This Weekend in Ice Dance Disasters: Nebelhorn Trophy, JGP Ljubljana, Russian Cup of Samara
The thing about ice dance disasters is that, in any other discipline, they'd be tiny mistakes. If a singles skater puts her foot down too early, she might lose a point or two in her grade of execution, but if an ice dancer does the same during a twizzle, the whole element goes down several levels, tanking the team's score. A minuscule timing error in a pattern dance can make a team miss all their checkpoints, knocking them down to a Level 1, while slow and out-of-sync footwork is almost the norm in pairs. Unless you watch an unhealthy amount of ice dance, you're probably mystified by why teams look like they want to drown themselves after what looked like a terrific performance.
Let's call the summary of this weekend's notable ice dance performances An Introduction to Screwing Up Your Dance.
This weekend's ice dance competition covered all of the major categories except for costume violations, which is to say, at least nobody's dress started shedding feathers and sequins. But just about anything else that could go wrong, did go wrong somewhere in Europe: at the Challenger Series Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany, the Junior Grand Prix Ljubljana in Slovenia, or a small Russian domestic competition in Samara. Most of these programs were enjoyable overall and had great moments, and I have plenty of positive things to say about them as well. Still, they provide a pretty thorough aggregate picture of where and why the deductions come in.
1. Don't Fall Down.
You'd think that "don't fall" would be rule #1 in figure skating, but in the other three disciplines, skaters frequently win despite a fall. In ice dance, however, falling will send a team tumbling down the ranks. Kavita Lorenz and Joti Polizoakis got a late start to the season after briefly splitting up over the summer, and it showed throughout their performance in Oberstdorf. For the first couple of minutes, it looked like Polizoakis was the weaker link, as he missed steps and turns that shaved levels off their serpentine step sequence. They managed to keep up the difficulty in their lifts and twizzles, but so-so grades of execution reveal that the judges saw uncertainty in those elements as well. The real killer, though, came in their diagonal step sequence, the last difficult element of their free dance. Step sequences in dance are deceptively hard, and the rewards for a great one can be huge; a level 4 diagonal step has a base value comparable to that of a quadruple jump. Lorenz's fall had the same effect on their score as when a men's skater doubles an intended quad, misses a planned combination, and falls. It's especially a shame because this free dance will be terrific when Lorenz and Polizoakis get a better handle on it. Many current teams look awkward in the realm of Latin dance, but Lorenz and Polizoakis have the ideal posture and chemistry for flamenco. They're on the roster for next weekend's Ondrej Nepela Memorial, another Challenger Series event, so they'll soon have another chance to prove they can get this right.
2. Don't Miss an Entire Element.
When I used to teach, I would frequently tell my students it was better to turn in a failing paper than to not turn one in at all. After all, you still get some points for an F, whereas a missed assignment is an automatic 0. It's the same with required elements in short programs: if you don't check one of the boxes, you get no points, even if what you did kind of resembled one of the requirements. In their short dance at JGP Ljubljana, Sofia Polishchuk and Alexander Vakhnov made the kind of freak error that keeps figure skating unpredictable. Their curve lift requires Polishchuk to stand on Vakhnov's boots, but as she went into it, she missed one of his feet. The tragedy of it is, they were great otherwise, better even than in their free dance, which contained no significant mistakes. The choreographic moves between their twizzles are unique and cool, and make their short program twizzles more difficult than the ones in their free dance. They skate close together and stay deep in the knee. It's also clear that they've spent the past month correcting the timing errors that got them in trouble with their pattern dance in St. Gervais. And they have two of the most adorable smiles in ice dance. With a bronze medal in St. Gervais and silver here, Polishchuk and Vakhnov will probably just miss the qualification threshold for the Junior Grand Prix Final this season, but watch out for them next fall - or sooner, if they bring their A game to Nationals.
3. Don't Do Lifts You Can't Get Out Of.
Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev have one of my favorite free dances of the season so far. I should be less surprised: they've always been a versatile and musical team, with edge control that makes me swoon. Maybe it's peer pressure getting me down, trying to convince me they shouldn't be my favorite Russian team, but there aren't many current ice dancers that can turn drab Chopin and overused Vivaldi into a unique, vibrant, and coherent free dance. They're especially adept at skating fast to slow music, maintaining the character and mood of the piece while subdividing the tempo to keep up their momentum. They're also one of the few top teams with seamless transitions and no Look At Us, About To Do A Lift moments. The two lifts in the second half of the program should be the biggest highlights, and while Bobrova is aloft, they are. Soloviev's speed during their rotational lift looks impossible, especially since Bobrova is upside-down, like a passenger on the world's most nausea-inducing amusement park ride, and yet both look graceful. The only problem is, she can't get down, and those stunning lifts devolve into awkward messes as Bobrova fights to keep her butt off the ice. At a low-stakes meet like the Russian Cup of Samara, which they were going to win by 60 points no matter what, it's no big deal. Internationally, however, they'll get destroyed for those lift exits, no matter how beautiful everything else is.
