May. 04, 2016
10 Best Ice Dance Performances of the 2015-16 Figure Skating Season
This was one of the most exciting seasons of ice dance I can remember. In the fall, it looked like the veterans would have their revenge, with Chock and Bates, Weaver and Poje, and Cappellini and Lanotte making strong showings in the Grand Prix. But by spring, the young upstarts had taken over, proving once and for all that nobody has to "wait their turn" to stand on the podium in ice dance anymore. Meanwhile, the Russians mostly imploded - except in Juniors, where they provided the only real threat to two dominant American teams. Throughout the season, teams shuffled in the rankings between the short dance and free dance. Often, one minor stumble or loss of synchronization was all it took to kick a favored team out of the running.
Despite all this excitement and unpredictability, it was hard for me to come up with ten standout programs by ten different teams. Many top teams had trouble executing their difficult elements, making it hard to find a program clean enough to celebrate. And lots of this season's programs were just plain boring. Choreographers got creative with the required waltz, march, and foxtrot rhythms in the short dance, matching the assigned tempos with everything from rock to ballet. When it came to free dances, though, most teams played it devastatingly safe, competing programs that were forgettable even when they were technically perfect. The two singles disciplines provided such an embarrassment of riches that I had a tough time winnowing down to fifteen; ice dance, as much as I love the discipline in general, made me want to count my top five twice. I'm glad I pushed past that, though, because all ten of these skates are terrific, and several took place at competitions you might have missed.
This is where I remind you that "best of season" lists are subjective, your mileage may vary, and it is possible I have left off your favorite skaters. Several of my own favorite teams weren't quite inspiring enough to make the cut. It was that kind of ice dance season. In alphabetical order, here are ten teams whose performances I didn't forget the instant the music stopped:
Ekaterina Bobrova & Dmitri Soloviev (Russia), European Championships free dance
It's a shame that Bobrova and Soloviev's season was cut short by the doping scandal, and I hope that Bobrova is one of the athletes given amnesty. The silver lining is that she and Soloviev ended their season on this high note. They set the tone with their twizzles, perfectly timed to the music, and a straight line lift that made Bobrova look like she was floating upside down. Rather than trying to reinvent the Anna Karenina soundtrack or force it to conform to ice dance cliches, Bobrova and Soloviev skated like they'd done the reading, condensing a thousand pages of realist fiction into four minutes. It was the least gimmicky free dance of the season, rewarding a knowledgeable audience and wrapping up with a killer final pose.
Penny Coomes & Nicholas Buckland (Great Britain), World Championships free dance
Other teams might have posted higher scores, but few left as big of an impression in the free dance at Worlds as Coomes and Buckland. Technically, they were at the top of their game, with level 4s for all their elements. Their components scores were justifiably a bit too low for the podium - they resort to open holds and speed-building moves a little too often - but their performance set them apart more than any lift or twizzle. In a season when many teams attempted technical innovation to dull or conservative music, Coomes and Buckland juxtaposed symphonic stadium rock with classic ballroom style. The effect was mesmerizing, and not just because Coomes's dress was hands down the most beautiful skating costume of the season.
Piper Gilles & Paul Poirier (Canada), World Championships short dance
Gilles and Poirier's absolute best performance of this short dance might have been in the Monday evening practice session, a couple of days before they competed it for the first and only time. It might have just been the element of surprise, as they'd transformed their conceptually cool but incoherent earlier program into a trippy, boisterous Beatles medley. Regardless, this was still genius in competition, vaulting them temporarily ahead of a team of former World Champions as well as their chief rivals from south of the border. In pop music, the Beatles brought hallucinogenic weirdness to the mainstream, and the music choice allowed Gilles and Poirier to do the same. They're playful and connected throughout, and it made athletic achievements like their stunning rotational lift look all the more dramatic.
Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue (USA), Four Continents Championships short dance
To be the third-best ice dance team in the United States, you have to be very good indeed. Hubbell and Donohue provided a stunning reminder of that fact at this season's Four Continents. I'm hard pressed to think of a current team with a more intense emotional connection than these two, and their short dance choreography capitalized on that, placing them nearly nose to nose so they could smolder until the ice melted. This performance was a huge technical achievement as well, with tons of difficult arm variations in their perfectly synchronized twizzles and remarkable speed through their steps. Above all, though, this program is a perfect example of a team staying true to their unique style while capturing the feel of the required dance rhythms.
