a life on the ice
jeffrey buttle talks figure skating, hockey and love
Building a life after a career as a competitive athlete can be a hard transition for some, Canadian figure skater Jeffrey Buttle has managed to make it look easy. While he continues to spend time on the ice — both as a skater and now, as a rec league hockey player — he is slowly building a name as a force to be reckoned with in the figure skating circuit, this time as a choreographer.
Buttle earned a bronze medal in the 2006 Winter Olympics, was named the Four Continents champion in 2002 and 2004, and was Canadian champion from 2005 through 2007. In 2008, after becoming the first Canadian man since Elvis Stojko to win the World Title, he announced he’d be retiring from competitive skating. For some, it came as a surprise. For Buttle, it was a chance to head in a new direction. While he continues to skate in professional shows, Buttle’s attention has also turned to choreography working with some of figure skating’s top talents like Patrick Chan and Yuzuru Hanyu, as well as being part of the choreography team on CBC’s Battle of the Blades.
He married Justin Harris in February 2014. After years spent living apart, with Harris in Florida and Buttle wherever his career took him, the two now reside in Toronto.
Buttle took the time to speak with OutVisions about his career, his life in Toronto and his plans for the future.
OutVisions: When you retired from competitive skating, you said at the time it was something you had to do to stay true to yourself. How did you come to that decision and what have you been doing in the meantime to continue staying true to yourself?
Jeffrey Buttle: JI came to the decision after much thought. I considered many things, including how much drive I had in me to continue training. Another major consideration was whether I enjoyed competing or not. The truth is, I never really enjoyed the pressure of competing all that much. So many of my competitors clearly thrived on that feeling, they lived for it. I, however, did not. What I did love was being on the ice and performing. After realizing that I had accomplished everything I had sought after in competition, I realized fairly clearly that performing in shows is where I wanted to focus my time and effort. Since making the decision, I haven’t had a single moment of regret or doubt.
OV: Now that you're no longer skating competitively, how do you motivate yourself to stay in top shape?
JB: It’s always important to set goals, not only in competitive sport, but in life. I give myself these goals, be they in the gym or on the ice and they help to motivate and push me. Perhaps the goals may not seem as technically ambitious as they were in my competitive days, but goals are a personal thing and there is still a great feeling of accomplishment when you succeed.
OV: How did you first get into choreography and why do you think you enjoy it so much?
JB: I developed an affinity for choreography from my mentor and choreographer, David Wilson. He inspires me so much every time that we work together on the ice. His passion for music and movement runs deep in everything that he does on the ice, and it was through his nurturing that I developed a similar passion.
OV: What are some of your favourite programs that you've worked on as a choreographer?
JB: It is certainly a joy for a choreographer to work with some of the most gifted skaters in the world. Their vocabulary for movement, for technique allows them to do almost anything that you ask of them. To be able to work with Yuzuru Hanyu on two short programs (Parisienne Walkways and Chopin’s Ballade No.1) has been inspiring. Similarly, to work with Patrick Chan (Elegy by Rachmaninov) for the 2 seasons leading up to the Olympics in Sochi was a huge opportunity. That being said, I work with many younger skaters as well, and some skaters who may not see the amount of success of Patrick and Yuzuru, but are equally inspiring. It’s always an incredible feeling when you know that you’ve helped a skater find the joy in their performance; to help them find confidence and conviction with their movement and what they do.
OV: How do you maintain your creative energy? Where do you find your inspiration when it comes to creating new programs?
JB: To maintain my creative energy I’ve learned to taper the amount of work that I put on my plate. I usually try to limit my work to two skaters each week, working with each skater about three hours a day. After six hours of doing choreography, I usually start to feel depleted creatively. I also think it has helped in staying active myself, going to the gym or taking an open dance class. As for the inspiration, a lot of it comes from music and the skaters themselves. I’m listening to music all the time, and if I come across something I find intriguing I’ll stash it in a special folder. Sometimes I’ll have somebody in mind when I stash it away, and sometimes not. Sometimes I will watch and consider the way a skater moves, then go through my giant library of music and find something that would really suit them (this was the case with Yuzuru and Parisienne Walkways).
OV: Your style has been described as "revolutionary" by some, is that something you're aiming for or is it just happening naturally?
