Meryl Davis and Charlie White from the U.S. - They're working hard both on and off the ice. With interviews designed to help us notice their new connection and lots of on-ice hugging it is obvious they felt they could improve on their togetherness. Their long program misses the mark for me though, and the distance between the pack and these two gets smaller.
Admittedly, these are my words alone and the judges don't seem to agree. Dance is almost as much emotion as it is steps, speed and skill for me and I'm a fan of this team, but still think their long program is vulnerable. But, I won't be a judge in Sochi at the Grand Prix so tune in and see.-Kurt Browning
Earlier this week, Kurt Browning went on the offensive, attacking Marlie, as the latest henchman of Skate Canada. It is amazing how Skate Canada coordinates and sticks to a message with the precision of the GOP during the Bush-Cheney-Rove years. While it may be annoying to those who see the improvement and talent in Davis and White, it is ultimately a compliment: the Canadians are feeling threatened.
Browning is basically criticizing the Americans for feeling a need to improve their connection. In a subjective sport, there is always room for improvement. No one is on top forever. As the Americans posted higher scores than the Canadians during the Grand Prix and appear physically fit and well trained, they are perceived to have a slight edge in Sochi this weekend.
Marlie’s biggest advantage is having a short dance that is regarded as a masterpiece by many. While I am a grumpy old bastard who struggles to see them pulling off the theme of Giselle, I cannot deny the brilliance of the steps and timing to the music.
All of Marina Zueva’s teams have struggled with their compulsory patterns this fall. Typically, they’ve struggled to get a level 4 for both patterns, but they have had issues getting a level 4 for either pattern this year. The Yankee Polka is tricky and dance judges are more obsessive compulsive than even the most finicky of the skating establishment.
Marlie’s free dance overcomes (perhaps) too much music edits with raw power and improved chemistry and nuances. Their dance comes alive. It could use slightly more amplitude at the end as they leap forward and dash to their closing pose. Meryl’s short legs do not help in this moment of Russian drama, but the overall program is secure.
There is a feeling among many that these teams are no longer faking close friendship and there is an even greater chance that either could leave if they are dissatisfied with a second place finish this season. Some conspiracy theorists even think the Canton coaching staff has politicked back and forth between the teams to keep both successful, yet placated enough to keep them from jumping ship. With the Olympics approaching and the rivalry growing in intensity, there may not be room for two top teams under Zueva’s care for long.
The split between Marina Zueva and Igor Shpilband is likely not catastrophic to Marlie or Voir. Those teams are far enough ahead and likely just fifteen to sixteen months left in their amateur careers. The fracture does show up in the sloppy short dances, of which Voir’s was borderline disastrous for a top team at Skate Canada. While Voir’s Carmen is an avante garde masterpiece, their short dance is simply not on par with the short dance of the Americans.
The Canadians are also visibly slower than the Americans and are clearly vying to win the free dance on the basis of their components. While the ending lifts to their programs are stunning, it is unclear if they can erase a slow mid section of the program where the energy and theme die off during an all-important step sequence. Their dance spin is alarmingly slow for a top two team. With the top teams so close, everything matters. Politics and personal taste do matter.
Perhaps the most affected by the split are Maia and Alex Shibutani. There have been rumors that Mr. Shibutani is an investor in the rink who was displeased that his children dropped in the world rankings last year and was aghast when Igor wanted to take on teams in direct competition with them. While this is unconfirmed, it is plausible for a dance team whose mother has a ballet studio in her apartment. It also feeds into Marina’s desire and ammunition for ridding herself of her coaching partner.
The Shibutanis are wonderful technical skaters, but they are still developing. Igor’s technical mastery is greatly missed, as is his creativity. In skating, like in the political world, the pendulum swings. Too much success by one side always means retribution. When the North Americans (and all Canton teams) swept the podium at the 2011 World Championships, the European ice dance skating establishment responded by picking apart the Shibutanis limb for limb in interviews last season. It surprised almost no one that the judges pounced on every ample opportunity to push them down.
As the Shibs have tried to climb back up after disappointing results and material last season, they have gone to desperate measures. Many have invoked the innovative programs of the Duchesnays when discussing the direction the Shibutanis should go in, but they surely did not advise them to pick their signature Missing program music, which only draws unfavorable comparisons. Worse yet, the music is not quite in time with the Yankee Polka and the theme is surely off the mark. It is a struggle in the best of times.
If any team shows visible improvement, it is Pechalat and Bourzat, who are skating with more confidence than ever after finally earning a medal at Worlds. Their Rolling Stones free dance isn’t for everyone, but it is "pure dance" in a time when Zueva is pushing the pendulum back to the dramatic free dance themes.
A year ago, the French were competing with their Canadian training partners for a spot on the medal rostrum. This year, Weaver and Poje’s short dance appears worthy of a novice team (thematically), and their free dance’s technical elements kept them from earning a trip to the Grand Prix final. While the free dance is lovely, it lacks the punch of last year’s Je Suis Malade. We are not crazy delirious this year and neither are the judges.
On the Russian front, the judges continue to push Ilinykh and Katsalapov as the team to beat post Sochi. Their short dance is popular for those who lived in Soviet Russia, but merely ‘ethnic’ for those of us who did not. There are few words that can amply describe the level of mess that is their Ghost free dance. While they are improving as skaters, their storytelling is bizarre even for a team that earned our love by Nikita shooting Elena in the face on their way to a Junior World Championship. The decision to include dialogue from Ghost leaves many confused. The one brilliant spot is it leaves the British Eurosport commentators arguing at the end of every performance.
Bobrova and Soloviev have improved stylistically and the judges are giving them an added boost as a result, but their own cluster fuck of a free dance theme is very Russian and very bizarre.
Igor’s antipathy toward Marina Zueva has led him to attacking her teams on the ice. While Cappellini and Lanotte’s Carmen is not overshadowing the Canadians, their rapid improvement is pushing them forward in the rankings and clearly ahead of the American silver medalists. Chock and Bates are a clear third team for Worlds this year, but their ascent makes one wonder how much longer Maia and Alex can hold them off if they stay with Marina in hopes of being a Virtue and Moir knock-off. Without Igor’s technical expertise, they are vulnerable and he is pouncing.
As the attention shifts to Sochi, be mindful of the volleying for position occurring. While current results matter, a bigger eye should always be on what it means for the future.