May. 23, 2015
Skate America 2016 Pairs and Ice Dance Recap: Level 4 Naptime
Hold onto your hats, because I might have more to say about pairs than dance at Skate America. Even the avid ice dance fans in my loud and inappropriate clique of seat-mates acknowledged that it was an unusually boring dance competition. There were a number of reasons behind it: an obvious favorite with no serious challengers, little overlap between the most technically accomplished teams and the most entertaining, and lots of stodgy free dances. In fact, if the competition had been skated in reverse, with the free dance first and the short dance on Sunday afternoon when we were all about to die of skating fatigue, I might remember it as a more energetic event.
Pairs, on the other hand, was unpredictable and full of creativity, with a big shuffle in the ranks between the short program and free skate. The World medalists assigned to Skate America, China's Wenjing Sui and Cong Han, are out of the Grand Prix while she recovers from surgery, which opened the field. It was also an unusually young field for pairs, especially at the top, and a diverse group in terms of style. Besides, pairs is much more dramatic in person than on a screen, because the camera usually pulls in too close to show how high the lifts and throws are. Sitting in the arena is the only way to really see them soar.
I had high hopes for several teams that failed to impress at Skate America. We're all still waiting for Marissa Castelli and Mervin Tran to give the performance that proves they're more than the sum of their parts. For now, they're a mess, especially in the jump department. France's Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres - a team so aesthetically pleasing that everyone I spoke to this weekend, regardless of sexual orientation, rhapsodized about their beauty - followed through on their plans to attempt a throw quadruple salchow, with disastrous results. Watching them practice, it was clear this wasn't going to go well, and sure enough, James tumbled in the free skate. They got full rotation credit for the jump, but that's a cold comfort for a team that suffered two other falls and missed out on a medal. Cipres was so upset that he stormed out of the kiss and cry. It appeared that they'd patched things up in time for the gala, at least.
While James and Cipres aimed for the stars, Russia's Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov kept their content conservative, banking on the likelihood that simple, clean performances would keep them ahead of the inconsistent field. During the practice sessions, they looked like they had the gold medal sewn up, showing off a strong artistic connection as well as technical excellence. That continued into their short program, which earned the highest score of the night by an eight-point margin. Their upbeat, electro-swing short program would have been a crowd-pleaser even with an error or two, but they outdid themselves with a flawless skate. The biggest reward came for their enormous triple twist, which earned near-perfect grades of execution. Sadly, they couldn't capitalize on their big lead in the free skate. Instead of sticking with their trusty triple twist, they attempted a quad. Tarasova was still rotating as she reached Morozov's arms, and he couldn't catch her. The fall threw them off for the rest of the program, and they missed both of their side-by-side jumping passes. The damage was so severe that it dropped them to 3rd place overall. As exciting as it would be to see them shoot for that quad until they get it right, the risk might not be worth it this season.
US National Champions Tarah Kayne and Danny O'Shea had the opposite trajectory from the Russians, placing dead last in the short program after a bungled triple twist and a fall on their throw triple lutz that put tears in Kayne's eyes. In the free skate, however, they redeemed themselves. The third-place free skate was only enough to pull them up to sixth overall, but it was a moral victory, a demonstration that their performance at Nationals wasn't an isolated incident. They placed their throw triple lutz way too close to the edge of the rink, and Kayne's thud as she slid into the boards rattled the risers. But they were terrific otherwise, earning top levels for their lifts and step sequence, and landing a beautifully synchronized side-by-side triple salchow. Their choreography and styling is a bit odd - those costumes don't say "Marche Slave" to me - but it gives both of them opportunities to shine artistically, which is important for a team with such a charismatic male half.
The only pairs team that achieved anything resembling consistency at Skate America was Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier, who placed second in both segments on the way to an overall silver medal. They're no strangers to the Skate America podium - they won silver in 2014 as well - but somehow, their success was as big of a surprise this time as it was two years ago. We all seem to forget that they're former World Junior champions, too, a rare achievement for an American pairs team. They did stumble a bit in their free skate, making errors on their side-by-side jumps, although they made up for it with giant, clean throw jumps and high grades of execution on their lifts. Their side-by-side triple salchow vexed them in the short program as well, but they were spectacular otherwise. More than any individual element, their speed and synchronization stood out from the rest of the field, with step sequences and connecting moves that often looked more like ice dance than pairs.
In the end, the competition belonged to Julianne Seguin and Charlie Bilodeau of Canada. After missing their side-by-side jumps in the short program, they looked furious, and despite their sweet demeanor, it was clear they were out for blood as they warmed up for their free skate. Their thirst for redemption worked wonders. It's rare to see an error-free pairs free skate, and a delight to see one so early in the season. Bilodeau made Seguin look weightless in the air, and both timed their jumps perfectly. I don't love this program for them; it's too fussy and overwrought for a young team with a natural lightheartedness to their skating. But they finessed it, gazing seriously into each other's eyes - until their final spin, when Bilodeau couldn't help but grin.
