Twizzle Talk


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Anatomy of a Titanic Program

This post has been in my drafts for a year—yikes! That’s a little embarrassing. But since 2017 is the 20th anniversary of the movie “Titanic,” and this post was initially intended to sing the praises of current U.S. World Team member Mariah Bell, it’s actually still relevant. High-five to past me.

The music from “Titanic” was a popular choice for skating programs when the movie first came out, and it still pops up in rinks from the local level to the World Championships, because it is such a movie favorite.

Last year, Russian Elena Radionova skated to selections from “Titanic” for her long program, and I just couldn’t get on the bandwagon for this program.

 

The voiceovers were a distraction, rather than an enhancement, and the music selection overall was too repetitive, too reliant on the “My Heart Will Go On” portion of the soundtrack, both with vocals and without. We all know it’s a long movie (anybody else remember the two-VHS boxed set?), and there is a wealth of music to choose from. I’m a fan of the Irish music from the steerage party scene, performed by the wonderful band Gaelic Storm. By the time Celine Dion’s voice comes into the program in the final minute or so, we’ve heard this crescendo of the music several times already, which diminishes the emotional impact and power of the moment.

In terms of the choreography, I didn’t love the constant open and uplifting arm movements…lots of people are dying here, including Radionova’s character’s boyfriend. It looked too triumphant. The jump entrances are held too long and are awkward, which is indicative of the trouble she was having with jumps last season, after a growth spurt.

I did enjoy that Radionova’s dress was a nod to the pretty dress that Kate Winslet wore as the ship was sinking:

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Image Source: awesomeinventions.com

Mariah Bell’s 2015 “Titanic” program, on the other hand, was much more my taste:

 

The opening of this program captures the tension of the film, both in terms of music and choreography. From there, it moves into a natural story: the piece with some pop and Mariah’s beautiful split jumps alludes to the triumphant send-off for the ship, there is a sweet portion in the middle for her footwork that fits with the movie love story, and the use of “My Heart Will Go On” is very subtle.

Skating programs usually build to a grand finale of sorts, with the most exciting, uplifting pieces of music at the end. This program ends quietly, and I liked the nod to the more somber end for the Titanic itself and the movie.

Also, her dress is gorgeous and looks like the ocean.

This Nationals, 2015, was when I first noticed the joy and “it factor” in Mariah’s skating. That’s still present today, in 2017, but she has made huge technical strides. There wasn’t a triple-triple in this program (she doubled a planned triple toe-triple toe), and now she routinely hits the triple lutz-triple toe. She said in her recent interview on the “Ice Talk” podcast that she moved to new coach Rafael Arutyunyan for technical help, so it is exciting to think about the strides she can make after a full season with Raf.

Are there any other well-known “Titanic” programs that you loved or hated? Let me know!


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Nationals Hype and The Next Competition

 

Jackie Wong of Rocker Skating wrote a great post about how Four Continents is used in the selection process for the U.S. World team—and how it’s pretty complicated. Between reading his insightful post, and then watching some performances at Four Continents that paled in comparison to Nationals, I’ve been thinking a lot about “nationals hype.”

Excitement after a great U.S. Championships performance is certainly appropriate and deserved, but sometimes I think we can go overboard, christening a skater as the next big thing before they’ve had a chance to really prove themselves. The competition that follows Nationals should carry more weight for world team selection.

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Vincent Zhou; Image Source: Ice Network

Amidst all the well-deserved excitement over Nathan Chen’s historic five-quad performance, Vincent Zhou also made a splash at U.S. Nationals, with some quads of his own and the silver medal. It  was a bit of a surprise, after a rough Junior Grand Prix series and an injury in the fall.

But he followed it with a win at the 2017 Bavarian Open, and his program included a gorgeous quad lutz. By all appearances, Zhou was able to harness that momentum and use it for his next competition.

Context is important here, of course. He was at a much smaller event (note the empty stands in the video), partially because he still needed to get the minimum technical score to be eligible for senior worlds (he is the first alternate). Next up for Zhou is the World Junior Championships, which is on a much larger stage, so we’ll see how he fares.

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Karen Chen; Image Source: USA Today

On the flip side, we have Karen Chen, who followed up two glorious performances at Nationals with a 12th place showing at Four Continents. She didn’t even get a mention in the Ice Network article about the competition; the U.S. Ladies Champion, completely out of the conversation at her next event.

Now, I understand that everyone has bad days on the ice. Maybe what happened to Chen this week at Four Continents was an anomaly. Maybe she’ll go out at Worlds, blow us all away and help earn three spots for the U.S. ladies at the Olympics. But based on a recent Instagram post, it looks like the injury and boot problems that plagued her throughout 2016 might be back. It sort of begs the question of whether fans, judges, everyone got a little too excited after Chen’s win in Kansas City.

Unlike Zhou, she wasn’t able to translate her Nationals success into an impressive showing on the international stage. Besides her 2017 title and a bronze at the 2015 U.S. Nationals, Chen hasn’t risen to the occasion in international events.

