Ice Shows 2018: Highlights

Springtime is show time in figure skating. Spring is when U.S. skating clubs present their annual ice shows, and it’s also when Stars on Ice tours the country. Figure skating fans may miss competitions during this time of year, but at least we do have an alternative–ice shows.

In April, I was fortunate to see two of the biggest ice shows in the U.S.: Ice Chips, the Skating Club of Boston’s annual show, and Stars on Ice, which I saw in Portland, ME. April was a cold and dreary month here in New England; plus, my family got the flu. It was nice to escape from it all with a couple of nights of figure skating! 

I always enjoy the spring ice shows; but this year, more than ever. After the long, draining, and oft-controversial Olympic season, I almost felt like I was seeing the sport with fresh eyes. The shows were so different from the competitions I’d watched all season. Instead of worrying if the athletes were going to hit their elements, I just watched them skate. Instead of waiting tensely for scores and placements, I just enjoyed the performances. It was refreshing and fun!

During the competitive season, and especially the Olympic season, everything is about execution and elements and levels. The skating itself can get somewhat lost along the way. However, shows are nothing but pure skating. Sure, there’s spins, and there are jumps sprinkled in, but no one’s counting or analyzing. You just get to watch skaters create beautiful shapes and moments to great music. This spring’s shows felt like a chance to reconnect to the basics of skating–what it’s really all about.

Shows are also a chance to change narratives, if you will. As the competitive season unfolds, a narrative, or storyline, tends to develop around skaters. So-and-so is struggling with their technique and having a bad season. So-and-so is in great shape; everything’s going well. Sometimes it can be hard to escape that narrative during the season. Shows offer a chance to move beyond it.

Another fun thing about shows? As my husband pointed out, they’re non-stop action. One skater leaves the ice; another immediately comes on. There are no long breaks for the judges and callers to do their thing. Again—it’s just fun.

I saw Ice Chips in early April. Although it’s a club show, Ice Chips has a much bigger budget and cast than most such shows. I feel like every year, Ice Chips continues to improve in quality and become more & more professional. The lighting, choreography, and direction this year were all excellent. The theme of this year’s show was “Imagine,” a celebration of creativity. As such, many of the numbers had an uplifting feel, such as the opening number set to the theme of the 1996 Olympics.

A group number at Ice Chips   (Skating Club of Boston Twitter photo)

Ice Chips features a mix of group numbers and solos. It’s always great to see the younger skaters and the enthusiasm they bring to their performances. For many, the show is one of the biggest moments of their year, and you can tell it’s a thrill for them.

Among the talented young faces at Ice Chips were 2018 U.S. National Junior bronze medalist Maxim Naumov, who skated a nicely choreographed program to Justin Timberlake’s “Sexyback.” Maxim is growing in his musical timing and showmanship and did a nice job with this dancey program, landing a triple toe loop and triple Salchow. Gabriella Izzo (U.S. Nationals, junior ladies) caught my eye with tremendous speed and flow and a very high triple flip jump. Skating to “Wild Things” by Alessia Cara, Izzo also landed a double Axel and looked very confident, befitting her new status as a member of Team USA. Anna Petterson/TJ Carey (U.S. Nationals, novice ice dance) also shone, with lots of emotion and lovely posture in their “Say Something” program.

Skating to “This Is Me” from The Greatest Showman, Heidi Munger (Eastern Sectionals, senior ladies) was elegant and classic as always, landing two double Axels in her program. It’s always a true pleasure to see her skate. Madeleine Weiler (U.S. Nationals, novice ladies) performed a fun and showy routine “Anything Goes” by Sutton Foster, landing a double Axel and triple toe loop (hand down). And Indi Cha, the 2018 U.S. Intermediate National champion, delivered a confident routine to Cindi Lauper’s “Stay,” going for a triple loop (turnout) and a hydroblading move.

As usual, the synchronized skating and theatre on ice teams offered some of my favorite numbers in the show. Team Excel Junior skated a powerful and dramatic program to music from Maleficent. Wearing dark purple and black costumes, the team truly impressed with their speed and strong, sure edges. Also terrific was Imagica, the Skating Club of Boston’s adult theatre on ice group. Imagica always comes up with interesting themes for their routines. This year’s concept is a cruise ship, and the program opens wittily with the theme from Love Boat. Shuffleboard and dancing sequences followed, as well as a storyline of an on-ship romance and destination wedding. Skated with humor and great costumes, it’s a fun program.

