Review: 2012 U.S. Figure Skating Championships

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Jeremy Abbott performing a flying upright spin toward the end of his free skate, set to "Exogenesis Symphony, Part 3."

For many figure skating aficianados, the week of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships is either (for those who find allure in the technical aspects of the sport) their Super Bowl, or (for those who lean more toward its pageantry) a sort of Fashion Week. Sadly one of the only remaining major figure skating competitions broadcast on national television today (compared to the sport’s heyday in the ’90s and early 2000s, when cheesefests galore saturated the airwaves), the national championships have by default become the figure skating event of the season. A showcase of national talent, it’s a great opportunity (and for those without a subscription to IceNetwork.com or Universal Sports, a rare occasion) to view works of art set to ice. Below, in no particular order, are a few standout performances for me from these championships.

Meryl Davis & Charlie White. Arguably the superior ice dance couple in the Marina Zoueva/Igor Shpilband stable, Davis and White glowed with their “Die Fledermaus” free dance routine, a classic and exquisite choice for them this year. Under the Code of Points judging system, much of ice dancing may often have the patina of acrobatics, over-complex and perplexing. But Davis and White make every required twizzle and dance lift mesh smoothly into the choreography (a credit as well to their choreographer, Zoueva). When watching their free skate, it feels like an actual waltz, as opposed to a figure skating routine aspiring to be a waltz. Zoueva has always been a master at picking just the right music for her wards (case in point, Davis and White’s Indian folk music original dance from the 2010 Olympic season, and their regal “Samson and Delilah” free dance from the season prior), and here she hits the mark yet again. In terms of music, I tend to think that there are those fitting for an Olympic year; Davis and White’s music choices make every year feel like an Olympic year.

Gretchen Donlan and Andrew Speroff. An appealing pair with an appealing free skate program to Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty. Sadly, being in the penultimate group to skate, their free skate was not broadcast on NBC (though it is available to view on IceNetwork.com). Their performance was not perfect (one can only wonder how much higher in the standings they would have been had they hit their side-by-side triple toe loops and double Axels, and perhaps had a tad more unison in their side-by-side spins), but it was filled with such beautiful highlights (their combination pair spin, their immense throw triple Salchow) and ended with such graceful power. As Peter Carruthers points out rather effusively on the IceNetwork.com webcast, Donlan bears more than a passing resemblance to the great Ekaterina Gordeeva, who won the 1988 and 1994 Olympic gold medals with her late husband Sergei Grinkov; the less-known Tiffany Stiegler also comes to my mind when I look at Donlan. Speerof on the other hand has a gentle, masculine strength about him to complement her fragility. This pair has such a fluid, balletic style, striking such elegant poses, beautiful extensions. This kind of sophistication and elegance is more of what the dwindling U.S. pairs program needs.

Vincent Zhou. The novice men’s title is again held by a precocious young skater. Vincent Zhou is, in some ways, similar to last year’s phenom Nathan Chen (a two-time novice national champion, and this year’s junior national champion). They both have the perfectionist about them (as such, I rather worry about the risks of burnout and injury, as I do with anyone attaining such great heights at such a young age). They also have similar body lines and have an understanding of transitions that most skaters many years their senior struggle to attain. (Though in terms of presentation, Zhou seems the more naturally expressive; but that’s neither here nor there, as both skaters are competing, at least for now, on different levels–though the prospect of a men’s field with the both of them in the future is quite bracing). Zhou’s charismatic “Nut Rocker” short program routine left me smiling broadly after I watched it.

Jeremy Abbott. After shattering the US nationals record for a men’s short program score with his Buddy Schwimmer-choreographed short program to a medley of swing music, Abbott bested his free skate score (then a record) from two years ago after his performance to an instrumental version of Muse’s “Exogenesis Symphony, Part 3: Redemption.” (Redemption indeed, after not placing on the podium at last year’s nationals). Abbott has always had a keen respect for dance and choreography–he can include in his resume a diverse range of choreographers, such as Christopher Dean, Tom Dickson, Kurt Browning, Shae-Lynn Bourne, Pasquale Camerlengo, Antonio Najarra, and David Wilson–and it shone through in his self-choreographed free skate performance. The choreography is inspired, marred only by an under-rotated triple Rittberger/loop and a doubled Salchow. I tend to dislike footwork nowadays, but both his leveled and choreographed step sequences had such replay-ability. I watched his performance several times over, enthralled by the beauty of its construction, trying to at first figure out the mystery of it, but after a while just sitting back and letting the enigma of its beauty overtake me. Abbott garnered a couple of 10s in the program component scores from one judge (which are akin to the 6.0s of the old judging system) and received 9s across the board (a phenomenal feat). One can only wish for a performance of this program with the quadruple toe loop-triple toe loop combination Abbott seems to have been landing with more consistency as of late. Despite an extensive international experience (dating back to 2007), Abbott is largely unproven, but holds, based on program component scores from recent judging protocols from this past fall’s Grand Prix series, the promise of matching the seemingly invincible (despite falls, confoundingly) Patrick Chan in artistry.

