Meeting Karine Arribert-Narce

Karine Arribert Narce - © Kate BR

Going back to last March and hidden in our drawers, we happened to find again an interview of Karine ARRIBERT.  Since Zoé Blanc and Pierre-Loup Bouquet largely paid tribute to her in their own recent interview, it seemed judicious to publish this  conversation recounted by our skating specialist, Kate.

Some people are said to have this little extra bit of soul. Karine Arribert-Narce is one of them. Please, meet a woman with a passion.

Annecy Infosports : Karine, can you tell us how it all started for you ?

Karine Arribert : I am originally from Willard de Lans, I was a skater myself until I turned 16/17 years old. I was doing pairs with Olivier Chappuis, who became a synchro teacher. Then, I gave up and tried [ballet] dancing. I worked with Jean-Claude Gallotta  at Centre Chorégraphique  National of Grenoble. At 18, while I was a student in Grenoble, I passed my National Coaching qualification and I met Muriel Zazoui’s former choreographer Dominique Audin,  who had worked with Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat. We happened to be on the same waves length and I worked on my qualification with her. I then chose to turn towards figure skating choreography. I worked one year in Besançon as a choreographer. I had my National qualification as well as some kind of degree in choreography, but this curriculum was only available for one year, when Gallotta was organizing a DEUG [University degree obtained after 2 years of study] in choreography.  Very quickly, I realized that everything was linked, the movement, the technique.  Since, in Besançon, in my opinion the dancers had no movement “vocabulary”, I told myself that, if I wanted to create interesting choreography, the dancers had to undergo training in the first place. And I came back to Villard de Lans as a coach.

AIS : Ballet on ice ? You were the one who started it all here in Villard ?

KA : Yes, it’s me, I created the teams.

AIS : In the history of figure skating, it is a relatively recent discipline…

KA : Yes, even if it exists for about 15 years now. I discovered this discipline thanks to Christine Sionnet, a lady who still lives on the Villard de Lans Plateau (and who is an osteopath). When I passed my National qualification, she was working at Voiron CREPS [Centre d’Education Populaire et de Sport – Center for People Education and for Sports] and offering lessons in ice ballet in l’Alpe d’Huez.  She invited me to a show. She was a choreographer too, she was creating very contemporary dances and I find it extremely interesting. I think solo ice dance will never go far within skatingclubs, there isn’t a federal interest for this. Today, ice dance in France is stagnating although we have kids who have a passion for the discipline. I wanted to offer them ground on which  they would be able to express themselves, to have an impact, some opportunities. In my head, I put it in relation with what I had seen years before… Some seven years ago, I attended the National Championship in Chambéry.  I was very disappointed by what I saw, this club fair atmosphere… Except for one or two clubs that were above the average…  But, nevertheless, there was this particular freedom… What caught my attention in ballet was that the rules are flexible, it means six minutes of liberty. Here it is, for me, that’s what ice ballet is about. The Sport National Commission of Ice ballet works in parallel with the ISU. They have set a system of points, they are structuring it in order to organize a technical notation.

AIS : Are ice ballet international competitions supervised by the ISU like  other disciplines ?

KA : No, not at all. Ice ballet isn’t yet governed by the ISU.

AIS : But, in France, it is supervised by FFSG [French Federation for Ice Sports] ?

KA : Right. We are under the aegis of FFSG, just as any other Sport National Commissions.

AIS : So, who supervise the international competitions ?

KA : Actually, the ISU validates the results, but without further intervention. For instance, Bernard Carles, President f the Commission, isn’t in favor of the ISU participation. He wants us to be a parallel branch in order to uarantee all its freedom to ice ballet. Ice ballet is still a young discipline, our purpose is not necessarily to become Olympic. It is a discipline that grows on an international level nonetheless, with competitions like the Nations Cup. We fear that, under the ISU aegis, everything will turn out to be like in other disciplines, very structured, very rigid. The soul of ice ballet is choreography and its emotional impact. Jean-Christophe Berlot, who is a member of the CSNP, has done a lot for ice ballet. He actively militates for ice ballet not to become a very “technical” discipline with highly restrictive standards.  He works on the assumption that an axel is a good thing if it nicely fits in the choreography.  Otherwise, we don’t care, it’s useless.

