For most Canadians, the enduring image of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir is the moment they became Canada's sweethearts. Alone on the ice, wrapped in each other's arms inside Vancouver's Olympic figure skating venue, the fresh-faced ice dancers, paired since childhood, had just flawlessly performed a romantic and ethereal program and won Olympic gold. They even wore white.
Three years later, viewers tuning in to the Canadian figure skating championships, which begin Sunday at the Hershey Centre in Mississauga, may be surprised to see Canada's golden couple in all black, Virtue's neckline plunging to her navel, skating provocatively to a program touching on jealousy, cuckoldry, insanity and murder. Viewers may even squirm as figure skating's loveliest ingenue, with the surname Virtue, no less, grazes her hand up Moir's inner thigh.
"People will be like, 'It's sexy,'" said Moir, 25, in a recent interview in his hometown just north of London, Ont.
He throws his hands up in mock surrender. "Oh, whatever. Fine!"
This new four-minute program, set to music from the opera Carmen, has electrified the sport's insiders and earned critical acclaim, both for its difficulty and the modern portrayal of an age-old tale. When they skated at the Rostelecom Cup in November, Tatiana Tarasova, a former Russian coach and ice-dancing legend, gave the Canadians, who won, a standing ovation.
But like all figure skaters, ice dancers are at the whim of judges.
"There are two ways to play the pre-Olympic season," says Pj Kwong, a Canadian figure-skating coach and analyst. "You can play it safe and just hope that at the end of the day you come out on top. Or, you can really make a mark, for better or worse, and have people thinking, wow, what can you possibly do that's going to make you stand out next season."
Virtue and Moir have placed themselves squarely in the second camp.
"There are people who kind of get stuck on what we call the classic Virtue-Moir, who want to see us just look into each other's eyes and sigh," Moir said. "But for Tessa and I as artists, we want to push the boundaries."
Virtue and Moir won gold when they unveiled the Carmen program in Windsor, Ont., at the Skate Canada International Grand Prix in October. Most recently, they finished second behind Americans Charlie White and Meryl Davis, who skated a more conventional program at the Grand Prix Final held at the Iceberg Skating Palace – the figure skating venue for the 2014 Sochi Games – indicating that judges aren't completely swayed by the Canadian risk-takers.
By moving away from the things that have made them four-time Canadian champions, two-time world champions and Olympic gold medalists, Virtue and Moir are challenging not just the judges, but also fans. Figure-skating devotees are obsessed with skaters' personal lives, dissecting who's dating whom on forums and blogs (Moir and Virtue are not). The sensuality of the Carmen program has inflamed the gossip.
Kwong, who has followed the pair from a young age, says the program is a natural extension of their previous body of work, which has always explored relationships between men and women, and says the focus on the program's sensuality is overblown. "She's not wearing a thong, for heaven's sake. It's not like there's a stripper pole."
Virtue, however, has felt stung.
"It's always the negative things that stick with you, and I've found that to be a bit challenging," said Virtue, 23. "It's funny, people all of a sudden now associate the Carmen character with my personality, for example. Which is laughable, but kind of hard to take, you know?"
In Carmen, Virtue's character bewitches the soldier, Don José, played by Moir, who leaves his fiancée and job to be with his love, only to go mad after she toys with his heart and dumps him. Virtue and Moir's program ends there, but in the opera, Jose murders Carmen after she hooks up with another man.
Virtue and Moir's program is also remarkable because they've put a unique spin on a storyline that has been done on ice so many times before. Everyone knows Carmen since practically everyone's skated to it, from Katarina Witt to Russia's Anjelika Krylova at the 1998 Olympics with partner Oleg Ovsyannikov.
Determined to give it their own stamp, Virtue and Moir veered away from mime-like, dramatic gestures that have characterized Carmen programs in the past, and took their cues from modern dance. Along with their coach, Marina Zoueva, they worked on the choreography with Jennifer Swan, a modern dance choreographer and teacher based in London, Ont.
"When we came close to a provocative work … we spent a lot of time discussing it," Swan said. "They want their work to be very purposeful. I believe that we have avoided crossing the line because they have spent a lot of time making sure that the choreography was appropriate."
Most of the choreography happened at the Arctic Edge ice rink in Canton, Mich., just outside Detroit, where the couple trains. In Canton, Virtue lives in an apartment with her mother, and Moir lives in his own place nearby. They return to their parents' homes in the London area on weekends, a weekly pilgrimage to escape Canton's insular skating world.
"Maybe from the outside, it seems so glamorous, but we really live in this funny world," Virtue said. "It's pretty regimented and our lives are pretty disciplined and pretty controlled."
On a recent Saturday, the team paid a visit to a gleaming new arena in Ilderton, just north of London, where they spent time practising over the Christmas break. Dressed in an elegant black blazer with chunky pearls gathered at her wrist, Virtue sat at a table across from Moir, her more casual counterpart in a Canada Goose jacket, dark jeans and spikey hair. On the rink behind them, boys and girls from the Ilderton skating club zip around the ice and practise their spins. It is the same club where Virtue and Moir skated when they first became a pair at 7 and 9.
"This could very well be our last 13 months of skating, at a competitive level," Virtue said. "So that changes things. It changes your perspective, it changes the process."
It's why they're having such a good time portraying Carmen.
"That's part of us continuing after the last Olympics," Moir said. "We want to push the sport. We want to push each other."