Skate America 2016: Highlights from Ice Dance, Mens, and Ladies

Since I attended Skate America in person, I thought I’d share some of my personal highlights/impressions from ladies, men, and ice dance. No scoring analysis here; just some opinions, based on seeing the competition live!

Ladies

The ladies event was particularly interesting because it featured three of my favorite skaters: Mao Asada, Gracie Gold, and Ashley Wagner. What a treat to see all three of these ladies in one event. And with Skate America being a much smaller competition than Worlds, I felt like I could really focus on them more here than I could in Boston at Worlds.

As at Worlds, Mao Asada was the highlight of the ladies’ event for me. It’s not an overstatement to say that I savored every moment of watching her practice and compete in Chicago. Now in the twilight of her career, I know we don’t have much longer to enjoy Mao’s presence on competitive ice, so it was special to see her in what could be her last competition in the U.S. (unless she’s assigned to Skate America next year).

Mao almost transcends competition at this point. She is figure skating, in many ways–for me. Her flow and glide on the ice, the light touch of her blades, her inherent gracefulness, her restraint and yet maximization of each position she holds—all these are rare qualities in ladies’ skating these days. I struggle for words to express what her skating means to me. One of the highlights of the whole event was watching Mao’s long program practice the first day. She just marked her jumps, but the program was stunning. The moment when she hit her spiral was just so beautiful. And her step sequence was musical, so satisfying. I hurried to the arena without coffee(!!) on Sunday morning just to enjoy her skating one more time.

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Mao in practice at Skate America:  Simple, beautiful  (Harry How/Getty Images North America)

Unfortunately, Mao did struggle a lot with the jumps in her competitive programs at Skate America. It made me sad, as her skating is so wonderful in other ways. There is much speculation, but no real confirmation, that she’s suffering from knee and/or back problems and isn’t able to do as many run-throughs as she wants. The reality is that if Mao can’t do the triple Axel or a reliable triple/triple in the short program, she will be buried every time, as she was here. I saw her land a number of 3F/3Lps in practice, so clearly she can do this combination. But in competition, she backs off to the safer 3F/2Lp. I understand, but the cold fact is that she just isn’t competitive technically with the 3F/2Lp. I don’t know what the answer is, but she’ll have to find one, or face competitive irrelevancy. Perhaps due to worry over this technical issue, I felt that Mao was a bit restrained in her competitive SP in Chicago. It was lovely, but to me, it didn’t have quite the freedom it did in practice or at Finlandia.

Mao also struggled with jumps in her LP, but this program is so beautiful and exciting to me that I didn’t even care. It’s my favorite-ever program from Mao. The music, choreography, and costume are all gorgeous and just an amazing showcase for her talent. I loved every moment of the LP, and especially of course, the stunning step sequence at the end—just so much better, more original, and better performed, than any ladies’ step sequence in recent memory. As Jackie Wong said on Twitter, I would love to watch Mao do 4 minutes of nothing but step sequences (if she could manage it). She is the queen of the step sequence, surely one of the best ever at this element.

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Mao’s stunning long program  (Tasos Kasopodis/Getty Images North America)

Well, I guess I should talk about the other ladies. Ashley Wagner was also, obviously, terrific to watch at this event. Her Sweet Dreams short program was classic Ashley: Dramatic, sexy, funky, in your face, and FUN. No one today does these kinds of programs better than Ashley Wagner. You could make an argument that this program isn’t exactly a stretch for her, and doesn’t show any new range. And I would give you that argument. But the fact is, it doesn’t matter. Ashley has found a formula that works for her in the short program (always her nemesis in the past): Skate to music she enjoys, and go with content she is fairly comfortable with (3F/3T, 3Lp). It works, and I have no problem with her repeating this formula, if that’s what it takes to succeed. Gracie Gold might do well to copy this strategy (more on Gracie in a minute). I also appreciate Ashley placing her step sequence right at the end of this SP. Not especially known for her footwork, I consider this a bold move on Ashley’s part, and think it will pay off in terms of great audience reaction.

