Ice dancers melt hearts of French Duchesnays' hot routines no longer draw judges' ire

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ALBERTVILLE, France -- They are Canadians who train in Germany and skate for France.

She is the fire to his ice. She is a temperamental star whose legs shake even while she is sitting down. He is the rock of the relationship, the man who carries her along a slick stage, the brother who ends the arguments with a concession, and a shrug.

From this jumble of the political and the personal, the cultural and the ancestral, come these two skating superstars.

France and the Winter Olympics await the performances of Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay.

In a country with few sporting heroes and few sporting successes, the Duchesnays are what pass for athletic royalty. Their first practice is greeted with a standing ovation. Their first news conference drags so long, International Olympic Committee officials accustomed to getting their way -- now -- are forced to wait impatiently before taking over the podium.

The Duchesnays are ice dancers who have spent their careers bending the rules of a tradition-bound pastime.

They have danced in loin cloths and tights and swayed to the percussive beat of African rhythms. They have displayed the misery of Latin America in "Missing," and the joy of freedom in "Missing II."

And, now, they are preparing to transform the Winter Olympics into a "West Side Story."

When Isabelle Duchesnay declares, "We skate for the people," it is no idle boast.

The Olympics may be the world's Winter Games, yet here in France, it is something of a snowbound diversion tucked in an isolated corner of the country closer to Geneva than Paris.

But when the Duchesnays take the ice for tomorrow night's compulsory dances, France will be watching.

"Skating here adds a lot of pressure," Paul Duchesnay said. "But when you have a lot of people cheering you on, it gives you a lift. It's like a hockey team with home-ice advantage. It's a lot better to be home than skating around a rink with four walls."

Their journey from Quebec to Albertville is among the most intriguing in sports. Their dual Canadian and French identities are also compelling. When they talk, it's a bilingual exchange of ideas and accents.

"We've lived in Quebec so long it is forever," Paul said. "Quebec will always be a part of us."

And so will France.

Paul sums up the contrasts in their lives by telling a story of waiting in the Montreal airport for a jet bound for Paris.

"I was trying to see who I was," he said. "I looked at the Quebecers, and said, 'That is what I was -- almost.' I saw Frenchmen and said, 'That is what I was -- almost.'Hopefully, I have the best of both worlds."

The children of a French-Canadian father and a French mother, they began their career as pairs skaters in Aylmer, a Canadian city overlooking the Ottawa River. They switched to ice dancing in 1978 after Isabelle fell during a lift.

"I was knocked unconscious," she said. "It was my father who said, 'dance or nothing.' "

They danced, but came up against a glass ceiling in Canada. Told by officials that they would be unable to crack the country's qualifying barrier and skate in the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, the Duchesnays exercised their dual citizenship and began skating for France in 1985. They took up residence in Oberstdorf, Germany, a town with 10,000 residents and three world-class training rinks.

There, they picked up a Czechoslovak coach and a choreographer-star who recently became a family member.

Paul, 30, and Isabelle, 28, are part of a team that now includes an Olympic legend, Christopher Dean. After winning the 1984 Olympic gold medal in ice dancing with Jayne Torvill, and after serving as the Duchesnays' choreographer for five years, Dean married Isabelle last year.

It is a union that has helped transform relationships within this family and team. Isabelle is at the center, the sun around which Dean and Paul and the coach, Martin Stonicky, orbit.

"Isabelle is a little bit the boss," Stonicky said.

High-strung and captivating during performances, those around her say that Isabelle is calmer away from the rink.

"It is difficult being married to Isabelle and coaching her, too," Dean said. "We try to be as professional as we can. On the ice, it's a skating-coaching situation. She can blow up and have squabbles. That is her nature in a pressure situation. There is the other side of Isabelle, too. The loving side."

Skating together, the sister and brother blend perfectly. They have brown hair, brown eyes and a fiery presence. Others may have better technique, but the Duchesnays use everything from an intricate turn to an arched eyebrow to accomplish the difficult task of bringing passion -- without romance -- to ice dancing.

"Asking a brother and a sister to be romantic would be a bit incestuous," Dean said. "We've never gone down that road."

Instead, the Duchesnays have taken the trail to avant-garde, pulling the judges along with them after a few rocky and unsuccessful years. Their "Mango" program in 1988, the one with the drums and loin cloths, drove crowds wild and judges berserk. The cheers were loud, but the marks were low.

But with their first "Missing" program in 1990, they began to earn respect in a sport that is more performance art than athletic competition. Once viewed as outsiders, the Duchesnays are now insiders. They won their first World Championship last year in Munich with a program that was patched together in less than a month. And even though they have yet to skate this season, they remain favorites for the Olympic gold.

During the past few months, the Duchesnays have suffered a series of personal and professional setbacks. In August, Isabelle broke her right foot tripping over a curb. A few weeks later, the Duchesnays' older brother, Gaston, died of lung cancer at age 39. And last month, Paul sustained a groin injury that kept the couple from competing at the European Championships.

"We have not let pressure get to us," Isabelle said.

Instead, the couple has retreated to Oberstdorf to perfect their free dance routine. To win the gold medal they will temper their innovative instincts, skating to the opening theme of "West Side Story."

Leonard Bernstein's Sharks and Jets are coming to town.

"It's a stamina program, a physical program," Dean said. "I want the judges and the public to say, 'Wow,' when they're finished."

But don't be misled. They are not out to become forgers on ice by imitating Torvill and Dean.

"That would be the worst mistake you could make," Isabelle said. "Of course, you'll have influences. But our team is strong enough keep us who we are on the ice."

They are the Duchesnays.

As they slide to the end of their careers with this one final Olympic performance, this sister and brother will complete a journey that bridges countries separated by an ocean.

Their goals are to bring a piece of New York to Albertville, and a touch of Canada to France.

Yesterday, someone asked the Duchesnays if they were stars. They smiled.

"Star is a big word," Paul said. "All we're trying to do is concentrate on what we do best on the ice. The things that matter to us are clear. We want to give great performances."

France waits.

Skating stars at arena April 11

What: 1992 Tour of World Figure Skating Champions

When: April 11, 1992, 8 p.m.

Where: Baltimore Arena

Tickets: $25, $27, $45 and are available at Ticketmaster, the Arena box office or by calling (410) 481-SEAT.

Who's scheduled to appear: Midori ito; Jill Trenary; Kristi Yamaguchi; Todd Eldredge; Christopher Bowman; Paul Wylie; Natalia Mishkutenok and Arthur Dimitriev; Elena Bechke and Denis Petrov; Isabelle Brasseur and Lloyd Eisler; Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay.

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