2019-20 Grand Prix of Figure Skating Final Review: Off to the Races

After six weeks of nonstop skating and a two-week break to catch our breath, it’s time for the Grand Prix Final. Overall, I’d say it’s been a fun Grand Prix to watch – dark horses in the men’s events, the rise of new Russian ladies, some glorious performances from the pairs, and a handful of unique and innovative programs in ice dance. I’ve enjoyed watching, and to be honest, I’m bummed that it’s over so quickly. We still have half a season ahead of us, but there’s just a magical, exciting energy surrounding the Grand Prix events.

One thing I won’t miss, however, is the crowd of bickering fans on Twitter who act like an uncalled underrotation is a federal crime and spend hours picking apart the protocols, screaming about how this jump or that jump deserved higher GOE. In the past few days, I’ve seen more nastiness in this fandom than I could ever imagine. Figure skating is supposed to be an enjoyable, entertaining sport, and while I don’t mind discussing the scores, some of these fans have taken it way too far and use scoring discourse as a weapon to bully skaters they dislike. I used to do a lot of tweeting and blogged only about important events and issues, but as time goes on, I’ve found that I prefer blogging over tweeting. It’s more time-consuming and gets less attention, but I get less trolls and less stress, which is worth the trade-off for me. Of course, this doesn’t mean I’m abandoning figure skating twitter. I’m just taking a different approach to it.

Also, as promised, I’m reviewing all four disciplines of the GPF – men, ladies, pairs, and ice dance. I started this blog to talk about pair skating, which will always be close to my heart, and last season I began sharing my thoughts on the ladies’ events. I am slow at writing my reviews because I like to evaluate each performance as thoroughly as possible, so I’ve shied away from writing full event reviews because it’s too time-consuming. However, I do have a lot of opinions on men and ice dance, and I thought this was a good time to share them. This review is going to be quite long, so let’s get started.

PAIRS:

Three Russian pairs qualified to the Grand Prix Final, but not the reigning national champions and World silver medalists Tarasova/Morozov. Personally, I found this a little unfair; I don’t like how the GPF qualification system works. I’ve already discussed all of these programs in my Grand Prix reviews, so this review will focus mostly on the result and state of pairs as a whole.

There was no shortage of good pairs here, but the actual level of performance wasn’t as good as usual. The winning score was only 211 points, much lower than some of the scores above 225 we saw on the Grand Prix. There were just lots of weird mistakes and chaos, but in the end, the podium didn’t turn out half bad.

Wenjing Sui/Cong Han:

For the past few years, Sui/Han have been a dominant force in pairs, and for good reason. They have such a dynamic quality to all their elements and somehow create an air of royalty over their heads. Although they won this event by a solid margin, they didn’t show all they were capable of. This isn’t my favorite SP of theirs, but when you’re a cut above everyone else, you can skate to “Three Blind Mice” and it’ll be enjoyable. Overall, they skated it well here, but her hand touched the ice on the throw jump and they only got level 2 on the lift, putting them too close for comfort to Boikova/Kozlovskii in the SP. Usually, her throw landings are rock solid. It just looks like she leaned a bit too far forward. However, when you’re a team that thrives on your positive GOE, mistakes are more costly.

The free skate was not their strongest performance. Cong made mistakes on both side-by-side jumps, and they actually lost that segment to Peng/Jin. It was definitely surprising, but it still doesn’t negate that they’re an incredible pair.

I still can’t believe Wenjing says she doesn’t like “Rain in Your Black Eyes”. I’m 99% sure she’s the only person who doesn’t like it. It’s just so good every time. The music isn’t overpowering, so the program really showcases the strength of their basic skating. I was really impressed by the smoothness of their lifts. Cong is the shortest pair guy in this event, but he looks more comfortable than any of the other men when he’s lifting. His holds look solid, his legs are steady, and he actually moves at a great speed. But guys, why do your costumes not match? You are a divine King and Queen of pair skating, but you can’t match your costumes! I imagine they had a brother-sister quarrel over which color to wear and Coach Hongbo Zhao said “fine, you wear green and you wear blue!”

Cheng Peng/Yang Jin:

It’s always a joy watching Peng/Jin. Their SP is charming, flirty, and exudes pure class – last season, they found a theme that worked for them and continued with it. They have a unique, light quality on the ice that you don’t see too often. Her dress is just too darn cute and I think I may be in love. I’m still not sure why he’s dressed up as Black Panther, but it works.

Unfortunately, they needed a clean SP to stay in the running and a clean SP didn’t quite happen. Tiny mistakes cost them – a shaky landing on the SBS jump, a little snag on the throw, and a missed level here and there. In such an excellent field, it just didn’t hold up, although I personally found the performance very enjoyable and would’ve had their score higher.

The FS is a huge step forward for them – it challenges them to be more mature, refined, and serious. I was so happy to see them finally put it all together and deliver it cleanly here. She had to fight for the throw jumps but she wasn’t going down, and of all the free skates at this event, I enjoyed this one the most. They actually beat Sui/Han in the free skate, which is no easy feat, and I think that was totally fair. They’ve had such a stunning chemistry together since day one, and it only seems to be growing every day. I mean, if I didn’t know any better, I would think these two were married. They move like one person down the ice. With so many pairs switching partners every few seasons, it’s so rare to find a couple that looks like a perfect match.

Side note: Cheng looks like the legendary Chinese pair skater Zhang Dan with that haircut, and I think she is truly living up to that level when it comes to star power.

Anastasia Mishina/Aleksandr Galliamov:

Mishina/Galliamov already did something pretty awesome this season: they won their first Grand Prix event and made it to the GPF in their first year as seniors. They have all the technical goods, and I think the performance quality will come with time. I’ll say it right off the bat here: I’m not a fan of their programs this year. They’re not an emotional pair like Sui/Han that can rip your heart out with a few crossovers, so I think “Je Suis Malade” overwhelms them a bit, especially since the elements aren’t placed on the highlights of the music. They skated a clean SP but only scored 71.48, which was quite a bit lower than the 76 from Boikova/Kozlovskii and 75 from Pavliuchenko/Khodykin. At the end of the day, it all comes down to the packaging for me. The other two couples found programs that accentuate their strengths, whereas I think Mishina/Galliamov skated well DESPITE their program. They lost a few points on GOEs – although the elements were clean, they didn’t quite rack up the same numbers as their teammates. It might be because they skated first; the judges tend to be stingier in the beginning.