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Ashley: Winning formula in the short program  (Kamil Krzaczynski, USA Today Sports)

Ashley’s Muse LP is more of an artistic stretch for her. And I wasn’t sure about it when I first saw the program at Japan Open. But she really triumphed with it at Skate America, and I give her a ton of credit for making it work, even though I feel it’s not the most natural stylistic fit for her. The music is more subdued than what she usually skates to, more subtle, but I think she and choreographer Shae-Lynn Bourne have been very clever in finding every highlight within the music and really working it. More impressive still, I felt that Ashley maintained the whole flow of the program beautifully in the competition. The program really had a seamless effect, which isn’t a quality I normally associate with Ashley’s skating.

Ashley Wagner continues to impress me more with each passing year. She is one determined, and also smart, athlete. She is an older skater in this sport, but she doesn’t shy away from the technical demands. She knows she isn’t competitive without the difficult 3/3 combos, so she has worked hard to get them, despite her age. She just puts in the work, period. And it doesn’t stop on the ice, either. Ashley was a presence off the ice, too, at Skate America—greeting fans, watching and live-tweeting part of the men’s event, speaking at a fan event. She works hard on and off the ice to build her name and her fan base. And it all pays off in competition.

Because that’s the other thing I noticed more than ever about Ashley at Skate America. In practice, I’ll be honest, she isn’t the skater who necessarily catches your eye. She doesn’t stand out that much, really. But when the lights are up and the judges are sitting in those chairs—she turns it on. Big time, like few other skaters I’ve seen. She IS a performer, and that’s one of the most important skills to have in skating.

So it was a stellar event for Ashley … but not so much for my other American ladies favorite, Gracie Gold. At the risk of exaggerating, this competition was a nadir of sorts for Gracie. She just didn’t skate well at all, and her 5th-place finish was her lowest on the Grand Prix since 2012. Not only that, she had to deal with some controversial press coverage after the event.

I’ve talked before here about how much I love Gracie Gold’s skating. For me, her carriage, posture, and line are pretty much best in class. Her speed, skating skills, and spins are also, normally, among the best in the world. Technically, her skating is phenomenal even aside from the jumps, and of course when she’s on, the jumps only add to the whole package. So that’s my line on Gracie—and I’m sticking to it (however much other fans may disagree). 🙂

But, as much as I love Gracie, I have to admit she was very far from her best at this event. In practice, she seemed about 50/50 on the jumps. It was just very erratic. One jump or jump combo would be simply beautiful, the next one would be a fall or a pop. This was the case both in and out of run-throughs. Worse still, she seemed dispirited and listless. There was little emotion in her run-throughs, and even her spins/speed were maybe not quite up to her usual standard. Gracie isn’t normally all that animated in practice anyway (from the events I’ve seen), but here she just seemed a bit down. Prior to the event, she talked about how she struggled with “Worlds depression” over the summer, took time off from practice, and even considered skipping the Grand Prix. So I wasn’t really that surprised by her condition at Skate America, but it just made me concerned for her.

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Gracie:  Off her game  (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images North America)

Her programs in competition at the event weren’t disastrous, but definitely disappointing. As in practice, she was just inconsistent with the jumps. And the programs were a bit lifeless. Her Assassin’s Tango SP is okay, but I much preferred her El Choclo SP from last year. The Daphnis and Chloe LP is potentially lovely and could really show off the classicism of her skating, but it just needs to be better performed than at Skate America.

Then after the event, Gracie told reporter Christine Brennan that she’s been struggling with maintaining what she feels is an optimal weight/body type for skating.

My heart really goes out to Gracie at this point, I feel like she is going through a very tough time now, and I just hope she realizes that she does have a great deal of support and love from fans, even if there are naysayers as well.