Natalia Kaliszek & Maksim Spodirev (Poland), Nestle Torun Cup free dance
If you'd asked me in the autumn to guess which team would break out from the pack in their debut Senior season, I never would have picked these two. But as last year's other top Juniors split, faced growing pains, or delayed their graduation to the big leagues, Kaliszek and Spodirev showed up stylish and confident. They were never better than at this small winter international meet, which they won with a set of career-best scores. Electronic dance music isn't an obvious choice for a competitive free dance, but they make an argument for it as a genre, selling every beat and glitch with their expressive faces. They also have knee flexibility to die for, which they show off in a dance spin and rotational lift that are two of my favorite ice dance moves of the season. I can't wait to see how they'll develop in the future.
Lorraine McNamara & Quinn Carpenter (USA), Junior Grand Prix Final free dance
At the Junior level, McNamara and Carpenter swept the field, winning every major competition they entered, often without seeming to break a sweat. Although they earned higher scores at Nationals and Junior Worlds, they never performed better than at the Grand Prix Final. Already in character when they skated to their marks for their opening pose, they never broke, as if possessed by the spirit of Carmen. In a season when almost everyone else set that particular warhorse aside, they reinvented a classic, avoiding obvious music cuts and ramping up to a brutal finish. Everything is perfectly synchronized, from their twizzles to tiny choreographic beats. No team makes me more excited for the future of ice dance.
Gabriella Papadakis & Guillaume Cizeron (France), World Championships free dance
Was there any doubt that they had it in the bag? If so, it disappeared after their first rotational lift, that absurdly beautiful thing where he does a two-footed sit spin while holding her perpendicular to his body so it looks like she's suspended in air. I could go on about their technical elements, from the high catch-foot position in their twizzles to the low cantilever in which Cizeron somehow holds an edge for most of the length of the rink while flipping Papadakis like a pancake. The judges certainly couldn't get enough: Papadakis and Cizeron earned maximum levels on all eight required technical elements, with perfect grades of execution on five. But it's more fun to step back and enjoy the beauty and emotional intensity of their performance. They made TD Garden feel like a cathedral, and they made believers out of everyone in that arena.
Rachel Parsons & Michael Parsons (USA), World Junior Championships short dance
The Parsons have spent much of their career as second bananas: not quite as accomplished as McNamara and Carpenter, and, as a sibling team, always in the shadow of the Shibutanis as well. At Junior Worlds, however, they had their moment, not only edging out their friendly rivals but earning the highest Junior-level short dance score of the season. While other sibling teams have turned believable chemistry into an insurmountable obstacle, the Parsons seem to take their programs as an opportunity to express the relationship they do have. Instead of Prince Charming chasing Cinderella, they're a prince and princess dancing side by side. They skate amazingly close together, with the kind of mutual trust that you can only build if you've known each other since birth. They also got a big payoff here for placing a tough twizzle sequence at the end of the program, making a big finish out of their showiest move.
Maia Shibutani & Alex Shibutani (USA), Four Continents Championships free dance
The Shibutanis rose to the top in epic fashion this season, and they were never better than in their gold medal performance at Four Continents. It had been one thing to win Nationals, a few weeks earlier, but here, they proved to international judges that they're the best ice dancers in North America. Their programs resonated with fans, too: in an informal poll that went around Tumblr earlier this year, their Coldplay free dance was mentioned more than any other as fans' favorite program of the season in any discipline. Its message of perseverance and mutual support pushed the artistic and emotional limits of ice dance. It would have been inspiring in any season, but this year, with most teams retreading familiar ground, the Shibutanis were a revelation. Once they'd grabbed us all by the heart, their twizzles - always the best in the sport - became even more impressive. The Shibutanis have found their voice, and it's beautiful.
Anastasia Shpilevaya & Grigory Smirnov (Russia), Youth Olympic Games free dance
Here's one way to raise your difficulty off the bat: lose a piece of your costume in the opening moments of your free dance and expertly skate around that deadly wad of fabric for the next three and a half minutes. Shpilevaya and Smirnov did more than navigate that treachery; they won the whole event by a stunning margin and went from virtual unknowns to the future of Russian ice dance. Rather than breaking new ground with their choreography, they opted for a simple, sweet interpretation of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, lending the familiar music a lightness and youthfulness. They also busted out some cool technical moves, like a rotational lift in which she loops her knee around his skating leg as he spins. Watch them now, and a few years down the road, you can say you were a fan from the start.