5 min

Podium lunge

Toronto choreographer becomes figure skating's hottest property

I'VE GOT THE MOVES, BABY, YOU'VE GOT THE MOTION. David Wilson coaches figure skater Cynthia Phoneuf for a cross-Canada tour beginning later this month. Credit: (Joshua Meles)

“Peekaboo! Peek-aboo! Peekaboo!” yells the normally soft-spoken choreographer as his figure skater glides across the Cricket Club’s rink. David Wilson wants Paulette Holtham to gaze charmingly in his direction, the same place the judges will be positioned next season if Holtham’s competitive dreams come true.

The 16-year-old has hired Wilson to choreograph her romantic long program, set to Franz Liszt’s “Libestraum” in an effort to captivate the judges. She’s getting her money’s worth.

“I go straight for the heartstrings,” says Wilson, “and sometimes the jugular.”

The Torontonian’s choreo-graphy is receiving praise this season. Despite the pressure of the Olympic Games in Turin, Italy and a fussy new judging system, his skaters are succeeding.

Wilson’s programs have been performed at the Olympics before, but this is the first time his roster will challenge for medals. He has worked with five of nine members of Canada’s Olympic figure skating team, as well as a US skater and a Japanese skater who are in Turin, making him one of the sport’s hottest choreographers.

That Wilson, 39, is now preparing athletes for the biggest competition is a breakthrough, given his own struggle with self-confidence. His personal experience with joy, tragedy and heartbreak has given him the emotional depth to channel genuine feelings into his skaters, inspiring their movement. Yet the same turmoil — coping with family deaths and dealing with his homosexuality — also laid a fertile ground for his insecurities to bloom.


Growing up in Nobleton, Ontario, Wilson was just five when his sister took him to the local figure skating club’s annual ice show. He was immediately taken in by the spectacle but had a rude awakening when his parents registered him the following season.

“I thought the show and costumes were everyday,” he says. “So it took a while to warm up to it.”

Wilson’s skating began competing in regional events at the age of nine. Alone on the ice, figure skating’s solitariness helped Wilson escape from school bullies and the struggle of realizing he was gay.

When he was six, Wilson’s 18-year-old sister, Kathy, died suddenly of a brain aneurism.

“My parents were happy people,” says Wilson. “They had a wonderful love between them but a lot of tragedy. I was the one big thing that was not tragic, but I felt it so I always had that duality inside of me.”

His foray into the competitive circuit was cut short when doctors discovered a nagging pain in his left knee was something more serious. Wilson has Osgood-Schlatter disease, an inflammation of the tendon beneath the knee which limited his training.

Though frustrated by the diagnosis, Wilson also admits, “I also really didn’t have a competitive nature.”

Following surgery to relieve his knee, he continued skating and began touring North America with the Ice Capades at age 18.

“That’s where I fell in love with my skating,” he says. The tour company emphasized style and artistry, with innovative choreo-grapher Sarah Kawahara.

Off the ice, Wilson fell in love with Jean-Pierre Boyer, a fellow performer from Montreal. Boyer’s confidence gave him direction and ambition and even convinced Wilson to come out to his parents.

While Wilson waffled between touring Europe with Holiday On Ice, a prestigious figure skating tour, and going to school for architecture or psychology, Boyer was driven to make a career out of figure skating. After five years with Ice Capades, the two settled in Montreal and started choreographing young skaters.

“After about 10 or so clients, I started to think, ‘Oh, this is kind of fun,'” says Wilson. “I liked the invention and playfulness of it.”

Then came the ideal client. In Wilson’s eyes, Sébastien Britten was like a modern day Toller Cranston. Artistically aware and versatile, the stylish young skater showed great promise on the national and world scene.

Britten also gave Wilson and Boyer a platform to showcase their work.

Wilson and Boyer split in 1994, an Olympic year where Britten’s artistry could not fully compensate for his technical inability, leaving him in tenth place. Britten chose to continue training with Wilson, which helped assure Wilson he was in the right career.