Michelle Kwan. Kwan was the lone inductee to this year’s Hall of Fame, a fitting tribute given that San Jose (the venue for this year’s national championships) was where she skated her revolutionary “Salome” long program to her first national title, heralding a decade-long reign by the “Kween,” as she is affectionately called by fans. Kwan’s impact on the sport is everlasting, Olympic gold medal or not. Her singular style and expression (ushered forth through the tutelage of her coach Frank Carroll and choreographer Lori Nichol) made her the perfect canvas on which any figure skating choreographer could ever be lucky enough to attempt to paint. Below is a clip of the then-fifteen-year-old, whose winning performance, among a catalog of other exemplary performances, should be required viewing for any skating pupil.

Other notes: I had hoped Joshua Farris, who competed in the senior men’s event, could mesmerize yet again with his “Claire de Lune” short program as he had three times throughout the Junior Grand Prix circuit this fall; it is a beaut that shows off his great line and vast improvements (in terms of carriage and presence) from last year. Thankfully, we’ll be seeing him and the equally beautiful Jason Brown (who also had a disappointing showing here) at the Junior Worlds, where they will perhaps seek some redemption.

Review: “Carmen” on PBS’s “Great Performances at the Met”

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I am absolutely enamored of Elina Garanca's Carmen, here shown in the opera's final scene with the jealous Don Jose, played by Roberto Alagno.

I have heard all the famous arias from “Carmen” throughout my life, but funnily enough have never actually seen the whole opera performed. The closest I’ve ever gotten is watching a performance of Matthew Bournes’s “The Car Man,” which doesn’t really count; I’d even rented recorded performances of the opera, which for some reason or other I just never got around to watching. But what a good thing it was that I’d withheld all this time, as seeing it performed at the Metropolitan Opera with the sultry Elina Garanca in the title role is perhaps the best way to be introduced to Bizet’s masterpiece. Not only did I get a sense of closure from being able to finally put context to the arias I’ve heard ad nauseam all my life, but Richard Eyre’s production also left me absolutely gobsmacked. I sometimes have a tendency to Wikipedia everything and spoil myself with barebones summaries of whatever it is I’m about to watch. But for some reason I never did for this, which was to my benefit as I was left on the edge of my seat anticipating what would happen next. The knife scene between Don Jose and Escamillo kept me in suspense, as did the final scene in which a jealous Jose confronts Carmen (I kept wondering, Will he or won’t he kill her?).

But backtracking a bit: “Carmen” is a four-act story about a gypsy and cigarette factory worker named Carmen who sets her eyes on a corporal, Don Jose. She stabs him in the heart with a flower, her way of marking her territory, so to speak. She is lawless in love, and she lives by a mantra: “If you don’t love me, I still might love you. But if I love you…Watch out!” She is also lawless in the sense that she consorts with crooks dealing in contraband. In fact, in order to prove his love for her, Carmen tells Jose to leave the army. She stirs up a hesitant Jose into fighting his superior out of jealousy, as he learns the office also had his eyes on Carmen. With no choice but to desert the army for his dishonorable act, Jose becomes one of the smugglers, becomes lawless like Carmen, free from law. But Carmen’s flings never last long, and by the time we see them next at the beginning of Act III, she’s already moved on, leaving poor Jose a hanger-on. He’s reached his expiration date but is stubbornly unwilling to let go. She explains her fickle nature in the third person thusly: “Carmen will never give in. She was born free, and she will die free.” She now has his eyes on Escamillo, an attractive toreador she’d met earlier but had passed on because she was still hot in her pursuit of Jose. When she accompanies Escamillo to a bullfight, Jose confronts her outside of the arena and begs her to return to him. But she is unwilling to budge, and prompted by her throwing back a ring he’d earlier presented to her, Jose stabs her with a knife, just as she had stabbed him earlier in the story. He returns the ring she’d taken in her finger, just as we see a silhouette of an officer about to shoot him. Inside the arena meanwhile, parallel to Carmen’s death, Escamillo has victoriously conquered the bull.

