NHK Trophy 2016: Pairs Review

NHK Trophy in Japan was the last stop on the Grand Prix circuit this season. For the third consecutive year, Duhamel/Radford won the event. We also saw strong performances from the two Chinese pairs at the competition. Let’s take a look at what happened.

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Duhamel/Radford

Meagan/Eric came to Sapporo looking for their second Grand Prix win of the season. They achieved that and qualified for the Grand Prix Final. However, I suspect they’re not fully satisfied with their performances at NHK, as they had some uncharacteristic technical errors.

Duhamel/Radford’s “Killer” SP wasn’t their best, but still a solid performance. They opened with a good triple twist. Then Eric had a slight 2-foot on the SBS 3Lz, and Meagan fell on the throw 3A. But they recovered quickly with a strong Axel lasso lift that earned 7.80 points (highest-scoring element in the short program segment). I also like their exciting choreo lift at the end of the step sequence. Their closing death spiral had great speed and a great position from Meagan. Although they got some negative GOE on the jumps, they made up a lot of those points with (deservedly) excellent GOE on their non-jump elements (almost straight +2s). I thought they kept up the energy and interpretation of the program well despite the few errors, and they finished with 72.95 for 2nd place.

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Another victory for Duhamel/Radford

 

Meagan/Eric’s long program also suffered from technical problems. It was great to see them land the throw quad Salchow; however, Meagan’s free foot just brushed the ice, which led to some negative GOE. They both had trouble on the planned SBS 3T/2T/2T combo; Eric doubled the first jump and Meagan 2-footed and stepped out. They got back on track with a strong throw 3F and some other good elements; but then there was unexpected trouble on the final hip press lift. They missed the initial mount setup–that threw their timing off–and Eric struggled to get the second attempt up. He completed the lift, but they lost about 3 points on it due to low levels and negative GOE. Meagan/Eric also incurred negative GOE on the SBS 3Lz earlier in the program, which I’m at a loss to explain, as the jumps looked great from my video angle.

Despite the technical problems, I still really enjoyed Duhamel/Radford’s performance to “Je Ne Regrette Rien.” I feel like this program is improving artistically each time they perform it. There’s a great sense of ease; Meagan/Eric seem comfortable with the music and move fluidly to it. And there are so many choreographic highlights. This time, I really enjoyed their straight-line mirror footwork going into the SBS combo; it’s set to a dramatic drum roll, and it really helps build the drama going into the jumps. (It’ll be that much more effective when they hit the combo cleanly.) I really have to give tremendous kudos to choreographer Julie Marcotte. As I’ve mentioned before, when I first saw this program, I wasn’t sure about it, as it was quite different for Duhamel/Radford. But I’m now really loving it, and I can see the potential for Meagan/Eric to have another huge moment with it at Worlds next spring. So, much respect to Julie for seeing that this piece would work for Meagan/Eric. And much credit to Duhamel/Radford for capturing the majestic, emotional feel of the music here, despite some technical struggles.

Duhamel/Radford now move on to the Grand Prix Final in Marseille. I feel that Meagan/Eric are in a tricky spot right now, motivationally. With most of their top rivals out due to injury or pregnancy (Sui/Han, Stolbova/Klimov, Volosozhar/Trankov), and with Savchenko/Massot also dealing with an injury, they are somewhat lacking in strong competitive rivals right now (as shown by the fact that they won this competition despite subpar technical performances). I think it’s hard to be in a position where you’re just trying to maintain and consolidate—instead of chasing after, or fighting, very close rivals.

Duhamel/Radford are in an interesting position—the clear leaders of the field right now–which is, perhaps, not always so easy to deal with. I wish Meagan/Eric the best in their preparations for the GPF.

Peng/Jin

After a very auspicious silver-medal debut at Cup of China, Cheng Peng/Yang Jin had to turn around and compete again less than a week later at NHK. Considering what a new team they are, I wondered how they would respond. But Peng/Jin got off to a great start in the short program.

Peng/Jin’s “My Drag” SP is so original and fun. I just love the interplay between them in this program. Seeing the new partners playfully mime “fighting” with each other, all the while doing huge triple elements, is just something you don’t get in an average pairs program. I love the creativity. More importantly, Cheng/Yang seem to enjoy skating the program! They showed nice animation throughout, especially with their facial expressions, which really helped sell the routine. As at Cup of China, they got a great response from the crowd. In addition to being entertaining, the program was also very strong technically. Cheng/Yang opened with 3 clean, solid jump elements: SBS 3Ts, throw 3Lp, and triple twist. All 3 elements earned +1s/+2s. Their level 4 step sequence was also really good—they kept up the speed and expression nicely, and Cheng Peng has lovely extension in her movement through this sequence. The only slight weak point, if there was one, was the reverse lasso lift, where Yang could improve his ice coverage. But even that element still got mostly +1s, and Peng/Jin finished with a new season’s-best score of 73.33 for 1st. Yang jumped for joy at the end of their program (cute!).