A happier highlight of the ladies’ event was Gabrielle Daleman from Canada. Gabrielle just continues to improve, and she was really fun to watch in practice! Her jumps have great height and distance, especially her 3T/3T, which is amazing in person. She has a lot of energy and good skating skills, too. She catches your eye!

After some misfires in the past, I feel choreographer Lori Nichol has finally hit on exactly the right look for Gabrielle this season. The Herodiade SP emphasizes her dynamism, power, and excitement. And the Rhapsody in Blue LP also works surprisingly well. It’s very well choreographed, with great pacing. The jumps are well-placed on musical high points, which helps build the drama of the program (and with the big lift in her jumps, Daleman can make the most of these moments, more so than other skaters). Showcasing Gabrielle as an athlete who can deliver dramatic, exciting skating works much better than asking her to be lyrical or elegant.

I really enjoyed watching Gabrielle at this event, and just hope she can get a little more consistent with the jumps to start making it into the medals.

Mai Mihara was also a pleasant surprise. I saw Mai skate on the Junior Grand Prix last season, but in all honesty she didn’t make much of an impression on me. So this event was my first time really paying close attention to her skating. Honestly, there’s a lot to like. Mihara has the beautiful soft knees that so many of the Japanese skaters do, which automatically gives her a good look on the ice, to my eye. And she is graceful, light, and consistent with the jumps. Those are her good points. At this time, she lacks personality and presence, compared to the older, more experienced ladies. But hopefully that comes with time. She has a good base to start from, and I think her programs this season are perfect for her at this stage of her development. The programs are simple, rather joyful, and upbeat, just like her skating. They aren’t complex, but I don’t think she’s ready for complexity yet. Kudos to her team for realizing correctly what will work for her, as opposed to pushing her toward something beyond her range at this point.

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Mihara:  Good programs for this point in her career  (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images North America)

Mariah Bell had a breakthrough event to win silver. I was a bit surprised, as Mariah’s jumps seemed rocky in practice. But she held it together in the competition. Mariah has beautiful line and extension, but I’d like to see her get a little more down in her knees/edges.

Other skaters whom I enjoyed watching: So Youn Park and Serafima Sakhanovich. So Youn has been a minor favorite of mine for a couple years; I really appreciate her solid technique and smooth runout on her jumps. She looked a little better than at last year’s Skate America, but still inconsistent and not quite where she needs to be. I like her Aranjuez LP, but it needs more intensity and fire. And, in comparison with the top ladies here, So Youn needs more speed overall. I think she’s capable of it, she just needs to push herself a little harder, I think. She tends to skate cautiously.

As to Sakhanovich, I found myself enjoying her programs, despite some jump mistakes. Especially in her LP, she has a nice musicality. You feel the tone of the music through her skating, it’s almost as if there is a bit of a story to it.

Ice Dance

There were some pretty big names in the ice dance event. And it was my first time seeing both the Russian teams live, so that was interesting.

The short dance started off with a bang. The Shibutanis took the ice first, skating to “That’s Life” by Sinatra and Jay-Z, and got a standing ovation and a great score of 73.04. I was happy for the Shibs, but I’m still unsure how I feel about this program. I don’t really care for the music. But the Shibs skated very well to it. It’s definitely an exciting piece, I just wish I liked the sound and feel of it more. I think it will grow on me, though.

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Lots of attitude in the Shibs’ SD  (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images North America)

And, another unpopular opinion … I continue to really love Hubbell/Donohue’s hip-hop/club dance SP! I know it’s got a lot of music cuts, but I still like it! I really enjoyed Madi/Zach’s performance to it at Skate America, although I think they could still use more speed, more punch. This program is interesting, because I feel Madi/Zach’s strength is in soft, deep, big movement, while hip-hop demands the opposite—sharpness, attack, lots of short, staccato moves. It’s not maybe their natural style, but I think they rise to the challenge well. Madi/Zach did get a higher SP score here than at Finlandia Trophy, but it was only a couple points higher, and not where they want it to be. So I don’t know how much longer we’ll see this program; there’s a lot of pressure to change it.