I don’t really have a point of reference to compare this production to (again, Bournes’s riff on the opera hardly counts), but I will say that Eyre’s production is highly relatable to a modern audience. It didn’t feel bogged down as being distinctly “operatic.” Eyre does away with the operatic veneer and exposes the truly relatable core of the story. Though the original opera is set in 1830, Eyre’s production fast forwards 100 years, using the Spanish Civil War as a backdrop, which I think is a master stroke in that it brings us at chronologically closer to the opera. I actually found myself shedding the reality that I was watching an opera, because I was just so immersed in the story. Jealousy, the desire for freedom in loving, the sting of rejection, we all understand that.

Not only does Garanca step into the role of Carmen, she owns it.

And where do I even start with Latvian mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca? Her portrayal of Carmen just totally did me in. Earthy, gritty, feisty, defiant, Garanca really went full-bore here. I totally believed her as a seductress, a sorceress, whether it be when she would “tra-la-la,” lick her lips, bare her cleavage, splay her legs, gyrate her hips, touch herself, or even engage in a bit of playful lesbian homoeroticism. But don’t get me wrong, the production is by no means raunchy; sensual is more the right word (it’s no pornography). Garanca’s performance is deserving of a million bravas, as the lady does it all. She sings with full investment in her unbridled character; she even dances! She is so full of verve, so sultry, that the sight of Roberto Alagna’s limp Don Jose (who looked like Andrew Lloyd Weber from a certain angle) kissing her made me just cringe, like I was watching a grimy hand leaving its dirt marks on a beautiful porcelain vase. But I digress… I highly suggest catching this “Carmen” on your local PBS station, even if just to watch Garanca’s performance, as she is just something else completely. A new exotic species that exceeds one’s imagination.

Review: “South Pacific” at the Ahmanson Theatre

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This production of "South Pacific" won the 2008 Tony for Best Revival. Baaaaali Haaaa'iiii!

Actress Sumie Maeda in the arms of Anderson Davis. She is perhaps the luckiest actress ever.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve been to the Ahmanson Theatre, and seeing “South Pacific” there this weekend after having missed the entire last season was definitely the best reintroduction to one of my favorite theatre venues.

I’ve never read Michener’s novel nor seen the musical, nor the film adaptation, so I came in totally unspoiled. I have heard though just about every song in this musical at one time or other, though I didn’t necessarily realize they all came from “South Pacific.” (What a pleasant surprise it was for me to hear some of these classic songs suddenly be sung on stage). The story centers more or less around two characters and their racial prejudices during WWII. Nellie Forbush is a nurse from Arkansas who falls in love with posh French plantation owner Emile. Unfortunately she can’t get past the fact that he has fathered two children by a Polynesian woman, now deceased (though by comparison she skims over the fact that he’s a murderer; go figure). Much like her, Lieutenant Joe Cable meets a beautiful young Polynesian girl named Liat and falls deeply in love. But he is unable to reconcile continuing to see her and living in the real world, where such a relationship would be looked down upon. These two couples’ fates intertwine when Emile and Cable go on a dangerous mission together that could potentially end the war with Japan. Cable dies, but Emile lives on and returns home to find Nellie, who has overcome her prejudices and taken care of Emile’s children in his absence. Though one story ends in tragedy, another ends with a hope-filled reunion.

My apologies to Mr. Davis for the gratuitous repetition of his shirtless pics. No objectification meant. (Well, maybe just a bit).

I was just so blown away by show’s end. Such a memorable experience. Sad, funny, spectacular, with some of the most gorgeous musical numbers ever thought up by Rodgers and Hammerstein. And such great acting. Carmen Cusack as Nellie was an utter delight. She transported me back to the ’40s. Actually, more correctly, I took it as fact that she was someone transported from the ’40s. She is that believable, so genuine in the role. I didn’t for one second doubt that she was this dainty li’l gal from Little Rock in the 1940s. Her “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair” number is perhaps Cusack’s standout moment in the show. And big kudos to Anderson Davis, who was just right in the role of Joe Cable. That flight jacket, that deep, classic voice. He captures Cable’s masculine reserve and conflicted heartache so convincingly.

This production of “South Pacific” plays in L.A. through mid-July, and then will continue its tour throughout the country. Definitely do not miss out on this production if you have not already seen it!