand fashion.