4. Don't Lose Track of Your Timing.
It's great to see Madison Chock and Evan Bates having fun. They've been in a stylistic rut since the 2014 Olympics - if not longer - and pop music has provided them with an avenue out. They haven't settled into their free dance yet, although the concept is one of the cooler things they've done as a team, set to a remix of David Bowie and Queen's "Under Pressure" that sends them through a range of emotional twists and turns. But it's the short dance where this team really cuts loose, and Chock in particular looks like she's thrilled to be let out of her cage. It's probably just good training, but I want to believe that her positive energy is what makes their lifts look so much smoother and more polished now than in the past. The one problem they haven't fixed yet is their tendency to get off rhythm in their steps. For the first time this season, the score sheets make the distinction between incorrect moves and timing errors in pattern dances, which is the kind of picayune distinction that only skaters, coaches, and extremely nerdy bloggers care about. Most of the top teams lost a level due to missed timing at the second checkpoint, but for me, it was easier to see that Chock and Bates were off. Their score suffered more from dropped levels in their partial step sequence, and on rewatch, it looks like the lost credit was a timing issue there as well, at least in part. Chock and Bates are capable of some of the world's most difficult ice dance moves, but they struggle with one of the discipline's requirements, which is to keep those movements synchronized with both the music and each other.
5. Don't Biff Your Twizzles.
Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter entered the season as the bulletproof heroes of juniors, but so far, they've fallen behind last season's accomplishments. In Ljubljana, they had a number of technical problems, all related to upgrades that they don't seem to have mastered yet. But the twizzles were their greatest nemesis. In their free dance, McNamara lost control completely, stepping out of her middle set and looking, for a moment, like she was too rattled to continue. They held it together much better in the short dance, but the judges rightly docked them for unsteady edges in their first set and a loss of synchronization in the second. I wonder if the lack of a third twizzle set hurt them as well. In any case, McNamara and Carpenter have looked nervous and overwhelmed every time they've attempted this short dance, even though it features the kind of angular, menacing choreography that should be in their wheelhouse. At their best moments, they're still clearly a cut above other juniors, skating with incredible speed and moving smoothly from one element to the next. Despite their technical struggles, their components scores stayed high in reflection of those top-notch fundamental skills. But pretty will only get you so far if your elements are out of whack. It was a rough weekend to be a fan of this team, but no one took it harder than McNamara; in the kiss & cry after the free skate, she looked like she was about to boil over with rage at herself.
6. Don't Weird Out the Judges.
I knew from the moment they announced it that Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier would have one of my favorite blues/swing short dances, in a season crowded with short dances that are up my alley. For reasons that I'm sure make sense in a conference room in Switzerland, disco counts as a form of swing dance according to the ISU, giving the most offbeat team in elite ice dance carte blanche to paste on a tacky mustache and "Burn, baby, burn." Technically, the judges had to hand them this one, because it's hard to argue with the difficult, distinctive leg positions in their twizzles or the speed in their rotational lift. But some judges can't get aboard the Gilles/Poirier irony train, and a few assigned them components marks below an 8, surprisingly low for a team with such a strong resume. They narrowly beat Chock and Bates in their technical marks, but their components score held them under. In contrast, their tango free dance doesn't play to their artistic strengths nearly as much, and they seem to be reaching for a type of chemistry that doesn't come naturally to them. But it's a more conventional ice dance program, and accordingly, there was much less dissent among the judges. The overall tide of ice dance is shifting toward innovation, but Gilles and Poirier consistently pay the price for dancing on the edge.
7. Don't Let It Get Messy.
I am including this program because I enjoy it so much that I refuse to skip it, but at the same time, I understand why it was only good enough for 5th place. Ashlynne Stairs and Lee Royer get a ton of artistic mileage out of the breezy psychedelia in their Beatles medley, and they're the rare junior-level team with enough personality to pull off turquoise and magenta tie-dye. Their happy energy goes a long way toward disguising the fundamentals that still need a lot of work. They're substantially slower than the teams at the very top, and they rely more on open holds that make it easier to control their edges and see where they're going. Technically, their content is as challenging as any - like the Russians ahead of them, they got level 4s for their lifts, twizzles, and spin - but their execution isn't as clean. For instance, the rotational lift near the end of the program is almost a showstopper, except that Stairs doesn't extend her legs far enough into a split position, and Royer visibly struggles to manage his turns while keeping her aloft. There's no cure for these disadvantages but practice. The good news is, Stairs and Royer have shown how immense their potential is, and they'll have at least one more junior season to cash in on it.