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Hubbell/Donohue:  Much-discussed short dance  (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images North America)

The two American dance teams placed 1-2 in the free dance/overall. In all honesty, I did not love either of their free dances. I am bored with the trend of soft, lyrical, pensive, sometimes quasi-romantic, modern-dance free dances. We have seen this style now the last 2 years from Papadakis/Cizeron. This season, P/C have yet another free dance in this vein, with Virtue/Moir, the Shibs, and Hubbell/Donohue all offering similar dances as well. I want to see something different, fun, inventive.

The Shibutanis’ and Hubbell/Donohue’s free dances both seemed very lovely, but I just was not engaged. Of the two, I probably preferred Hubbell/Donohue’s, as it felt a little warmer and more inviting. The Shibs seemed to be skating extremely well, but their program didn’t reach me emotionally. Hopefully I’ll change my mind as the season progresses.

In the short dance, I was more impressed with Bobrova/Soloviev than I expected. I liked their line, phrasing, and clarity of movement. And I didn’t find myself noticing Bobrova’s posture in a negative way. I was less impressed with Bobrova/Soloviev’s free dance. Frankly, it just seemed slow compared to the American teams. Their FD score seemed very generous to me.

Sad to say, I also found Ilinykh/Zhiganshin‘s performances a bit disappointing. I’ve been a fan of this team the last few years and have really liked some of their programs. And I think Elena is one of the most exciting ice dancers ever, when she’s skating well. However, their programs at Skate America seemed weak. Their blues/swing short dance is really generic in every way—the music, choreography, costumes all seem recycled from a hundred other programs. Elena tried to sell it, but there’s just a limit to what you can do with such material. And I had high hopes for their Bollywood program, but I have to be honest—watching it, all I could think of was Davis/White’s legendary Bollywood dance, and how much better and more precise and more detailed that program was. I/Z’s Bollywood is entertaining enough, but I just wish it were better. I/Z continued to struggle somewhat with their lifts in practice and in the short dance, and overall I can’t say they look any sharper or better-prepared than they did last season. For a team that started off so promisingly, it’s perplexing. Ilinykh/Zhiganshin actually dropped to 6th place in the FD and were beaten by the next team I want to talk about …

Guignard/Fabbri of Italy. I really enjoyed watching this couple, both at Worlds last spring and here at Skate America. This has surprised me, as I usually find it distracting when dance teams are close in height. Not only do Guignard/Fabbri not have much of a height differential, they also have different body types: Guignard has long legs, while Fabbri is long-waisted and has shorter legs. The effect of this is that, at many points when they’re dancing, Charlene appears at least as tall as, or even taller than, Marco. It’s just so unusual in dance! And yet there is something I really like about this team!

What is it? Guignard/Fabbri have nice crisp movement, and their feet look precise and sure when they dance. That’s good. And, because of their height closeness, I think Guignard/Fabbri haven’t been able to fall back on the traditional look of ice dance—the taller, stronger (male) partner supplying much of the power and sweep; the smaller, less strong (female) partner filling the role of dramatic, expressive diva. Because Guignard/Fabbri don’t have this typical, rather gender-specific ice dance look, I think it forces them to rely much more wholly on their actual dance skills/bladework and also very tight partnering work together. Basically, they’ve perhaps developed their technical skills over their presentation ability (which sometimes tends to be almost overemphasized in ice dance, anyway). So the very thing that I wasn’t sure I’d like about them (lack of height difference) actually turns into their greatest strength (pure dance ability). Well, I don’t know if there’s anything to this theory, but I guess the botttom line is, I enjoyed them. Their Grease SD is the best and sharpest 1950s-era dance I’ve seen in a while, and their abstract Nutcracker FD is kind of a weird choice, but it kept my attention.

