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Program you see began as idea in someone's mind

A cup of coffee still in her hands, Lori Nichol steps onto the ice and begins doing some footwork.

At first, the noted choreographer appears to just be playing, warming up before getting to work. As you watch her, though, it becomes clear there's an idea in her head and she's thinking it through with her skates.

Over and over she does that one patch, tweaking this step here, that turn there, accentuating the use of her edges, adding movements of her arm and head. The section will be, at most, 20 seconds in world champion Evan Lysacek's 4½-minute free skate. But she works and reworks it as if it's the cornerstone of the program until, finally, what she's doing on the ice mirrors the image in her mind.

"I'm trying to do layer upon layer," Nichol said of choreographing a program. "I'm trying to appeal to those that I know have spent the hours and time and really understand the incredible difficulty of some of the things we're doing on the ice.

"And then I try to do (a program) so that anyone can enjoy it. I think of what my mom's watching and think of what my neighbor's watching and how do I make this program enjoyable for them? And how do I make it so it's something the judges will be able to understand and respect?

"In the end, you're left with an entire picture," Nichol said, "and you want to be able to just enjoy it."

Even with the jumps, speed and power, a skating program is as much an artistic performance as any ballet. Every skater tries to tell a story with music and movement, and some programs do it in such spectacular fashion fans are moved to tears. Or get chills years later thinking about it.

But figure skating programs don't just materialize. Michelle Kwan didn't simply show up one day and bring the sultry "Salome" to life. The confident and polished programs you'll see in Vancouver are hard-won, beginning months and months earlier with a choreographer's vision.

The process is different for every choreographer. For Nichol, everything begins with music.

"Sometimes you're just driving in the car and you hear a great piece of music and you think, 'Wow, OK, so-and-so has to skate to this piece of music,'" she said. "Sometimes it's been music you've been listening to for years but you've never had a skater for it, and then they walk through your door and you think, 'Now I finally get to use that piece of music!'"

Then comes movement.

Nichol choreographs from "the ice up," believing that a skater's connection to the ice sets the tone. A coach can fix problems with technique or artistry. But if a skater doesn't have that feel for the ice, a program has little chance to be anything special.

The first time Nichol works with a skater, she'll put his or her music on, limit them to a small space on the ice and ask them to simply move. No jumps or big elements, no crossovers.

Just react.

"(I) see how their body works best, what edges are good for them, what aren't," Nichol said. "Sometimes great movement happens, and sometimes it's just a glimmer of a movement and then you start to develop that."

Skaters often have a preference for where their big elements — the jumps — are in a program. If a guy is going to do a quad, odds are it's going to be at the beginning of the program, and it will be at one end of the rink.

Having a "pattern" like that is fine — it gives Nichol a framework from which to work — and almost a necessity in this judging system, where every single element affects the final score.

But it's how those elements are done, the flow and connections between them, that makes programs unique, from skater to skater, even performance to performance.

"It's a blank canvas where you start with kind of the background color, like I would envision a painter goes about it," said Frank Carroll, Lysacek's coach. "You start with the very simple, like this is the background, and then you place the things that you're really going to make sharp and visual."

For this all-important Olympic year, Lysacek chose "Scheherazade" for his free skate, music that is powerful and dramatic. But it lifts at points, too, giving Lysacek the chance to show off his wide range of expression and artistic abilities.

It has to be done right, however.

After showing Lysacek what she envisions for that one piece of footwork, Nichol watches closely as he does it, then skates over to examine the tracings at a rink in Toronto. Something about it isn't right, and they spend 20 minutes talking about one rocker, an S-like turn.

It seems tedious, 20 minutes for one move, but no detail is too small. The slightest change in edge can affect the grade a piece of footwork gets, not to mention spoiling the overall impression.

Over and over again Lysacek does his footwork sections. Sometimes Nichol watches intently. Other times she does them herself at the end of the rink, trying to work out that kink that few other people would even recognize.

"You have to be very clever — it's a different kind of creativity — to fit it all in and make it look like you wanted to do it, not that you had to do it because of the rules," Nichol said.

"You just keep playing with it until you get to it. Sometimes it takes time, and sometimes it's like instant," she said, snapping her fingers. "And both are fun. I love it when it happens really quick and natural, and I love it when it's like being inside this evil Sudoku puzzle."

Nichol and Lysacek spend the entire morning working simply on his footwork and playing with different body positions at a rink. Should his hand go above his head like this? Or should he angle it more? What about if he whips it forward, like this? When he's in a certain position, should he raise his eyes to the audience or fix them with a cold stare?

Again, seemingly simple flourishes that, if missing, few would even notice. But done right, they will be the difference between a solid performance and something spectacular.

"The best skating is when you're just relaxed and you watch someone who is in complete control of what they're doing. They have that look on their face like, 'There's nothing that's going to knock me off my feet in this whole world,'" Lysacek said. "Obviously, that takes a lot of repetition.

"This is the hard part, learning it and doing all those new moves and twisting your shoulder a weird way. And then your shoulder is sore, and then five minutes later you go down too far and your groin is sore, and then the next time you kick your leg too high and your hamstring is sore," he added. "You start to realize just by touching different parts of your body how difficult doing all this choreography really is. Just because all of it is new and all of the movement is new."

Lysacek has worked with Nichol for more than five years, and their comfort with each other is obvious. They have similar ideas and thought processes, and more often than not one only needs to say a few words before the other is nodding, knowing what's coming next.

They work on the program in sections, the rhyme and rhythm apparent only to them. When the one footwork sequence is finally where Nichol wants it, she beams, and she and Lysacek hook pinkies as they skate past each other.

Satisfied, they break for lunch. When they return, a hockey league is on the rink they'd been using and they move next door. Skaters of all ages and abilities crowd the ice, and it looks like rush hour despite the coaches' best attempts at playing traffic cop.

It's hardly the most conducive setting for a mesmerizing performance. Yet as Lysacek skates, weaving together all of the sections he and Nichol have been sweating over, you can see the potential for brilliance.

As he charges across the ice, looking every bit the powerful king, Nichol pounds her hand on the glass.

"That is good," she said.

By the end of the afternoon, Nichol and Lysacek are both pleased. Carroll will be, too, when Lysacek returns to Los Angeles and shows him the program.

"The slow part came on and I started to almost get tears in my eyes because I couldn't believe he was doing something that could reach me emotionally with his gestures and his body movement to the music," Carroll said a few weeks later. "I thought, 'Oh my God, if he can pull this off and people are affected the way I just was, it's going to be a remarkable piece.'"

The program is, by no means, finished when Lysacek leaves Nichol's base in Toronto. Lysacek and Carroll still have to put the jumps in, and he'll spend three months training it before he performs it for the first time in competition. He'll have more sessions with Nichol, too, to polish any rough spots that are uncovered and change things that aren't working.

There will be adjustments after each competition, too. One benefit of the judging system is that it gives skaters very detailed critiques of their programs, showing them exactly what judges don't like and why. If a piece of footwork isn't getting the expected level or changing the entrance to a jump can earn a few more points, those tweaks are easily made.

But the essence of the program, its soul, never strays from that vision Nichol had all those months ago.

"I'm always nervous as all get out every time I choreograph a program. That has never changed, and it doesn't matter what level of skater it is," Nichol said. "They don't skate just to jump and spin. The majority of people, at least the ones I've worked with, skate because they love it. They love the feeling of it, and I want to help develop that.

"I want to give them even more pleasure skating than they've had before."