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When Ski Ballet Pushed at the Porous Boundary Between Art and Sport

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Recently, the official Olympics YouTube account posted a video both beautiful and strange. Skiers in flamboyant jumpsuits perform choreographed routines to music — flipping over their poles, gliding through complex spins, accenting transitions with jazzy flourishes of their arms. “HOW was this an Olympic sport?” the video’s title wonders.

The footage is from the 1992 Olympic finals in ballet skiing, also called ski ballet, or simply “ballet” by some practitioners. On social media, it’s easy to get lost in videos of this bygone athletic art. Clips from its Olympic appearances as a demonstration sport — at Calgary, Alberta, in 1988and Albertville, France, in 1992 —surface frequently on YouTube and TikTok, to the fascination of dance and sports enthusiasts.

Today ballet skiing lives almost exclusively online. By the time the sport made it to the Olympics, after nearly two fraught decades of competitive evolution, it had already begun to decline: 1992 was its final Olympic showing. Less than a decade later, it had all but vanished.

Ballet skiing’s internet renaissance has granted the form a new half-life — enough to enthrall, and puzzle, another generation of fans. But the viral clips tell an incomplete story. In its early years, ballet skiing existed right on the edge of athletic and artistic innovation. An outlet for the rebels and romantics of the ski world, it gave rise not just to star athletes, but also to artists keen to explore the porous boundary between dance and sport.

“We brought music to the mountains,” said Genia Fuller, 67, a ballet skiing champion of the 1970s. “To be able to put on a show in that setting, and to get people to feel what you’re feeling through the music and the movement — well, dancers know. It’s an amazing feeling.”

People have been doing tricks on skis since skiing was invented, but competitive ballet skiing began as part of a larger skiing revolution, rooted in the counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s. “Skiing had its own youth movement,” said Bob Howard, 67, a three-time world champion in ballet skiing. Young athletes began questioning the restrictions of traditional alpine racing — the idea that skiers should go left, right, down and nowhere else. What about skiing backward? What about jumping, spinning or launching yourself off the snow humps created by other skiers?

“It was going against the grain of whatever was typical or normal, or literally how their parents were skiing,” said Leslie Anthony, author of “White Planet: A Mad Dash Through Modern Global Ski Culture.” “People were inventing their own ski reality.”

Doug Pfeiffer, at the time the editor of Skiing magazine, was a crucial early supporter of these innovations. In the early 1970s, he put together some of the first organized events for unorthodox skiing styles, and later was instrumental in securing television coverage for what would come to be called freestyle skiing.

Bob Howard, around 1978 in Nevada, doing a move he called the “Howard around.”Credit…via Robert Howard

“In the beginning, everything was novel, and almost anything went,” said Pfeiffer, now 94. Crowds came to see emerging stars invent new daredevil moves. “The lift people would complain that nobody was riding the lifts,” Pfeiffer said, “because everyone wanted to see the freestyle skiers get it on.”

Over time, freestyle developed three distinct forms: aerials, in which skiers performed huge twisting jumps; moguls, in which they bounced over a series of small humps; and ballet, which highlighted more intricate tricks and footwork. At first, skiers would perform all three styles in one wild ride down the mountain. Eventually, each style got its own run, though competitors were expected to do all three. By the late 1970s, each form had its specialists.

Of the freestyle categories, ballet skiing, with its 360-degree approach to the mountain slope, offered the most room for interpretation. Some skiers explored its athletic side, developing a range of jumps and pole flips. Howard, who had a background in other sports, said, “For me, it was rock ’n’ roll, go as hard as you can go, blast out as many tricks as you can.”

Others saw potential for a different kind of expression. Suzy Chaffee, who made it to the 1968 Olympics as an alpine racer before becoming a glamorous face of freestyle skiing, introduced music to freestyle competition. Chaffee, now 75, had studied ballet as a child. “At the back of my mind, I’d always fantasized about dancing down a mountain,” she said. Graceful and flexible, she became known for her elegant lines. Fuller, who had a background in figure skating, also emphasized musicality and fluidity in her ballet runs.

Suzy Chaffee in Tahoe in 1980. “I’d always fantasized about dancing down a mountain,” she says.Credit…Bob Troxell, via Suzy Chaffee

The “ballet” in ballet skiing functioned as an adjective; the style did not involve ballet technique. But as athletes like Chaffee and Fuller began revealing new artistic possibilities, dance and choreography started to play a more prominent role. The renowned Canadian modern dance choreographer Margie Gillis grew up in a family of skiers, which included her cousin John Eaves, a freestyle champion. In the 1970s, Eaves invited Gillis to teach dance (on dry land) at some of his freestyle training camps.

“They were just flying around, these men and women, and it was wonderful — there was a lot of beauty,” Gillis said. “I talked to them about specific problems or transitions: how to go up into an arabesque, how to come out of it, how you could play with that.” She also felt a kinship with them. “The idea of this burgeoning field was very exciting, because modern dance at the time also felt like a burgeoning field,” she said.

