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Original Issue

Theater of the Absurd

After making the bizarre the norm, the Duchesnays went conservative and lost

One thing was certain: Frenchmen weren't running through the streets of Albertville crying "Vive la danse!"on Monday night after the surest bet of the Games didn't come in. Paul and Isabelle Duchesnay—or Duchesnay-Dean, as she now prefers—the most heavily promoted French entry in the Olympics, were the second-best ice dancers in a competition that had been widely regarded as fini before it had started.

The best were the Unified Team's Marina Klimova and her husband, Sergei Ponomarenko, who now have a complete set of medals: They won a silver four years ago in Calgary and a bronze in '84 in Sarajevo. Unfazed by the Duchesnay hype, Klimova and Ponomarenko were dominant in all three portions of the competition. "Popularity isn't proof of talent." said Klimova after giving a spellbinding performance in the free-skating program. One moment she was suspended inches above the ice, rodlike; the next she was sliding lithely down, around and over Ponomarenko's limbs like a droplet of mercury.

"For the Duchesnays it was huge pressure," said Ponomarenko afterward. "For us it was different, and we skated as well as we can in practice."

It was a semisweet final night for the Duchesnay siblings, who were given a long standing ovation for their rendition of the playground scene in West Side Story, but who, in the most important competition of their careers, were missing their spark. Isabelle, who was suffering from a cold, seemed so intent on doing each forthcoming trick that she never got into character. Her face was a blank page. And the daring that had made the Duchesnays an international sensation over the past four years was missing from the West Side Story program. In their quest for gold they had. remarkably, turned conservative.

"We made a lot of sacrifices for the rules." said Paul, revealing that they had fashioned their original and free-skating programs to conform to ice dancing's arcane and capricious regulations involving forbidden holds, heights of lifts, jumps and the number of moments a couple is permitted to be apart during a performance. "The judges and referees follow us quite closely. It's frustrating to be told you can't do what you'd like to do."

Four years ago. in Calgary, the Duchesnays did exactly what they liked, and they paid for it. They created an uproar with their breakthrough program. Savage Rites, a raw, powerful, primitive statement that perfectly reflected their skating talents. Spectators, up to their eyeballs in Tchaikovsky and taffeta, loved the tribal drum music and tattered costumes chosen for the Duchesnays by choreographer Christopher Dean. They were outraged when the judges placed the Duchesnays eighth.

Eighth-place finish or not, the future course of ice dancing was set, with the Duchesnays and Dean leading the parade. In the next four world championships the Duchesnay brother-sister duo progressed from sixth to third to second to first. In ice dancing such a rise is considered meteoric. They continued to perform starkly original numbers, skating with more energy than grace, more emotion than elegance. But their nontraditional message was no longer unique.

Other couples, particularly the polished Soviet skaters, began following the Duchesnays' lead. Bizarre outfits and unfathomable pantomimes became the norm. Ice dancing? The event had become ice theater. As a result, at last year's world championships in Munich the most common reaction among the spectators was no longer, Did you like it? or. Wasn't it wonderful? but, What are those people doing down there dressed like trees?

Though the Duchesnays won in Munich, they didn't skate as fluidly or as in sync as the two Soviet couples, Klimova-Ponomarenko and Maia Usova-Alexander Zhulin, who finished second and third, respectively. Nor were they as original. In fact, the Duchesnays' winning program, Missing II, was quite a lot like Missing, which they had performed at the world championships the previous year. Most observers in Munich figured the ice dancing powers-that-be in effect had decreed that, by god, the Olympics were in France next year, so the Duchesnays were going to win the world championship. It was as good a reason as any to choose the champs in this event, which, with all its old standards cast aside, had become virtually impossible to judge.

The Duchesnays seemed extraordinarily suitable world champions as attention turned to Albertville, for they were nearly as international as the Olympics themselves. Paul, 30, was born in France. Isabelle, 28, was born outside Montreal. She had married Dean, an Englishman, last May. They were being coached by a Czech, Martin Skotnicky. Their training center was in Oberstdorf, Germany. They were represented by an American agent, Jay Ogden. Their two most famous programs had been performed to African and South American music. Something for everyone. And, surely, a gold medal for the hosts.

"This time it's set," wrote the French sports daily L'‚Äö√†√∂‚àö¢quipe after the Duchesnays prevailed in Munich. "It's sure. They will be Olympic champions. Nothing and no one can get in their way, except perhaps destiny."

Ah, yes. The French are very big on destiny. Le destin had reared its Gallic head in August, when Isabelle broke a bone in her right foot while in training, and again in January, when Paul pulled a groin muscle, which forced the Duchesnays to miss the European Championships in Lausanne. As for the so-called home-ice advantage, Paul wasn't having any of it. "In the past I don't think the public has had much effect on the judges," he said last Thursday, the eve of the competition. "They're pretty resilient."

They proved to be just that in Albertville. In the compulsory dance portion, which accounted for 20% of the scoring, the judges placed Klimova and Ponomarenko first and the Duchesnays third. No argument there. Ballroom stuff like the paso doble has never been the French pair's forte. However, the Duchesnays now had to beat Klimova and Ponomarenko in Sunday's original dance segment, a polka that accounted for 30% of the scoring, to control their own destiny during Monday night's free-skating program.

They didn't do it. By one vote, five judges to four, Klimova and Ponomarenko outpolkaed the Duchesnays' nervously perky rendition of The Lonely Goatherd from The Sound of Music. Klimova and Ponomarenko weren't just more polished; they were more interesting than the Duchesnays, who moved from third to second.

Knowledgeable skaters in the audience—Brian Boitano, Brian Orser and Katarina Witt, to name three—saw the original dance competition as far more lopsided than the judges did. The Duchesnays had looked tense, uncomfortable and, dressed as they were in traditional Tyrolian garb, even a bit trite. They cut a far different swath than they had four years earlier, when they were no-names, unburdened by expectations and looking to make a mark.

Afterward, knowing they had to beat Klimova and Ponomarenko by two places in the free skate—something they had never done—Paul said, "It's not easy living with daily pressure. The evenings are very stressful. We'll be glad when it's all over." He began backing away from reporters. Then he was hauled off by the scruff of his neck by Isabelle, his self-described "nag" of a sister. Paul opened his palms in resignation. "I'm sorry, my sister's giving me a hard time," he said.

And will continue to, for both Duchesnays have said that they will skate together as pros in the future. You ice dance with the one who brung ya. Certainly in the less restrictive realm of professionalism, the Duchesnays will return to their earthier roots. As for their Olympic career, it was something to watch. The Duchesnays got where they were by pushing the envelope of their sport, but they backed away when the gold was within reach. "France wanted a medal, and we wanted to be innovative," Paul said. "We were caught between the two. If you listen to too many people, you wind up taking out so many things from your program, there's nothing left."

But silver.




Throughout the competition Klimova and Ponomarenko (right) outperformed the Duchesnays, who felt restricted by the rules.