They look more comfortable in the FS to “The Master and Margarita”, but the music cuts don’t really fit together and I’m not sure whether this is supposed to be comic or dramatic or whatever. (The story is about the devil coming to Moscow in the Stalin era, so I’m assuming it’s not exactly a comedy). If you’re going to do a program about the devil, I want to see the devil himself out there, not a guy in a red jacket that belongs in The Greatest Showman! She seems like she could be fun and playful, so I’d like to see her try something a bit comedic. Maybe a flapper-themed program would work for them? They definitely have the star power, they just need to showcase it. They skated this free skate nearly as well as they could and scored the highest technical score of the night. Props to them for bagging a medal at the GPF in their first senior season – it’s no easy feat! I just remembered they’re coached by the Velikovs, who worked with baby Stolbova/Klimov before they moved to Nina Mozer. The Velikovs are great at pairing up young Russian teams and teaching great technique, but I’m not sure if choreography is their thing, so I wonder if a new choreographer might be the key for them. Also, their elements are good but their actual speed down the ice could use a little work.

On a personal note, I’m just so proud of Anastasia Mishina for making it here. I remember watching her a few years ago when she won the Junior Grand Prix final with Vladislav Mirzoev. She was a talented girl even back then, but they were too close in size and the partnership dissolved, and I thought, “Poor girl, what is she going to do now?” Well, she gave it another shot and it turned out better than I could’ve imagined.

Aleksandra Boikova/Dmitri Kozlovskii:

This season was a major breakthrough for Boikova/Kozlovskii – they came out of the Grand Prix circuit with two gold medals and the highest combined total score so far. I knew they were talented last season, but these programs give them a completely new level of maturity and finesse. The SP feels like a charming old film, light and classic and utterly a dream. I don’t think it’s a masterpiece of a program, and if you gave it to some less talented pair, it would be boring. However, their movements are so fluid and graceful that it looks stunning – they’re both quite tall, so they can create long, gorgeous lines. They feel like they stepped from another era. (If they don’t skate to War and Peace or Pride and Prejudice before they retire, I will protest). Despite skating cleanly, their score wasn’t quite as high as it was at Rostelecom Cup because the judges weren’t as enthusiastic with the +4 and +5 GOE. They got level 4 on everything that except the twist, which was a level 3. They actually beat Sui/Han on the technical mark, but they still have almost a 3-point deficit in PCS, which I assume will shrink as they get more momentum throughout the season.

I’ll just say it plain and simple: this free skate did not go well. Guys, the door was open, they could’ve done it…Aleksandra seemed to be struggling in the practice and they couldn’t get it together here. Her landings didn’t look as solid as usual, and errors on the last two lifts shot down any chance at a medal. I’ve already gushed about their James Bond FS in my earlier blog posts, so I’ll keep it short here. It’s a great program when it’s performed well, and I think they’ll have plenty of opportunities to perform it well in the future. I would change his costume though; it’s a bit stuffy for James Bond. He could either switch to a sharp-looking suit like classic Bond or go for a more roguish, charming Bond with a button-down shirt. It’s surely disappointing for them when victory was within reach, but it was just one bad free skate, not the apocalypse. They’re still very young and one of the most talented pairs in the world; one bad performance won’t change that – I have a feeling this isn’t the last Grand Prix Final they’ll compete at. I adore these programs and I’m hoping they can get their feet under them again at Russian Nationals.

Kirsten Moore-Towers/Michael Marinaro:

After years of steadily improving, Kirsten and Mike finally made it to the GPF, and they did it in style. I think this is the best set of programs they’ve ever had. Kirsten is a sparkling, sassy little diva (in a good way), and this SP showcases that so well. It reminds me of their sizzling SP to “Sweet Dreams” from two years ago, but even cooler. I finally got used to her darker hair and I like it! Alas, great programs do not always equal clean programs, and the SP got off to a bad start. Their twist is the weakest of the six pairs here, and a nasty fall on the throw followed by a stumble on the side-by-side jump unfortunately killed their chance for a medal. I think she just slipped too far forward on the throw jump and couldn’t get her foot under her. Falls on throw jumps of any kind scare me, but it’s worst when you can’t even slow it down with your other foot.

The FS is by far the best program they’ve had in their career. It’s a bit like their beautiful “Un Ange Pas” program, yet it has a new level of emotion I did not expect. While I was watching, I suddenly thought of Ruest/Wolfe’s stunning FS to “Turning Page” and went, “Oh, that’s why I like this program!” In fact, most of my favorite skating programs are set to these slow, easy, dreamy songs, and this is the best example of that. I’ve heard a lot of discourse about Kirsten’s tiara, but I personally don’t mind it. She’s a queen and she deserves her own crown. After a rough go in the short, they were looking ready for redemption in the free…and then Mike face-planted on a throw jump. No, not Kirsten, Mike. On a throw jump, aka a jump where the guy throws and the girl lands. Kirsten somehow managed not to fall, but Mike was just flat on the ice! Pure chaos. Still, it was a good performance and I enjoyed it.

It’s great to see them thriving after such a long struggle to break through. However, I think the judges seem a little gung-ho with the GOE on their twist. Also, Mike still looks unsteady in the lifts. They’re attempting very difficult lift positions, but they aren’t executing them well, and it spoils the impression. They remind me of a young Tarasova/Morozov – she has breathtaking positions, so everyone’s looking at her while he’s gritting his teeth and hoping no one looks at his feet. I do believe this can be cleaned up with time. It’s not like they have a small size difference where lifts are going to be difficult no matter what. In the meantime, maybe they should try easier lifts until he gets comfortable with them. I really enjoy these two and I think they could finally challenge for a medal at Worlds if they bring their A-game.

