Taking Stock of the Olympic Free Dances
It’s the Olympic year! Almost 10 years into the IJS and with a handful of choreographers creating the majority of the work, there has been a homogenization of ice dance and the emergence of a general Detroit style. There are some interesting free dances this year—many from the second tier elite teams like Gilles/Poirier, Papadakis/Cizeron and Hurtado/Diaz—but on the whole the material feels more conservative than the non-Olympic years. Let’s take stock.
Meryl Davis and Charlie White
Watching Davis and White’s Scheherazade, I think of Judy Blumberg and Michael Seibert’s Scheherazade at the Sarajevo Olympics. Overshadowed by Bolero in 1984, the dance was a seminal work—skated with such clarity of movement, fluency and point of view—that influenced not only the ice dance landscape, but all the Scheherazades we’ve seen across the four disciplines ever since. (The program was so ahead of its time that the Italian judge decided Scheherazade was inappropriate ice dance music, giving Blumberg and Seibert the 5.5 that lost them the Olympic bronze medal.) There are few truly iconic programs in the history of U.S. ice dance, but this is certainly one of them, so I was surprised to learn that Davis and White, attempting to win the first Olympic ice dance gold medal for the United States, also chose Scheherazade.
Davis and White’s version doesn’t land with the same impact of Blumberg and Seibert’s and it’s not entirely their fault—the free dances are so overstuffed now with required elements, many of which go back to the base of ballroom dancing. (I can’t really imagine Blumberg and Seibert’s Scheherazade with a 30 second circular footwork sequence in the middle.) Too often storytelling feels limited to intro choreography, a few transitional steps and an ending position. Davis and White’s Scheherazade has many charming choreographic moments—the heavy step Meryl takes in each direction as the program opens, the placement of the twizzles, the repetition of smaller transitional steps and leaps (reminiscent of Christopher Dean choreography)—but I don’t feel a narrative arising out of and with the music.
The program displays more technical polish than what Davis and White produced at the Vancouver Olympics; their steady improvement over the quadrennium is undeniable. The lifts are breathtaking— appearing out of nowhere, effortless positions, her landings are soft.
Their technical perfection has tempered the abandon that made, say, Samson and Delilah such a visceral experience. Gone now is the grasping and crashing toward each other. Still, watching this dance at NHK I felt the same way I did watching Daisuke Takahashi skate his Beatles long program—these may not be the best programs of their careers (Die Fledermaus gets my vote for Davis and White)—but such a relationship has been built with the audience over many years and that generosity elevates the work. Charlie in particular gains energy from his audience. It will be exciting to see them skate to Rimsky-Korsakov in Russia.
Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir
Marina Zoueva, Virtue and Moir have each explained the story of this dance differently, but I gather that it’s a swan song, career-narrative of some sort. The dance is certainly in the style of much of their past work—Valse Triste, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Mahler come to mind—and care is taken to remind us that this is the team with the real connection (note the choreographed pre and post-dance oogling). Davis and White may have passed Virtue and Moir technically in recent years, but Virtue and Moir are still the once-in-a-generation ice dancers with unlimited artistic range. This is a team that can charm you, seduce you, break your heart; their movement is dazzlingly fast, light and synchronized. With this free dance, Virtue and Moir are more interesting than the material they are working with.
Mahler wasn’t a narrative dance, but a mood was set in the opening 10 seconds; the dance goes somewhere. Skating to pieces from early 20th century Russian composers Alexander Glazunov and Alexander Scriabin, the music cuts for this dance feel heavy-handed and as a result the program doesn’t truly build. The first and last lifts are lovely highlights, but they lose impact because nothing feels at stake in the surrounding choreography. I’m fond of the pledge-of-allegiance ending—it’s really the only unexpected moment in the dance—but the Paris audience in particular seemed confused.
I understand why Zoueva went back to the style that won Virtue and Moir their Olympic gold medal, especially after losing the World title last year, but I wish Carmen could have been their Olympic program. Ice dance only reaches a large audience once every four years and it would be wonderful for Carmen to take that stage. This dance isn’t trying anything new; it’s pleasant but safe through and through.
Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev
In August, Bobrova and Soloviev debuted pieces of their free dance at the Russian test skate. By all accounts the dance was well-received and we learned that Bobrova and Soloviev are portraying hunted birds, with Ekaterina shot at some point in the dance, dying in Dmitri’s arms as the program ends. I thought this character worked well for Dmitri, who has a very youthful, innocent presence; the stressed-out bird character masked some of Ekaterina’s weaknesses.
