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Sarah Explains the Finer Sports

Figure skating with sarcasm, statistics, and rapturous adoration.

This Weekend in Ice Dance Disasters: Nebelhorn Trophy, JGP Ljubljana, Russian Cup of Samara

The thing about ice dance disasters is that, in any other discipline, they'd be tiny mistakes. If a singles skater puts her foot down too early, she might lose a point or two in her grade of execution, but if an ice dancer does the same during a twizzle, the whole element goes down several levels, tanking the team's score. A minuscule timing error in a pattern dance can make a team miss all their checkpoints, knocking them down to a Level 1, while slow and out-of-sync footwork is almost the norm in pairs. Unless you watch an unhealthy amount of ice dance, you're probably mystified by why teams look like they want to drown themselves after what looked like a terrific performance. 

Let's call the summary of this weekend's notable ice dance performances An Introduction to Screwing Up Your Dance. 

This weekend's ice dance competition covered all of the major categories except for costume violations, which is to say, at least nobody's dress started shedding feathers and sequins. But just about anything else that could go wrong, did go wrong somewhere in Europe: at the Challenger Series Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany, the Junior Grand Prix Ljubljana in Slovenia, or a small Russian domestic competition in Samara. Most of these programs were enjoyable overall and had great moments, and I have plenty of positive things to say about them as well. Still, they provide a pretty thorough aggregate picture of where and why the deductions come in.

1. Don't Fall Down.

You'd think that "don't fall" would be rule #1 in figure skating, but in the other three disciplines, skaters frequently win despite a fall. In ice dance, however, falling will send a team tumbling down the ranks. Kavita Lorenz and Joti Polizoakis got a late start to the season after briefly splitting up over the summer, and it showed throughout their performance in Oberstdorf. For the first couple of minutes, it looked like Polizoakis was the weaker link, as he missed steps and turns that shaved levels off their serpentine step sequence. They managed to keep up the difficulty in their lifts and twizzles, but so-so grades of execution reveal that the judges saw uncertainty in those elements as well. The real killer, though, came in their diagonal step sequence, the last difficult element of their free dance. Step sequences in dance are deceptively hard, and the rewards for a great one can be huge; a level 4 diagonal step has a base value comparable to that of a quadruple jump. Lorenz's fall had the same effect on their score as when a men's skater doubles an intended quad, misses a planned combination, and falls. It's especially a shame because this free dance will be terrific when Lorenz and Polizoakis get a better handle on it. Many current teams look awkward in the realm of Latin dance, but Lorenz and Polizoakis have the ideal posture and chemistry for flamenco. They're on the roster for next weekend's Ondrej Nepela Memorial, another Challenger Series event, so they'll soon have another chance to prove they can get this right.

2. Don't Miss an Entire Element.

When I used to teach, I would frequently tell my students it was better to turn in a failing paper than to not turn one in at all. After all, you still get some points for an F, whereas a missed assignment is an automatic 0. It's the same with required elements in short programs: if you don't check one of the boxes, you get no points, even if what you did kind of resembled one of the requirements. In their short dance at JGP Ljubljana, Sofia Polishchuk and Alexander Vakhnov made the kind of freak error that keeps figure skating unpredictable. Their curve lift requires Polishchuk to stand on Vakhnov's boots, but as she went into it, she missed one of his feet. The tragedy of it is, they were great otherwise, better even than in their free dance, which contained no significant mistakes. The choreographic moves between their twizzles are unique and cool, and make their short program twizzles more difficult than the ones in their free dance. They skate close together and stay deep in the knee. It's also clear that they've spent the past month correcting the timing errors that got them in trouble with their pattern dance in St. Gervais. And they have two of the most adorable smiles in ice dance. With a bronze medal in St. Gervais and silver here, Polishchuk and Vakhnov will probably just miss the qualification threshold for the Junior Grand Prix Final this season, but watch out for them next fall - or sooner, if they bring their A game to Nationals.

