Slightly Unhinged Notes from the World Team Trophy Men’s Short Program

Shoma Uno, and his abs, at the 2017 Worlds gala.

It has been a long couple of weeks, during which I have discovered that I am ostensibly enough of an adult that people want to do things like grant me a home loan and hire me for paid work, despite the fact that my hair is three different colors on my driver’s license, my passport, and my actual head. I am also so tired of everyone’s program music that by the time I got to the men’s short program, I hit the mute button in the IceNetwork window and fired up the YouTube playlist of summer jams that I have been compiling. I watched the men’s short the evening after it occurred, because see above, plus there was a double episode of Survivor on Wednesday night, and I need very badly for Zeke Smith to triumph over transphobia and win a million dollars. So I am rating each program on 1) how well the athlete performed his technical elements, 2) how glad I am that I will never have to see his short program again (dear everybody, the Olympics are coming, please get new choreography), 3) how well his performance lined up with the arbitrary music that came out of my speakers while he skated, and 4) how adorable his teammates were in the kiss and cry afterward.

If you were looking for serious analysis, dude, it’s the freaking World Team Trophy. Team France are dressed as Minions. None of the world medalists in ice dance bothered to show up. The word “Presentation” was misspelled in the score graphic for the entirety of the short program. I am approaching this event with exactly the amount of gravitas that it demands.

Tangxu Li

Li has the simplest technical content of the men in this field, because China’s bench is tragically shallow and Han Yan’s arm might or might not be properly connected to his torso at the moment. But he executed everything cleanly and performed under pressure, which is a good sign, especially if he can nail down a triple Axel during the summer. This would have been a respectable program in the ladies’ event, although it wouldn’t have qualified him for the top warm-up group in that free skate, either.

I don’t remember Li’s real program music, so as far as I’m concerned, “Going to Mars” by Judah and the Lion is his real music. His choreography is unsophisticated enough that it would line up with most songs, and it worked fine with this. His triple flip perfectly punctuated a musical climax, the way I wish jumps would more often. As the song gained in momentum, Li didn’t, which drew attention to his limited speed and muted emotional intensity. Team China greeted him with a dance number that they’d clearly rehearsed backstage and festooned him with a tiara and veil just before his scores were read.

Kevin Aymoz

Technically, Aymoz was a beautiful disaster as usual, turning out of all three of his jumping passes. His triple Axel was great in the air, but he doesn’t have the control to stop his rotation after he returns to the ice. Aymoz is less of a competitive figure skater than a contemporary dancer on blades who occasionally achieves liftoff. Part of me hopes that he does a bunch of intentional doubles in his free skate so we can all appreciate his skills in interpreting music.

Because Aymoz is such a gifted performer, it was clear that he was not skating to Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Two-Headed Boy.” However, Imagine Dragons would be the first to admit that they owe some percentage of their multi-million-dollar recording career to one of the weirdest seminal albums of the 1990’s. The mood of the song is totally different than “Radioactive,” but the genre is the same, so his choreography made a strange sort of sense with it. His combination spin – a highlight of the program, even if some of the transitions were a touch wobbly – lined up especially well with the music. If nothing else, Aymoz proved that nobody should ever skate to Neutral Milk Hotel, but if they must, he’s not a bad choice for the job. After Aymoz got lost searching for the correct exit from the ice, his teammates greeted him with laughter and bright yellow Minion hoodies. While they waited for his scores, they did a bullfighter routine that involved the French flag and good-natured butt slapping.

Kevin Reynolds

It’s a good thing Reynolds didn’t skate like this at the World Championships, because he wouldn’t have qualified for the free skate with this mess. He underrotated all three of his jumps, missed his combination, fell on his quad toe loop, and generally looked like he wanted to be lying on a beach somewhere. He even appeared to biff one of his spins, holding a simple scratch position in his flying upright spin for far longer than he was supposed to.

Reynolds skated to Finnish folk music this season, which should have been a curse but instead brought him a terrific performance in Helsinki. Replaced with Little Comets’ “The Redeemer,” it became clear that his choreography has no distinguishing features, especially in the first half, which is all crossovers and quad attempts. It was a blessing that “The Redeemer” is a little slower than his real music, because instead of falling behind the beat in his step sequence, Reynolds appeared to be keeping up. He fell in time with a giant bass drum boom, and his final pose came at a perfect moment. All in all, one of the more successful music replacements. In the kiss and cry, Reynolds wore a headband with foam moose horns and ears. Andrew Poje performed an energetic flag dance; everyone else looked sleepy.