8. Don't Forget Your Chemistry.
In theory, Anastasia Skoptcova and Kirill Aleshin gave the best overall performances at JGP Ljubljana. In practice, two teams with significant technical errors outscored them. The difference was all in the execution, but their limitations differ from the ones that Stairs and Royer are facing. Skoptcova and Aleshin have all their underlying skills in place: the speed, the deep and coordinated edges, the close and difficult positions. But in their most challenging technical elements, they're the slightest bit off, and that slight lack of synchronization can be fatal in ice dance. Their rotational lift, for example, is spectacular once it gets going, but Aleshin seems to struggle to find Skoptcova's center of gravity as he raises her into position. Their twizzles are crisp, with secure turns, but their leg positions frequently don't match. It's like they're skating on two separate rinks sometimes. You don't need smoldering romantic chemistry to succeed in ice dance, but you do need some kind of emotional connection, and it's not just about performance. The judges pick up on a team that's not communicating effectively, and that hurts components like Transitions as well as Interpretation. Both Skoptcova and Aleshin are fantastic ice dancers, but one of the toughest thing about dance is that you're in it together.
9. Don't Take Any Choreographic Risks.
This season, most of the senior teams are using the hip hop/swing short dance rhythms as a license to experiment, and many seem to be responding to criticisms that last year's free dances were stultifyingly same-y. Not Italy's Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte, though. These two have a shtick that works for them, and although their music challenges it here and there, they've chosen to stay comfortable. So far, that's working out, as evidenced by their gold medal at the Nebelhorn Trophy. Unlike the other top-level skaters in Oberstdorf, Cappellini and Lanotte were free of visible missteps, although they got Level 3s on every step sequence in both programs, so the judges caught a few things out of place. Their twizzles, however, are fast and centered, and their lifts are dramatic, although Lanotte struggles to keep his free leg aloft during their curve lift. It does seem like choreographic consistency has allowed this team to focus on the technical side, but the drawback is, it doesn't win you a ton of love from the fans. Cappellini and Lanotte gave the most impressive performances of the weekend, but they also provided fewer memorable artistic moments than almost anyone else.
10. Don't Be New.
This time last year, I was mostly expressing doubt about Elliana Pogrebinsky and Alex Benoit. They seemed like minor lights an unusually talented crop of American ice dancers, unable to match the dominant results achieved by the Parsons siblings or McNamara and Carpenter, and less innovative as well. This season, it's clear that they took those deficits as challenges, and over the summer, they've narrowed the gap technically and all but erased it artistically. Plus, they took a leap that the other Americans their age were unwilling to risk, making the jump to seniors even though they're still junior-eligible. From their results this weekend, it's clear that they've made a smart strategic choice. They placed fourth, with their scores on an island by themselves: 20 points out of 3rd place, but 15th points ahead of 5th. From a technical standpoint, however, they were closer to the head of the pack, especially in the short dance, where their technical score was only 3 points behind the leaders'. Pogrebinsky and Benoit also achieved something that none of the medalists could: they earned a perfect level 4 on their pattern dance. And they did it with an Elvis swagger and an infectious sense of fun.
Despite putting down some of the most dynamic performances of the weekend, they lagged far behind on program components, with a few judges assigning them brutally low marks - one of the judges assigned them a 5.50 for Transitions in their free dance, compared to an 8.75 from the same judge for Cappellini and Lanotte. The Italians are smoother and more intricate skaters, to be sure, but the difference isn't that huge. Rather, the judges' stinginess toward Pogrebinsky and Benoit starts to look like an old-fashioned "Who the heck are you?" tax. It will probably take a full season of strong performances to rectify that, not to mention some serious training of the fundamental skills that force even the most cynical judges to pay attention to young teams. Pogrebinsky and Benoit have some natural advantages in that respect: not only charisma and musicality, but beautiful knee bend and, in Pogrebinsky's case, exceptional flexibility. If they'd competed at the Lombardia Trophy or U. S. International Classic instead of at Nebelhorn, they'd already have a Challenger Series medal. It'll be interesting to see where they stand at the end of this season.