After Nationals, I wrote about how mentally tough I thought the U.S. ladies are, and that I had high hopes for Worlds. After this event, I have to say that I’m a little more nervous than hopeful.

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Mai Mihara; Image Source: NBC Sports

Especially since Mai Mihara grabbed the gold at Four Continents. She looked like a sweet, consistent junior skater when I saw her at Skate America this fall, but this win proves that she is going to be another force to be reckoned with on the world stage.

The inflation of scores at national championship events is oft-discussed and oft-maligned among skating fans, but this goes beyond numbers to me. Chen was heralded as a contender for worlds, based on one event. Zhou, on the other hand, was seen as somebody who had a good day, but needed more room to grow, passed over for the more experienced Jason Brown on the world team. [Note: I think Brown was the right choice for the world team, I’m just pointing out the discrepancy.]

I think we ought to reserve judgment until a Zhou-like outing, where a skater proves that an electric Nationals performance wasn’t a one-time thing. Success at U.S. Nationals, or any country’s national championships for that matter, does not always translate in higher pressure, primetime events.

There’s lots of talk out there on the internet that maybe Karen Chen or Mariah Bell should be removed from the world team, after their subpar Four Continents performances, in comparison to their U.S. teammate Mirai Nagasu’s career-best long program and bronze medal.

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 Mirai Nagasu on the podium at Four Continents;  Image Source: Mercury News

It is certainly a valid discussion as the “body of work” criteria becomes more important and prevalent in the selection process for the world and Olympic teams, as opposed to just placements at Nationals. I’d be in favor of adopting something similar to the Russian system, where skaters have to prove themselves at multiple events to be named to a world or Olympic team—the U.S. is already inching its way in that direction with the new selection criteria.

This way, the U.S. would send skaters who’ve proven themselves over multiple events, in pressured situations, and ideally set themselves up for more success at worlds or the Olympics Games. And the skaters themselves would have multiple opportunities to prove their mettle.

Until then, the U.S. will be sending some “wild card” skaters, with high hopes of earning three Olympics spots, to Helsinki next month.

 

 


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Time to Grow

Sometimes I judge programs too harshly upon first viewing. I remember watching Ashley Wagner’s “Moulin Rouge” long program early in the 2014-2015 season and thinking it was kind of terrible. I thought the lyrics were overkill, used in too many of the cuts throughout the program. Fast forward to her stellar performance at 2015 U.S. Nationals, and she made me love it. I was thrilled she kept it around for another season, and was on my feet, screaming and cheering at 2016 Worlds in Boston when she brought the house down with an even better, more technically difficult and emotionally poignant rendition of this program.

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Image Source: USA Today

Today, I’d say that this program would be a great blueprint for how to use lyrics well in a skating program—Wagner and her choreographer Shae-Lynn Bourne chose songs from the movie that captured the essence of that story, as well as the story of resilience that they wanted to portray.

This season, there have been a few programs that I didn’t enjoy upon first viewing, but have really grown on me as the skaters settled in to them, and made improvements as the season has progressed.

Madison Chock and Evan Bates (USA), free dance “Under Pressure”

This song choice seemed more like noise than music to me, at first. They created quite a buzz by beating Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir in the free dance at Skate Canada with this program, but I still wasn’t convinced. But after seeing two excellent outings of this program, at 2016 U.S. Nationals and Four Continents this week, I’m enjoying it much more. I love how the arm movements and lifts subtly reference the lyrics without being too cheesy or showy. The sharpness of their movements and commitment to the choreography are also fantastic. The entries and exits to all of their lifts are so difficult, yet they pull them off without any disruption to their speed or smoothness.

 

Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres (France), free skate “Sound of Silence”

I saw this program live at Skate America this fall and was underwhelmed. Partially because I associate this song with Nyle DiMarco’s performance on “Dancing with the Stars” and how incredible and impressive it was to watch someone who is deaf perform a fantastic routine to this song, and partially because James and Cipres had a rough skate that day and seemed visibly annoyed with each other. When they were on the “Ice Talk” podcast, they talked with Jackie Wong about putting this program together, and the intentional way that it starts slow and soft and builds throughout. Between learning that, and then seeing them perform with so much heart and confidence at Europeans, I’ve totally come around to this program. If you don’t watch the whole thing, you’ve at least got to check out the incredible, difficult death spiral entrance at about the 4:01 minute mark in the video:

 

Maybe I wrote off these two programs too early in the season (I’m pretty sure it was October, after all). I’m excited to see how much farther they’ll go in the month or so that both of these teams have before the World Championships in Helsinki.

Which programs have grown on you this season?


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Flashback Friday: The Perils of YouTube Autoplay

You know what I’m talking about (with this post title). The YouTube autoplay feature that automatically plays a video similar or related to what you just watched. Second to the Netflix autoplay feature, of course, but still problematic.

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Image Source: googlesystem.blogpost.com

My skating friends and I send each other YouTube links constantly. One of my coworkers is a fellow skating fan, and we love trading links to our favorite performances (I’ve got two in my inbox right now, from the 2017 Europeans exhibition, awaiting my viewing).

