Global Couple for Global Games

Ice-dancing Duchesnays grew up in Quebec, but train in Germany with a Czech coach - for the French team

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

HAPPILY for the home crowds, winter Olympics of the past two decades have seen the local favorites do well. Only Calgary in '88 failed to produce a transcendent, gold-edged thrill for the host country (Canadian skaters Brian Orser and Elizabeth Manley were silver medalists).

The pattern continues here, with gold medals for France in Nordic combined and freestyle skiing. But the crowning French triumph may have an international twist.

The Albertville Winter Games may best be remembered for a sense of global togetherness, brought on by the disappearance of cold-war political rivalries and newly constituted national teams.

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And so the 16th Winter Olympics could not ask for more ideal heroes than ice dancers Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay, the reigning world champions. They skate for France, but are multinational at the dawn of a multinational era.

Paul was born in France, his sister in Canada. Though their parents live in Quebec, the pair took advantage of their dual citizenship several years ago to represent France, which offered the Duchesnays (pronounced "doo-shuh-naze") quicker promotions to international events.

"They were just a little anxious to get on the world scene," says Canadian skater Orser, who knows the Duchesnays from their unpolished days in his country's program. "There was a window they could go through to get there, and they did it."

"Back then, we were a bit disappointed because we didn't go to the world championships," Paul told the assembled media here in the most awaited of athletic press conference of these Games.

The siblings are as engaging in person as they are charismatic on the ice. Four years ago, they brought down the house with a daring, original "Savage Rights" routine, in which they wore tribal-looking costumes while skating to percussive music.

Their performance was a bit too avant-garde for the traditionalists of the ice-dance world, and the Duchesnays finished eighth. Their star was clearly rising, though, and it appeared only a matter of time before the judges were willing to recognize what the public seemed to sense - that these pace-setters were worthy of the sport's highest honors.

By 1990, when they skated another distinctive routine, the judges were more generous, and gave the Duchesnays a silver medal at the world championships, where the theme of their long program was political repression in South America. Last May, they ascended the final rung on the ladder, winning their first world title.

They arrive in France as the favorites in the three-stage competition that begins today and concludes Monday. "Arrive," because the Duchesnays actually live in Obertsdorf, Germany, where they train under their Czechoslovakian coach, Martin Skotnicky.

Their "internationalization" does not stop there: Their choreographer is an Englishman, Christopher Dean, who married Isabelle last May.

It was Dean and partner Jayne Torvill, now professionals, who stood the ice-dancing world on its ear at the 1984 Olympics, when they skated what was adjudged a perfect ice-dancing performance to "Bolero." This spellbinding routine, which earned them the gold and wide acclaim, brought new status to ice dancing.

Dean, who choreographed the Duchesnays' Olympic routine, joined the pair in trying to dispel the notion that the brother-sister team has gone to a more traditional program so as not to alienate the judges. (The routine will be danced to a medley of tunes from "West Side Story.")

Dean says the music - a "strong, powerful medley" from "West Side Story centers on the brother-sister theme, rather than on the musical's more familiar romantic threads.

Paul says the routine "is at least as difficult as anything we've done to this point. We always go to our limits. There are no slow parts to get our breath back."

The program is a bit of a mystery. Injuries kept the Duchesnays from skating at the European championships last month.

Isabelle says it was difficult to master the Olympic routine, but neither she nor Paul make any excuses about their readiness or fitness.

Among those pleased with the Duchesnays' choice of music is Orser, who is working for Maclean's magazine here.

"It appears to me they've taken it [ice dancing] back to being more traditional," he says. "I think it's kind of nice. I don't like to see it get too crazy."

Orser says one reason the Duchesnays have had to be more experimental is so they could expand the limited artistic expression possible for a brother-sister team.

"The Russians are married to each other, so they can portray love, passion, et cetera," Orser says.

"Romance is associated with dancing and Paul and Isabelle can't do that, so they have to go a different direction, which is why I think they went the direction they did."

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