By the late 1970s, as competitions became better established, artistically minded skiers began to chafe at a judging system that struggled to compare acrobatic competitors to dancers on skis. Michael Russell, a ballet skiing standout, ended his competitive career in 1979. Eager to explore the full potential of the form’s artistry, he had become deeply frustrated with competition criteria and the limitations of numerical judging. In 1980, he created the SnowDance Company, a small band of skiers that toured the country, performing choreographed dances on mountainside stages.

Russell, now 64, saw the mountain itself as part of his performance art. “I liked the challenge of the changing terrain, I liked the challenge of the different steepnesses and snow depths and trees and bumps and patches of ice,” he said. “There was nothing you could do automatically or you’d take a nosedive.” He wanted his snow dances to capture the very essence of skiing. “Snow skiing is naturally graceful, naturally beautiful,” he writes in his coming book “Winterdanse: The Misplaced Art of Snow Ballet.” “There is no reason ever to offend skiing’s natural grace and beauty, and every reason to strive to perfect it.”

Michael Russell, in a 1978 photo, training in summer on AstroTurf.Credit…via Michael Russell

At the 1981 Dance Magazine awards, Russell met the Olympic figure skating champion John Curry. Curry’s inspired approach to dance on skates — he led an ice dancing company that performed works by the choreographers Twyla Tharp and Kenneth MacMillan — had elevated the art of figure skating, and aligned with the goals of many artistic ballet skiers. Curry became a friend and mentor to Russell, and also worked with Chaffee, who was exploring creative skiing on film. “His expressiveness, his desire to reach for the artistic sky, it really touched me,” Chaffee said.

But more athletically inclined ballet skiers found an outlet in performance, too. In the early 1980s, Howard choreographed the Volvo Ski Show, a flashy, crowd-pleasing production that incorporated aspects of all three freestyle disciplines. “It was kind of like the Harlem Globetrotters on skis,” he said. “We had funny costumes, we did jokey stuff, we played lots of rock ’n’ roll. And we had huge crowds everywhere we went.” The show toured the world for more than a decade, and Howard continued to mount similar ski productions for years.

Ballet skiing trickled into popular culture in the late 1970s and ’80s. Chaffee starred in a Chapstick campaign (“Call me Suzy Chapstick!”) that put footage of ballet skiing in regular television rotation. The 1984 comedy “Hot Dog,” set in the world of freestyle skiing, included an extended ballet sequence. In 1986, Chaffee and Eaves played a romantic couple in the movie “Fire and Ice,” directed by the skier turned designer and filmmaker Willy Bogner; it featured an epic ballet skiing pas de deux, complete with pyrotechnics.

At about the same time, competitive ballet skiing was heading for the Olympics — and still trying to figure out where it fell on the continuum between sport and art.

All three freestyle skiing disciplines were added as demonstration sports at Calgary in 1988, but the International Olympic Committee seemed uncertain how to create objective judging criteria for ballet. “The I.O.C. wanted points, scores and time,” said Howard, who coached skiers at the 1988 and 1992 Olympics. “But so much of ballet was interpretive.” The addition of more rules and formalized elements, some borrowed from figure skating, crowded Olympic ballet skiers into an uncomfortable box, spawning the technically impressive but artistically stunted routines that now transfix online audiences.

“It was not the flowing, beautiful sport that it started out as,” Genia Fuller said. “It had become very start-stop-start-stop.”

Even television commentators seemed confused. “I think most people watching were just like, ‘What the … ?’” said Anthony, the “White Planet” author.

Some great athlete-performers managed to transcend the form’s contradictions. One of the most-viewed ballet skiing clips on YouTube is the German star Hermann Reitberger’s performance from the finals of the 1988 Olympics, where he placed first. It’s an astonishing combination of technical finesse and musical sensitivity — and a far cry from ballet skiing’s anything-goes early days. “To be the best, with the most difficult and technical elements, and still fuse everything together artistically and expressively, that’s exactly what I loved and felt,” Reitberger, now 63, said in an email.

But ballet skiing’s Olympic failure — it did not return to the games after 1992, though both moguls and aerials became full medal sports — helped seal its competitive fate. Snowboarding and other snow sports that emphasized speed and risk were becoming more popular. Ballet skiing, which prioritized precision and couldn’t untangle its confused relationship to artistry, had trouble attracting young skiers. The International Ski Federation ceased all formal ballet skiing competitions after 2000, and the form essentially disappeared.

Could there be a ballet skiing revival? Some veterans hope so, and the discipline’s second life online has lent momentum to their campaigns. “On Google, there are nine pages of articles saying, ‘Bring back ski ballet!’” Chaffee said. In spring 2018, Chaffee, Fuller and a collection of other former champions put on a “ballet demo day” at the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame event near Lake Tahoe. A cheering crowd watched as Chaffee and Howard recreated parts of Chaffee’s 1979 film “Butch Chapstick and the Snowdance Kid,” arcing gracefully down the mountain together. A similar ballet demonstration is planned for this year’s Hall of Fame event in March.

Whether competitive ballet skiing recovers, the inherent appeal of dancing down mountains will endure.

“When you do ballet, it feels like you’re embracing the whole mountain,” Chaffee said. “I’m going to do a ballet at 100 — that’s my goal.”

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