But this is when things get dangerous. This is when I get into a YouTube skating hole, and find myself watching way too many programs in a row, for far too long. The original dance from the 2006 Olympics! Vintage Michelle Kwan! Virtue and Moir’s exhibition program to Justin Bieber.

I know I’m not the only one who’s been there.

And sometimes this skating binge-watching leads to the rediscovery of a forgotten gem, like this lovely exhibition program by U.S. ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White, from nearly 10 years ago. This was one of my all-time favorite programs of theirs, to “Beyond the Sea” by Bobby Darin, and you should check it out for your Flashback Friday:


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The Return of Joshua Farris

Today is a great day. One of my absolute favorite U.S. men’s figure skaters has announced his return to competition.

Joshua Farris is back!

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Image Source: ifigureskating.com

My immense appreciation for his skating talents has been well-documented on this little blog, so it is probably a big understatement to say that I am thrilled.

He initially retired over the summer, after a string of concussions made it unsafe for him to continue training. But, according to Ice Network, he has been cleared by his doctors and is back on the ice, ready to finish his career on his own terms.

Let’s revisit his short program from 2015 U.S. Nationals, where he was the bronze medalist. Watch this beauty of a performance and tell me you aren’t excited to see him back in action:

I know Nathan Chen is the quad king for the U.S. right now, but Josh’s return adds an interesting new dimension to the U.S. men’s field. He told Ice Network very confidently that he will come back with a quad or two in his arsenal. If he returns to his prior form, as far as the spins, footwork, and artistry are concerned, and then adds some quads—it could be a real fight between him and his fellow artists, Adam Rippon and Jason Brown, for the remaining spots on the Olympic team (barring an injury or some sort of bizarre disaster that would keep Chen from PyeongChang).

It is, of course, one thing to tell a reporter you’re going to nail quads, and then to actually do it in competition, but I’ve got high hopes here! Now, to start a petition for this “Give Me Love” short program to also make a comeback…


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The Ladies Rise to the Occasion in Kansas City

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Image Source: icenetwork.com

Last year after U.S. Nationals, I mused about how important mental toughness is in skating, and how well it was displayed across the disciplines. This year, no disrespect to the men, pairs or dance skaters, but the top three finishers in the ladies’ event completely wowed me with their mental strength and will to do their best. And each of them rose to the occasion in a different way:

Gold medalist Karen Chen didn’t succumb to the pressure of leading after her exquisite short program. Plenty of skaters can’t hold on to the momentum of a great short program in the free—we’ve seen it happen to poor Ross Miner two years in row at Nationals, finishing second after a great short only to falter in the free. But that wasn’t the case with Karen:

 

Reigning World Silver Medalist Ashley Wagner had to skate right after hearing Chen’s giant score and the crowd roar in response. But in true and gritty Wagner fashion, she dug deep for another emotional, strong performance that brought the crowd to its feet:

She was rocking a new dress for the long program (I suspected she might be one to do a mid-season switch), and I loved the ombre color and the back strap detail.

Mariah Bell had the most serious errors of the top three, with a hopped landing on her opening triple-triple combo and a fall on her second jump, the triple loop. She could have folded under the pressure or given up in disappointment at that point (as it looked like Gracie Gold and Mirai Nagasu did later in the free skate, after making errors of their own.) But instead, Bell calmed down, righted herself, and skated beautifully the rest of the way:

And man, did it pay off. Because it’s Bell who is the bronze medalist, who punched her ticket to the 2017 World Championships in Helsinki, Finland, while Gold and Nagasu were left off the team.

Gold and Nagasu seem to be the cautionary tales, in terms of mental strength. They both have a history of letting a program collapse once one mistake creeps in, rather than forgetting the mistake and moving on to the next element. Obviously that’s easy for me to say from behind my computer screen, but I think it’s something all skaters strive to do, whether they are on the world stage or just an adult skater still plugging away on her junior moves. Previous mistakes can’t impact what happens next.

The way Chen, Wagner, and Bell responded to their unique adversity on Saturday night is an important step in their personal skating journeys, and experience that will serve them well going into a pressure-packed Olympic season.

Chen proved that she could overcome boot problems and injuries to put together two clean programs at a high-stakes event. Hopefully this gives her the boost to perform like she belongs among the best in the world when she competes at international events.

Wagner showed yet again that she can tune out the noise (both literal and figurative) around her and deliver the goods. And she’s going to need that when skating against the ridiculously consistent Russian and Japanese ladies at Worlds and the Olympics.

Bell demonstrated poise, maturity, and commitment when she salvaged the rest of her program after the early mistakes. That ability to reassess and stay calm will be invaluable as she heads to her first World Championships and starts to experience more pressure and expectations after her strong showings this season.

I don’t know about you, but I feel pretty good about this crew heading to Worlds and staking their claim on three spots for the U.S. ladies in the 2018 Olympics.