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Getting It Down Cold

Choreographer to Ice-Skating Stars Makes Simi Valley Rink Home Base

October 22, 1997|DAVID GREENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SIMI VALLEY — Next week, thousands will pay to see internationally known skater Scott Hamilton vault into the air and spin there effortlessly.

But for the past week, the Olympic gold medalist has quietly been practicing his salchows and triple toe loops at Ventura County's only skating rink.

He has come to the Easy Street ice arena to work with Sarah Kawahara, an Emmy-winning choreographer who makes the Simi Valley rink her home base.

Hamilton will be the main attraction at the Great Western Forum Oct. 29 when he makes his first public performance since being diagnosed with cancer earlier this year.

Hamilton, who lives in Denver, has relied on Kawahara to chart his moves for the last dozen years. And Kawahara is a favorite of other world renowned skaters.

Her client list reads like a who's who of figure skating: Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Oksana Baiul, Kurt Browning and pairs skaters Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, all of whom have traveled to Simi Valley to have Kawahara put them through their paces.

"How wonderfully full of mercy she is," Hamilton says after a recent practice session in which the 43-year-old choreographer has taken him through a strenuous routine.

As Kawahara walks away and buys a fruit drink, Hamilton leans his head toward the reporter's note pad, as if it is a tape recorder.

"Whatever I say," he says, only half jokingly, "it's the opposite."

This was Hamilton's first practice in five months and he was feeling every bit of it.

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"I don't have the same reserves," he says. "When I get tired, I stay tired longer. My mind remembers what I was doing a few months ago. I'm getting stronger every day. [But] I won't be 100% for a few more months."

Before he had surgery for testicular cancer, Hamilton had never spent more than two months off the ice since he began skating 30 years ago at age 9.

Kawahara has skated even longer--since she was a 6-year-old in Toronto. Unlike Hamilton, however, she never had Olympic aspirations.

"I was really more an artistic skater, not a pressure skater," she says. "I was not brought up with that particular goal in mind."

Throughout her childhood, Kawahara skated up to four hours a day, three days a week, after school and on weekends. She always dreamed of being a professional skater.

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By high school, her parents allowed her to miss her regular classes so she could skate from 6 a.m. to noon three days a week. The condition was that her grades never falter. They didn't, she says.

"I was pretty possessed," Kawahara says.

She was set to study fine arts at the University of Toronto when, in 1972, she got a chance to try out for the Ice Capades.

Her shot at show biz required a six-hour car ride to Saginaw, Mich., in the middle of a blizzard. A few days after she returned to Toronto, the traveling ice-skating troupe offered the 17-year-old a job as a solo performer.

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"She was unique," says Willy Bietak, a Santa Monica-based ice show producer who has worked with Kawahara for years. "She had her own style. She always stood out. It had to do with being very expressive. [Her moves] were not harsh. They were beautiful and always in total unison with the music."

Kawahara was a principal performer with the Ice Capades through 1980, when she began to think about her future and how long her legs could withstand the rigors of skating.

"I knew I could only perform for a certain amount of years at peak caliber," Kawahara says. "I was always very aware of performers who stay beyond their welcome."

Her last year with the Ice Capades, however, proved to be a turning point. Peggy Fleming, the 1968 Olympic gold medalist, scouted the show in preparation for guest appearances she would be making the following year.

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She asked Kawahara to create a solo performance for her. The following year, Kawahara did all the choreography for Fleming's ice-skating show at Lake Tahoe.

A new career was born. Kawahara found that she had a real talent for choreography.

"It's like orchestrating for me. Their bodies are like instruments," she says of the skaters.

Kawahara returned to the Ice Capades as a choreographer from 1986-90, then left to focus on individual projects.

Her success stems from a vivid imagination that allows her to constantly create new routines, and an ability to recognize and work with a skater's strengths and weaknesses.

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In Hamilton's case, his primary weakness is a loss of physical strength.

During his first three-hour practice, Hamilton executed seemingly effortless triple salchows --jumping off the blade and spinning in midair--and triple toe loops, using the skate's toe pick to vault into the air.

Kawahara, he says, had been a big help in pushing him to his limit without going overboard.

"She understood how devastating it was," Hamilton says of the chemotherapy and surgery he underwent.

Hamilton vows to be ready for his Forum show, titled "With One Last Look At You." The show will be broadcast on CBS in early November.

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