Sep. 19, 2016
This Weekend in Ice Dance: Lombardia Trophy, Russian Test Skate, and JGP Yokohama
We're not even halfway into September, and we have reached peak figure skating. In Italy, the Lombardia Trophy marked the beginning of the Challenger Series, a set of ten senior-level open-entry competitions that runs through the fall and early winter. Meanwhile, we're nearly halfway through the Junior Grand Prix series, with young skaters competing in front of a boisterous sold-out crowd in Yokohama, Japan. As if that weren't enough, Russia held its annual test skates this weekend; unlike many other powerhouse skating countries, Russia opens its test event to the public, and someone always manages to sneak in a video camera.
As a result of this bounty of figure skating excitement - most of which took place at ridiculous hours of early morning, Chicago time - I'm changing up the blog format this week and dividing my posts by discipline. This one is all about the ice dance, and I'll follow up with the men and the ladies later in the week. (If I find anything to say about pairs, I'll tack it onto one of the other posts.)
The Lombardia Trophy attracted some huge names in the other three disciplines, but its ice dance field was more modest. The headliners, Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte, withdrew shortly beforehand, leaving a roster of interesting mid-listers to duke it out. That actually made things more exciting. Less exciting was the incredibly glitchy live stream, which means that many of the available videos skip and freeze. Far be it from me to complain: free live streams are literally a gift to the fans, as are the screen captures of individual programs.
The biggest disappointment of the Lombardia Trophy, at least in dance, were Julia Biechler and Damian Dodge of the United States, who seemed like sure bets for a medal but instead struggled in their senior international debut. They're expressive skaters with great edge control, strengths reflected in their high components scores, but they couldn't quite execute the difficulty in their step sequences. As a result, they lost levels in what should have been their highest-scoring elements and settled for fourth place. Their performance was a reminder that missing turns in a dance step sequence can be as catastrophic, score-wise, as doubling jumps in the other disciplines.
On the brighter side of things, brand new British team Lilah Fear and Lewis Gibson overachieved mightily, showing rare confidence for this early point in the season and particularly nailing their lifts. I'm not embedding their free dance because one more rendition of "You Raise Me Up" will cause me brain damage, and frankly, their performance quality hasn't caught up to their technical ability yet. They have a nice natural chemistry, but they're still learning how to use it. Nonetheless, an international silver medal right out of the gate is a stamp of approval and a sign we'll be seeing a lot more of this team.
The winners, far and away, were Charlene Guignard and Marco Fabbri of Italy; their difficulty and polish were clearly a few orders of magnitude ahead of everyone else's. Still, I couldn't stop myself from nitpicking, mostly because their new free skate is odd, using familiar music from The Nutcracker but not reflecting the story or characters of one of the world's most recognizable ballets. Even the costumes are strange: why a dress covered in musical notes for music that would work better with ugly Christmas sweaters? That's all a matter of taste, obviously, but they also skate too far apart for a team at their level, with lots of open holds. On the other hand, their twizzles are phenomenal, with a particularly unique and difficult first set, and they form some beautiful body positions in their dance spin. During the rest of the season, if judges focus on technical triumphs like those, Guignard and Fabbri will be in the conversation more than ever, and deservedly so.
For my money, the most entertaining team at the event were Cecilia Törn and Jussiville Partanen, a Finnish duo who caught my eye at Worlds last year and continue to impress me with their performances, even if their technical ability isn't top tier yet. They've improved technically since last season, achieving maximum levels on their twizzles and lifts, although they strain visibly for those difficult positions. It's easy to ignore those wobbles, however, because they're such an engaging team. Their free dance, to offbeat chamber pop by Bjork and Woodkid, has been blocked due to copyright, which is tragic, because it's ethereal and strange in the best way. I'll settle for sharing their Rolling Stones short dance, which is full of energy and genuinely bluesy.
Russian Test Skate
Several of Russia's top dance teams had to sit out the test event. Elena Ilinykh and Ruslan Zhiganshin are recovering from an injury, and Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin were ill last weekend. It's too bad, because both are exciting teams to watch, and they benefit from the lower pressure of the test skate environment. Health problems for two top teams aren't a great sign for Russian ice dance as a whole: things have been unraveling for the past few years, and so far, their juniors have been overshadowed on the Junior Grand Prix circuit. (More on that in a minute.) Sure enough, there was plenty to enjoy about the new programs, but also some causes for concern.
