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FIGURE SKATING

Chinese pair Pang Qing and Tong Jian reinvent themselves on ice

They re-team with choreographer Sarah Kawahara to develop new routines set to tango music, with great results.

March 24, 2009|Helene Elliott

The first time Sarah Kawahara choreographed programs for Chinese pair skaters Pang Qing and Tong Jian, she was instantly drawn to Tong's fluid movements and strong personality.

Pang was the silent partner, apparently content to follow Tong's lead. But Kawahara sensed both had unexplored depths.

"I thought I could do something to help develop them," said Kawahara, an Emmy-award-winning choreographer who lives in Westlake Village.

"And I thought anyone that is so willing to be tossed up in the air and could be relatively fearless, I'm sure there has to be inner strength to that person. So it was just a question of reaching in and pulling it out a bit."

Kawahara's dramatic routines showcased their spectacular throws and twists. She gave them a story to tell in their free skate, casting them as Christine and the Phantom to music from "Phantom of the Opera." Rebounding from a fourth-place finish at the Turin Olympics -- .24 behind compatriots Zhang Dan and Zhang Hao -- Pang and Tong won the 2006 world title.

Unable to match that, they dropped to fifth in the world last year. It was time to call Kawahara again. Pang and Tong flew to California last spring to develop the free skate they will perform at Staples Center this week during the World Figure Skating Championships.

Once they reunited and got on the ice in Oxnard, Kawahara saw a new dynamic in the pair's relationship. Pang had become more assertive, more insistent on sharing the decision-making.

And more suited to skate to the passionate tango music Kawahara had picked.

"When we heard what she has chosen for us, we were very surprised and happy," Tong said via e-mail.

"We have to admit that this tango style was not easy to express and we spent a great deal of time to learn and practice."

Their effort carried them to victories at the NHK Trophy competition, the Grand Prix Final, and, last month, at the Four Continents championships at the Vancouver Olympic venue.

They are hoping Kawahara's creation, coupled with the short program designed by Nikolai Morozov, will return them to the medal stand. They have two wonderful routines but will have to perform both extremely well starting with today's short program, in addition to overcoming her sore left knee and his sore left ankle.

"We hope we have good performance," Tong said Monday, adding that he was ill last week and hasn't quite recovered.

No one is a clear favorite, but there's a strong group led by defending champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany, who recently won their third straight European title. The Zhangs, who are not related, were silver medalists last year and should contend again.

Kawahara believed that Pang and Tong, both 29 and about to compete in their eighth world championships, had a better chance of returning to the top if they did something new and piqued the judges' interest.

"They're technicians to a certain degree and now they've been around for a while," Kawahara said. "Sometimes it's great to be around for a while and other times it works against you in that people tire of you.

"So I think it's up to you to grow as a performer and do something unexpected so that you think, 'Oh, they deserve to be there.' I thought that was kind of my job, to bring that more to light."

To do that through Tango by Gotan Project, Concierto de Aranjuez by Joaquin Rodrigo and Tango de Roxanne was a bold decision.

"I felt that it would really be a piece that would give them a personality and you would be able to attach a strong emotional performance," Kawahara said, "because that has been a problem for them, to evoke an emotional performance out of them."

Tong said he and Pang trusted Kawahara completely.

"She has her special thinking toward choreography and she seems to be born with this talent for music," he said. "Her professionalism also leaves a deep impression. She is a very serious, detailed, considerate and responsible person."

Kawahara's influence was threaded throughout their riveting free skate in Vancouver, for which they earned a career-best 129.34 points. Their total score of 194.94 was another personal record.

"The performance you have seen at the Four Continents was far better than our first performance at the beginning of the season," Tong said. "Now we are confident that we could perform this program even better at the world championships."

Returning to the Los Angeles area gives him even more confidence.

"We like California, not only because Arnold Schwarzenegger is the governor," Tong said. "We also like the climate, food and the outlets."

There will be a more serious side to their visit too. Tong said they hope to visit the grave of Jim Yorke, a former ice dancer who had worked with them in Oxnard at Kawahara's invitation. Yorke, part of the team that coached Mirai Nagasu of Arcadia to the 2008 U.S. women's title, died in June at 45.

"We would like to go and pay respect," Tong said.

For such thoughtfulness they deserve high marks as human beings, no matter what happens on the ice.

--

helene.elliott@latimes.com

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