AIS : For people discovering ice ballet, this freedom is precisely what makes a difference…

KA : Should we become an ISU discipline, we would immediately fall down the mold of ultra-supervised competitions, with the quirks it involves. Bernard Carles and the CSN are very careful on this particular subject. They are into development, but one step at a time.

AIS : Tell me how it works with your teams. You have novices, juniors, seniors, are they all into competitive skating ?

KA : We have created the novice section only recently and we have just finished their program [March 2011]. It’s the real start this year. But I indeed have three distinct teams. Novices are kids entering improvement courses, so they are really small. Really very small [laughs]. Juniors are competitive solo ice dancers. 

AIS : When you say solo, is it really individual dance ?

KA : Oh yes, solo is solo !

AIS : I had heard of solo competitive ice dance for adults, but not for youngsters…

KA : Solo dancing isn’t developed in France, it is a willingness of the ice dance hierarchy, to dance you have to be a couple, period.

AIS : Aren’t you frustrated to be so limited in your possibilities ? Someone as creative as you are…

KA : I accept criticism, some people do not like my work, OK, it’s a matter of tastes, so be it. What I dislike is narrow mindedness when it comes to difference. One must have a minimum of respect for the work done, and one mustnot look at difference with a negative eye. You know, I’m 33, I am not going to spend all my life coaching ice dance, it is such a restricted discipline… It’s a very expensive discipline too, which has a hard time becoming largely accessible. But people  holding the reins are not those who make what figure skating is. The way things should be done has been reversed. Athletes and coaches are no longer making propositions, it is ISU people who call the shots. An exemple : regarding Blanc/Bouquet’s program last season, I have been told I was doing things the wrong way round… Look, we are perched on our mountain, our projects are thought-out for days on end, we work with Russian dance teachers who are exceptional. Then we go to French Masters (2010) where we present our programs. And here we are told : « oh but we have to agree with your music « .

AIS : Agree on what ?

KA : Determine if the music is OK or not. I have been kindly told that judges had to be an integral part of the project, and that,  only then, could they adhere, believe and support. This is the pep talk I got from everyone. In fact, I am a free electron, a bit crazy, and since we hold on to our freedom, nobody takes the risk to approach us. [Inseparable from her pupils, Karine says “we” as soon as she talks about her skaters]. I hadn’t realized what the rule was, I thought I had to elaborate a project, along which we would build programs, and afterwards only, we would be judged. When we were juniors, we were really free. Do you know what I have been told ? That Zoé and Pierre-Loup were getting deductions because there was no change of rhythm in their programs. We had a competition here and I brought an international judge in the dressing room. I played their music, along with a metronome : “I’m going to show you your own incompetence”. Judges in ice dance are amazingly incompetent. And I can’t stand it. When I created Zoé and Pierre-Loup’s FD to Grand Corps Malade’ slam, I was sent for a meeting where I was told : impossible, you’re crazy, there is no rhythm, and so on… We were in touch with Grand Corps Malade on the Internet and we asked him to send a mail, explaining that his song indeed did had rhythm, otherwise singing would have been simply… impossible. Grand Corps Malade’s phrasing is systematically one beat behind his music. The music starts at 1, the phrasing starts at 2. I can tell you that with Zoé and Pierre-Loup, we have worked on that for months. Our intention was precisely to make the most of this musical lapse [she sings to demonstrate]. And at the first competition of the season, I’m told there is no rhythm ? When it comes to this point, I’m done, it doesn’t interest me anymore. I’m willing to debate a lot of things, but with valid arguments. I’m willing to discuss “well, it wasn’t flowing enough”, but I want to discuss with competent people and it is never the case. Didier Gailhaguet often blames me for not being on the right path, and he is right. In a way, the journey in itself is much more important to me than the destination. A medal or a title won thanks to conventional stuff, hmm not so good. When you work six hours a day, if it isn’t interesting, if there is no progression, you blow a fuse. All season, we work like crazy, we build a project which is so rich, we have the possibility to extrapolate in every direction, it’s impossible to get bored. True, the result always differs a little from the original idea, but this is much more interesting to me than raising World champions. True, right now, with Zoe and Pierre-Loup, we have come to a point where choices have to be made. These choices are tough.