Daria Pavliuchenko/Denis Khodykin:

Pavliuchenko/Khodykin made it to the GPF for the second year in a row. This SP highlights their strengths and lets them just skate nicely without forcing them into characters. I like the little details, like the exit on the lift and the acrobatic moves into the closing pose. Their twist is brilliant and majority of their elements are a solid quality. This was by far the best short program I’ve seen from them – they got all level 4s and seemed to really perform it to its full potential. I was surprised to see them over three and a half points ahead of Mishina/Galliamov, but I think the judges made the right call.

The FS is a cool concept and the choreography is fine, but I don’t find the music very engaging. It’s very hard to take a dark, abstract piece like that and turn it into something exciting. Daria has the intensity for it, but I feel like Denis is just standing there like a cute little puppy. However, it’s definitely better than their hodgepodge attempt at a Great Gatsby free skate last year. I was really hoping they could pull off a medal here, but it just wasn’t meant to be from the start. She had a rough fluke fall in the first few seconds of the program and then they messed up their twist, which is usually their strongest element. Then she took a nasty spill on the throw jump, and as things fell apart, you really couldn’t give this program high PCS. I hope she’s okay because those falls looked ridiculously painful.

It’s interesting to me that they’ve gotten this far because I don’t think they’re the most natural-looking pairing. She’s tiny and intense, and he looks like a big soft teddy bear. I love my short/tall pairs – trust me, I was a Duhamel/Radford uber – but I find this team’s size difference jarring. Khodykin reminds me of a young Bruno Massot: he’s so huge that he has a hard time being graceful, and it’s quite obvious because his tiny partner is just twirling around the ice with ease. I like Daria a lot; despite her small size, she has a steadiness and strength that sets her apart. That’s why I think Denis needs a little makeover – maybe trim his hair more sharply to give him a bolder look. This pair is starting to grow on me and I hope their coaching team can help them assemble a full package that really works for them, because the potential is all right there.

Best Moment: Peng/Jin winning the free skate.

Best Dressed: Moore-Towers/Marinaro’s SP costumes with honorary mention to Peng’s SP dress.

Crush: Wenjing Sui or Cheng Peng, I can’t decide!

 

MEN:

The qualification for the GPF in men’s was basically a free-for-all. Several of the top contenders struggled at one competition and shined at another – it was like the men were playing hot potato with the GPF spots. But in the end, six men made it to Turin and gave it their best shot.

Nathan Chen:

This season, Nathan’s programs feel very Nathan. Sometimes, you have a talented skater who can lay down a beautiful performance, but you can tell they don’t personally like the program. (Remember when Sui/Han won Worlds with that gorgeous “Rain in Your Black Eyes” program and later she told the press she didn’t like the music?). It feels like Nathan had a hand in the creative process for these programs and enjoys performing them, and when a skater loves a program, I think it shines through on the ice. For the past few years, he’s been experimenting with these modern, jazzy short programs, and I think this is my favorite one yet. It reminds me a bit of Javier Fernandez – cool, casual, and a little flirty. But I will never forgive him for changing costumes. This shirt is okay, but he looked so cute and charming in that vest on the Grand Prix!

There’s only one word to describe this “Rocketman” FS: iconic. Who else could come out in a crazy neon yellow shirt and stop for a dance break between quads? It’s crazy and chaotic but I honestly think it’s pretty cool. I like seeing this exuberant performer side of Nathan because it feels like his natural self shining through. The men’s event can be a stressful mess of splats, and at the end of a scary competition, Nathan’s performances feel like a nice, relaxing reprieve.

I find it almost impossible to compare Yuzuru and Nathan because they are such polar opposites. Yuzuru is like Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata – a classic masterpiece that gives you goosebumps. Nathan is like the Taylor Swift songs you sing over and over in the car because the beat is so dang good. They’re both so good in different ways, and I have nothing but respect for them both. I do think a clean Yuzuru should beat a clean Nathan and Nathan’s PCS are higher than they should be, but I think it’s the same situation that’s happening in the ladies’ event: quads boost PCS, and Nathan has quads. Not to mention, he’s a 2-time World champion. At this particular event, Nathan had the better performances and deserved to be standing on top of that podium.

Yuzuru Hanyu:

It’s hard to describe Yuzuru’s skating in words. He looks like a white swan on the ice – light, quick, and graceful, but his jumps are brilliant, fluid, and powerful. He has such fine attention to detail, much like Satoko Miyahara. He chose to keep both programs from last season – “Otonal” for the SP and “Origin” for the FS. I think he truly loves these programs because they remind him of his idols, Johnny Weir and Evgeni Plushenko. It was a wonderful moment that he got to skate “Otonal” on the same ice where Weir had skated it at the 2006 Olympics. In the SP, he was looking so solid but then he just couldn’t get the combo at the end. Unfortunately, that’s a major error and with Nathan skating so cleanly, he couldn’t afford that. He started very strong in the free skate with two beautiful quads, and I started thinking maybe he could pull off a grand comeback, but little mistakes sneaked in on the last two quad combinations, and then he popped his triple axel sequence. He went for an ambitious five-quad layout and by the end, he just looked too tired. Still, it was a good performance and he earned a well-deserved silver.

Now for costumes: I wish he would go back to the simpler SP top he was wearing last year. I know extravagant costumes are Yuzuru’s brand, but I think he went a little overboard with the ruffles this time. My guess is that he saw Constance Wu’s pale blue dress in Crazy Rich Asians and tried to turn it into a skating costume, but I find all these frills distracting from his beautiful lines. When you have Yuzuru’s level of talent, you can skate in Dobby the house-elf’s pillowcase; you don’t need to cover up your posture by decorating yourself like a cake. His free skate costume, on the other hand, is by far my favorite he’s ever had. Deep purple costumes are my weakness and I caught myself re-watching his program just to get a better look at the tiny details. It just exudes luxury, royalty, and mystery. I think this is the best men’s skating costume I’ve seen in the past five years. Also, happy birthday, Yuzu!

