My Guilty Pleasure: 1980s Men’s Figure Skating
“You can’t camp about something you don’t take seriously. You’re not making fun of it; you’re making fun out of it. You’re expressing what’s basically serious to you in terms of fun and artifice and elegance.”
–Christopher Isherwood, The World in the Evening
Figure skating is glorious and I will fight anybody who says otherwise. If you can watch with indifference or mere irony something as beautiful as Johnny Weir’s “Swan,” as charming as Robin Cousins’s “Satan Takes a Holiday,” as startling and disturbing as Gary Beacom’s “Malevolent Landscape,” or as sublimely wiggy as Toller Cranston’s “Firebird,” then I guess the shards of glass from “The Snow Queen” have entered your heart, and you have forgotten how to love.
Skating is the best sport and the 1980s were a thrilling decade for it, especially in men’s skating. The 1980s opened with the Lake Placid Olympics, which Robin Cousins won via the oxymoron of elegant disco. The decade was known for the emerging “Battle of the Brians,” Canada’s Brian Orser against the American Brian Boitano. Both of them are great skaters, and Boitano had a really phenomenal Olympics, despite the tacky touch of opening his free skate with another country’s national anthem.
Bad taste was a theme of 1980s men’s skating. This was a decade in which Aleksandr Fadeev got points knocked off his score by a judge who disapproved of his sheer trousers. Viktor Petrenko frequently banged out his gigantic triple axel jumps dressed like a cross between a toucan and a tropical drink. Christopher Bowman—of whom more in a moment—did this, which may not actually be safe for work. And Paul Wylie, a lovely skater whom one commentator rightly called “effervescent” and “birdlike,” did a really egregious program to music from Schindler’s List in which he literally held down one arm to prevent himself from sieg-heiling. It is a graceful and musical program, because he’s a wonderful skater, and it should not exist.
But the occasionally dubious taste level is the only reason this would ever be a “guilty” pleasure for me. I really do love great skating wholeheartedly. The 1980s gave me my actual favorite skater of all time, Christopher Bowman. “Bowman the Showman” was known for his shameless crowd-pleasing, but he actually had a wide range. He could express sensitive longing, the sassiness of the class cut-up, joyful ingratiation and eagerness to please, or even, in a really unusual exhibition skate which unfortunately doesn’t seem to be online, shame and regret. I even find his limitations endearing: There’s almost always a yielding, yearning, or submissive quality to his persona on the ice, and when coaches and choreographers tried to give him more dominant styles of skating, he generally looked like he was trying too hard. He skated a competitive program as the villain from Swan Lake and you literally cannot tell; he skated like a swooning romantic hero, just like always.
Over the course of the 1980s the jumps got bigger, which isn’t a trend I love—I’d rather see a huge, triumphant tuck axel than a quadruple jump landed like a cat trying not to fall off a roof. But it was also a decade in which the collision of athletics and entertainment sometimes, as if casually or accidentally, created art.