When it comes to choosing musical accompaniment for competition, many figure skaters are going modern instead of toeing the traditional line.  The individuals and pairs performing in this week’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships may embrace songs they grew up bopping their heads to almost as often as melodies from the Classical and Romantic eras.

“To feel it, to have some connection to the music, a true passion for it, that’s absolutely the most important thing,” said Jill Trenary, a Minnetonka native who won the 1990 world championship aided by a medley of Middle Eastern music and orchestral works by new-age icon Yanni. “Anyone watching can feel when a skater is truly into the music, and that’s the main goal, to get that feeling.”

That helps explain why audiences are just as likely to hear the Doors’ “Riders on the Storm” or a hip-hop version of “Swan Lake’’ as the heart-wrenching Puccini aria “Nessun Dorma” (minus its signature singer, Luciano Pavarotti; vocals are widely considered too distracting for skating performances).

Local phenom Eliot Halverson  has selected pieces by contemporary Asian composers Shigeru Umebayashi  and Maksim Mrvica  for this week’s nationals. Another Twin Cities skater, Molly Oberstar, will perform to a jazz-guitar rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.”

And four-time U.S. ice-dancing champs Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto, who pirouetted to the overture from the hit French film “Amélie” at last year’s nationals, are using an updated revamping of four Chopin pieces put together by the man who scored a decidedly different movie — “The Evil Dead.”

“It wasn’t as big an adjustment as I feared,” said composer Joseph LoDuca , who has won Emmys for his work on “Xena, Warrior Princess” and “Hercules.” “Obviously, it has to take place in a very specific amount of time, so in that way, it was very similar to writing music for TV and movies. This was really about creating very passionate, romantic music. That’s what inspires them.”

From classical to mixes

Passion and romance have always been hallmarks of skating music, going back to the days when Edina’s Janet (Gerhauser) Carpenter was skating in the 1952 Olympics “and we were using 78s. Most of today’s skaters wouldn’t even know what those were.”

Almost all the music was classical back then, leading up to and including the 1968 Olympics, when Peggy Fleming captured the world’s hearts with her graceful work accompanied by Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” Symphony No. 6. As technology improved, skaters and their choreographers and coaches in the 1970s started incorporating “mixes” that provided more distinctive changes of tempo.

And even though movie-soundtrack tunes rose in prominence, the prevailing genre was classical, particularly works by Russians (Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky) as well as two composers from the Americas (George Gershwin and Astor Piazzolla).

Battle of the 'Carmens’

At the 1988 Olympics, Katarina Witt and Debi Thomas both chose to skate to the same piece from Bizet’s masterwork, “Carmen.”  An equally memorable moment came four years earlier, when Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean (now Trenary’s husband) captured ice-dancing gold with a white-hot, sizzling performance to Ravel’s “Bolero.”
Funny thing about that …

“[U.S. tandem] Judy Blumberg and Michael Seibert skated to 'Scheherezade,’ ” said Carpenter, who was a team leader for the U.S. contingent. “One of the judges gave them a terrible mark and said it was because 'that isn’t dance music.’ Then they gave the gold to Torvill and Dean for 'Bolero,’ which is hardly dance music.” (Blumberg and Seibert finished fourth.)

Since then, the musical repertoire has broadened considerably — sometimes subtly, with more film scores (“Star Wars,” “The Phantom of the Opera”) and Spanish tunes (tango and flamenco), and sometimes drastically, with the likes of AC/DC, the Clash, Aretha Franklin and Pink Floyd (“Switch Into Glide” by the Kinks would seem to be a natural, but so far no takers). Major improvements in music editing equipment and software have also widened options.

“You start off with a general conception and an overall length and dynamic flow and dynamic arc,” said composer LoDuca, explaining how tough it is to make some pieces lyrical and moving. “I also had to change the music subtly to make sure the beat is pronounced and they can hear it in the din of the skating arena. It’s about reinforcing the rhythmic element, and Chopin isn’t incredibly rhythmic.”
But Chopin is what Belbin and Agosto wanted, and at this level, it’s the skaters who almost always make that call.

“With lower-level skaters, I tend to come up with the ideas,” said Ann Eidson , who coaches local skaters Oberstar and Halverson. “But most of the skaters who qualify for nationals know what they want. Eliot, for example, he’s not going to like what I bring in, but he’s going to love what he brings in.

“As a coach, you just want something that helps them develop and stretches them artistically.

“When you talk about the great programs, it’s because the skater had a big part in it, because they feel like they had ownership of it. It has to be music that the skater can relate to and loves to skate to.”

Tell Tchaikovsky the news.

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643