Kevin Aymoz:

Kevin was a major discovery for me this season. I had seen him once or twice before and liked his skating, but I had no idea he was going to burst to the top. He has such musicality and softness, and the judges are finally rewarding it. His programs this year are two extremes, but they’re both fabulous. The SP to “The Question of U” by Prince allows him to be edgy and flirty, while “Lighthouse” gives all the feels and highlights his gorgeous skating skills. (Not to mention, as a fan of Jason Brown and Savchenko/Massot, these music choices make me so happy inside). He nailed that SP like a boss; to be honest, I think he was underscored. I was afraid he might let it slip in the free skate, but he delivered so well. Besides the fall on the solo quad toe, every element was perfection. This program has always been incredible, but it’s even better with such clean skating. He created a real moment on the ice and I couldn’t be happier that he’s coming away with a bronze medal here. He reminds me a bit of Patrick Chan, who I still consider one of the finest male skaters in the past 10 years. Also, he looks like he could be Guillaume Cizeron’s little brother.

Alexander Samarin:

Since transitioning to seniors a few seasons ago, Samarin has shown potential, but this season, he finally clinched a spot in the GPF. This is largely thanks to his quads – his technique is wonky, but he manages to stay upright while the other boys go tumbling. Hey, if you can yeet yourself into a jump and actually land it, you have my #respect. Now for the programs…somebody please tell this nice young man that Blues are great for Klook, but not for him. I’m sorry, he just looks awkward trying to give that sizzle. If he’s trying to be sexy, give him a rock-and-roll program and let him play a cool bad boy instead of trying to turn him into Javier Fernandez. Just imagine him skating to “Paint it Black” in faux leather or something! With the jumps not really working for him, the program just fell flat here.

It’s an unpopular opinion, but I don’t mind his free skate. I asked for “punk” and he gave me “punk”. He has his own style and it works for him. As a skater, he reminds me of Maxim Kovtun, except he doesn’t struggle so much with popped jumps. If he can keep leaning into that edginess, I think he could become a really enjoyable performer. (He should go talk to Matteo Rizzo from Italy, who has an entire collection of old rock-and-roll programs). But please take the face off your shirt! It’s distracting. He could just put a studded skull and crossbones on the back or cut it out in mesh or just something other than this! He pulled together a decent performance besides the popped quad and the stumble, and 4th was realistically the best he could’ve done in this field. 

I don’t like to complain about scoring, because too often, the skaters get blamed for the judges’ decisions. However, I think the judges seem a bit too enthusiastic about some aspects of Samarin’s skating. He deserves credit for landing his quads, but his technique is not great and he lacks flow, so I don’t think he should get much positive GOE. As for PCS, I simply don’t see how the numbers on the scoresheet correlate with what I’m seeing on the ice. He doesn’t exactly have skating skills like Jason Brown. That said, I think his basic skating has improved since his senior debut and I’m hoping he keeps working on it. Not a bad event for him! 

Boyang Jin:

After a rough outing at Skate America, I was afraid Boyang had no chance to qualify for the GPF. But strange magic was afoot on this Grand Prix circuit, and after he pulled off some solid performances at Cup of China, he slipped into the final spot here. I really enjoy this SP for Boyang because it taps into his artistry. However, I can’t help thinking he should be wearing something less formal. He could wear a regular button-down shirt and pants and it would look more charming – think of the basic pants/shirt combo Shoma Uno wore in his exhibition program to “This Town” and you’ll get the image I’m thinking of. I know he was going for gold embellishments, but the yellow on white looks like sweat stains. Unfortunately, the popped lutz at the beginning brought his medal chances down right out of the gate.

I also like the FS. It doesn’t just feel like running from quad to quad, but he doesn’t look overwhelmed with the choreography either. It’s a perfect balance of athleticism and artistry. I remember when he first popped on the scene, jumping four quads to “How to Train Your Dragon”, and I’m so proud of how he’s developed artistically since then. His skating skills have improved quite a bit, and he seems to actually hear his music while he performs. He had two big falls on quads in the program, but the rest was solid. I hope he can get his feet under him and peak in the second half of the season.

Dmitri Aliev:

After a rough season, Aliev has really turned things around here and punched his ticket to his first GPF. His SP is all right, but I think he could handle something bigger. He could be slaying something like Shoma’s “Dancing On My Own” or something a bit more emotional. Aliev is one of the most emotional, lyrical men’s skaters I’ve seen in a while, so I would like to see him really plunge headfirst into that. I’ve seen him skate better short programs but it wasn’t a disaster.

As for the free skate, well…it happened. He just didn’t look comfortable while he was skating; maybe he was nervous. The first quad lutz was good but after that, the jumps just started unraveling. 

I always support anyone skating to “The Sound of Silence”, and I think Aliev does a good job. I was worried that he wouldn’t have enough angst for it because he seems like such a soft, graceful performer, but he’s handling it. It’s not an edgy and powerful version – it’s a poignant and lovely version. It’s a shame he had so many mistakes here because it interrupted the program and didn’t give the stunning effect it had at Rostelecom Cup. Out of curiosity, I’d like to see Samarin skating Aliev’s free skate to see the difference in interpretation. I feel like Aliev uses the music to tell a poetic story of pain: he wakes up in a world where no one speaks and no one can hear him. Instead of screaming in anguish, he’s sharing his story quietly so it gives you goosebumps. Also, am I the only one who thinks Aliev looks like a young Nikita Katsalapov?

Best Moment: Kevin Aymoz’s reaction in the kiss-and-cry when he realized he won the bronze medal.

Best Dressed: Yuzuru Hanyu, free skate.

Crush: Nathan Chen, but please bring back your SP vest.

 

ICE DANCE:

Confession: I just tune in for ice dancing because of the sexy ladies doing Latin programs and have no idea how to check levels on step sequences. I don’t know how the technical side works, so usually I just clap along and wait for whatever scores may be. And this ice dance event was pure chaos, just how I like it.

