It was always like this for Mark Pillay, from the time he was a child in Moose Jaw, Sask.: the music would come on, and he would find structure in it. He would move. He would design in the air, a kid who had more fun with form and feelings than face values.

It was always like this for Mark Pillay, from the time he was a child in Moose Jaw, Sask.: the music would come on, and he would find structure in it. He would move. He would design in the air, a kid who had more fun with form and feelings than face values.

He just didn’t know that that sort of thing would become his life’s work. Now the 35-year-old Canadian is a choreographer with a growing reputation on the world stage. He’s responsible for the cheeky short program and the emotional free skate that put Kirsten Moore-Towers and Dylan Moscovitch squarely in the mix as a top world team last season, and others, such as Emanuel Sandhu, Richard Dornbush, German pair silver medalists Mari Vartman and Aaron Van Cleave, budding U.S. star Karen Chen and young Canadian virtuoso Roman Sadovsky.

Back in Moose Jaw, Pillay was lured into skating by a neighbour, Jana Beasley, who he says is totally responsible for his involvement in figure skating and piano. They became a dance team, but when she grew, and Pillay did not, he focused on men’s singles. At the same time, he’d invite the neighbours over to watch his choreographic creations in the living room, the trampoline, the pool. In Saskatchewan, he trained with Betty Calvert, the wife of then premier Lorne Calvert and with Dale Hazell, then later in Calgary with Sharon Lariviere, who taught him about the aesthetics of the sport and dance, and finally in Vancouver with Joanne McLeod. Pillay finally bowed out of competition after the 2001 Canadian championships in Winnipeg, dissatisfied with a skating career that quite hadn’t brought him what he envisioned. His body couldn’t keep up with his visions. Now he feels a catharsis at helping others do what he could not. 

Those post-competition years were hard. Most skaters can attest to it. “I was definitely lost for a little while,” Pillay said. The son of a South African born father and a British mother, Pillay went to university at Simon Fraser University, but squirmed, because he wasn’t used to sitting still for so long. To solve that problem, he started studying contemporary dance at university.
He still hung around rinks, and there’s value in that. That’s where his friends were. Those were the people he knew. One day, while he was moving around to music, a parent, Jan McRae, skated up to him and asked him if he’d be interested in choreographing routines for her son, Joshua. Because this novice skater could already do some triples, Pillay started at the relatively high end of the sport.

“From that day, it just never stopped,” PIllay said. “It wasn’t something I chose. It was, oddly, something that kind of found me.”

He was only a couple of years into his new career, when he choreographed a long program for Emanuel Sandhu – and it was the 2006 Olympic season, a huge responsibility. Pillay was amazed at Sandhu’s visual acuity for movement. “He would just look at me [doing a choreographic movement], he wouldn’t even move and he would know exactly how to do it right away,” Pillay said. “I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone like that. He could pick up movement very quickly and it wasn’t by mimicry. He would just watch it, and he could do it.”

Already Pillay was demonstrating his trademark: finding music for students that no one had ever heard before. He found Sandhu’s music when he was doing a repertory dance class at the university. The music used so intrigued Pillay that he asked his professor if he could use the music for a skater. The prof told him that it was an original piece of music written by Gordon Cobb, a Vancouver composer and he’d have to get permission from him.

In the end, Pillay got the music for Sandhu (he won two Grand Prix events with it) but he forged an even more important relationship with Cobb, now the wind beneath Pillay’s wings. Cobb now edits all of Pillay’s music choices – and at times, the young choreographer has offered up very complicated musical instructions.

“The music editing process is very vital,” said Pillay, who learned everything about it from Cobb. “It’s where all the structure comes for the layout of the elements.”

Pillay says he lays out the entire choreography of a program in his head before he goes in to cut the music. How complicated can it get? For Moore-Towers and Moscovitch’s breakout season, they skated to “Les Miserables” and the edit had 25 cuts in it. “To cut music 25 times in four minutes and make it sound cohesive: that’s where the complications lie,” Pillay said.

Pillay’s biggest breakthrough as a choreographer came – not from Sandhu’s performances – but from a free skate he designed for B.C. skater Keegan Murphy, who he used to compete against at the junior level. The program, by French music composer Yann Tiersen for a German tragicomedy film that won acclaim in Europe, became “like a lightning rod,” Pillay said. “It was the moment that people saw what I could really bring to the table. I really believe it’s the program that changed everything.”

Murphy said he skated to the same routine for two seasons, in 2005 and 2006 at the senior men’s level – and with it he got his best results, a ninth at the national level. “It was a different approach to program components,” said Murphy, now programs director at the Connaught Skating Club in Vancouver. “It was eclectic. I still remember it….It was unpredictable. Nobody had ever heard this music before.”

Murphy said for the first time, he skated to music that he could connect with. It was passionate, emotional and on the sensitive side. Now Pillay choreographs for two national students that Murphy has trained: Mitchell Gordon and Larkyn Austman.

Pillay was asked to choreograph a program for Moscovitch when he skated with his sister, Kyra, by coach Kris Wirtz, who spied the transplanted Vancouverite when he was in Kitchener-Waterloo, doing routines for the synchronized team, Nexxice. When Kyra retired, Pillay became the only choreographer for Moore-Towers and Moscovitch.

“He is an absolute gem,” Moore-Towers said.”

“We love him,” Moscovitch said. “He has really put his heart and soul into working with us and truly cares about our career.” Pillay has worked with them for so long, he considers them friends.

When he presented them music from the French language film “Micmac,” both skaters thought: “Really?” Moore-Towers admitted she hated it. “I can’t skate to this,” she thought. “It’s awful.”

“But as we started to choreograph it and then everything started to come together, I realized he knows what he’s doing. He had a vision.”

Pillay said the music was meant as a tribute to the feistiness of female pair skaters: in the choreography, Moore-Towers rules the roost. “It’s a play on the man-woman relationship,” he said.

Despite his growing presence on the scene, Pillay still walks among us anonymously. Most people don’t know what he looks like. He is often mistaken for Sandhu or perhaps Ravi Walia. He rarely attends competition. He’s met Lori Nichol and David Wilson only briefly. Choreographers live in isolation.

“The coaching world has colleagues that they get to talk to things about, but as a choreographer, you are really on your own,” Pillay said. “It’s rare that I’m around another choreographer. It’s a world you navigate alone and you figure out alone and you kind of stumble along and you learn alone.”

But it seems that Pillay is doing it plenty well. He’s getting busier by the day.

Beverley Smith