Cut to the Ice Star competition in Minsk one month later and Alexander Zhulin had completely revamped the dance, replacing the more obscure Russian music with warhorses from Mozart and Vivaldi (including The Four Seasons, music Zhulin used with Maya Usova at the 1992 Olympics). This second version also featured a barking track (hunting dogs, presumably) layered on top of Vivaldi. Three weeks later at Cup of China, the barking was gone. Another three weeks after that, at Rostelecom Cup, the barking was back with a new dying bird noise at the end of the dance.
Pick a lane, Zhulin! While these new versions attempt to keep most of the original choreography, almost all of the subtleties are lost. I wish I had never seen the first version; now I see a dance with a lot of rushing around—in open holds with lots crossovers—trying to force choreography to fit with music it wasn’t created for. Mozart’s Lacrimosa, the second piece, is somber, even formal, and the choreography uses it as little more than background music. I think Zhulin is keenly aware of the weaknesses of his team (sloppy lines, weak posture) and he has tried to create material that best masks their shortcomings and also gives them enough downtime in the choreography to gather a lot of speed. He apparently also has put a lot of pressure on himself to create a masterpiece for the Olympics. He many have overshot this one.
Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte
There is an understated elegance to Cappellini and Lanotte; their skating is very smooth and unfussy. This team is so well-matched with similar range and both look completely at ease with their dancing and what they are being asked to give to the performance. This is not a small thing—many teams have similar skill levels or are a good physical match, but one partner gives 90% of the performance. Cappellini and Lanotte certainly do well with the grand, theatrical free dances—La Traviata, Carmen and now Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. It doesn’t appear they are approaching the choreography from a narrative point of view (that would be quite an undertaking), but in the spirit of the opera, the choreography is light and whimsical with comedic touches. The most charming moment of the dance, played so perfectly by both of them, comes at the end when Anna elbows Luca to turn around for the final position.
Cappellini and Lanotte sometimes lack the power of the other top teams, and when they get nervous their edges can get shallow. When considering the free dances this year, this one doesn’t really rise to the top of the conversation (not enough bird slaughter in this program), which might hurt them at the Grand Prix Final and in the race for the Olympic bronze medal. I hope they keep competing after this season. Each year they are getting better.
Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje
Weaver and Poje’s free dance is a reminder that only ice dancers should attempt tango programs. Choreographed by Shae-Lynn Bourne, this is Weaver and Poje at their very best. Skating to Astor Pizaolloa’s dark 1968 tango opera María de Buenos Aires, the dance is structured so thoughtfully and the choreography is so complete that the program feels two minutes long. We are left wanting more.
The opening circular footwork is a program highlight, which I didn’t know was possible, and at the conclusion Kaitlyn stops right in front of the judges, her legs planted in a deep lunge, before collapsing to her right—a completely satisfying moment. (In María de Buenos Aires, half the action takes place after Maria’s death.) The tango vocabulary could certainly use some polish and they could skate with more attack, but that’s nitpicking. What a pleasant surprise this dance has been this year.
Nathalie Péchalat and Fabian Bourzat
For their final free dance of their career, Péchalat and Bourzat are interpreting The Little Prince, the 1943 novella by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, with Fabian as the prince and Nathalie the capricious rose who inspires the prince to leave home and embark on an intergalactic journey. In a wonderful interview with Jean-Christophe Berlot for Icenetwork, Péchalat and Bourzat explained the development of the dance with clown/mime artist Julien Cottereau, a seven month process that included everything from storyboarding the program to Couttereau reading passages from the book to Nathalie and Fabian as they improvised on the ice. Instead of music from the film, musical or opera versions of The Little Prince, the program is divided into four parts and features music from Cirque de Soleil, two pieces from French film soundtracks and an original composition from Maxime Rodriguez; Fabian told Berlot they selected music they felt synced with the atmosphere they were imagining for the dance. New coach Igor Shpilband was not involved in the choreography or development of the program; his involvement, Pechalat and Bourzart have made clear, was limited to the technical elements.
At first glance the costumes threaten kitsch, but the dance is one of the most charming of their career—whimsical, generous and full of nuance— in a way that feels authentic to their dance aesthetic. Nothing is thrown away. The characters don’t disappear during the elements. As the rose, Nathalie is fickle and vain; right from the opening “bloom” she uses her wrists and abruptly shifts her focus to demand things from Fabian, who is following behind her through the opening two sections of the dance. Couttereau’s involvement is evident in the many details; each time I watch this piece I notice something I missed before.
