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How Olympian Nathan Chen became an artist

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea >> There is a saying in figure skating, full of truth and untruth, that jumpers can’t be artists and artists can’t be jumpers.

“When one side of your skating is so unbelievable, people can think the other side has fallen short,” said Scott Hamilton, the 1984 Olympic champion.

At 18, Nathan Chen of Salt Lake City has made himself into the lone American gold medal contender largely as a pioneering jumper, the first person to complete five jumps of four revolutions apiece — known as quads — in a single routine. But quads alone will not put him atop the medal podium.

Skating’s scoring system requires a ravenous accumulation of points for victory and assigns a numerical value to every element of a performance: jumps; spins; the flow, glide and intricacy of footwork; the translation of music and choreography into performance; and the purpose and design of movement across the ice.

So Chen, who took classical ballet classes for six years as a boy, spent months training for the 2018 Winter Olympics with a plan for evolution on the ice as much as revolution in the air.

Seeking a more even balance of athleticism and artistry, Chen worked with two renowned skating choreographers, consulted a blade specialist to refine the edge control of his skating and hired Vera Wang to design his costumes. He even cut the youthful wave from his hair, seeking to appear more mature and purposeful.

“The curl is gone, but I guess that makes me more aerodynamic, so that’s all right,” Chen joked last month at the U.S. championships.

After some hesitancy, given the subjective nature of skating, a sport in which judges determine winners and can reprove what they consider to be overtly political acts, Chen decided for his Olympic free skate to perform to the music from the 2009 movie “Mao’s Last Dancer.”

It is based on a memoir of the same name that depicts the harsh childhood, unexpected discovery, wrenching familial separation, and ultimate liberation and triumph of the dancer Li Cunxin.

The story bears some loose parallels to the immigration of Chen’s parents from China as they sought careers in the medical field. In November, Chen spoke by phone with Li for performance advice and to understand the dancer’s motivation. He gained a deep appreciation of Li’s perseverance.

“He’s been through a lot of pain and struggles, and maybe that’s not super parallel to my life,” Chen said in a series of interviews over several months. “But I think that mentality of pushing through anything is something I can relate to. Li is incredibly tough; nothing fazes him. That’s something I can definitely learn from and not let my emotions get in the way.”


With a breakout season a year ago, and a sixth-place finish at the 2017 world championships last spring, Chen displayed more artistry, “but it wasn’t enough,” said Tara Lipinski, the 1998 women’s Olympic champion who is now an NBC commentator.

The first time she saw Chen this year, Lipinski said, she was shocked by his artistic improvement.

“It takes a few years, sometimes, to do that,” she added. “But he does have ballet training. That helps. He has a beautiful, classic line.”

In the buildup to the Olympics, Chen was the only undefeated skater on the international Grand Prix circuit. This is his moment. There is no certainty that he will be healthy or interested in skating in four years for the next Olympics. A proposed rule that devalues quad jumps could be implemented after these Games. Everything he does now has a kind of fevered urgency.

“To put it all together, he knows he doesn’t have a lot of time,” Lipinski said. “He’s balancing out that technical and artistic side to give himself a chance to win.”

For his short program, which he will perform Friday, Chen worked with the choreographer Shae-Lynn Bourne, the 2003 world ice dancing champion from Canada. The propulsive music is experimental pop by Benjamin Clementine. The song title — “Nemesis” — was not purposely meant to suggest rivalry with the reigning Olympic champion, Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, but it hints at Chen’s aspiration and distinguishes him from his rivals who are skating to classical pieces.

His costume is a unitard that has no sequins, giving Chen the unadorned athletic look of a bobsledder or speed skater. White lines on the chest and arms give form to his two quad jumps and powerful, angular movement.

“It’s perfect for him. He’s passionate. He emotes all the way through,” Johnny Weir, a two-time Olympian and Lipinski’s announcing partner on NBC, said of Chen’s short program. “He can reach the top rafter of a building. Ultimately, that’s what an artist has to do; you have to sell to the cheap seats.”

Chen’s long program is a more sweeping routine of character development, emotion and storytelling. It was choreographed by Lori Nichol of Toronto, who is perhaps best known for her work with the Americans Michelle Kwan, a five-time world champion and two-time Olympic medalist, and Evan Lysacek, the 2010 Olympic champion.

“I want to be a full-package skater,” Chen said. “That’s why I wanted to work with the best of the best.”

Still, it took some convincing by Nichol to persuade Chen to skate to “Mao’s Last Dancer.”

He worried that a routine about a dancer who defected from China might put off some judges. The scoring in skating has grown more impartial, but it is far from being fully objective. A differential of a point, or even half a point, can make all the difference when it comes to awarding medals.

“I thought it was a little too political,” Chen said.

Li, the dancer whom Chen is portraying, was the sixth of seven sons in a family of peasants in Shandong province. He was born in 1961, during a catastrophic period known as the Great Leap Forward, when Mao Zedong’s program of industrialization and agricultural collectivization resulted in famine and tens of millions of deaths. Chen’s parents were also born in that period.