3. Don't Do Lifts You Can't Get Out Of.

Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev have one of my favorite free dances of the season so far. I should be less surprised: they've always been a versatile and musical team, with edge control that makes me swoon. Maybe it's peer pressure getting me down, trying to convince me they shouldn't be my favorite Russian team, but there aren't many current ice dancers that can turn drab Chopin and overused Vivaldi into a unique, vibrant, and coherent free dance. They're especially adept at skating fast to slow music, maintaining the character and mood of the piece while subdividing the tempo to keep up their momentum. They're also one of the few top teams with seamless transitions and no Look At Us, About To Do A Lift moments. The two lifts in the second half of the program should be the biggest highlights, and while Bobrova is aloft, they are. Soloviev's speed during their rotational lift looks impossible, especially since Bobrova is upside-down, like a passenger on the world's most nausea-inducing amusement park ride, and yet both look graceful. The only problem is, she can't get down, and those stunning lifts devolve into awkward messes as Bobrova fights to keep her butt off the ice. At a low-stakes meet like the Russian Cup of Samara, which they were going to win by 60 points no matter what, it's no big deal. Internationally, however, they'll get destroyed for those lift exits, no matter how beautiful everything else is.

4. Don't Lose Track of Your Timing.

It's great to see Madison Chock and Evan Bates having fun. They've been in a stylistic rut since the 2014 Olympics - if not longer - and pop music has provided them with an avenue out. They haven't settled into their free dance yet, although the concept is one of the cooler things they've done as a team, set to a remix of David Bowie and Queen's "Under Pressure" that sends them through a range of emotional twists and turns. But it's the short dance where this team really cuts loose, and Chock in particular looks like she's thrilled to be let out of her cage. It's probably just good training, but I want to believe that her positive energy is what makes their lifts look so much smoother and more polished now than in the past. The one problem they haven't fixed yet is their tendency to get off rhythm in their steps. For the first time this season, the score sheets make the distinction between incorrect moves and timing errors in pattern dances, which is the kind of picayune distinction that only skaters, coaches, and extremely nerdy bloggers care about. Most of the top teams lost a level due to missed timing at the second checkpoint, but for me, it was easier to see that Chock and Bates were off. Their score suffered more from dropped levels in their partial step sequence, and on rewatch, it looks like the lost credit was a timing issue there as well, at least in part. Chock and Bates are capable of some of the world's most difficult ice dance moves, but they struggle with one of the discipline's requirements, which is to keep those movements synchronized with both the music and each other. 

5. Don't Biff Your Twizzles.

Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter entered the season as the bulletproof heroes of juniors, but so far, they've fallen behind last season's accomplishments. In Ljubljana, they had a number of technical problems, all related to upgrades that they don't seem to have mastered yet. But the twizzles were their greatest nemesis. In their free dance, McNamara lost control completely, stepping out of her middle set and looking, for a moment, like she was too rattled to continue. They held it together much better in the short dance, but the judges rightly docked them for unsteady edges in their first set and a loss of synchronization in the second. I wonder if the lack of a third twizzle set hurt them as well. In any case, McNamara and Carpenter have looked nervous and overwhelmed every time they've attempted this short dance, even though it features the kind of angular, menacing choreography that should be in their wheelhouse. At their best moments, they're still clearly a cut above other juniors, skating with incredible speed and moving smoothly from one element to the next. Despite their technical struggles, their components scores stayed high in reflection of those top-notch fundamental skills. But pretty will only get you so far if your elements are out of whack. It was a rough weekend to be a fan of this team, but no one took it harder than McNamara; in the kiss & cry after the free skate, she looked like she was about to boil over with rage at herself.

6. Don't Weird Out the Judges.

I knew from the moment they announced it that Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier would have one of my favorite blues/swing short dances, in a season crowded with short dances that are up my alley. For reasons that I'm sure make sense in a conference room in Switzerland, disco counts as a form of swing dance according to the ISU, giving the most offbeat team in elite ice dance carte blanche to paste on a tacky mustache and "Burn, baby, burn." Technically, the judges had to hand them this one, because it's hard to argue with the difficult, distinctive leg positions in their twizzles or the speed in their rotational lift. But some judges can't get aboard the Gilles/Poirier irony train, and a few assigned them components marks below an 8, surprisingly low for a team with such a strong resume. They narrowly beat Chock and Bates in their technical marks, but their components score held them under. In contrast, their tango free dance doesn't play to their artistic strengths nearly as much, and they seem to be reaching for a type of chemistry that doesn't come naturally to them. But it's a more conventional ice dance program, and accordingly, there was much less dissent among the judges. The overall tide of ice dance is shifting toward innovation, but Gilles and Poirier consistently pay the price for dancing on the edge.

