Adaptation and Figure Skating

Catherine Sullivan, Still from multi-channel installation Triangle of Need, 2007. Courtesy of the artist, Galerie Catherine Bastide, Brussels, and Metro Pictures, New York.
Catherine Sullivan, Still from multi-channel installation Triangle of Need, 2007. Courtesy of the artist, Galerie Catherine Bastide, Brussels, and Metro Pictures, New York.

Catherine Sullivan, featured artist in the Henry exhibition Adaptation, “orchestrates exceedingly complex sets of ideas and participants to weave a nuanced story about evolution, class, wealth and poverty, and the inequalities and injustices in our global economy” in Triangle of Need (2007)

One particularly striking component of this awesome video installation is black-and-white footage of the figure skater Rohene Ward. I was born and raised in suburban Minneapolis, and I am a huge fan of figure skating. I’ve never met Rohene, but I remember cheering him on as I was growing up, as he had the skills (known for his flexibility and his ability to spin in both directions) and was a hometown hero. He was an Olympic hopeful, however, his rankings in the political world of figure skating have never matched his amazing talent.

Not the typical poster-skater for US Figure Skating, Rohene grew up in”‘the ghetto” of North Minneapolis, born to a black father and a Puerto Rican mother and one of six kids, he lived in a place where most boys were groomed to be hockey players rather than figure skaters. For awhile, figure skating was a way to escape into another world, his way of getting himself “out of the hood”. His first pair of skates came from the Salvation Army and were “five sizes too large”. Despite his overwhelming talent, he was unable to break through on the competitive national figure skating scene. He admits that he hasn’t been able to put it together and skate clean when it counts, but one could speculate that his economic background and financial struggles count just as much.

In an attempt to gain international invitations to higher profile events with larger cash prizes and media exposure (these opportunities were not available in the US because of the depth of skating talent) Rohene skated for Puerto Rico, and became their national champion in 2004, but had to submit to rules that he could not skate in any competitions for two years before he switched countries, a major setback for any skater.  It didn’t work out, so he returned to the US the following season. He didn’t make the Olympic team in 2002 or 2006 (placing 14th and 17th respectively) and to this day, when browsing the figure skating boards, such as FS Universe and MKForum, you can always find a thread loosely titled “What happenned to Rohene Ward?”

Now he has decided to take a year off from competitive skating, and is coaching a young skater named Kirsten Olsen and skating in ice shows, not ruling out a run for the 2010 Vancouver Olympic team.

Though all online accounts of Catherine Sullivan’s inclusion of Ward’s skating in Triangle of Need (2007) is somewhat overlooked, and at best referenced as a bit of kitsch or a red herring, there is much meaning to be found in the footage of Rohene within this installation. The footage has a stunning, provocative, and disorienting effect.  There is something really beautiful about figure skating that has captivated audiences all over the world for over a century, and in my opinion, Rohene’s skating is the anchor of this installation that bears much emotional weight and reflects the other mysterious and controversial worlds within the installation, that is as much reality as it is fantasy.


On a lighter note, since it’s the winter season, there’s more figure skating to be had!

Not only does watching competitive figure skating provide an emotional roller coaster (in which the unifying concept of the sport is to adapt a story through movement and dance, as interpreted through music, on ice,  within a time limit and complicated judging system), Hollywood has cashed in many times on the intrigues and allure of figure skating:

The Cutting Edge (1992) – a soft-focus romance packed with ice-filled action and crushed dreams. D.B. Sweeney at his finest.

Ice Princess (2005) – A physics whiz kid is urged to study the physics of figure skating in order to get into Harvard. To better understand the physics-she must become a figure skater and in doing so, discovers her real dream.  Now she must make a choice: figure skating or Harvard? This movie makes my friend Rachel cry every time.

Blades of Glory (2007) – A loose adaptation of The Cutting Edge. What happens when two men who are banned from figure skating competitions and join forces to become the first male-male pairs team? Hi-larity!

See the real thing in action: Check your local listings in January for the US Figure Skating National Championships, this year in Cleveland.

Do it yourself! Want to figure skate in Seattle this holiday season? Here are some ice rinks in the Seattle area to get your figure skating on:

Ice Skate at Seattle Center through January 4!

More Ice Rink listings!


Much of the biographical information about Rohene Ward was found  in this candid interview Under the Radar with Rohene Ward by figure skating journalist Kathleen Bangs.

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