AIS : What are they up to now ?

KA : They still don’t know (March 12 2011). It would be a pity to stop now, but they have been raised at the school of freedom, and they have now reached a level where they can no longer have this freedom.

AIS : In a traditional structure, they’d probably choke pretty quickly…

KA : Sure, they cannot [change]. They’d need  to be able to work very serenely as who they are. They’d need to stand back, not to be dependant on the results. Competition isn’t everything, there is some kind of grieving work that has to be done here. I’m still convinced of their talent.

AIS : About ice ballet, the process is the same ? 

KA : Exactly.

AIS : Where do you find the music you use ?

KA : I play music all the time and I have an inquiring mind, I love discovering. To be able to create, I need the music to talk to me, to be rich.

AIS : It must spark off emotions within you first ?

KA : Absolutely !

AIS : Then, the source of the creating process springs inside your guts, before flowing through your intellect ?

KA : Exactly. The intellect always comes second. There is a [she snaps her fingers] feeling. I feel things. I run a lot on voices, they are fuel to me.

AIS : Thanks to you, I always discover new artists and I’m far from being alone ! Claire Diterzi for instance…

KA : I’m a night owl and I listen to the radio. Half of the music I use, I chanced upon it randomly. I am half-asleep, and suddenly, I sit up straight and listen.   Here [in Villard de Lans], we also have a great multimedia library. I also use the Internet a lot. I love music, I love everything, my tastes are very eclectic. But I want to emphasize the fact music has to be rich. Music which are rhythmically poor aren’t my thing. In ballet, just like in ice dance, judges often reproached me to work too much on the melody itself. It’s totally untrue. For me a dance cannot… [she pauses to thinks about it]. With me, everything is counted, it’s very rigorous, everything is counted on 8, it is extremely precise. Well, no, not in that order… [she pauses and thinks again]. I build my programs instinctively, without counting, then I check the count to be sure it fits. But for me, it’s impossible to work on the eurhythmics only.  It’s too restrictive, there is no impetus, no air, it’s too outright, it doesn’t breath. I never understood why I was told I was working on the melody only. I’d want to reply : do you know a lot of people who work on the melody out of rhythm ? A melody is a poetry wedged on a rhythm. With Grand Corps Malade, I looked [for it]. To work on an off-beat, a counter-rhythm, I had two choices : Rainbow by an American band whose name slips my mind right now, but they had musical phrases of 5, so it was very complicated since usually, it’s of 8. Even a waltz is on 8 counts. And I couldn’t get it. I worked on the slam, to find some sort of off-beat element in the tempo, and all that to hear people say there was no rhythm ? It was the “compliment » that didn’t amuse me.

AIS : A lot of figure skating fans would like ice dance to take a direction more original that the one adopted by Virtue/Moir or Davis/White, with whom they grow a bit bored. Even a lot bored…

KA : To me, Virtue/Moir mean technical prowess. They are brilliant. They have so much virtuosity, technicality… [she makes volutes with her hands], as a result, even me who’s not a supporter of this style, I let myself be charmed. My technician eye is very appreciative of their osmosis, of their stroke on the ice, of this lightness, I can only admire it. The  the rest of the dance doesn’t appeal to me, I grow bored too. When I go to Grand Prix, I watch only the men competition.

AIS : Do you still host individual skaters in summer ?