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Lovely moment from Peng/Jin  (AFP/Toshifumi Kitamura)

Going into the LP, Peng/Jin had an excellent chance to win the title. However, they couldn’t quite convert. Alas, Cheng Peng’s jump problems returned, and she started the program with falls on both SBS jumps (the SBS 2A was also downgraded). But Cheng/Yang rebounded with a good triple twist, and the rest of the program was clean. Both throw jumps were very good, with great distance and strong landings. The lifts and spin elements were strong as well, and their GOE marks were good; mostly +1s/+2s. I adore their Umbrellas of Cherbourg LP, and I thought they skated it beautifully in Japan, with lots of emotion. It was really a fine performance, and more than enough for silver; but the SBS jump mistakes cost them a shot at the gold. Peng/Jin earned 123.54 for 2nd LP/overall and, most excitingly, punched their ticket for the Grand Prix Final in the process.

It’s really an amazing result for Peng/Jin to make the Grand Prix Final after only 7 months together! I can’t wait to see their programs again in Marseille. 🙂

Wang/Wang

Wang/Wang came to this event looking to improve on their 4th-place finish at Cup of China. And they did just that, winning their third career GP bronze medal.

Their “Steppin’ Out” SP was a delight to watch. This program has a lighthearted, romantic mood, and Wang/Wang really sold it, with lots of smiles and nice, relaxed skating. They didn’t seem tense or tight at all; the program just flowed. Wang/Wang started with a very nice level 3 triple twist; it was clean and easy and got mostly +2s. This element is so solid for them … which is good, because unfortunately they again had trouble on the SBS 3T. It was underrotated and got negative GOE, costing them at least 2.5 points. Fortunately, they got back on track with a great throw 3Lp. Their other elements were well done, but received somewhat disappointing GOE from the judges. At times, I find myself really disagreeing with the judges’ GOE scores for Wang/Wang. For example, their reverse lasso lift has beautiful positions and quite good speed/coverage, yet still received only +1s from a majority of judges. Their level 4 step sequence has great character to the music, with nice, crisp moves and good speed, yet it too received only +1s (although one daring judge did give it a +3). Although I felt their marks could have been higher, Wang/Wang totaled 65.66, still quite a good score, for 3rd place.

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Wang/Wang:  So much to like in their skating  (Reuters/Issei Kato)

 

Wang/Wang then put out another lovely performance in the LP, set to Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing. I really enjoyed this program. Xuehan/Lei just work so well together as a team. There are no awkward transitions with them; no staring past each other blankly. They’re a real pair, not just 2 people skating together. And they have great detail, extension, and emotion in their skating. They did have some technical issues in this program—Xuehan underrotated/2-footed her SBS 3T and doubled the SBS 3S. Also, she put a hand down on the throw 3Lp. But both throw jumps had great distance and flow, and the triple twist was very good. As with Peng/Jin, their lifts and spins were good-quality as well, earning positive GOE. They scored 119.66 for 3rd LP/overall.

Once again, Wang/Wang have had a quite strong GP season (one 4th, one bronze). Once more, the question is: Will we see them again this year, either at Four Continents or Worlds? It’s a testament to the strength of the Chinese pairs program that one of their pairs can have such strong GP results, year after year, yet still have no guarantee of making it to the major championships.

Kayne/O’Shea

After a disappointing event at Skate America, where they placed 6th, reigning U.S. champions Kayne/O’Shea were looking for improvement at NHK Trophy.

Unfortunately, Kayne/O’Shea again had jump issues in their short program. Their triple twist was only level 1 and crashy. The SBS 3S were underrotated, and they both fell. Tarah did squeak out a landing on the throw 3Lz, but it was 2-footed and not well-controlled, and they got negative GOE. Alas, the program sagged somewhat at this point. Tarah/Danny did their best, but you could just sense their dismay over the technical problems. This “Take Me to Church” SP was so powerful at Nationals last season, but it hasn’t made quite the same impression this fall. The music is just so big and dramatic that the skating really needs to match up to it, and it’s just tough to maintain the needed intensity when the elements aren’t going well. Tarah/Danny scored a disappointing 57.02 for 5th.

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Kayne/O’Shea: Fighting through  (Reuters/Issei Kato)

As is typical for them, Tarah/Danny came back with a stronger showing in their Song of India LP. The good news: They stayed vertical on all their jump elements. The bad news: They had minor errors on the jumps. Result: No fall deductions, but several points lost in negative GOE marks. Tarah/Danny presented the exotic program as well as they could, but it still needs more speed and power to really make a strong impression. Their final score of 115.18 was almost identical to what they scored at Skate America (115.57). They pulled up to 4th LP/overall.

It was an okay competition for Tarah/Danny. But if they want to repeat as U.S. champions and make the World team again, they’re going to have to kick it up a notch, and soon. They’re scheduled to compete again in 2 weeks at Golden Spin of Zagreb, where they’ll face U.S. rivals Denney/Frazier and Cain/LeDuc.

Vartmann/Blommaert

Like the Chinese teams, Vartmann/Blommaert were appearing in their second Grand Prix event in as many weeks.