Later that year, Wilson’s father died from pneumonia. Within another 18 months, his mother died, too, from a brain aneurism.

“It was like bang-bang, double whammy,” says Wilson. “Losing your parents forces you to dig very deep to survive, especially when you’re emotionally dependent on them, which I was.”

By that time, Brian Orser had become a struggling professional skater and had lost the sparkle that won him two Olympic silver medals. Observing Wilson’s work, Orser contacted the amateur.

“I had begun to rely on my strengths and I didn’t really want to go outside the box,” Orser recalls. “He helped me to go everywhere. He saved me. He totally saved me.”

Orser appreciated Wilson’s unconventional approach to choreography. Rather than applying trademark moves to an athlete, Wilson draws the strengths out of the skater.

“I do a lot of soul searching and try to be sensitive to what I think might be the direction for a skater,” Wilson says. “But I try not to preconceive too much until I’m on the ice with them and I try to make it as least patterned as possible.”

The biggest testament to a figure skating choreographer’s success is a World or Olympic medal. After Orser, a monumental opportunity presented itself. With the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, the country’s figure skating federation was pushing Midori Ito to make a comeback given the dearth of elite skaters since her retirement.

Though she was the first woman to land a triple-triple combination and triple axel, Ito was never known as an artist. Enter Wilson.

“I had a chance to bring something new to her and I’m very good at that because, being Mr Nobody, I always believe you can make a difference and I’ll work extra hard to get people to see themselves as more than they think they are,” he recalls.

But the skating community would never see the transformation Wilson orchestrated; Ito opted not to vie for an Olympic spot.

Wilson continues working with skaters in Canada, travelling back and forth between Montreal and Toronto. He had long been working a young skater named Jeffrey Buttle; the Sudbury native’s musicality, elegance and consistency raised eyebrows in 2003.

Buttle was earning credit with the new judging system introduced following the Salt Lake City Olympics judging scandal. With the marks came medals and pressure. That season, Buttle didn’t make it to for Worlds after he choked at the qualifier.

Last season, Buttle again elicited oohs and aahs from judges and fans and was set to take on the world — if he could qualify at the national championships. Wilson had usually avoided the competitiveness of championships but as his confidence improved, he reconsidered last year.

“I realized I have to show the same amount of courage as I expect out of them,” he says. “I’m getting better at that.”

The trip to London, Ontario proved successful. Buttle won his first national title and so did Joannie Rochette, another of Wilson’s protégés.

In fact, their performances were so spectacular that Canadian ice dance champions Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon took notice. Once considered long-shots for an Olympic medal, the duo hired Wilson last year and are now considered podium material.

With three Canadian champions bound for Turin this fall, Wilson’s talent and ability to handle pressure was tested again when a recent phone call came from the sport’s most glamorous: American Sasha Cohen.

A favourite for gold, Cohen’s advantage is her chutzpah and musicality. But her Romeo And Juliet program wasn’t showcasing those qualities to her liking. With-in days, Cohen was on with ice with Wilson, incorporating his suggestions for movement and music editing.

“That was the most high pressure situation I’ve ever faced and I dealt with it,” he says. “More confidence.”

Last month, Cohen debuted the reworked program and won her first US national championship. While flowers, gifts and applause showered Cohen as she took her bow, commentator Peggy Fleming gushed, “I love the rechoreographed program that David Wilson did. I think it’s brilliant.”

Wilson never heard the comment. He’s been too busy.

“I think it’s important that the clients I work with are more famous than me so that they can make good use of my work and make it their own,” he says. “I don’t want people to hold on too much to ‘Oh, he worked with David Wilson.’ “

Back with Holtham at the Cricket Club, Wilson is busy finessing a possible 2010 Olympian. “Happy feet! Happy feet!” he yells at Holtham. She responds with a burst of fast footwork.