KA : No. The main problem is the federal control over all this. We worked with Préaubert, Gwendoline Didier, Christopher Boyadji, but they haven’t been allowed to come back. Things are done in a way that allows only one center to exist. For this center to survive, the others must die. It isn’t a critic of Muriel Zazoui’s work, I have a lot of admiration for what she does. It is a critic of the system as a whole. Here, we get back youngsters assassinated on the altar of results. They aren’t wonderful, they are just different. They have correct results, 2nd at Junior Masters for instance. They are not gifted with Papadakis or Zaorsky’s talent. But in France, you only have the right to be exceptional. And when you are exceptional, the only right you have is to go to Lyon. We chose to get out of the ring, I resigned from the Opera de la Glace [Ice Opera – Detection organized by French federation], I’m certainly too straightforward, too blunt.   Opera de la Glace select some kids upon their results, some other upon their potential, which means there is no rule. Either you focus on potential, either you focus on results. But if you select nr 1, nr 2 then nr 10, you must be able to justify yourself. Perhaps nr 1 is there because he worked like crazy even if he has less talent than nr 10. In France, with athletes, ambitious plans are made, castles are built in the air, people are praised to the skies, then, after the first letdown, bam, we slaughter them. Here, we have eventually protected ourselves against all this, we no longer get involved. But the problem is, when we train people here, they can no longer go elsewhere. When, at the beginning of last season, Zoé, Pierre-Loup and I had some trouble, I told them to go, to go and have success elsewhere, to go to Lyon. They said no. A big N-O. And yet, I used all my might. Sure, we are a problem for our federation. We are on our mountain with 90 club members, i.e. nothing. Except that, out of these 90 people, we formed a good number of couples. But we take all these skaters for who they are, we do not have the Federation selective process. We have this new couple, they aren’t bad, maybe they won’t be formidable, but we are working, working, working.  We are able to compete against very good ice dancers but at point, we stall. In Lyon, Muriel Zazoui has a totally different capacity of hosting. She has had Zahorsky and Miart for one year, he comes from individual skating, she comes from England, and she just did that [she joins her hands as if she was pressing something to make it stick]. Those kids would never come to Villard de Lans. We have our owns pupils, we do with what we have and we take them to the limit of their potential, whatever it is. Nobody is never thrown out, this is the main difference. About detection, we have a very different way to do things, and very different goals, clearly. To work together, an absolute trust is required, we need to build our projects all together, to all agree. We are in a very human relationship, it’s not only about being athletes. They [Lyon] are an athletes factory, they pick up, they discard. Which is normal since they are looking for results.

AIS : Why can’t there be room for everyone ? Those who have potential and results and those who have talent but not necessarily the rest ?

KA : That’s precisely what’s wrong in France. The approach is all about hierarchy, excellence is required, our average pupils aren’t taken into account. They aren’t taken into account and they aren’t helped, pushed. With such a policy… With all due respect to Delobel/Schönfleder… Muriel did a great job. The gift wasn’t very nice and she wrapped it beautifully. He was tall, she was small, he was slender, she was stocky. It didn’t look good and she worked her head off to push them in the light. But at the root, if you think of elitism… With the Federation, watch out,  it can go far, we talk morpho-type here, it really goes far…  My take on the subject is that FFSG doesn’t stand by its own athletes, it doesn’t provide them with the means to exploit their potential. It tries to adapt what works elsewhere, to a savoir-faire which isn’t ours. We have a real French savoir-faire, we have to stand by it. We never take responsibility for our work, we try to apply rules which work abroad, and it cannot work here, because we haven’t the same culture. FFSG has always looked for miracle cures. I went to countless seminars where I was shown Russian and American couples : “here it is, we must do the same on the elements”. And I used to say : no, we must get levels 4, sure, but why should we do exactly what Americans do ?

AIS : « Because, for them, it works » ?

KA : Yes, except you don’t become Igor Shpilband just because you want to. I went to work with him for one week, he has a smartness, a very personal way to do things. Our kids don’t have the same rigor, they do not train this way. With him, it’s only individual lessons, it’s a totally different way of working, so trying to adapt it to French system is useless. In France, we don’t say : “well, how can we evolve to level 4 ? ». We say : “look, it works for them, let’s do exactly the same ». Except it doesn’t work for us, because we are us, not them. I think all this is just too dumb, really.

AIS : What about you ? What about exporting your own savoir-faire abroad ? Would you like it ?