Tiffany Zahorski and Jonathan Guerreiro looked like they were having a great time with their short dance. The blues section was so sultry it was borderline NSFW, with the flexible and expressive Zahorski slinking suggestively around Guerreiro. They also looked technically secure throughout the program, with great synchronization and knee bend in their pattern dances and a firecracker of a lift at the end. I'm not as big of a fan of their free dance, which gives them too little to work with emotionally. They looked slow and uncertain throughout. Lovely, light classical music is ideal for some teams, but it's a poor match for a duo that gets so much mileage out of high-energy sex appeal. Is it too late to give them a samba or something?
Viktoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov have half of a plausible tango. That half is Sinitsina, who lunged and smoldered, more artistically committed to a routine than I've ever seen her. Katsalapov, on the other hand, looked like one of those hapless classically trained boys on So You Think You Can Dance who gets eviscerated by Mary Murphy when he draws Latin ballroom for the week. They also have not fixed the problem in which they look like they are going to die during their twizzles. But their strength is in their step sequences, as fast and intricate as any in the sport, with stunning edges and smooth changes of upper body position.
Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev are back, with deep suntans and a strong case that they're still the best ice dance team in Russia. Their short dance is a lot of fun, with terrific commitment to the style of the music and smooth, fast movement throughout. I've watched a lot of labored ice dance over the past few days, and it's a pleasure to see a team that's so comfortable with their technical ability as well as their artistic personas. They performed beautifully in their free dance as well, although it's a bit incoherent, a mashup of Chopin and Vivaldi that doesn't quite meld and doesn't give them a clear enough narrative. Bobrova and Soloviev do best when they have characters to portray, and this program is so abstract, they don't shine as much as they need to.
Junior Grand Prix Yokohama
The ice dance results in Yokohama were far from a surprise, but with several of the most energetic and entertaining junior-level dance teams in this field, the predictability didn't get in the way. I'd hoped that two young North American teams, Emma Gunter and Caleb Wein of the United States and Seungyun Han and Grayson Lochhead of Canada, might climb the ranks unexpectedly. Both teams struggled with their twizzles in the free dance, but their biggest deficits came in program components. It looks like the judges just aren't seeing enough maturity or skating skills from either team yet. I disagree, but maybe I'm grading on potential rather than their execution at this particular meet. Either way, if these teams can stick together, they're likely to be something special in a couple of years. It was much the same story for Polina Ivanenko and Daniil Karpov, except that the young Russians were far more secure technically, executing fast, steady twizzles and finishing their free dance with a showstopper of a rotational lift.
Angelique Abachkina and Louis Thauron didn't have the same spark in Yokohama as they had two weeks earlier in St. Gervais. Maybe they got bogged down under the pressure of repeating their gold medal performances, or maybe it was just jet lag. At any rate, they're still speedy and stylish skaters with terrific twizzles, and in a less stacked field, they would have done better than bronze. Combined, the two medals are more than enough for a trip to the Junior Grand Prix Final, and hopefully they'll use the next three months to develop both their confidence and their technical difficulty. It might not be quite enough to rain on the parades of the dominant American teams, but they certainly have a shot at continuing their medal streak.
Anastasia Shpilevaya and Grigory Smirnov continued their ascent as rising stars of Russian ice dance with a strong silver-medal performance. They're technically adept across the board, but their twizzles are particularly amazing: they change from one difficult leg position to another in the first set, then adorn the other two sets with a beautiful arm variation. Between this team and Abachkina/Thauron, it looks like high-energy folk dance is making a comeback, and it's refreshing. Shpilevaya and Smirnov use the fast pace of their music to their advantage, proving they can keep up with the relentless speed and respond to the changes in mood. Sure, it's a little cheesy, but it's an ideal showcase for their abilities.
To no one's surprise, Americans Rachel and Michael Parsons dominated in Yokohama, winning by a tidy nine-point margin. If there was a surprise at all, it was that they beat the overall score that their training mates and friendly rivals, Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter, posted last week, if only by a few tenths of a point. It's easy to see why: aside from a small wobble on the twizzles in their free dance, their skating is more fluid and self-assured than McNamara and Carpenter's at this point in the season. Their free dance is a little strange, but it's similar to the lyrical pop programs that have been earning the judges' favor on the senior level. Choreographically, it highlights all their strengths as a team. They use their upper bodies more than any other dance team I can think of, and they stay so close together as they skate that their blades seem to almost touch. As they mature, they keep refining their sibling chemistry so it's warm but not uncomfortable. If they keep skating like this, they might pull ahead to become the top junior team in America, and therefore the world. That would be a plot twist worth watching out for.