Unity on Ice
With the crumbling of the Berlin Wall, two Olympic-champion figure skaters have forged a new alliance on the rink
PORTLAND, MAINE — AS with German reunification, a professional alliance between Olympic champions Katarina Witt and Brian Boitano seemed a dim, distant possibility several years ago. The figure skating stars did their spins and jumps on opposite sides of the cold war - Witt in Karl-Marx-Stadt, East Germany, Boitano in San Francisco. And as natural as it may have seemed on the ice rink, the chances of their coming together in the same show were, well, about as good as those of the Wall coming down. Both developments have occurred, however, with unpredictable swiftness. ``I think it's wonderful that the Wall came down, finally,'' Witt said during a recent Monitor interview. ``I just wish a lot of things would have happened earlier.''
Witt has found life a blur since she left Calgary, Alberta, after winning Olympic gold at the '88 Winter Games. She and Boitano are already into the second year of a show that bears their names: Brian Boitano and Katarina Witt - Skating II. After a long rehearsal near the end of a breathless three weeks of preparation here in Portland, Maine, Skating II began its 25-stop North American tour with its 15-member cast.
During a lively interview, filled with much good-natured kidding and laughter, the stars' rapport was evident. Witt explained that they had known each other since 1983, but it was their mutual experience as newly crowned Olympic champions (actually her second title) that sealed their friendship.
``We kind of understood each other, understood what we were going through,'' says Boitano. Even though East German officials restricted what Witt could do, she and Boitano were besieged by all sorts of professional offers after their '88 victories.
``Everybody thinks that now you can do whatever you want to do; that you must be the happiest person in the world,'' Witt says. ``But we kind of felt lonely at that point.''
While sorting out what they wanted to do, Witt, who was once described as ``12-car-pileup gorgeous'' by Sports Illustrated, was allowed to skate with Holiday on Ice in Europe for a few weeks. Boitano, meanwhile, came up with a TV special, ``Canvas of Ice.'' He invited Witt to be a guest. The two skated together for the first time and both enjoyed the experience. When Brian struck on the idea of putting together their own tour, Katarina quickly embraced it.
The tour, produced by Bill Graham Presents, is part of a new wave in skating shows that put athletic artistry above glitzy extravaganza. The result is more Alvin Ailey than Busby Berkeley, with a mix of solo, pair, and group performances.
Boitano says he'd rather give up skating than perform in a traditional ice show: ``I'd lose my love for skating by doing those shows,'' he says. Witt, who holds much the same view, sees herself as fortunate not to be thrown in with show-stealing ``clowns and dogs.''
As the co-artistic directors of Skating II, Witt and Boitano are involved early on in choosing the music and helping with the choreography. Boitano says the most important use of their ideas comes in casting decisions.
``It's the people around us who make the show so good,'' he says. ``But it's difficult to cast because a lot of times the producers only hear names. From a personal standpoint, you want people who are good, who will bring a lot of entertainment to the show.''
Among those who lend strong on-ice support are former Olympians Caryn Kadavy (US), Alexandre Fadeev (USSR), and dance partners Judy Blumberg and Michael Seibert (US). Seibert also assists Sandra Bezic, one of skating's foremost choreographers.
The troupe seems very compatible and has begun to feel like family to Witt: ``When you're on the road for a couple of months, you have to get along,'' she says. ``It's important to have nice people around you, and we definitely have that.''
Camaraderie, of course, starts at the top and there appears no lack of it between Witt and Boitano, who enjoy a brother-sister relationship, according to one observer. They claim to be on the same wavelength when it comes to dramatic portrayals. In solo numbers, they are very athletic, but when performing together they accentuate role playing, partly out of necessity.
``What we do is partner skating, not pairs skating,'' Witt explains.
``It's very theatrical because we're not capable of doing a lot of technical things like lifts and throw jumps,'' Boitano adds. ``If she were a robot and didn't feel anything emotionally, it wouldn't be fulfilling.''
The show's dramatic centerpiece is a duet in which they act out the death scene from ``Carmen.'' Witt skated to the opera's music in winning the gold medal at Calgary, and earlier this year she teamed up with Boitano and Olympic silver medalist Brian Orser in performing the love scene in HBO's ``Carmen on Ice.'' Their portrayals earned them television Emmy Awards.
As a professional, Witt says, the rewards and disappointments occur almost nightly, whereas as an amateur ``you can feel happy about being a world champion until the next year.''
As yet, the Witt-Boitano show has not been booked overseas; many of her other skating projects are also in the United States. She speaks fluent English, is contemplating a US condo purchase (she has an apartment and condo in Germany), and recently contracted with Jefferson Pilot Sports in Charlotte, N.C., to help handle her business opportunities, which may include work as an Olympic TV commentator in 1992 in Albertville, France.
Once prevented from accepting capitalist offers, she may soon achieve the commercial status of a Michael Jordan. ``By the first of the year, her endorsement package will be one of the superlative packages in the country and worldwide,'' says Mike Burg, her agent with Jefferson Pilot. ``Everybody knows who she is, she has a very clean image, she's international, she's beautiful, and she's an athlete.''
She's also likely to be a competitor again sometime later this year, when a three-part Triple Crown of Figure Skating is launched as a true professional competition and not simply as a made-for-TV event. That should appeal to Boitano as well, who was hoping he'd be allowed to enter the '92 Games (a technicality prevents him but not other pros from competing).
Neither skater is content savoring past achievements, and both race ahead mentally to uncharted figure-eights. ``We're in the middle of building a new show,'' Witt says, ``and already we're planning and scheduling for next year and after and after.''
Brian Boitano and Katarina Witt's national tour continues through mid-March. In December, they will appear in San Francisco (Dec. 27), Los Angeles (28th), Sacramento, Calif. (29th), and Portland, Ore. (30th).