At Cup of China, I expressed some doubts about the Germans’ short program choice, and I can’t say my impression changed at NHK. In this program, I almost felt like Mari/Ruben were fighting with the music. The music felt disconnected from the performance–like they were skating around it, not to it. Mari/Ruben have been struggling with their triple twist this season, and it was only level 1 here, with negative GOE due to a crashy catch/shaky landing. They landed the SBS 3T and throw 3S, but neither jump was particularly well done. They were also a bit off unison in the step sequence. They scored 61.23 for 4th place.

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Vartmann/Blommaert:  Not their best competition  (AFP/Toshifumi Kitamura)

Mari/Ruben were unable to gain ground in their Muse “Unsustainable” LP. The triple twist was again weak. They landed the SBS 3T/3T sequence, but just barely. Then Mari singled the SBS 3S, fell on the throw 3Lz, and turned out forward on the final throw 3S. It just was not a great performance. The loud music/voiceover dialogue seemed to overpower them in the first half of the program. The second half was better—the music is calmer—and I felt like their skating smoothed out a bit, too. Still, there was little connection between Mari/Ruben in either program in Japan—it’s like they were skating side-by-side but otherwise had no relation to each other. Vartmann/Blommaert could only manage 109.47 and dropped to 6th LP/5th overall.

It’s definitely been a disappointing GP season for Vartmann/Blommaert, who appear to be in a sophomore slump. However, unlike Wang/Wang and Kayne/O’Shea, Mari/Ruben are almost guaranteed a spot on their national team for Europeans/Worlds. So, their season may yet end on an upswing.

 

Ziegler/Kiefer

Ziegler/Kiefer were looking to rebound here from a fairly disastrous performance at Trophee de France.

Unfortunately, the Austrians did not get off to a good start in the short program. Severin fell on the SBS 3Lz, and Miriam fell on the throw 3F. Also, their triple twist was again low and crashy. I really like the soft, contemplative music for this program– “Turn to Stone” by Ingrid Michaelson. It’s a different look for Ziegler/Kiefer, with nice choreography. However, I feel the program needs a bit of tweaking. The throw 3F comes very late in the routine—maybe too late. Also, the closing mirror step sequence is problematic. It’s set on a big crescendo, but the sequence doesn’t match the power of the music. Mirror footwork sequences are tough to pull off well even for the best pairs, and Miriam/Severin don’t have the skating/performance skills to make it work. Tellingly, the step sequence received all 0s from the judges; not a single positive mark. Some reworking might be in order. Ziegler/Kiefer totaled 52.19 for 7th place.

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Good comeback in the long program for Ziegler/Kiefer  (AFP/Toshifumi Kitamura)

Miriam/Severin then surprised me by putting out a much stronger performance in the long program! Once again, they struggled with the opening triple twist and SBS 3Lz. However, they landed a very nice SBS 3T/2T/2T combo and then followed up with 2 cleanly landed throw jumps. This was the least error-ridden program I’ve seen from Ziegler/Kiefer in a long time, and they scored a personal-best 109.72 for 5th LP/6th overall.

Hopefully, it’s a sign of better things to come for the Austrians. We’ll see them again at Europeans.

Suto/Boudreau Audet

This was the only Grand Prix event for Suto/Boudreau Audet, now in their second year together. After a lackluster showing this fall at U.S. International Classic, I wasn’t really expecting much from this team. However, they surprised me with quite a nice performance in the short program.

Suto/Boudreau Audet’s SP is set to a lyrical, uplifting piece called “Sakura.” It’s a nice choice for them, emphasizing their flow and speed. I felt like they captured the emotion of the music well. Their unison got a bit off at points, but still, they looked much improved in presentation from U.S. Classic. Technically, their strongest element was the Axel lasso lift, which had pretty good speed and positions. Their jumps were a little dicey. They scored 52.65 and were 6th.

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Suto/Boudreau Audet: Promise for the future  (AFP/Toshifumi Kitamura)

Suto/Boudreau Audet then put out a quite solid performance in their Umbrellas of Cherbourg LP. They landed a nice level 3 triple twist and two good throw jumps. The SBS jumps weren’t great—Sumire doubled the SBS 3S and underrotated the SBS 3T. But most of their other elements were clean, if not of the highest quality. The program was pleasant to watch, and Sumire/Francis have a good base to their skating. What they need to work on now is the details—improving their unison, smoothing their lift transitions, pointing their toes, relating more to each other—that sort of thing. They recorded a new personal-best score of 109.20 to place 7th LP/overall.

Suto/Boudreau Audet will now prepare for Japanese Nationals and, presumably, Four Continents.

Wrap-up

So, the regular Grand Prix season is now over. The 6 pairs who have qualified for the Grand Prix Final are: Duhamel/Radford, Savchenko/Massot, Yu/Zhang, Peng/Jin, Tarasova/Morozov, and Seguin/Bilodeau.

Unfortunately, Savchenko/Massot may yet have to withdraw from the GP Final due to Aliona’s foot injury; their status should be confirmed in another week or so. I really hope they’ll be able to compete! If Savchenko/Massot have to withdraw, Zabijako/Enbert of Russia will step in. Either way, it should be a great competition in Marseilles in a couple of weeks. I’m looking forward to it. 🙂

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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