7. Don't Let It Get Messy.

I am including this program because I enjoy it so much that I refuse to skip it, but at the same time, I understand why it was only good enough for 5th place. Ashlynne Stairs and Lee Royer get a ton of artistic mileage out of the breezy psychedelia in their Beatles medley, and they're the rare junior-level team with enough personality to pull off turquoise and magenta tie-dye. Their happy energy goes a long way toward disguising the fundamentals that still need a lot of work. They're substantially slower than the teams at the very top, and they rely more on open holds that make it easier to control their edges and see where they're going. Technically, their content is as challenging as any - like the Russians ahead of them, they got level 4s for their lifts, twizzles, and spin - but their execution isn't as clean. For instance, the rotational lift near the end of the program is almost a showstopper, except that Stairs doesn't extend her legs far enough into a split position, and Royer visibly struggles to manage his turns while keeping her aloft. There's no cure for these disadvantages but practice. The good news is, Stairs and Royer have shown how immense their potential is, and they'll have at least one more junior season to cash in on it.

8. Don't Forget Your Chemistry.

In theory, Anastasia Skoptcova and Kirill Aleshin gave the best overall performances at JGP Ljubljana. In practice, two teams with significant technical errors outscored them. The difference was all in the execution, but their limitations differ from the ones that Stairs and Royer are facing. Skoptcova and Aleshin have all their underlying skills in place: the speed, the deep and coordinated edges, the close and difficult positions. But in their most challenging technical elements, they're the slightest bit off, and that slight lack of synchronization can be fatal in ice dance. Their rotational lift, for example, is spectacular once it gets going, but Aleshin seems to struggle to find Skoptcova's center of gravity as he raises her into position. Their twizzles are crisp, with secure turns, but their leg positions frequently don't match. It's like they're skating on two separate rinks sometimes. You don't need smoldering romantic chemistry to succeed in ice dance, but you do need some kind of emotional connection, and it's not just about performance. The judges pick up on a team that's not communicating effectively, and that hurts components like Transitions as well as Interpretation. Both Skoptcova and Aleshin are fantastic ice dancers, but one of the toughest thing about dance is that you're in it together.

9. Don't Take Any Choreographic Risks.

This season, most of the senior teams are using the hip hop/swing short dance rhythms as a license to experiment, and many seem to be responding to criticisms that last year's free dances were stultifyingly same-y. Not Italy's Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte, though. These two have a shtick that works for them, and although their music challenges it here and there, they've chosen to stay comfortable. So far, that's working out, as evidenced by their gold medal at the Nebelhorn Trophy. Unlike the other top-level skaters in Oberstdorf, Cappellini and Lanotte were free of visible missteps, although they got Level 3s on every step sequence in both programs, so the judges caught a few things out of place. Their twizzles, however, are fast and centered, and their lifts are dramatic, although Lanotte struggles to keep his free leg aloft during their curve lift. It does seem like choreographic consistency has allowed this team to focus on the technical side, but the drawback is, it doesn't win you a ton of love from the fans. Cappellini and Lanotte gave the most impressive performances of the weekend, but they also provided fewer memorable artistic moments than almost anyone else.

10. Don't Be New.

This time last year, I was mostly expressing doubt about Elliana Pogrebinsky and Alex Benoit. They seemed like minor lights an unusually talented crop of American ice dancers, unable to match the dominant results achieved by the Parsons siblings or McNamara and Carpenter, and less innovative as well. This season, it's clear that they took those deficits as challenges, and over the summer, they've narrowed the gap technically and all but erased it artistically. Plus, they took a leap that the other Americans their age were unwilling to risk, making the jump to seniors even though they're still junior-eligible. From their results this weekend, it's clear that they've made a smart strategic choice. They placed fourth, with their scores on an island by themselves: 20 points out of 3rd place, but 15th points ahead of 5th. From a technical standpoint, however, they were closer to the head of the pack, especially in the short dance, where their technical score was only 3 points behind the leaders'. Pogrebinsky and Benoit also achieved something that none of the medalists could: they earned a perfect level 4 on their pattern dance. And they did it with an Elvis swagger and an infectious sense of fun. 