Hawayek/Baker skate their Austin Powers program  (Skating Club of Boston Twitter photo)

The soloist guest stars for Ice Chips were all great to watch. Kaitlyn Hawayek/Jean-Luc Baker skated their amusing Austin Powers exhibition program, which drew cheers, and also presented a pensive, lovely contemporary dance to a song by Rennen Sohn. The latter program had some of the lyricism and passion of their “Liebestraum” free dance.

Ryan Bradley did a fun Western cowboy number with a hat, which was a big hit with the audience. Show skater Ashley Clark brought something entirely different, skating several numbers featuring flame props—torches and “circle of fire”-type tools. This might sound gimmicky, but it didn’t feel that way in person. The visual effects that Clark created with the flames were just a different and cool thing to see on the ice.

The emotional high point of Ice Chips was seeing Ross Miner in one of his first public performances since his silver medal at U.S. Nationals in January. To the skating community in New England, Ross is a hometown hero–a regular fixture at local ice shows; the biggest-name skater at the Skating Club of Boston; and, importantly, a role model and inspiration for young skaters in New England. Like many here, I’ve been following Ross’s career for a long time. His triumphant performances at this year’s U.S. Nationals are probably my favorite memory from that event. The decision to leave him off the Olympic team, while defensible, saddened me.

Ross Miner returns  (Brogen Photography)

But Ross re-emerged at Ice Chips to skate a gorgeous exhibition program to Justin Timberlake’s “All Over Again,” landing a nice triple flip and double Axel. I loved this number. It showed off the qualities that make Ross great—speed, edges, extension, and commitment to his choreography. There was almost a healing quality to the program. Watching Ross skate, everything felt more right, despite the Olympic disappointment. Ross also reprised his sparkling competitive short program to Macklemore’s “Downtown” (triple Salchow, double Axel). It’s one of my favorite programs from him in recent years. It was great to see Ross back, entertaining a crowd and doing what he does so well!

A week after Ice Chips, I ventured north to Portland to see one of the early stops of this year’s Stars on Ice tour. Reviews of Stars on Ice have been extremely positive this year, from what I’ve seen on Twitter and skating forums, and rightfully so. The cast of this year’s tour is stellar indeed, with new World champion Nathan Chen, new World silver medalists Hubbell/Donohue, reigning Olympic bronze medalists the Shibutanis, Dancing with the Stars sensations Adam Rippon and Mirai Nagasu, Olympic champions Davis/White, and others.

I think what makes this year’s tour so exciting is that most of these athletes are in the best shape of their careers, coming off the Olympics. A peak moment has just passed; and audiences get to enjoy the fruits of the Olympic season—the excellent condition of the skaters, and some of their top competitive programs as well. Participating in the Olympics is the theme of this year’s show.

Backstage at Stars on Ice  (Stars on Ice Twitter photo)

At Stars on Ice, I felt the pull of “changing the narrative” very strongly. Some of the biggest highlights in this show, for me, came from skaters who didn’t make this year’s Olympic team or perhaps didn’t have their best performances at the Olympics, but were still stunning to watch.

Foremost was Jason Brown. Of all the skaters in the show, it was Jason who seemed to have the purest connection to the audience–who seemed to bring, and give, the most joy. Jason reprised his brilliant Hamilton competitive short program in the first half, and it was terrific (triple toe, triple Lutz). His footwork sequence is dazzling, with such incredible detail and positions. Even better, though, was Jason’s fabulous program in the second half to Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling.” This program is pure entertainment, start to finish, with move after exciting move that drove the crowd wild in Portland. Four Russian split jumps—hyrdoblading—some break-dance moves—not to mention several triples (Lutz, flip). The sunny, bright music is a perfect match for Jason’s personality. The joy he exuded, as well as the tremendous quality of his skating, made this number probably the highlight of the whole show. At Nationals, Jason was cautious and a bit restrained. All year, it seemed like something was holding him back. But this Jason, on this night, felt like a return to the Jason I saw unforgettably skating to Riverdance at 2014 U.S. Nationals.