Papadakis/Cizeron:

Sometimes, competition gets intense and you just need something fun. Presenting Gabi and Gui wearing Jane Fonda-inspired workout outfits from the 1980s! It looks like they saw the colors of Taylor Swift’s Lover album and decided to put them on a costume. (Now can we get them to skate to a Taylor Swift medley? ‘Cause that would be lit). It’s dorky but also entertaining. Of all the couples to do something like this, I would’ve never imagined it would be Papadakis/Cizeron. Cappellini/Lanotte? Definitely. Chock/Bates? I’d love to see it. The elegant French couple who inspired an era of classic, lyrical programs? I think I hear hell freezing over. It’s just so bizarre that I have to love it. Say what you will, but it’s definitely not boring. I was preparing to see them smash 90 again, but Papadakis had a fluke stumble and they ended up barely a point ahead of second place. Hey, it happens. Ice is slippery.

The free dance is a love-it-or-hate-it program, but I personally like it. I don’t like voiceovers in programs so I’m not sold on the music (Jackie Wong pointed out that it’s hard to hear the voiceovers in the arena), but the skating itself is amazing. I’ve always wanted to see them go in that emotional, contemporary dance direction and they finally listened to me. They delivered a new level of rawness and beauty I’ve never seen from them before. I like the simple black costumes but I want to remove the white strips because they look like deodorant stains. I like how they’ve built a new image for ice dance that doesn’t center around romance. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good romantic program. But sometimes it’s nice to see two skaters just doing their thing and not acting like Katniss and Peeta trying to convince everyone in Panem that they’re in love. (Shoutout to the Shibutanis for doing the same). Not to mention, as an out and proud bi girl, it means a lot to me that the top team in ice dance consists of two openly LGBT skaters.

Papadakis/Cizeron are the best ice dancers in the world right now, and they fully deserved their win here. However, I do think they were overscored. No couple, no matter how flawless they are, can get +5’s on everything and straight 10.00’s for PCS. They’re certainly not the first couple to get this treatment – Virtue/Moir and Davis/White had some questionably high marks back in the day too. I just don’t like how ice dance chooses one or two couples as “leaders” and keeps the other skaters several points below that mark. It happens in other disciplines too, but ice dance is the most obvious to me. No tea, just facts.

Madison Chock/Evan Bates:

It’s official: God is a woman and her name is Madison La’akea Te-Lan Hall Chock. With all due respect to the gold-medal queens of ice dance, I must say Madi is the most engaging ice dancer I have ever watched. There’s such a brilliance to everything she does; she reminds me of Elena Ilinykh because of her intensity, charisma, and beauty. Madi skating to “Too Darn Hot” is like Yuzuru skating to “The Greatest”. I’m not usually a fan of showy old-fashioned ice dance programs because plain and simple, I usually find them boring. However, Madi sells the heck out of it. Her bright pink dress reminds me of Vegas showgirls, and look at Evan bringing out his classy tux! They’re not quite as fast as the other teams, but they have precision and they don’t look sloppy out there. Well done, guys, well done. They ended up in third place after the rhythm dance, which was higher than I expected, and I was definitely not crying about that.

I’m still calling the free dance “The Adventures of Cleopatra and Indiana Jones”. I really appreciate that they’re going for something new that you don’t see every day in ice dance. Lord knows, we’ve seen enough classical lyrical programs to last a lifetime. Madi looks like an actual goddess in that gold dress, and with this long braided hairstyle, I can’t help thinking she would make a perfect Lara Croft from “Tomb Raider”. Their strength has always been the free dance, and this was no exception. Of all the Egyptian programs we got this season, this is my favorite because it actually sticks to a theme; they’re not just running around the ice to a muezzin’s call. My only complaint about this program is that it features a lot of posing. I respect that they’re trying to maintain the snake charmer theme throughout, but it breaks up the continuity a bit. In any case, I think this was the most interesting free dance at this event for me, and clearly the judges agreed! They earned a new season’s best and captured the silver medal overall ahead of Hubbell/Donohue. I had been hoping for this because I think Chock/Bates have the superior programs this season. I’m not sure if this is a change of guards between the two couples for good or just a one-time deal, but I’m so happy for Madi and Evan and I hope this gives them a boost going into Nationals.

Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue:

There’s a lot to unpack with these programs. When I first found out they were doing a Marilyn Monroe rhythm dance, I thought, “This is great. Who better to play a gorgeous blonde movie star than gorgeous blonde movie star Madison Hubbell?” But the rhythm dance just doesn’t gel for me. There are so many Marilyn-inspired programs they could choose and they went with “My Heart Belongs to Daddy”. I’m still majorly confused at who “daddy” is supposed to be, because it sure doesn’t seem to be Zach. It just feels like a major miss here. They could’ve whipped up a fabulous program to “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and I’m pretty sure I would’ve loved it. I like the concept of her new red dress, but the fabric itself looks a bit cheap up close and doesn’t move well. Zach in a baseball outfit is just not a good look and I don’t know what we could do to fix it. If you’re going to go with crazy costumes, you need to be so ridiculously extra (ahem Papadakis/Cizeron Fame) that it’s entertaining, and this fell short for me.

Madi and Zach are some of the world’s most technically skilled skaters, so they should be doing something that showcases that. IMO, their best programs were the “Hallelujah” short dance from the 2015-16 season and the “Caught Out in the Rain” FD from the 2017-18 season. They have a steamy, magnetic chemistry, almost like Vanessa James/Morgan Cipres, and they can also do sappy, emotional stuff.

That’s why I kind of want them to ditch the edgy Bradley Cooper cuts in the free dance and just go with “Shallow” for the whole program. It’s such a gorgeous song that it doesn’t need all this editing; it would be powerful without the cutting and pasting and voiceovers. When you skate to a masterpiece of a song like this, you really don’t want to change the arrangement too much. Just let the whole audience sing along to the unedited piece and half of them will be crying at Lady Gaga’s vocals even if you literally forgot to do your twizzles. I’ll reference James/Cipres again: in the 2017-18 season, Vanessa and Morgan had a free skate to “Say Something” that had almost no music editing, and it worked beautifully. To be honest, I didn’t dislike this program as much as I did the first time I saw it, but it’s still not up to their level. 