Despite putting down some of the most dynamic performances of the weekend, they lagged far behind on program components, with a few judges assigning them brutally low marks - one of the judges assigned them a 5.50 for Transitions in their free dance, compared to an 8.75 from the same judge for Cappellini and Lanotte. The Italians are smoother and more intricate skaters, to be sure, but the difference isn't that huge. Rather, the judges' stinginess toward Pogrebinsky and Benoit starts to look like an old-fashioned "Who the heck are you?" tax. It will probably take a full season of strong performances to rectify that, not to mention some serious training of the fundamental skills that force even the most cynical judges to pay attention to young teams. Pogrebinsky and Benoit have some natural advantages in that respect: not only charisma and musicality, but beautiful knee bend and, in Pogrebinsky's case, exceptional flexibility. If they'd competed at the Lombardia Trophy or U. S. International Classic instead of at Nebelhorn, they'd already have a Challenger Series medal. It'll be interesting to see where they stand at the end of this season.

© 2016 All rights reserved. Interactive One Millennial
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This Weekend in Men's Skating: JGP Saransk and US International Classic

Figure skating season is in full swing now, and you can tell by the griping about the poor quality of the live streams. The complaints are well-justified. During the second half of the ladies' short program at the Junior Grand Prix event in Saransk, Russia, the sound was a good 90 seconds ahead of the video, which not only irritated the viewers but made it impossible to assess the skaters' artistic performances. Fans had to pay to watch this weekend's Challenger Series competition, the US International Classic, which streamed on IceNetwork, and the live feed skipped so badly through most of the events that it was impossible to tell what was going on. I had to speak with customer service for an unrelated issue during the event, and it became clear from those conversations that the feed problems were beyond IceNetwork's direct control; there were issues with the internet speed and bandwidth in the arena in Salt Lake City. That's why the replay videos are high quality and don't skip. If the Salt Lake City Sports Complex continues to host the event, as it has for the past several years, it needs to ensure that it's equipped to provide a functioning stream for IceNetwork's paying customers. This isn't to let IceNetwork off the hook by any means, since they have a long history of wonky live streams, just to acknowledge that there are a lot of things that can go wrong when you're streaming live sports events and don't have the budget of the National Football League. And even if you do have that kind of budget - remember a few years ago when the Super Bowl got held up for an hour because of a power outage? Basically, my take-away is, keep complaining and demanding better quality, so the live stream providers know we care and are watching. But also recognize that IceNetwork isn't a horrible conspiracy to steal your money, and that you probably pay more for Netflix. 

Now that I've stepped down from my soapbox, it's time to talk skating. This season's Challenger Series continues to boast a level of competition almost as high as at the Grand Prix. Indeed, of the 13 men who competed this weekend, eight have at least one Grand Prix assignment. The US Classic field was also more evenly balanced than at many Grand Prix events, with a number of guys who could have won on their best day. This week's Junior Grand Prix, on the other hand, was a low-key affair compared to last week's quad-off in Yokohama, but it gave several young, lower-profile skaters a chance to shine. The plucky fifteen-year-olds in Saransk contrasted with the striving veterans in Salt Lake City in a lot of ways, but both groups proved that style and presentation are what make this sport worthwhile.

Junior Grand Prix - Cup of Mordovia 

The fourth week of the Junior Grand Prix series presented hard-fought battles and giant scores in some of the other disciplines, but the men's field was more modest than in other weeks and featured an all but preordained winner in Alexander Samarin. Nonetheless, there were plenty of fun and eye-opening performances in Saransk. It was a pleasure to see Eric Sjoberg, an American who has just moved up from the novice level, starting to develop a personal style on the ice, focusing on movement quality and stamina as much as on his jumps. He reminds me of Adam Rippon's early days, not only in his on-ice finesse but in his wild jump technique. I also enjoyed watching Tangxu Li of China, who regrouped mentally after a disaster two weeks ago in Ostrava to not only land every jump in his free skate but express the nuances of his music. Performing to the Enchanted soundtrack, he looked like a fairy tale prince. Georgia's Irakli Maysuradze led off his free skate with a spectacular triple Axel, but it was his infectious energy that made him one of the stars of the event. Like many of the competitors in Saransk, he blew away his previous personal best scores and seemed to surprise himself with what he was capable of.

