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John Doyle

Tessa & Scott: Why we’re enthralled with the glorious, kooky skating universe Add to ...

One day last week I was sitting in a bar/restaurant in Dublin talking Canadian figure skating with two locals. I spoof you not.

The bar/restaurant joint used to be a bank. Such is the Irish economy. But that’s not the story here. The story, I suppose, is the grip that figure skating has – here and abroad. Yep, there are people in Dublin with a deep knowledge of Canadian figure skaters.

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It began, I think, with the 1994 Winter Olympics, in Lillehammer, Norway. And the epic story of Nancy Kerrigan’s battle with Tonya Harding, whose associate was alleged to have given Kerrigan’s knee a whack to hobble her. What drama. And then, to people paying attention, gobsmacked, the Canadians looked appealingly nice, and very good at their sport. Not Americans, that is.

Our current sweethearts and true champions in that glorious, kooky skating universe are, of course, the ice dancing duo of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, 2010 Olympic champions and 2012 world champions. And right now they are the focus of a truly intriguing reality series.

Tessa & Scott (W Network, 11:30 p.m. ET) started last week, and it’s a doozy. More fly-on-the-wall chronicle than generic reality show, it’s sharp and illuminating. Tonight’s episode is a repeat of last week’s opener and a new episode airs Thursday, W, at 8 p.m., ET. All of it is eye-opening.

For a start, there’s a surreal quality to the lives and careers of Virtue and Moir. “Young and gorgeous, their 17-year relationship is on the brink of change,” the voiceover alerts us. Indeed. The “relationship” between the two is the focus of much speculation. As Moir says, a few minutes in, “The questions we get are ‘Are you dating? Are you in love?’ And it’s hard to explain.”

Later, much later in the program, when the two are having dinner alone, Virtue says of their “relationship”: “Sometimes we’re best friends and sometimes we’re just business partners.”

The nature of the their connection forms the core of the first few episodes. And not in some salacious or gossipy manner. It’s about their work at their sport. And they’re in an odd situation that has nothing to do with their personal connection. They train in the same Canton, Mich., rink as their main rivals, Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White, and share the same coach, Marina Zoueva. They watch their rivals every day and wonder, as they say here, about who gets priority with Zoueva. It seems to work for them, mind you, and they’ve stuck with the circumstance as they prepare for the Sochi games, and what they say is their final participation in the sport.

While Zoueva is away and they’re worried about their technique, they call on Jean-Marc Généreux for help. He’s a ballroom dance champion and choreographer, and best known to the wider world as the excitable, effusive judge on So You Think You Can Dance Canada. A real character, he approaches Tessa and Scott’s issue with aplomb and directness. They lack the sensuality they need for their routine.

The extraordinary interaction goes like this – to Tessa he says, “I want you to look at this guy like he’s a piece of meat. I mean a good piece. And you’d really like to have a bite.” Tessa says, “I’ve been told I’m really bad at flirting.” Eventually we hear Généreux say, “Just touch his body. Do it.” He makes them touch each other a lot. And to Moir’s hesitation he snaps, “No, no, no, she’s a woman. You have to direct your energy!”

Later, on their time off, we see Moir and his girlfriend cuddling. We see Virtue gazing in bewilderment at an Italian skater who is as flirty as all get-out. In Thursday’s episode we see the duo at a training camp in Toronto in which their program gets a brutal assessment. Marnie McBean, the Olympic rower, dishes out advice to all of the Olympic athletes and Virtue is close to falling apart, on the phone to her mom, in tears. She attends a TIFF party while Moir retreats to London, Ont., to be with his girlfriend. At the party, Virtue encounters CBC Radio’s Jian Ghomeshi, who asks if she has downtime, and suggests they “hang out.” Oh my. This is heady stuff. Ice follies and frolics and pain. No wonder it has this grip on us, and others.

Follow on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle

 

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