JB: While being described as “revolutionary” is indeed a huge compliment, I think my abilities and style are the sum of my surroundings. A lot of what I’ve learned about movement, sensibility, musicality, choreography have been from many of the formative people in my life. I learned to appreciate music from my parents who played music constantly, and classical music from my piano teacher. Movement and choreography from all of my ballet teachers, David Wilson and the other choreographers I’ve worked with or have watched. All of them have helped shape who I am today on the ice (and in life for that matter).
OV: Do you think you approach your skating differently now that you've worked as a choreographer?
JB: I certainly have an even greater respect for the choreographer, in trying to maintain the integrity of the piece as they had intended. As a competitor, if something wasn’t working technically, I would occasionally want to make changes choreographically instead of working through the technical issues. Essentially, simplifying the choreography. Now I think I’m a lot more patient with the development of a piece, working harder to achieve what my choreographer had envisioned.
OV: A few years ago you joined a hockey league Toronto - what inspired that? Did you find it hard moving from such an individual sport to a team environment?
JB: It was such a positive decision in my life to join the Toronto Gay Hockey Association. I was reluctant at first because my hockey skills were non-existent, and I knew almost nobody in the roughly 150+ organization. After my first season playing I had slowly but surely developed some hockey skills (obviously the skating part was not a struggle), and met so many awesome friends. One of the inspirations for joining was that as a then-almost 30-year-old figure skater, many of my friends had moved away, finished school, started careers and families. It’s not an easy thing to make friends at the age of 30 (at least not for me, I tend to shy away from social settings), but they have welcomed me so genuinely.
It was so much fun moving into a on-ice team environment, and definitely a change from figure skating; maybe the change is what contributed to the fun. Figure skating still has a team, but when it’s time to compete, your team is supporting you from behind the boards. It was weird to have people on the ice cheering for you and depending on you. I’ve enjoyed these past few years of sharing moments of team and being alone.
OV: Do you think figure skating gives you an advantage or disadvantage in the hockey rink?
JB: Well the ability to skate was no doubt an advantage, though a lot of the guys are pretty fast, but I had to learn how to skate in hockey skates. The transition was surprisingly easier than expected. That being said, if I wear hockey skates then go back to figure skates, it’s amazing how quickly I will trip over my toe picks for the first few minutes. Playing in the hockey league, I think, has actually helped me to develop a bit more quickness in my stride when I figure skate. Win-win.
OV: In your career, you've had the opportunity to travel around the world. What have been some of your favourite places to visit?
JB: I have certainly been fortunate with traveling the world with skating. There are so many places to mention, so I’ll narrow it to a few. Performing in the Verona coliseum last year was pretty magical. So much history, and the venue is beautiful. I also love skating in Japan and of course here in Canada. Canadian fans are very knowledgable and enthusiastic. Skating in Japan, I imagine, is like skating was here in North America in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s. It is so incredibly popular there, and they have an abundance of amazing skaters. The fans are so polite, and enthusiastic all at the same time. Tokyo is practically my second home.
OV: Is there anything you've yet to try in your career that you're looking to accomplish?
JB: I usually try to say yes to new experiences and opportunities when they present themselves so my career has been very rich in that sense. I’ve never done a back-flip on the ice, but I’m not sure that I have a desire to try one.
OV: Between your work as a choreographer and skating in professional shows, how do you find balance in your life?
JB: It is definitely not easy. I have an incredibly patient husband for one, who understands my passion to perform, and therefore the travel in order to do so. We spent much of our dating relationship and married life in different countries. He was living/working in Miami, and I was everywhere else where work would take me… usually overseas or in Toronto. We were very diligent about traveling to see each other when we had a spare moment — even if only for a couple of days. Luckily I have a unique schedule (and lots of air miles) that could afford me a few weeks here and there, and I found a skating rink close to Miami where I could train. Thankfully after a lengthy immigration process, my husband has transferred to Toronto and we are both living under one roof.
OV: What do you see yourself doing in 10 years?
JB: Over the course of the next decade, it’s pretty clear that I will slowly transition out of performing and focus my attention on becoming a full-time choreographer. Maybe that’s it. Maybe not. A lot can happen in 10 years I suppose.
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