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April 04, 2018

Sarah Kawahara’s Very Good Year

So far, 2018 has been very good to the I,Tonya choreographer.

Libby Slate

Television Academy member Sarah Kawahara has been having an incredible year – and 2018 is barely three months old.

In January, the two-time Emmy-winning choreographer – the first person so honored for her work in figure skating, rather than dance – was inducted into both the United States Figure Skating Hall of Fame and the Skate Canada Hall of Fame; she's a native of Montreal. And the movie I, Tonya, for which she did the ice choreography and trained star Margot Robbie to portray figure skater Tonya Harding, received three Oscar nominations, including one for Robbie.

"I'm blown away, myself!" Kawahara says with a laugh. "The U.S. Hall of Fame was so tremendously special, because Scott Hamilton agreed to present me, and we spent 18 years of our lives together, developing work, television specials, ice productions. It meant so much to me. He speaks so eloquently. He always knows the right thing to say, not a note card in hand.

"Having spent so much of my career in the States, to have Kristi Yamaguchi there, and Michelle Kwan – it was like my whole career was in front of me."

Kawahara won her first Emmy in 1997 for the CBS special Scott Hamilton: Upside Down; her numerous other credits include specials for Kwan and Nancy Kerrigan and the film Blades of Glory; programs for top competitors; touring ice shows and Royal Caribbean Cruises ice shows, which she also directs.

She won her second Emmy, shared with Kenny Ortega and Doug Jack, for the opening ceremony of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Winter Games; she was ice choreographer and associate staging director for the opening and closing ceremonies. She turned to choreography after a career as a principal with Ice Capades; Peggy Fleming was her first client.

The very next week after the Hall of Fame honor at the U.S. National Championships in San Jose, Kawahara was in Vancouver during the Canadian Nationals for her second such presentation.

"I'd spent my formative years in Canada [training] with [coach] Osborne Colson, and all my education was in Canada. I went back to do television specials with Toller Cranston," notes Kawahara, who has lived in Southern California for many years.

"To be honored by my home country was so beyond belief, because I was never a champion. I never won anything. I went pretty high up, all the way to [the] senior Canadians [division]. It was very special."

The induction stood apart for a personally poignant reason as well. The ceremony was held at the University of British Columbia, which Kawahara's late father was attending when World War II broke out and was forced to leave because he was Japanese.

"It was a nice connection that it was held there," she reflects. "They had a luncheon at the golf course. That was really neat – my dad always compared everything to a golf swing. It was as if he was there."

Those inductions were not even Kawahara's first (and second): Last year she was named to the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame. There was no ceremony, but she was mailed a plaque and her name and photo are on a panel displayed at the World Figure Skating Museum in Colorado Springs, CO.

"I was thrilled," she says. "One day I will go to see the panel."

She is thrilled at the success of I, Tonya, as well. The film tells the story of Tonya Harding's life through the viewpoints of the skater, her mother and her ex-husband, leading up to and depicting the attack on skating rival Nancy Kerrigan the month before the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, and its aftermath.

"I'm just so delighted that Margot Robbie has been recognized for the role," Kawahara says. "It never occurred to me that this film would become as big as it has." While Frances McDormand was ultimately named Best Actress, Allison Janney won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of LaVona Golden, Harding's mother.

Kawahara worked with Robbie for four months, beginning in November 2016 at the Pickwick Ice rink in Burbank and resuming in early January, after a Christmas hiatus, on location in Atlanta.

"We trained three times a week at Pickwick," she relates. "Margot worked very hard. She was very focused – and talented! She has good balance and a good visualization technique. She was a model student. It was really a delight to work with her."

While Robbie was home in Australia for three weeks over the holidays, Kawahara set her up with a coach there and sent along a video curriculum to practice. In Atlanta, Kawahara choreographed for her and for the skating doubles.

Film editor Tatiana S. Riegel also received an Oscar nomination. While Kawahara had nothing to do with the final edit, and didn't see it till the premiere, she worked with an editor on the ice for the first passes.

"I would give input into how it should it look," she explains. "There were some difficult entries into jumps; for example, the triple Lutz. In order for the skating double to produce the triple Lutz, she had to have a certain pattern, so we had the pattern the double needed, and the pattern we needed for Margot as Tonya Harding to skate. It was most interesting to see how that editor could understand that and make it happen.

"I've worked with a lot of actors teaching them to skate," she adds, "but I think for me this was the most successful marriage, because it was really important for me to make the skating look like Margot had done it all her life – just to be able to forget she's on the ice, to make her look as if she's moving naturally on the ice.

"I made it a point in telling the story: Let the emotion of the moment come through, forget you're on the ice. If I can make that happen for Margot, we're gold. And I was able to do that.

"I told Margot, 'I don't want to ever see a beginning skater's stop, or turn. It has to be like someone who has been doing it since they were young, and it's nothing. It has to be that natural for you.' We worked a lot on that kind of skating, and that kind of stroking."

Kawahara had met the real Harding during her competitive years, and saw her again at the I, Tonya premiere in December.

"It was bizarre, wild, but nice," she says. "I said to her, 'How was it for you to watch it?' She said it was kind of hard, but she thanked me for representing her skating. That was my job, to represent what she did as a skater. She was a very good technical skater. She was powerful. She had huge jumps and her spins were really incredibly fast."

Kawahara had her own Oscar moment: She was interviewed on the E! Countdown to the Red Carpet show the morning of the Academy Awards, styled by Emmy-winning costume designer David Profeta in a vintage chiffon gown and Christian Dior shoes.

"I couldn't believe I was on the actual red carpet!" she marvels. "It was exciting to be in a gown there. The carpet was very long and wide, with the audience lined up for the first two-thirds of it, and the Oscar scenery the rest of the way. Members of the press were stationed on the opposite side, tightly lining the length of the carpet."

Kawahara watched the ceremony from home, and she says, "felt a little closer to it all."

The director-choreographer is currently in Europe on board Royal Caribbean's newest cruise ship, the Symphony of the Seas, putting the finishing touches on the also-new ice show 1977; the ship's inaugural cruise begins April 5.

And a commercial she recently choreographed made its debut during the Winter Olympics, starring former U.S. champion and 2014 Olympic team event Bronze Medal winner Ashley Wagner in Toyota's "Start Your Impossible" campaign.

Kawahara's own 2002 Olympic choreographing turn was, she says, "the culmination of all my experience. We had 40 cameras and it's a one-off – you get one crack at it. We were absolutely maximizing everything we could possibly do in this moment.

"Usually when I do something, it's going to have a run, or many takes. You can always improve upon it. But to do something as a one-off, and it's lasting forever on that one take, is a most interesting experience."

Kawahara proudly displays her two Emmy Awards on a fireplace mantel at the home she shares with her husband, comedian and voiceover actor Jamie Alcroft. They have three grown children; daughter Hayley Kiyoko is an actress – she was a regular on CBS's CSI: Cyber – and a singer-musician-video director launching a North American tour in April, including an appearance at Coachella.

"I love being part of the Television Academy," Kawahara says, "because you can really make a difference within your field. And now that we have our own peer group, there's even that much more that we can say with what we do. I'm just so honored to be a choreographer and be included as part of this choreography peer group, because they're dancers.

"I'm one of the very few who is not a dancer. There are so many disciplines now; the disciplines have all embraced each other. So for a skating choreographer, it's been a real pleasure to be a part of this peer group."

Kawahara sees no end in sight when it comes to her choreography career. "Skating has always been a part of my life," she says. "I'll probably skate to the very end and glide off! It's part of my physical makeup. It's so natural to me, like air to breathe, food to eat. It's sustenance to me."

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