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How Nathan Chen Became an Artist


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

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‘The Best of the Best’

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.

Photo

Chen’s long program uses music from the movie “Mao’s Last Dancer,” which tells the story of Li Cunxin, right, who defected from China and became a principal dancer for the Houston Ballet.

Credit
Bettmann Archive, via Getty Images

“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 one 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.

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