The Russian Federation has shown great confidence in Petr Gumennik over the past couple of seasons, and this weekend, I finally saw why. He was Saransk's comeback kid, rising from 7th in the short program after some jump trouble to come just short of a bronze medal overall. He's one of the few skaters I know of with a bona fide triple loop-triple loop combination, secure on the exit edge of the first jump so the second is cleanly rotated. Gumennik also has beautiful control over his spin positions, tying himself in knots but never looking pained or contorted. He's a charming performer, too, although as he grows up, he's going to have to learn to be less adorable and more genuinely expressive. Russia has been rewarding well-rounded men's skaters more and more, and Gumennik is a great example of that shift in approach.

This weekend's showstopper, without a doubt, was Matyas Belohradsky of the Czech Republic. He's coached by Tomas Verner, and his upbeat flair and floppy blond hair have Tumblr fans calling him Verner's "mini-me." Belohradsky is definitely a performer, and this weekend, he had the jumps as well, opening his short program with an enormous triple lutz-triple toe loop and sailing through the rest. He was only 9th at his other Junior Grand Prix competition, in Ostrava, and he beat his overall score there by more than 20 points. He also earned the Czech Republic's third JGP medal of the season - only Russia, Japan, and the USA have gathered more. If he can keep up the consistency and composure he showed here, and upgrade those jumps, he could become a true successor to Verner.

Andrew Torgashev might be my favorite American junior man. I've been a fan since I watched him win Nationals at the intermediate level in 2013, and I spent last season fretting about how he'd look when he recovered from an ankle fracture that sidelined him for a full year. I'm thrilled to report that the kid is not just alright, but terrific. Torgashev continued the USA's silver medal streak, becoming the third American man in a row to finish in second place. He did it despite some unsteadiness on his jumps - his triple Axel dogged him throughout the competition, and he lost credit for unclear or wrong edges on all three of his triple lutzes - and a bizarre cut of "Bohemian Rhapsody" that intersperses Freddie Mercury's voice with Muzak. He made up for those issues by fighting for the landing on his quadruple toe loop, executing the fastest and most polished non-jump elements of the competition, and rocking out like a tribute to Wayne's World in the final minute of his free program.

It was no surprise that Russia's Alexander Samarin ran away with this one, taking gold by an impressive 24-point margin. He was the only man in Saransk to show confidence in his quad, and the triple Axel in his short program was the best I saw all weekend at any level. He had some jump troubles elsewhere, falling in his short program and missing a combination in his free skate, and it looks like he's still working on the transitions and choreographic moves that will keep his components marks competitive when he moves up to seniors. But his performances were refreshing in another respect. Samarin is this season's poster child for just letting skaters compete to music they like. Last season, skating to a jazz standard and a movie soundtrack, he looked awkward and stiff. This year, he's all rock 'n' roll - a recent shout-rock hit for his short program, a classic hair metal ballad in his free skate - and you can see in his eyes that he never gets tired of hearing these songs. Although they belong to the same musical genre, the two programs have contrasting moods and rhythms, showcasing an artistic range that nobody realized he had. He posted the best overall score of his career in Saransk, but he made a more important statement in his fiery step sequences than in any of his jumps.

US International Classic

The unreliable skaters were out in force in Salt Lake City. Nam Nguyen's quadruple salchow seems to be degenerating: he just barely hung onto one in his free skate, but a fall in his short program and a costly pop on his first free skate attempt reflect a loss of confidence in the jump. His choreography and performance style also challenge him less than his programs from the past couple of years, a strategy that has not improved his technical consistency and has lowered his components scores. The US Classic also brought us the most facepalm-inducing versions of Ross Miner and Keiji Tanaka. Neither fell, but both popped a ton of jumps, looking more and more frantic as they realized how many points they'd left behind. Miner did have a few brilliant moments, including a high, effortless quad salchow in his free skate, but both gave the kind of performance that dooms an athlete from a high-talent country to sit on the bench for the rest of the season.

Elladj Balde filled us all with false hope in the short program, only to melt down thoroughly in the free skate. His SP showed off the Elladj that gets him invitations to galas, though, and the promise that we all keep seeing in him. Wisely forgoing his unreliable quad in favor of triples on which he could earn high grades of execution, Balde skated clean and smooth, opening with a huge triple flip and seeming to time his spin rotations to the music. Unfortunately, Balde is one of those skaters whose performance style doesn't necessarily translate to high components scores; his programs lack the intricate connecting moves that let his American and Japanese competitors absorb a few technical mistakes. His music choice is brilliant, though. More short programs to metal covers of Simon & Garfunkel, I say.