I’m not a fan of these programs, but I have nothing against them as people, and I’m really not impressed with all the hate they’re getting. There’s a big difference between disliking a program and tearing a skater apart, and all the bashing has gone way too far. I’m just hoping they make some changes in the programs so they can deliver some great performances this season. Hopefully finishing behind Chock/Bates will give them a wakeup call so they can improve the programs for Nationals.

Alexandra Stepanova/Ivan Bukin:

I love this Moulin Rouge rhythm dance for them. It’s big, bright, and over-the-top, just like the musical. When the ISU asked for theatrical performances this season, this is what they were talking about. You see lots of Moulin Rouge in singles and pairs, but besides Virtue/Moir’s iconic Olympic FD, there’s been a shortage in the ice dance event. I like the two music cuts they chose – “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” is flirty and playful, and “Your Song” is romantic and beautiful. Stepanova is usually very serious on the ice, but this program allows her to have some fun. They really didn’t hold back with the choreography – yes, that’s a real lips-on-lips kiss in the middle of the program. (I will add that in Russia and other European countries, it’s not uncommon for friends to kiss on the lips, but as an American, I gasped). However, it’s tasteful and doesn’t look awkward to me. Her dress is gorgeous, although I would remove the decorations on her arms. Ivan looks so dapper in his tuxedo – usually he has this vibe like an excitable little puppy, but somehow he managed to look like a Regency gentleman. They skated this rhythm dance very well and put up a season’s best score, so I think they can be pleased.

Usually, I despise the song “Cry Me a River”, and I’m no Justin Timberlake fan (nothing personal, just not my thing). But Stepanova/Bukin transform the piece into something modern, sexy, and interesting. I don’t really know how to describe it – it’s just nice to watch. They start out with this piano music mingled with the sound of water falling and create a beautiful piece of art. I would just like to see a bit of a smoother transition between the two music cuts because it switches quite abruptly and feels like two good programs stuck together in one. I think this team has always been a little offbeat and it works for them. I still remember during the Latin season, they skated to a remix of “Chandelier” by Sia, and they would do twizzles in a sit spin position. They’ve had to conform to a more standard image in the past two years, but they haven’t lost that uniqueness. While their skating skills aren’t quite as strong as some of the top teams, they have a striking charisma that doesn’t get rewarded enough. They missed a few levels here, so there’s definitely room for improvement before Russian Nationals. They beat their compatriots Sinitsina/Katsalapov here and that’s a good confidence booster for the big showdown.

I’m going to make a few suggestions on the packaging. I’m not really feeling Bukin’s haircut; I feel like he needs something more suave. Stepanova’s FD dress is nice, but I want more detail in the front. Remember that sexy black dress with the cutouts from last year’s FD? Something like that would be pure fire for this program. Also, can I just say Stepanova looks like Victoria Sinitsina’s twin sister? I desperately need a movie where they are sisters in crime, making chaos and breaking hearts along the way.

Piper Gilles/Paul Poirier:

I’ve always referred to Piper and Paul as “the quirky fun team”. Throughout the years, I’ve always been able to rely on them for the craziest, most off-the-wall programs you can imagine. They won’t always be everyone’s cup of tea, but at least they’re creative. I personally find this rhythm dance quite fun. The matching tuxes reminds me of Charlie Chaplin, and they just seem to enjoy this program a lot. They lost some levels and turned in a lower overall score than the rest of the field, but the free dance has always been their stronger program. This year, they’re skating to “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell. It gives a lovely, classic romance to their skating and works well for them. However, I would really like some different costumes for this program; the orange-beige color washes them out. They’ve had so much bad luck, missing the GPF time after time, but I’m happy they finally broke through and had two enjoyable performances.

Victoria Sinitsina/Nikita Katsalapov:

From this day forward, I’m officially calling these two “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince” because they look like such a Barbie and Ken. As an Angry Elena Ilinykh Supporter, I am ashamed to admit I like this rhythm dance. I grew up loving the old “Singin’ in the Rain” movie, and they actually pulled it off very well. It’s charming, it’s upbeat, and I found myself tapping my foot to the music and smiling. When I first found out this was their rhythm dance, I was very doubtful because I didn’t think they had the playfulness for it, but it turned out nicely. However, Nikita needs a better-fitting jacket (he looks like he’s wearing his grandpa’s clothes), and I’d like Victoria’s dress to look more like the costumes in the movie. I think a white or blue polka-dot dress with little fluttering short sleeves would be adorable for this. I was expecting them to pull off a huge score in the rhythm dance because they’ve been getting rewarded for it all season, but Nikita botched the twizzle. Ah, just when I was going to talk about how much more consistent he had gotten! I think it’s his technique – it looks like he’s hurling himself into it and hoping for the best. Some ice dancers are just better at twizzles than others, and I respect that. But please, don’t give them such huge GOE on their weakest element! They have so many other good aspects of their skating to reward.

The free dance is beautiful and lyrical, but there’s nothing here to hold my attention. Coach Zhulin, we need to talk. Nikita is a big, explosive guy on the ice, but you’re making him skate to this slow, pretty music. What happened to the dramatic guy who blew the roof off in Sochi and won an Olympic bronze medal skating to Swan Lake? He’s not gentle, balletic Cizeron, so don’t make him pretend to be. When I look at Sinitsina/Katsalapov, I see a beautiful princess and a dark bad boy. I see Angels and Demons. I see Christine and the Phantom. Heck, I see Sandy and Danny from Grease. You know what, let’s just go crazy and give them a Dirty Dancing program! Please, just find their strengths and sell them! On a good note, Victoria looks stunning in the FD dress.

Best Moment: Chock/Bates’ FD

Best Dressed: Chock/Bates FD

Crush: Madison Chock and Guillaume Cizeron. I can’t decide.

