On Monday in Beijing, Madison Chock and Evan Bates will skate for the U.S. in the ice dancing free dance at the Winter Olympics. They competed with the same routine just about flawlessly on Feb. 7, winning the ice dancing free skate in the team event and helping the American team secure its silver medal therein. (That may be upgraded to a gold pending the outcome of the Kamila Valieva doping inquiry.) As the opening strains of a Daft Punk medley played for the routine, announcer Johnny Weir said, “This is a wonderfully theatrical free dance. Evan portrays the astronaut; Madison, the extraterrestrial.” Not your usual ice dancing narrative, but when you’re as good as Chock and Bates are, you can pretty much do whatever you want.
I’ve spent the past several years writing a book about aliens—about how we imagine them in science and in fiction, and what those conceptions say about how we understand being human. And this ice dancing routine has a lot to say about our visions of alien contact.
The pair starts with Chock standing with her arms crossed at the elbows, fingers splayed across her forehead—she evokes something mysterious and exotic, or perhaps the big head–pointy chin look of classic UFO voyagers. Bates is crouched a bit down-ice of her, looking placidly away into … well, into space. As the music begins and Chock undulates, Bates mimes opening an airlock door, and skating out into a spacewalk. It’s the closest we get to mime in the routine, literal rather than evocative. He looks around him with naïve wonder, but then locks eyes with Chock. She slithers her neck, he grasps her wrist, and four minutes, 15 seconds of push-and-pull, of lift-and-spin, of ice dancing, begins.
Would I know this was an alien and an astronaut if announcers (and giddy coworkers) hadn’t told me? Absolutely not. Bates wears a black jumpsuit with some slightly military piping;
Chock wears gray-purple sequins and gauze. One could make the case that the high neck of her costume is ridged a bit like a Klingon’s forehead. Her sleeves extend to full gloves, perhaps covering uncanny anatomy beneath. As she skates, her arms again and again form a large circle—evoking planets? Or wormholes? On the other hand, a lot of Earthly things are circular or spherical. Perhaps her big circle arms, spooky finger movements, and wiggly wrists are meant to represent some alien language of postures and signs. But without hints from the announcers, I’d probably guess that Chock was a witch seductress and Bates a young soldier; maybe the routine would read more like a very strange retelling of Macbeth.
At first, knowing this is an extraterrestrial story, you want a bit more pizzaz, a bit more alienness. Green skin, big black eyes, extra limbs. We have so much cultural iconography to indicate “aliens” that goes unexpressed here. You could say it’s to the pair’s credit that they don’t look like X-Files Extras on Ice, but what better place than ice dancing for that sort of camp? They’re skating to Daft Punk after all—could the astronaut not wear a helmet?
The little green men of UFO visitation manifest an easy vision of superintelligence, with oversized heads and atrophied bodies, an alternative pejorative to the immobile future humans of Wall-E. But accurately channeling those scrawny limbs would make for bad Olympians, so nix that idea, ice dancers. What about going weirder? The most alien aliens in human imagination are not only unhumanlike, but unlike any life we know on Earth. Think of the heptapods from Arrival: Seven limbs could give you some really good lift for a jump (though I know enough about ice dancing to know that jumping is not part of ice dancing). There’s also the xenomorph from Alien, whose monstrosity psychoanalyst Harvey Greenberg located in her unnaturalness: “It is a Linnean nightmare, defying every natural law of evolution; by turns bivalve, crustacean, reptilian, and humanoid.” Her slobber might create issues, though, for the ice.
What Chock and Bates give us instead is a different strain of alien story, one about likeness across distance, about searching for connection—the story in which the alien is (whispers) fuckable. I mean, you’ve gotta work within the constraints of your genre, and as a genre, ice dancing is really horny. But this sexy alien evokes not the horniness of consummation but that of lust and longing, of coming together and swirling apart, again and again, the tender holds and outstretched hands reaching and yearning. Alexandra Petri wrote in the Washington Post last week that ice dancing has enough romantic routines, and she cited Chock and Bates’ program as among those pushing the boundaries into other storylines. Petri’s argument was in service of telling some jokes, but I have to note: You can’t watch this routine and not see a romance.
But there is another possible interpretation. Perhaps it’s not literally sex that the routine’s astronaut and alien are after, but instead a more essential yearning: contact. This is what alien contact stories—Carl Sagan’s included—are about, after all: the desire to know the unknown, to connect with an impossibly strange stranger and find that they’re a person just like you. Or to find that they’re nothing like you, and to have your understanding of what a person (or intelligence, or biology) is thus expanded.
And so far, that’s not a yearning that humanity has gotten to consummate. We pop out of our metaphorical airlock just like Bates at the start of our routine, craning our heads in wonder at the vast universe newly accessible to our telescopes’ electronic ears and eyes. But unlike Bates on the ice, about to dance with the entrancing extraterrestrial, we still find ourselves in the cosmos alone.
Maybe the most poignant moments of the routine, then, to me, are the footwork sequences that have Chock and Bates skating separately in parallel. Part of what makes the team so good is the perfect unison in which they execute these sequences. The universe may be similarly full of alien life that’s eerily like life on Earth, but if so, thus far we’re just living our lives in parallel, obviously different but ineffably the same—just too far apart to touch.
Chock and Bates do eventually touch, coming back together again and again. Not just embracing each other but moving as one body through holds and lifts and spins, a unity we also hope for when we imagine an inhabited cosmos. And whether it’s first contact or romance or just the pleasure of moving through vast open space, it looks like it feels really good.