Of the lower-ranked dance couples at Skate America, I probably liked Muramoto/Reed the most. This team is sort of the opposite of Guignard/Fabbri. Chris is the strong, quiet partner here, providing power and a nice frame for the team. Kana, quite a bit shorter than him, reminds me of a delicate, lovely flower; your eye goes to her, and you wait to see what she will do next. I enjoyed Muramoto/Reed’s Poeta FD. This team’s more traditional look works for them.

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Muramoto/Reed perform their SD  (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images North America)

Also fun was Tobias/Tkachenko‘s sexy SD to music by The Weekend. This dance is just entertaining, and Isabella looks amazing in her sequined unitard. Tobias/Tkachenko have some brio and charisma; they should use this more. I was disappointed that they went traditional and lyrical in their FD, skating to The Nutcracker.

Men

All the other competitors in the men’s event faded into the background, compared to the 3 top guys: Shoma Uno, Jason Brown, and Adam Rippon. These guys were simply on a different level, and what a show they put on!

Shoma Uno won both segments and overall. His Ladies in Lavender LP didn’t really do much for me. I miss last year’s techno SP, which I vastly preferred to this more traditional piece. (Sensing a theme here?) However, I’m really getting behind Shoma’s new tango LP. I just find this program so interesting. There’s some good transitions, and I feel like Shoma is giving us so much artistically in this piece—he keeps up the intensity in his expression throughout—and great speed, too—I’m starting to love it. There’s also the 3 quads he did in this program—amazing! It was a really great performance.

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Shoma: His signature move  (Paul Beaty/Associated Press)

As for Jason Brown, I loved his short program to Sam Smith’s Writing on the Wall. Jason brings a certain depth of feeling/emotion to this program that I haven’t seen from him before. He looks more mature this season, physically stronger and faster than before his injury. I also adore his costume. The simple white shirt and black pants are plain, but most attractive on him. Watching Jason’s Piano LP was a thrill! He landed the quad toe loop directly in front of me. For a moment I didn’t make the connection, then I realized–“The quad!!!” Everyone started clapping madly; what a moment. I’m so happy for him. (And I don’t even care if it was a bit underrotated. He landed it! :-)) I still don’t entirely love his Piano LP–still feel it is a bit too “busy”–but it’s improved so much from last year’s Skate America. He really has command of it now. It was great to see him skate so well!

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Jason: Finally, the quad!!!  (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images North America)

And Adam Rippon certainly had quite the event! His club music SP isn’t necessarily to my personal taste, but he made it work, the crowd loved it, and let’s just say The Shirt was the finishing touch. Adam’s new long program to “O” by Coldplay was really enthralling—just so many interesting, beautifully observed details, so many great jumps—it was such a complete performance, and I loved it. Adam also skated a terrific, and quite different, gala program to the jazz standard “My Funny Valentine.” What I love most about Adam’s skating right now is that I feel he doesn’t just give you a program. He gives you an experience. Every program just seems so well-developed in its concept, and so well-executed in its skating, that it’s a genuine experience, and a very satisfying one at that. (Please continue this way, Adam! :-))

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Adam with his bronze medal

The expected showdown at this event between Shoma Uno and Boyang Jin didn’t really materialize. Jin bombed in the short program, falling on both quads, but I somewhat enjoyed his Spiderman program, despite these mishaps. The concept of Jin, with his preternatural quad-jumping ability, portraying a human with superhero abilities, is rather clever and a witty play on his public image, IMO. Jin’s short program to La Strada, while technically stronger, was less interesting to me, although I appreciate his attempt to get more involved in expressing the music.

Wrap-up

So that’s it: My thoughts on mens, ladies, and ice dance at Skate America 2016. I hope I haven’t rambled on too much. Thanks for reading!!

Note: If you’re enjoying the articles on The Divine Sport, please take just a moment to “like” the site’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/adivinesport/. You can also follow me on Twitter to get updates of new posts: @ClaireCloutier on https://twitter.com.

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