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.

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