From Tonya Harding to Mirai Nagasu, "I, Tonya" skating choreographer Sarah Kawahara spills on all things triple axel
As with any film based on a true story, recreating real-life events can be a challenge. I, Tonya is no exception, as it recreates a handful of infamous figure skater Tonya Harding’s (Margot Robbie) routines in the telling of her side of the Nancy Kerrigan scandal. One recreation includes Harding’s record-breaking triple axel, which made her the first American woman to land the difficult jump in competition.
Here, I, Tonya skating choreographer Sarah Kawahara tells HelloGiggles what exactly went into bringing Harding’s impressive triple axel to cinematic life, in addition to spilling about Robbie’s skating ability (she was a natural!), the *real* Harding (they crossed paths in Harding’s heyday!), and the 2018 Olympics (she loves Mirai Nagasu as much as the rest of us!).
Oh, and the epic Iron Lotus move Kawahara created for Will Ferrell’s ice skating comedy, Blades of Glory…
HelloGiggles: How much creative freedom did you have in the making of I, Tonya, and how much did you stick with the original choreography?
Sarah Kawahara: The writer, Steven Rogers, bought the rights to Tonya’s story. [The team] really wanted to make it a recreation as far as her athleticism and her choreography and her routines — then, the style. So that was my main focus: Recreation. But when you’re working with actors that are new to skating, in order to find success with their movements and their skates, so to speak, you have to find what’s going to work for them.
You have to adapt to what’s going to be comfortable in their body and what side of their body works better than the other and just see what’s going to make it tick for them. You adapt and you find the middle ground and then you swing back and stay as close as you can to the original style.
HG: How was Margot’s skating ability when you first started working together? Was she a natural?
SK: She was a natural but she had never really skated a lot. She had never skated on figure skates before. She had done a little bit of hockey skating, but that was a long time ago and she had never encountered the toe pick; we had outfitted her with new boots in order to match the Tonya Harding boots. It was important that she would break them in, because it’s not like putting on a new pair of shoes. With skates, it has to become part of your body, really, and you really have to break it in so that there’s no stiffness in your stroke and movement when you skate. It’s an adjustment. It’s a lot to undertake.
HG: How much of her actual skating made it into the film?
SK: It was remarkable how much we prepared. I had to prepare five routines and I worked with the doubles and Margot, and it all made it in the film. I felt so lucky because, so often, when you work on these films, so much of it ends on the cutting room floor. In this particular case, I was just so proud that it all made it in!
Everything must have lined up properly and the jumps were well represented and the expression and the movement; and she got the choreography and they were able to shoot it in a way that she could execute. She executed and skated the choreography, maybe on a three-quarter shot and some on a full shot, but she actually was able to learn to do some of the dance movement. Like from the Albertville routine and then from the Batman routine, it was just amazing how much they were able to use.
HG: What was the process like of recreating Harding’s record-breaking triple axel in 1991 that she’s so famous for?
SK: It was at the beginning of the routine. She had to learn the beginning of the routine, then she had to go into the triple axel, and then I had the doubles do the jump and she had to land. We spent a lot of time practicing the landing. The landing position and then her celebration when she turned forward. I mean, she was ebullient when she turned forward.
It seems like it’s such an easy thing to turn from back to forward, but it’s really not. At first, she looked at me and she said, “180 degrees? I have to turn from back to forward?” I said, “Okay, let’s try 90 degrees.” I figured out a way that, within her body, she could do the landing position and step forward on a 90 degree angle and continue to skate forward and do her forward crossover and it worked! It worked beautifully and that’s the shot they used on all those freeze frame moments that you see for the I, Tonya ad.
HG: Did you speak with or work with Tonya Harding at all?
SK: Actually, I didn’t. I mean, I met her at the time in her life, just before it all went down so to speak. Her agent asked me if I would choreograph for her at the time and I turned it down because I had too many other clients that were her competitors. Then, she guest starred in my show Champions on Ice, so our paths would cross, but I never worked with her directly. I know Margot went up and met with her, but I did not go up and meet with her.