After this weekend, we all have to stop doubting that Brendan Kerry is the real deal. His short program was just all right, but his free skate was the cleanest of a long and messy night. Kerry landed two very plausible quad toe loops in his free skate - the first, in combination, was downright terrific - and found his feet on everything else, even if he had to fight for a landing or two. He also embraced his pirate theme with delightful gusto, swashbuckling through his step sequences and bringing some Jack Sparrow eye twinkle to his breath pauses. His fourth-place finish was a well-deserved surprise, but one that also revealed his limitations. He's an entertaining skater with remarkable power, but he gets slow toward the end, and his choreography gives him a lot of room to recover after each element. That's why he was less than a point behind Rippon in technical elements but 11 points back in program components. He has the charisma and instincts to close the gap. If he gets his transitions and skating skills up to par, we'll stop being surprised every time he posts a success like this one.

How can a skater be dirty and clean at the same time? Adam Rippon showed us the answer in his short program, executing jumps so pristine that he soared into the high 80s without attempting a quad. Rippon's choreography, on the other hand, made us all need a cold shower. Most male skaters are cautious about displaying raw sexiness on the ice, but when Rippon gets to shake his hips and wag his fingers, it's like he's been let out of the chaste choreographic cage that his coaches had stuck him in for a decade before he won a National title and stopped having to care. 

After Rippon's short program, I wondered what he has left to prove in this sport, but his free skate provided an answer. He's still chasing that quad lutz, as well as consistency in his triple Axel and an overall smoothness in and out of his jumps. He's also chasing the kind of focus and sharpness that pull down his components scores when he makes mistakes. He's filled in his free skate choreography quite a bit since he premiered the program over the summer, but you can see him trying to hold himself together when those Axels aren't going his way. The same genuineness that lets Rippon treat the ice like a red-hot dance floor also makes Rippon an open book when he's unhappy with himself.

Many fans thought that Takahito Mura should have won both the short program and free skate and were perplexed that he finished behind Jason Brown in both segments. If figure skating were judged purely on technical difficulty, Mura would have had it in the bag. He made a handful of errors - a popped Axel in his free skate, a slightly wonky landing on the quad toe loop in his short program - but he was easily the best jumper in Salt Lake City this weekend. He's also improved artistically over the past couple of years, working with Charlie White to find his inner ice dancer, but like many technically proficient skaters, he trades away a lot of precision and intricacy so he has enough energy to land those big jumps. 

At a different competition, up against a different kind of field, the judges might have let his less impressive skating skills slide, but this is America, where even the men have to be pretty in order to succeed. Watching his free skate next to Brown's and Rippon's, Mura looked unsophisticated and, toward the end, winded. His jumps give the top American men something to aspire to, but he's got something to learn from them, as well. Like Rippon, Mura skates like he has something to prove, and I suspect it's that desire for originality and memorability.

Unlike the army of meltdown kings he was up against, Jason Brown is nothing if not consistent. Every time he falls on his quad toe loop attempt, he bounces onto his butt and picks himself up exactly the same way. He's landing the jump more and more often in practice, and he got full rotation credit for the one in his free skate, so it's coming along at the slow pace that Brown's technical upgrades always do. It took a couple of seasons for his triple Axel to show up, and now he executes it with such power and control that he gets huge GOE bonuses for it. That's why it was such a surprise to see him pop his first triple Axel attempt in his free skate. Everything else was glorious, though, from the catch-foot camel spin in his short program that seemed to go around a thousand times to the triple lutz-half loop-triple salchow in the final minute of his free skate that earned more points than anyone's quad. I wish his programs this season were a little less restrained - Brown's personality is more Susan Cooper from Spy than James Bond, and that's part of his charm - but they demonstrate artistic sophistication. 

Brown is also one of a very small number of current skaters who can win on the basis of program components, and deserve to. I was actually surprised that his free skate components score didn't break 90, because even with the jump errors, his edges, turns, and speed put most of this weekend's ice dancers to shame. Watching live, I was surprised that Brown won, but on replay, it made sense. If we're truly going to consider PCS to be half of a skater's score, then Brown excelled so much at that half of his job, he left everyone else in the dust.

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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.) 

Lombardia Trophy

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.

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