KA : We haven’t yet this kind of « aura », we aren’t known at all. For me, the most difficult was to go to Championships and Grand prix. In Los Angeles, I was close to blowing a fuse. Fifteen days in this atmosphere… the inside show, the cronyism, these connections established a long time ago. When you land into this world, I can tell you the electroshock is severe.  I didn’t know what I was doing there, although I’m a coach. I was thinking, I have Zoé and Pierre-Loup since they are all small, somehow, it’s a consecration. When I came back home, everybody asked me : so, this consecration ? I said : a nightmare !! [laughs]. Well, except for the moments my skaters were on the ice. And yet, I’ve seen great champions, but all this blanketed in some sort of… [she looks for the proper word but cannot find it]. I didn’t know all this, I’ve never been a world class athlete. I came back traumatized ! [laughs]. Following French Masters (2011),  a judge called me to tell me : it doesn’t work, you do not talk to us, you do not ask for our advice. Ah… I thought that : we enter a competition, we are judged, we get our marks, then we go home, we analyze the whole thing once our head is cold, and then eventually, we call the judges. But no, it has to be done the other way round. 

AIS : You mean that the judges are supposed to correct what you’ve done [before the competitions] ?

KA : That’s it. And it’s wrong. The logic would be : we go to competition and the work already done is judged. Each and everyone in the right place. We are coaches, they are judges. Then, we can debate, if there are questions, we talk. Oh but that’s not how it works, not at all. We have to do what we are told to. Add to this that we endure Lyon monopoly since the beginning. One day, at a competition, someone asked me : “but there is ice dance elsewhere than in Lyon ?”. I replied, yes, but not easily. When ice dancers are on the ice, they need the right support behind the boards. I worked with skaters, ice dancers, just to hear afterwards : “I adore what you do, but publicly, if you could stay behind, it would be better really. It’s better if it’s Muriel who is behind the boards. » OK, I get it, it’s no problem for me. What I love is the work in itself.

AIS : It’s not exactly fair…

KA : It doesn’t matter, that’s how the system works. When Zoé and Pierre-Loup told me they were thinking retirement, I phoned the Federation to announce I wanted them to go to Lyon. Then, a French judge, Philippe Maitrot, sent them an e-mail to tell them that leaving Villard de Lans was a very good idea, that I was crazy, that my work was dangerous.
AIS : Dangerous ?

KA : Yes, dangerous. You get the general idea… We went to Cup of Russia with him, he was unable to understand the program. So he didn’t support us. Do you know who did ?  Igor Shpilband. He asked us : « but how come you are last ? » Zoé and Pierre-Loup were exactly were they were 5 years back, nobody supported them. Nobody had the guts [she uses another word…] to support their program, nobody. 

AIS : Why ? What do they risk ?

KA : But their place ! Next time, they won’t be sent. I have an endless admiration for Nathalie Péchalat and Fabian Bourzat who had the courage to move to Russia. And sacrificing such a couple at the Olympics ? What a stupidity ! Once again, with all due respect to Delobel/Schönfelder, going to the Olys without having done a single competition, it was unthinkable… The number 1 couple in France wasn’t even officially selected. Muriel Zazoui knew pretty well that Delobel wasn’t going to succeed, but to keep the monopoly she has on ice dance, Péchalat/Bourzat had to be prevented from moving forward. To work in order to put a stoke in somebody’s wheels, pfff [she sighs, thinks…] I’m always making blunders, I always speak my mind ! I must learn to think in silence not to voice it out [laughs]. The picture is dark but I have a passion !

AIS : It shows ! [laughs]

KA : I have a passion for figure skating, not for the rest. I’m 100% committed to what i do. Last season, we got ready for Nationals in 4 days. 4 days earlier, Zoé and Pierre-Loup had decided to retire. Zoé is fragile, if she starts having doubts, she can really go down. I wanted to protect her. We didn’t know if they’d stay in competitive skating afterwards, I wanted her to feel good and not to nurse any regrets. They clenched their teeth, so did I. I didn’t care about the result, what I didn’t want what the results to weaken them. I want them to skate well, to be proud of themselves. The day of the free dance, they were totally filled with their music, everything was there, feeling, guts… [she is moved…]

L'équipe de Ballet sur Glace de Villards de Lans - © TORCHIO Sébastien

AIS : Let’s go back to ice ballet. Why is there so many junior teams ?

