French Olympic Ice Dancers Make Skating as Ethereal as Ballet

Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, skating to Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, expanded the idea of virtuosity with the way they completely tuned in to each other.

The Olympics ice dancing competition came down to a dress.

On Monday night, the French team of Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron took the silver medal while Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada won the gold. The back story, which everyone probably knows by now, is that near the start of the French pair’s short dance on Sunday, the top of Ms. Papadakis’s halter dress became unfastened. As she explained afterward, there was nothing left for her to do but pray. But as their skate continued, her breast was briefly exposed.

This wardrobe glitch cost the pair points and put them behind the Canadians going into the free dance. Skating, especially on the Olympic level, is a sport with a mystifying judging system. But as a dance critic, I judge skating by different rules, and to me, no team, gold medal or not, matches the artistry of Ms. Papadakis and Mr. Cizeron.

When a free dance program shows two bodies moving as one, as Ms. Papadakis and Mr. Cizeron’s did, it is just as ethereal as ballet. Suddenly, a competition is a conduit for more than skating. It’s a window into another space and time: eerie, quiet, floating.

The women’s singles event wraps up on Thursday night, but for me the real hero of the Olympic Games has been ice dancing. It has artistic breadth, and this year the talent ran deep. While the tricks in singles and pairs skating have become relentless — you hold your breath in fear that a skater will fall — ice dancing gets at the essence of skating. Yes, it’s skating and yes, it’s dance, but it’s the combination of the two that captures the freedom of what skating can be.

While examples of gorgeous skaters abound in singles and pairs skating, ice dancing is a different beast. Self-expression is as worthy as a successfully executed twizzle sequence — a series of multirotational turns on one foot. But the art of self-expression can be questionable, too. I still can’t wrap my head around the decision by Maia and Alex Shibutani, who won the bronze medal, to skate to Coldplay’s sensual “Paradise.”

This American brother and sister, revered for their precision and joie de vivre, are elite athletes. But when they pressed together in head-to-toe camel spins — each holding onto the other’s extended free leg and waist to the lyric “Para-para-paradise” — it gave me pause. I couldn’t have skated to that with one of my brothers. (And I know that reading this, they are relieved.)

Ms. Virtue and Mr. Moir, this season’s sentimental favorites — they won silver four years ago and reunited for what was likely their last stab at the gold — burn with a seething rapture that has become performative, distractingly so. I’ll never tire of their skill — their consummate speed and control — but this year, as they swept across the ice with gaping mouths to music from the “Moulin Rouge” soundtrack, they ran my red light.

It’s true that skating isn’t pure dance. It is, though, extraordinary in its own right and can possess the quiet sophistication, musicality and nuance of dance. With Ms. Papadakis and Mr. Cizeron, skating has room to grow. They aren’t merely ice dancers: They dance on the ice, showing how it’s capable of becoming a living canvas, one that curves toward the skater as the skater curves back into it.

In ice dance, there are no lifts above the head, no heroic jumps. Its power is rooted in a blade’s deep etchings, the angle of plush knee bends and, despite those awkward boots, toes that point and extend the length of a leg to create fluent line. Arms lengthen from the back with fingers that grow along with them. If, in pairs and singles skating, it seems like the air is increasingly being sucked out of routines to make room for more jumps — it’s worse when they’re crammed into the second half in order to score more points — ice dance pushes skating to a more poetic place.

How can skaters bring emotion to a blade? How does their musicality play into a seemingly simple essence of motion? A skater moves forward and backward on the inside or outside edge of a blade. In ice dance, this is not rushed but emphasized in strokes that lean and bend to propel a skater from one side of the rink to the other.

In the singles and pairs world, pristine edges can be forsaken for jumps and lifts, but one skater who pays attention to the details in between is the American Adam Rippon. He has become a media sensation for his outspokenness, but what I love most about him is his skating. He moves like silk. He cares about line; his spins have an endearing lightness, as the arch of his back in his layback — arguably the most beautiful spin in skating — attests.

He skates for himself, the same way Ms. Papadakis and Mr. Cizeron skate — as if they are in their own world. When I watch them, my mind goes to a Jerome Robbins quote about “Dances at a Gathering,” his sublime 1969 ensemble ballet. “You should never dance anything for the audience,” he said. “It ruins it if you do. You should dance only to each other. As if the audience weren’t there. It’s very hard.”

In figure skating, it’s a radical idea. But in their free skate program, set to Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, Ms. Papadakis and Mr. Cizeron expanded the idea of virtuosity with the way they completely tuned in to each other. Often in ice dancing, you keep your eye on the woman; the man, as in the case of Mr. Moir, is there, in part, to show off the woman — to spark her fire.

But the lyrical and musical Ms. Papadakis and Mr. Cizeron are more of a slow boil. Moving as one, they are gossamer as they transform the ice into air. Their free dance unfurled gradually and hypnotically, building to feverish spin sequences. One, in which Mr. Cizeron rotated in a sit spin while holding Ms. Papadakis’s extended leg as she opened her right shoulder and head to the ceiling, was a spectacle of position and daring.

As soon as the piano became subdued and dreamy, their flurry of footwork returned to the quiet hush of the start. As they glided across the ice in whispering strokes, it seemed as if they were no longer skating in an arena, but on a pond. In that moment, at once bracing and luminous, the Olympics turned from being a competition into a performance. This year the silver was the gold.

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