I’ll be very sorry when this team is gone. Like their predecessors Delobel and Schoenfelder, they have been one of the more thoughtful, inspired teams of the last 10 years, and one of the last vestiges of the drama and originality of the 6.0 era of ice dance.
Madison Chock and Evan Bates
With the Olympics two months away I spare a thought for Emily Samuelson and her exquisite free leg; her absence casts a long shadow over this partnership. Madison Chock winks at us, she smiles; she is always reminding us to look at her. Evan is a wonderful ice dancer, but you have to go out of your way to notice; their programs seem put together with only Madison in mind.
This season they bring one of the many Les Mis programs being skated this year. Shpilband makes use of their size difference to create highlights and Evan can swoop Madison around with ease; in one lift Madison is draped over Evan’s shoulder as he skates backward on one foot and then she backflips down to sit on his skate—that sort of thing. Unfortunately “One Day More” starts to overpower them halfway through the dance and by the time they are pumping down the ice in the final footwork sequence, totally exhausted, the damage is done. Still, the athleticism of this team, specifically what they are capable of with lifts, is the direction ice dance is moving. Looking past Sochi, they should be well-positioned. Just give us more Evan Bates, please.
Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani
I wasn’t ready for wholesome, sweet Alex Shibutani to grab his crotch two seconds into the free dance at Skate America. It was too much! The Michael Jackson free dance may be the strongest material the Shibutanis have had since their 2011 free dance. There is a level of excitement surrounding this dance (mostly from Tanith Belbin, but still) that has been missing the last two years. I’m confounded, however, by the lengthy string section in the middle of the program and curious as to why they went to the trouble of commissioning a special string version of “Ben” instead of using the original. All attempts at “Jackson” choreography is abandoned in this slow section while the combination lift, circular step sequence and dance spin are checked off. It’s as if they didn’t trust that they could actually pull off a full-length Michael Jackson program. The concluding “Thriller” section is so brief that there isn’t enough time to completely win the audience back. It’s nice to see Alex having a really good time with this dance; Maia seems to be trying her best to be a good sport about the whole thing.
I wonder where the Shibutanis go from here. These two have been kicked around since their fluke bronze medal at the 2011 World Championships, so much so that one has to admire their perseverance and resilience these past two years, especially in the Kiss and Cry, solemnly nodding at those sub-60 short dance scores. They are still so young with many wonderful qualities, but it’s not clear that Zoueva knows what to do with them. When they first broke through it seemed possible they could move in the direction of the Kerrs, or even the Duchesnays, and use the limitations of the brother-sister team to push their work in a new direction. It hasn’t happened yet, but fingers crossed for the next four years.
Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov
After their surprise silver medal in Paris, Elena told Jean-Christophe Berlot of their free dance: “We do not want to tell a story. It is just two strong characters showing love and passion.” Fair enough, but pull out a Rachmaninoff piano concerto or a Bach cello suite; Swan Lake is perhaps the most famous story ballet of all time. Like much of their work since 2010, there are flashes of brilliance in a dance that has an overall slapdash feel. Nikolai Morozov has incorporated the requisite nods to ballet, but little attention has been paid to execution. Elena’s attempt at bourrées (quick, small steps done on pointe) are totally thrown away– she takes large steps instead of small ones, doesn’t keep her legs glued together and leads with her front leg instead of her back. Toe point is hit and miss throughout the dance and the carriage of Elena’s arms could use more attention. This team has struggled in the past to match the lift difficulty of the other top teams, and there is some real improvement in that area this year. (Although two lifts feature Elena casually sitting on Nikita’s shoulders, which feels out of place in a Swan Lake free dance.) Beyond the elements there is very little going on in the transitions—at one point between the rotational lift and the dance spin I actually wondered if they were improvising. When a footwork sequence or lift is completed, they immediately let go of each other and skate separately until it’s time to prep for the next element.
You can forgive a lot when you watch this team. They are physically stunning; they attack programs with speed (it’s a rush to watch them charge into twizzles). Elena is the tutued star, but Nikita is a superb ice dancer—the carriage of his head, the way he sharply shifts his focus, his confident and full range of movement; and he’s a wonderful partner. Four years ago when they became junior world champions, many expected this team to vie for the Olympic gold medal in Sochi. Like the Shibutanis, Ilinykh and Katsalapov haven’t chosen the best vehicles the past few seasons. They struggle more than any other top team with consistency. They also went through a high-profile, acrimonious coaching change (Zhulin’s recent interviews indicate he’s still bitter). They are spellbindingly beautiful and totally unpredictable. This team could be the Olympic bronze medalists—or they could botch the dance spin and finish 8th.