KA : The sport is young and the categories are not always coherent. We recently organized a seminar on the subject. To be a novice, you must be under 15. But, for instance, my junior team is the same age than novices… They are kids who are trained for competitive solo ice dance, with technical requirements. Consequently, their level is too high to remain novices. To be a junior, there is no standard of age nor level. It is the catch-all category. You can even find adults in juniors, it is really heterogeneous. The ISU already put its finger on this lack of consistency. Some officials attended the Nation Cups, Barcelona won and they were all… older than 25 ! Against my team where the average is 13. There is indeed a coherence problem that must be solved.

AIS : All your ice dancers do ice ballet ?

KA : My elite atheletes have no choice. I force them to [she insists, laughing]. It is a very good school. I trained the girls, Harmonie [Lafont], Zoé… But the boys, like Stanislas [Etzol], had no knowledge of gestural work, of interpretation.  I use ballet as a tool. But there are huge differences between the ways ballets are conceived. Take the club from Toulouse, for instance, they jump.  With me, they dance. There are real different conceptions of ice ballet in France as well as internationally. In the US, they are very much into theater on ice, it doesn’t skate much but the outfits and sets are magnificent. Personally, I’m not very much into big sets. For me, ballet is like dance, it isn’t hard science, the first can be second, the second can be first, everything is debatable. All you need is a consistent theme. We are lucky enough to have young judges who don’t want everything to be alike or simplistic.  A judge, I don’t remeber who, told me : if, as a theme, we pick up, « The Little Chinese », I don’t want everybody in a disguise with slanting eyes skating to ding-dang-dong music, it’s worth no interest. And yet, in ice dance, that’s precisely what we are expected to do !! [She gives a hearty laugh]. In ice ballet, that’s exactly what is NOT expected from us. It grants us with a predominant place to creativity, conceptuality. Last season, we had this theme about [WWII] Resistance. My grandfather was a war resistant here on the Vercors Plateau. A lot of senior people come to attend our galas, and they have teary eyes when the Chant des Partisans [Partisans’ song] is played. I’m carried away, so much emotion…  As much as they are my pupils, when they skate that well, I’m just like the audience, I quiver, I cry. During competitions, I cannot, but during gala I let myself being taken away by emotion.

AIS : The expression of your sincerity…

KA : I attend a lot of dance shows, I love art in general, my studies all revolved around art. My daughter is an ice dancer and I had never had  time to show her the Duchesnay or Torvill and Dean. I finally find the time recently and she was astounded : « but why is it no longer like this ? » It made her shivering. I’ve always advocated the right to prefer such or such, this or that, to say : this season I’m more moved by X than by Y. But you have to stand by the emotion you feel. For instance, this year [2010/2011] I like Carron/Jones’ short dance a lot. There is something in it that touches me. At Bompard Trophy, I wasn’t there, but I just loved the three last couples.

AIS : Who decide of the themes, the music, how do you pick them up ? Is it a collegial decision ? 

KA : No. It’s me, for ice dance and for ice ballet. We make try-outs, if it works, we carry on.  We start to build the program, it must catch on. If it doesn’t, it means the dancers don’t understand or don’t subscribe to the project. We have chosen an ultra-ambitious theme for our free ballet, to a Stanislas’ song : Stateless people. We’re having a hard time, the soufflé doesn’t rise, but it doesn’t matter, I always leave time to time.

AIS : Do you take care of the costumes too ? 

KA : Yes, always. For ice dance, ballet, everything. I draw them myself. 

AIS : I remember hearing of  Zoe’s dress that had to be changed…

KA : Yes, we changed it, we were forced to. Because of the rules. Harem pants in ice dance : niet. It’s the kind of thing that drives me up the wall, but there is no choice…

AIS : How many dancers do you coach all in all ?

KA : 15 in the elite team, 18 as juniors and 18 as novices.

AIS : Is there a limit to the number of skaters on the ice in ballet ? 

KA : I think it is 30. It’s a lot and precisely, they want to rule in favor of an inferior number. The bigger the teams are, the less they skate. Me, I love when it slides, when everybody slides !

Interview and photo © Kate B.R.