J. Barry Mittan, the Electronic Photojournalist

Fire on the Ice - Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat by J. Barry Mittan (1996)

A flame burns brightly at center ice. Like moths to a candle, all eyes are drawn to France's fiery Marina Anissina and her ice dance partner, Gwendal Peizerat. Wearing a scarlet dress highlighted by her blazing red hair, Marina transforms herself into the toreador's cape to skate the paso doble. To the strains of "Ay Mi Sombrero", Gwendal whips Marina across the ice, using her flaming form to tantalize an imaginary bull and incite the applause of the audience.

This incendiary team burst onto the world dance scene in 1994, taking tenth in their first Worlds and jumping to sixth in 1995 and fourth in 1996. The duo felt that they "skated nearly perfectly at both the Europeans and the Worlds." In 1994, Anissina and Peizerat won the gold at both Germany's Nations Cup and Trophee de France, an achievement which "meant the most to us , winning at home." With a silver at 1994 Skate America, a bronze at 1994 Japan's NHK Trophy, and a silver at Skate Canada in 1995, the pair have now medalled in all the major international competitions which now comprise the Champions Series of Figure Skating. A silver at this year's Trophee de France and a win at NHK assured the couple of a spot in the Champions series finale.

The French couple's success is no flash in the pan. Peizerat has been skating for almost 20 years; Anissina for 16. Both started at the age of four. With two big ice centers in Lyon and famous skaters as role models, it was natural for Gwendal, who was born in nearby Bron, to take up the sport. His father is the general secretary of the French skating federation while his mother heads the skating club in Lyon. His sister, who also skated, is now a judge. Marina, a native of Moscow, was selected for skating training as a small child. Her mother, Irina Chernieva, finished sixth in pairs at the 1972 Olympics with Vassili Biagov, while her father was a Soviet hockey player. Chernieva did not want her daughter to do pairs "because it was too dangerous" so Marina turned to dance " because it is so beautiful." Paired with Ilya Averbukh, Anissina won the 1989-90 and 1991-92 World Junior Championships in dance, but the pair split and Marina emigrated to France to train with Gwendal, whom she had met and competed against at international competitions. Peizerat had won a junior Worlds silver in 1990-91 and finished fourth in 1989-90 with his previous partner, Marina Morel. The pair now trains in Lyon and competes for France. Meanwhile, Averbukh joined with Irina Lobacheva to skate for Russia. Both couples have been together for three years, competing against one another. Says Anissina, "I minded at first when they finished ahead of us, but not now. We have always finished ahead since then. I no longer think about it."

Both skaters burn with the desire to win the World Championships and an Olympic gold in 1998. As for 2002, they may continue if they don't win in 1998, but think their chances are good for the following Olympics: "We want to win, not only for ourselves but to give pleasure to the public." Gwendal says "Marina has a very strong will. She is willing to do anything that will help us win. We have great chemistry, perhaps because we are very different." Marina is tempestuous; Gwendal more relaxed.

The skaters are trying to develop their own style, not copy other skaters. Marina enjoys the skating of Bestimianova and Bukin, while Gwendal prefers the Duchesnays, but they try not to model themselves on anyone else. Unlike some dancers, both skaters enjoy every dance, including the compulsories. "We have different feelings for every dance. Good dancers can find pleasure in every dance. We like the Silver Samba because we can have fun in it. The dance is too simple technically. It needs the interpretation we give it to make it something more. In some of the other compulsory dances, the steps make all the difference." Coach Murielle Boucher-Zazoui and choreographer Elena Matveeva have built upon the pair's love of Latin dances to create this year's free dance, a sassy combination of cha cha and samba to Xavier Cugat melodies, full of dazzling footwork and daring aerial moves. As a fiery temptress, Anissina entwines her lithe body around her partner, then twirls away, swishing her dress. In contrast, Marina is the picture of sweetness and innocence in a flowered print dress that they use for their exhibition program Kasatchock. But Gwendal wields a bullwhip at the beginning of the exhibition dance. Does he sense the burning desire within this tigress with whom he skates?

The couple has always been known for matching beautiful skating with gorgeous costumes. Last year's dark green quick step dress perfectly accentuated Marina's copper locks. This season, bright reds and oranges are the predominant color as the dancers emphasize the Latin theme. Although they use costume designers to bring their ideas to life on paper, the actual costumes are sewn by Marina's mother, Irina, and Gwendal's grandmother, Alice. "Since they are always with us, we can make adjustments and try different things that we can't do with a professional seamstress."

Marina is always focused on skating. Her off ice time is spent studying French so that she can become more proficient in the language of her adopted country. Gwendal, on the other hand, has more varied interests. He loves sports, skiing and climbing when he can, and "would like to try every sport." He's also an accomplished pianist and likes to play at the hotels when at competitions. A favorite gig is to play and sing along with the music of Supertramp.

As for professional skating careers, they have not really thought about it, although neither wants to coach. Peizerat is enrolled in business school and hopes to use his image from skating to get into professional work in sports marketing or a related field. Anissina has considered becoming a television commentator.

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