There were lots of complaints about the dull inevitability of the dance field at Skate America, and indeed, Maia and Alex Shibutani would have had to screw up royally in order to do anything but win. Still, the rest of the podium wasn't quite what I expected, and the rankings lower down included further upsets and curiosities. But the free dances were all too much of a type, packed with over-serious lyricism. They suffered in comparison with the men's free skates that had come just before: Shoma Uno's smoldering tango owed more to the ballroom tradition than any of the free dances, while Jason Brown and Adam Rippon evoked contemporary dance styles with more flair and originality. When the boys are landing quads and out-dancing the ice dancers, there's a fundamental imbalance in the universe.
Many of the most entertaining ice dance teams fell into the lower ranks. Kana Muramoto and Chris Reed of Japan don't have the technical chops to keep up with the top of the field, but they were the only team to brave a Latin rhythm, a fun and flirtatious tango. Elliana Pogrebinsky and Alex Benoit, the young American team who have made giant strides in their move up to seniors, received little love from the judges on their step sequence levels and got utterly tanked on program components - especially frustrating to me because their Elvis Presley short dance is one of my favorite things on the ice this season. Elena Ilinykh and Ruslan Zhiganshin tried to liven up the proceedings with a Bollywood free dance, but their rushed and imprecise steps took a toll on their scores. Isabella Tobias and Ilia Tkachenko, of Israel, got more attention for Tobias's backless white catsuit than for their actual skating, despite a daring hip hop/blues short dance and an elegant free dance that channeled classic ballet choreography.
Tobias and Tkachenko's Nutcracker was far more satisfying than Charlene Guignard and Marco Fabbri's, which tried and failed to do something abstract with music that reminds everyone of Christmas. Solid technical content brought the Italians great free dance scores, but for me, their short dance was the winner. Grease is a clever choice for a blues/swing program, especially because they performed the blues section to one of the musical's best songs, "There Are Worse Things I Could Do." It's a side of their skating we don't get to see much, and they pull it off a lot better than the pretentious, high-concept free dances they've selected for the past few years. Some of their technical elements need work - their step sequences, in particular, don't achieve the intricacy they need to contend with the top teams - but their twizzles went around like, well, greased lightning.
Russia's Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev also plodded in the free dance. Taken by itself, their abstract classical free dance is lovely, especially at the end, when it bursts into a familiar violin riff from Vivaldi's Four Seasons. But in a long afternoon of similar stuff, and with difficulty maintaining speed during their step sequences, the program didn't live up to its potential. Their bronze-medal finish was a letdown after the sexiest short dance of the event. Low levels on their steps are a serious problem - it's bad when I can identify your missed pattern dance checkpoints without the aid of slo-mo - but their twizzles gave even the Shibutanis a run for their money. Many of the other veteran dance teams have stagnated technically, so it's promising to see Bobrova and Soloviev pushing themselves forward. But they'll have to actually execute their upgrades if they want to do better than bronze.
Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue's silver medal was kind of a miracle, but it was a well-deserved one. Their programs are strange this year: a mishmash of Bar Mitzvah favorites for their short dance, and a medley of maudlin lost-love songs for their free. Game as they are, it's all a bit much. Fortunately, their technical content was right on point in the free dance, with maximum levels on almost everything; they tied the Shibutanis for highest technical base value and earned giant execution bonuses on every element. Their lifts were particularly stunning, with seamless transitions in and out. I just wish their program were less of a downer, not only because the sulky break-up songs seem to drag on forever, but because the slow music makes their speed and precision look less impressive than it really is.
Also slow-dancing their way to glory were Maia and Alex Shibutani, who confirmed their status as the top American ice dance team by not just winning, but defeating the silver medalists by a ten-point margin. Their programs this season are more conservative and less iconic than last year's, though. It's understandable that their strategy for this season is to defend rather than innovate, but it's still a bit of a bummer. In any other season, their short dance - which transitions from Frank Sinatra's "That's Life" to a sample by Jay Z - would be the height of creativity, but with so many teams taking clever approaches to the hip hop rhythm, it got lost in the shuffle for me. Their free dance, to a delicate, minimalist Arvo Pärt piece, is a more left-field choice, but the simple music leaves them nowhere to hide. It's a program that takes a few views to get your head around, which is why I was so underwhelmed when I watched it in practice but mesmerized when I saw them compete it. As always, their twizzles were the highlight, fast and controlled, gliding from one difficult body position to the next. They earned a perfect score for those twizzles, verifying that when it comes to ice dance's showiest element, the Shibutanis literally could not be better.