There was really no need. I had studied her films. I got to re-meet her at the opening of the film and she was very sweet, very complimentary to how I portrayed her. I think she appreciated the fact that I did well by how I represented her skating. She was a very good, athletic skater. She was very fast, with high, powerful jumps, and huge speed. So I found skaters that could do it and I really focused with Margot on the posture of speed and the posture of how her movements would be aggressive and broad. I focused on what made her good as a skater.
HG: What do you remember about the scandal at the time? How did you feel about it, and what was the feeling amongst the skating community?
SK: It was just disbelief. I just could not believe that. It was beyond belief to me that this would ever cross into our field. I think we were all stunned. The whole skating community was stunned that something like this could happen. And then, of course, we all followed the story, just like the rest of the world and it just seemed to continue. It was like, “Oh my god, what’s going on with this girl?” Because our field was very conservative.
It was sort of, in some ways, cookie cutter because there was a standard and a certain style that was expected from the women, a certain style that was expected from the men. There was a conservatism about the field of figure skating. Now, there’s much more freedom, there’s more expression; you can use any kind of music, it’s welcomed; and you can even use lyrics in the music today where, in those days, you couldn’t. It was not allowed. So there were more restrictions in those days than there are today.
HG: Did working on I, Tonya affect the way that you see the scandal at all, or were you just focused on the choreography?
SK: I was shocked when I read the script. I really had no idea that she was abused. I was appalled that she was. I knew she was rough, but I didn’t know that she was abused, so that certainly gave me a different insight to her story. But beyond that, I focused on trying to recreate her as a skater, the way she actually was. And if anything, it made me want to do that even more, so that it would be true. As true as it could be to her as a skater at the time.
HG: Did you work with any of the other actors, like Sebastian Stan or Allison Janney? Be it for the film, or just in your downtime?
SK: There was a skating scene for Allison, for [Tonya’s] mother. I got to meet with Allison maybe three or four times on the ice. She used to be a skater and she quit when she was like 15. She had an accident and she was no longer able to skate, but she loved to skate! She could skate! Really skate! So it was so funny because it’s rare that you run into that with an actor. Then, we got on set and that scene was cut and she just looked at me and went, “Aww.” You know, it was fun, we had a really good time because the woman can really skate. It was such a pleasure.
HG: You also choreographed for Blades of Glory. Obviously, that’s so different from I, Tonya, but how would you say it compared, choreographing for comedy? I, Tonya is a dark comedy, but the skating, of course, is serious.
SK: The skating was serious. It was important to recreate what really happened. But in Blades of Glory, I really got to spread my wings and have lots of fun and create moves. I mean, I created the concept of the Iron Lotus. Then, we had to figure out how we were actually going to do it. Will Ferrell, Jon Heder, Amy Poehler, and Will Arnett, those were the four main characters and they all had to skate. And they were all in different parts of the country, so I had a team of different coaches that would coach them at different times and, of course, everybody’s working on a different project and it was very difficult as far as scheduling is concerned.
But it was great fun because it was fantasy, so I could make up the routines. I did not have to emulate a specific, true, live person. So, it was fun to create original choreography for that ’cause it had to be funny and it could be fantastical and it just had to fit the character.
HG: I’m assuming you kept up with the Olympics, and I’m curious, what were your favorite skating moments, and skaters themselves?
SK: There was a huge moment when Mirai Nagasu landed the triple axel so beautifully and skated, not only a triple axel, but a clean program in the team competition — and the Americans won the bronze medal. But she created a moment that became a world record for the Olympics and that was very exciting.
I felt the caliber of the skating on the whole was really good this year, above average. Not a lot of falls and people still skated a lot of personal bests and that’s the best kind of competition is when people have their personal bests. It’s a true competition.