 

LADIES:

This event felt more like an exhibition for Eteri Tutberidze’s new seniors to show off their tricks and out-jump each other than a Grand Prix Final. Usually, there’s one junior girl from Russia every year who moves up to seniors, delivers consistent performances, and becomes a contender. However, this year we had not one, but three. My friend Meaghan said it most eloquently: “It’s like the iPhone. They get a new model every year and get rid of the old ones.” Indeed, with four Russians in the Junior Grand Prix Final, it doesn’t look like the factory has any plans of going out of business.

Alena Kostornaia:

When I first spotted Kostornaia two seasons ago, the first thing I noticed was her gracefulness. So many junior skaters just run around the ice with poor posture and yeet themselves into jumps, but Kostornaia seems to actually be aware of her whole body while she skates. No limp hands, no oddly bent neck, no slouching back. This SP perfectly showcases all those qualities. She really doesn’t need much help from the programs; there aren’t really any flaws she needs to cover. At this competition, she delivered the program to its full potential and racked up a huge score of 85.45. She got that triple axel rotated and it was a beauty. I like that she attempts a difficult jump but doesn’t seem to just fling herself blindly into it; there’s some stability to it.

Her Twilight free skate is fun and I love seeing a more playful side to her at the end. She delivered such a flawless performance, and going right after the other two Russians, it really emphasized her maturity and skating skills. It still feels like Daniil the choreographer smashed three great programs together and said “here you go!” but somehow they didn’t feel as choppy as I remembered. Of the three new Eteri stars, my money is on Kostornaia when it comes to a long-lasting career. She looks sturdier than the other two, her jumps don’t look forced, and her skating skills are high quality. It was a well-deserved win and I’m happy to call her a Grand Prix Final champion.

Anna Shcherbakova:

It seems to be a very unpopular opinion, but I don’t mind Anna’s SP. If you can set aside the creepy story behind the music, it’s quite haunting and lovely. My only objection is that she seems like a playful, cheery girl compared to this heavy funeral music, so they should’ve given this program to a more somber skater like Satoko Miyahara. Anna is my favorite of the Eteri trinity, but I have to raise an eyebrow at the 78.27 she got for this program. She doesn’t quite have the maturity of Zagitova, so I can’t see how they were less than a point and a half apart. However, she has some of the most stunning level 4 spins in the field, so I can justify the GOEs on those elements.

Anna’s free skate to “The Firebird” was a better idea. It allows her to just do her elements and be a lovely, sparkling teenage girl. I’m usually not a supporter of mid-program dress changes (I personally think it’s a bit cheesy), but Anna is young and spirited, so it suits her. Also, the dress is sewn in a nice way so it doesn’t look like she’s dragging around an extra dress for half the program. As for the jumps, she racked them up and didn’t let the fall on the quad flip shake her. She has a lovely, fawnlike quality to her movements that I find endearing. Maybe next season they could give her something charming with a little character.

I first saw Anna at Russian Nationals last year, skating to Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, and it felt like the second coming of Yulia Lipnitskaya. However, her jumping technique is not good, and it’s not going to get any better if she grows. Trusova at least seems to use her legs to jump the quads, but with Shcherbakova, it seems like she’s using her upper body to do all the work. I’m afraid if any of the girls are going to struggle when they hit puberty, it’ll be Shcherbakova because she’s so dainty. If you have a bigger bone structure and then your body develops, your bones will still support you while you adjust to the change. But if you’re a toothpick before puberty and then you gain ten pounds, your entire center of gravity will get thrown off and your tiny little legs won’t be able to hold you up. We already saw this with Lipnitskaya, and I’m praying it doesn’t happen to Anna too.

Alexandra Trusova:

The existence of Alexandra Trusova will always baffle me. This tiny girl with Rapunzel hair is literally jumping more quads than the men. Insane. She took a risk in the short program by adding a triple axel and unfortunately it didn’t pay off, but it was worth a shot. It’s better to try it here than at Worlds, and her free skate is her stronger program anyways.

However, after seeing her compete alongside Kostornaia and Shcherbakova, her lack of artistry was a bit more obvious. I don’t want to say she lacks “musicality”, because I think anyone can interpret a piece of music as long as it’s the right piece. I just think she lacks the ability to interpret these pieces. She reminds me of Meagan Duhamel: technically brilliant and scrappy, but more athletic than balletic. And you know what? That’s okay! We need edgy skaters as much as we need balletic ones. She just needs to stop fooling around with trying to look elegant in a program like “Peer Gynt” and go with something modern – I could see her killing it to the music cuts from Duhamel/Radford’s Muse medley. Why is angelic Kostornaia the one skating to Muse when Trusova is right there? Her Game of Thrones program is better, but I’d like to see her in a different costume for it. Either you go with bright and pretty Daenerys or you go with stormy gray I’m-going-to-kill-you Daenerys. The look just isn’t quite clicking for me. She made big mistakes on two quads but still punched in the highest technical score of the night. There’s a kind of crazy thrill you get watching her throw the quads down one by one. With all this technical firepower, I feel like she neglects her artistic side because frankly, she doesn’t really need it. It’s amazing that she can do all of these difficult jumps, but I don’t think I’ll personally be a fan of her skating unless she becomes a bit of a fuller package.

Rika Kihira:

Of all the skaters at the GPF, I would say Rika is the most complete package. She has a triple axel. She has good jumping technique. She has lovely posture. She has skating skills. She has great costumes. Okay, let me stop gushing. I think she is being underscored in comparison to the young Russian trio. To be clear, I’m definitely not one of those bitter skating fans who hate all Russian skaters and think all Japanese skaters are superior in every way. But of the four skaters, I think Rika is the most developed skater as a whole (although Kostornaia is also well-rounded). I’m not a fan of this SP music; the more times I watch it, the more I wish she would go back to her Clair de Lune program from last season. She needed a clean short to contend for a medal, and unfortunately that didn’t happen here. The triple axel didn’t have a great landing and then she fell on the combo jump, and when there’s only six skaters at an event and most of them skate well, it’s easy to end up at the bottom of the pile. I still would’ve had her ahead of Trusova based on PCS and the quality of her other elements, but she dug herself into quite a hole.