Li’s chance to escape his fate came at age 11 in 1972, when four cultural advisers from the Beijing Dance Academy came to his school, an unheated classroom made of mud. Madame Mao, Jiang Qing, was the academy’s honorary artistic director. Of about 1 million children scouted throughout China, only 44 were chosen, Li said in an interview. His selection was almost accidental, he said, with his teacher pointing to him and saying, “What about that one?” as the advisers were leaving the classroom.

As the advisers tested his flexibility, Li said, they tore hamstring muscles in both of his legs. He swallowed the pain, he said, instead of letting on. He had grown up in such dire conditions, threatened by starvation, each day a matter of survival, he said, that “what I had to suffer with torn hamstrings was nothing.”

At the Beijing Dance Academy, Li honed his jumping skills by tying sandbags to his legs and bounding up four flights of stairs. And he trained extra hours by candlelight to overcome dizziness while spinning.

In 1979, he was allowed to travel on a cultural exchange to perform with the Houston Ballet. He experienced the freedom to dance for artistry’s sake and not simply for political propaganda. He also fell in love with another dancer and married in 1981 as he was scheduled to return to China. Instead, he defected. He was detained for 21 hours in the Chinese consulate in Houston before being released.

Eventually, Li’s parents were granted permission to make a surprise visit to see him dance in Houston, and he was permitted to return to China. Today, Li, 57, is artistic director of the Queensland Ballet in Brisbane, Australia.

Despite Chen’s reluctance to portray Li, Nichol persisted. She checked with friends in China. The movie and Li’s memoir were readily available there, Nichol was told. They seemed acceptable to the Chinese government and would not be politically sensitive.

“I was able to lay that concern to rest,” Nichol said in a telephone interview from Toronto.

But Chen needed more convincing.

“I’m very American,” he told Nichol. “I can’t really relate to this character very much.”

Yes, Nichol replied, but Chen could pay homage to his parents’ immigration in 1988 from Tianjin, China, to Carbondale, Illinois, and, four years later, their move to Salt Lake City. His parents did not defect, as did Li, but arrived on his father’s student visa. They sought not political asylum but opportunity. Still, it was not an easy journey and they felt acute dislocation. His mother spoke no English when they came to the United States, and the couple knew no one.

Hetty Wang, Chen’s mother, now works as a medical interpreter of Mandarin Chinese for hospitals. His father, Zhidong Chen, had obtained his medical degree in China and later got his doctorate in pharmaceuticals from the University of Utah. He owns a small biotech company.

“They tend not to talk too much about their struggles, but it must have been so difficult, coming to a new country, not speaking the language, not having much money, not having any friends,” said Nathan Chen, the youngest of five siblings. “It’s amazing how they were able to fight through that.”

Finally, Nichol convinced Chen to perform to “Mao’s Last Dancer” with a line she read in The Globe and Mail’s review of the movie. As Li’s story unfolded, the review said, “politics stepped aside to let art do what it does best — defy boundaries.”

In a metaphorical sense, Chen would be confronting the perceived limits placed on all skaters who are magnificent jumpers.

“I felt he could defy boundaries of people saying, ‘You can’t possibly do all those quads and have artistic merit,’” Nichol said.


In late October, Chen competed at the Rostelecom Cup, an Olympic warm-up in Moscow, and defeated Hanyu, the reigning Olympic champion. But he did not skate cleanly in his long program. A couple of weeks later, he called Li in Australia.

“I really needed to understand the character better to perform the character properly,” Chen said. “I needed to do him justice through this program. I couldn’t just butcher it.”

The two talked for 20 minutes. Amiable and voluble, Li speaks with the rhetorical flourish of a man who has told his story often. He stressed that an artist must embrace failure on the way to success.

“You have devastating defeat and you learn from that,” Li said he told Chen, “and it is going to make your success that much more rewarding.”

As Li recounted the conversation, he said he admonished Chen to escape himself and fully inhabit the character when performing, so that “you will live in the story and the story will carry you through.”

Li told Chen, “When you spin in the air, you should feel you are only coming down because you choose to.”

In three international competitions during the fall, Chen finished first each time but skated unevenly in his long program. Still, at the U.S. championships last month in San Jose, California, a renewed Chen seemed to skate with inexorable determination.

Brian Boitano, the 1988 Olympic champion, was in attendance. He noticed on the jumbo scoreboard that Chen had a glaring focus before the long program. He seemed ready.

“Laser beams through the eyes,” Boitano called it.

For the first time in a year, Chen landed five quad jumps in his free skate. And he received three perfect scores of 10 for performance and musical interpretation.

“I see a difference, even last year to this year,” Boitano said. “I’ve liked his stuff before, but his long program this time, his position, his fluidity, the way he holds himself, is more adult. It’s getting more adult, and it’s getting more precise.”

A jumper was maturing as an artist, just in time for the Olympics.

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