A different side to Ashley Wagner  (Marni Tyson Gallagher)

One of my other favorites in this year’s show was Ashley Wagner. Ashley, too, had a tough season that ended in missing the Olympic team. Skating to old programs most of the year, she just was unable to summon the excitement of past seasons. But I enjoyed watching her very much in Stars on Ice. Her La La Land program showed a new and welcome softness to Ashley’s skating. Softness and tenderness are not qualities we’ve seen much from Ashley the last few years; but those were the emotions of this program, and I liked it very much. Sometimes you forget what a pretty skater Ashley can be (I mean this in a good way). Ashley has gentle edges, soft knees, femininity, to her skating. She’s a big personality, but her skating was tender and emotional here. I was glad to see her in the show.

I was also glad, as always, to watch Karen Chen. What a difficult season it was for Karen. Not what she wanted, and the narrative around her this season was not a good one. Yet, as always, I really enjoyed watching her skate. Karen’s opening program to “Never Enough” by Loren Allred showcased her flow and lyrical quality, her spirals and spins. Her funky second number to “Blow Your Mind (Mwah)” by Dua Lipa was more of a stretch—but I thought she did well with it. Karen went for triple Lutz in both programs, and the jumps were huge, but a bit insecure in their landings. I’ll continue to hope for a change in Karen’s narrative next season, toward more settled, confident, but still beautiful, skating.

Nathan Chen in the SOI finale  (Marni Tyson Gallagher)

Another revelation in this year’s show was Nathan Chen. Of course, I’ve seen Nathan skate all year, and twice in person. But there was definitely something different about Nathan in this show. His speed was tremendous–really impressive. Also, his confidence with his blades—the way he fearlessly attacked his choreography and footwork—was striking. His new self-choreographed routine to James Arthur’s “Back from the Edge” is quite gripping. Angular shapes, and a very intense, masculine feel. His “Nemesis” competitive SP was also excellent. At times this season, we’ve seen Nathan sometimes less than totally engaged in his choreography—and no wonder, as he had to focus on 2 or 5 or 6 quads in a program. But he was fully present, very involved, in his rendition of “Nemesis” in Portland. I walked away from the show feeling that Nathan is a worthy World champion indeed, not just on the basis of quads, but his skating as a whole.

The Shibutanis:  So much charisma  (Marni Tyson Gallagher)

Of course, the ice dancers in Stars on Ice were terrific, too. It’s always a joy to see the Shibutanis live. There’s a special, distinctive quality to their skating, seen in person. I almost feel like the Shibutanis take some of the qualities I love about pairs skating—athleticism, daring, charisma—and somehow transfer that to the medium of ice dance. I find them to be exceptional performers. They reprised two programs that I’ve seen many times–“That’s Life” and “Fix You/Paradise”–yet I felt the same thrill as ever, watching them. And I appreciated their twizzles (which were perfectly done in Portland).

Passion from Hubbell/Donohue  (Marni Tyson Gallagher)

It’s a different, but also very satisfying, experience to see Hubbell/Donohue skate. I find watching Hubbell/Donohue to be intimate, almost spellbinding. In Stars on Ice, I felt utterly drawn into their chemistry, their relationship, during their programs. Their skating is not about creating wow! moments, but more about evoking a relationship and a mood. They had my full attention throughout their programs.

Meanwhile, Davis/White‘s routine to Sia’s “Elastic Heart”–featuring a ribbon prop—was probably my favorite program I’ve yet seen from Meryl/Charlie as professionals. There was real originality in this piece—creativity. Meryl/Charlie told a story. And Charlie in particular shone, with effortless speed and energy in his skating. He seemed excited to be out there again, performing.

The group numbers in Stars on Ice were also highlights. The “Shape of You” trio dance program was intriguing (especially seeing singles skaters Ashley and Nathan dancing together). And I was on the edge of my seat watching the group number toward the end with ice dancers Maia Shibutani, Zach Donohue, and Madison Hubbell. Fascinating to see rivals and teammates Maia and Zach skating together. The guys’ number to “Feel It Still” was also excellent. (How could it not be, with the caliber of men in this cast?)

Yes, it was a brilliant night of skating in Portland, one I felt very happy to see. Just as it had been a wonderful and fun night of skating in Boston, a week earlier. After a year of high-level Olympic competition, you might think you’d miss seeing 5 quads, or 2 triple/triples, in a program. But I didn’t. I was just happy to see some great skating.

If an ice show is coming your way this spring—Stars on Ice, or a local club show—I highly recommend you get tickets. Just do it! Get tickets; support our skaters; and prepare to be entertained, simply by the beauty of skating itself.

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