I’ve seen mixed opinions on the free skate, but I personally like it. It combines several different pieces of music into one seamless program in a way I didn’t think was possible. I don’t even know what’s the special something about it, but it’s interesting and doesn’t overpower her. She went for the quad salchow and it didn’t quite happen, but it was worth a shot. I think her jumps just looked a little tight here. Ladies’ skating has gotten insane overnight, but Rika is still a huge star and I love her so much.

Bradie Tennell:

We did it! We finally have an American woman back in the Grand Prix Final! In this field of baby Russians trampling each other on the way to the podium, it’s nice to see a skater who is peaking as an adult and is still working her way up. I like about 95% of this SP for her, but the opening choreography feels like she’s trying too hard and it makes her tight. She got an underrotation called on her triple-triple combo, but the rest was clean and she got level 4s on everything else. I’ve seen her hit beautiful combos before, so I know she’s capable of it; maybe she just felt tense on the takeoff? Her PCS seem to be steadily rising and I think the judges are willing to give her credit if she can just pull it all together.

I think they hit jackpot in the free skate – she doesn’t really need big, loud, showy music to make her interesting, she just needs something simple that doesn’t overpower her yet isn’t so monotone that it gets boring. “Cinema Paradiso” does the trick. It feels like the perfect union of her free skates from the past two seasons: it combines the light “ice princess” image from her Cinderella program with the maturity and refinement of her Romeo and Juliet. She skated a nearly clean free skate in a difficult field and I don’t think she could’ve done much more. I know most people emphasize the quality of her jumps, but I find the most pleasant part of her skating to be her spins. Her posture does seem to be improving, and I think by 2022 (barring injury or other major changes), she could have it all.

It took me a while to warm up to Bradie when she popped on the scene, but I feel like the caterpillar is slowly becoming a butterfly before our eyes. I still want to tweak the packaging for her. The tight bun is a bit severe, especially since the SP is a bit flirty, so I’d recommend either some bangs or a curly ponytail – or better yet, how about a sassy short cut like Larkyn Austman? I already discussed a few suggestions for the SP dress in my Skate Canada review, so I won’t repeat them here, but I’d like to see her experiment a little and find her own unique image. (Her exhibition program to “You Need to Calm Down” was cute, so I’d love to see that fun side on the ice). Her technical skills are brilliant and I think she and Mariah Bell might just snag back those 3 spots at Worlds this year.

Alina Zagitova:

At the age of 17, Alina was the matron of the Russian team here. Her SP to “Me Voy” really brings out her artistic side, although I find the music itself a bit heavy. She has grown so much as a performer and I feel like she really connects to this music. In the past, I don’t think we’ve been able to see her musicality because her programs have been very technical, but here you can see this exquisite tenderness in her movements and expressions. I was so happy to see her deliver a clean short program here, especially after the rough outing at NHK Trophy. Her dress looks so elegant and mature, and it perfectly suits the theme of the music. And can we just talk about her spins for a minute? They’re beautiful.

After that SP, I was clinging to a wild hope that Alina could hang on for a medal, but I guess I jinxed her. The judges did not mess around with those underrotation calls and I was honestly shocked to see the score quite THAT low. She fought hard but it was simply a rough performance and my heart breaks for her. To be blunt, I don’t find her free skate very captivating because the choreography and music do nothing for her. I think Daniil’s choreography works best for tiny, gangly juniors, but not for adult women; these movements seem to emphasize her weaknesses (posture and basic skating skills) and hide all her strengths (musicality, spins, and jumps). I don’t get “Cleopatra” out of the choreography or music at all; all I see is a girl in a pretty dress skating to boring music and doing 2 or 3 Egyptian hand gestures in the entire program. She could’ve done a totally stunning program like Tuktamysheva’s 2014-15 FS that actually felt Egyptian and had interesting music cuts. I feel bad because Alina is growing as a performer, but the choreography in her free programs seems to be regressing. Please, this girl deserves better.

As much as quads have become the talk of the town, I don’t think it’s a good idea for Alina to start training one under Eteri. Eteri’s girls can land quads because they still have children’s bodies. Alina is nearly an adult and she has a more mature, curvier body structure. She’s not meant to be shaped like a 12-year-old, and it’s not safe to make her lose weight until she’s that size. If anything, she needs to switch to Mishin, get those jumps solid, and follow the path of Elizaveta Tuktamysheva. I feel bad for Alina this season, because she is getting eclipsed by the three youngsters even though she is an incredibly talented skater. She reminds me of Adelina Sotnikova – her artistry has developed so much, but she won’t be able to stay on the team for long because the young technical whizzes have surpassed her. I would love for Alina to snatch one of the three spots at Europeans and Worlds, but I’m not sure if that’s possible. That’s why I think the ISU needs to change the three-per-country rule. I understand that it gives more opportunities to skaters from small federations, and I appreciate that, but it seems criminally unfair that some girl from a tiny country who can’t do a triple-triple gets sent to Worlds while the reigning Olympic and World champion stays home. No matter what, I support Alina and I hope she can get through this and stick around like Tuktamysheva.

Best Moment: Kostornaia’s free skate

Best Dressed: Zagitova’s SP dress

Crush: Alina Zagitova

—-

If anyone is still here after this long review, congratulations! (Now you know why I never write about all four disciplines).

My positivity shoutout of the week goes to the awesome pairs blogger “Jessica Makes Suggestions”. It’s so hard to find blogs that cover pairs in detail, but Jessica is a pairs uber like me! Her weekly reviews are informative, easy to understand, and always entertaining, and she presents her opinions in an honest yet respectful way. If you’re a newcomer to the pairs fandom, I would highly recommend reading her posts to get you familiar with the ins and outs of this awesome discipline in a fun and exciting way. Follow her at https://jfmay.wordpress.com and on Twitter (@jessica62m).

Until next time, happy skating, and may the odds be ever in your favor.

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