Chafik Besseghier

This was a solid skate for Besseghier, with a clean quad toe-triple toe and a terrific triple Axel. He also earned top levels on all of his non-jump elements, although that might have been because the technical controllers handed out level 4’s like free samples at Whole Foods throughout the event. Besseghier is not much of an entertainer, though, and that held him back. He’d go on to beat the technical marks of several big names, but his components score was deservedly subterranean.

This was the point when I stopped letting YouTube randomize things for me, because this swap was a painful letdown. Besseghier’s style isn’t a great fit for a Seal cover of James Brown, but it’s positively abysmal when paired with my favorite track from Stevie Wonder’s greatest album. (I dare you to fight me on that.) Because of the genre similarity, Besseghier’s choreography was in the ballpark, but he just doesn’t have an ear for classic R&B grooves. Fortunately, Team France livened things up with another well-rehearsed dance routine in the kiss and cry.

Nathan Chen

Chen was on fire at the World Team Trophy like it was Nationals all over again. He drilled a stone-cold perfect quad flip-triple toe loop at the top of his short program. Nothing else was quite so effortless, but everything was confident and secure. Chen looked more relaxed than I’ve ever seen him in competition – probably because he got the memo that this event doesn’t actually count – and the carefree glimmer in his eye passed for artistry.

My playlist doesn’t include a good stylistic match for Le Corsaire, so I went with something at roughly the same tempo. The effect was like an avant garde rock ballet fusion, the kind of thing you occasionally get surprised with at Lincoln Center when you stick around past intermission. It turns out that Chen has internalized the posture and movement quality of a ballet dancer, and that was much more visible with the wrong music. Team USA celebrated his diva triumph with cheerleading moves and outfits assembled from the Fourth of July section at Party City. Chen’s glitter-rimmed, star-shaped, blue-lensed sunglasses transformed his costume from danseur to ironic glam rock hipster.

Mikhail Kolyada

Kolyada was about as good as I’ve seen him in the short program, setting a new career-best score and nailing both his technical elements and the swan song performance of his signature routine. The landing on the back half of his quad toe-triple toe combination was a little wonky, but everything else came easily. What’s more, Kolyada never broke character. His skate was a highlight, but it also showed that if he wants to keep up with the teen phenoms, he’ll need to squeeze a second quad into his short program next season.

As I expected, Kolyada’s off-the-rails tango paired brilliantly with Ben Folds Five’s madcap ode to going outside your comfort zone, which has been my theme song all month. The tonal match made me want to mail a flash drive of the Folds oeuvre to Russia and see if maybe someone gets inspired. Kolyada’s choreography doesn’t work with this music, but his style and presence sure do. Team Russia was subdued in the kiss and cry, aside from some epic hats, although Evgenia Medvedeva was doing her best to get her teammates into the spirit.

Maxim Kovtun

If there’s a time to pop two of your jumps and barely avoid a fall on the other one, it’s the World Team Trophy. With that in mind, I have to assume that this performance was strategic. At the halfway mark, Kovtun’s technical score hovered around 8 points.

Why not soundtrack Kovtun with Lorde’s “Green Light”? Needless to say, it doesn’t work, except to show that whatever criticisms you want to hurl at Kovtun, he deserves credit for excellent skating skills and his ability to commit to a program theme. The point is, if not for Kovtun’s artistic chops, this would have worked. Except for the jumps. Oy, the jumps. Team Russia made life worthwhile by pantomiming a trainwreck in the kiss and cry while Kovtun laughed at the fact that somebody had to assign a score to this travesty.

Boyang Jin

Jin was very good, but not great – the same problem he’s had all season, and for most of his international career. His quad lutz-triple toe looked fabulous until he almost kicked the boards on his second check-out. Similarly, the other two jumping passes rotated high and fast on the air, but he sprayed snow as he adjusted into his landings. Jin is in his element throughout this program, and it remains a joy even as the shtick has lost its new-choreography glow.

You might not want to hit play on the below if you’re sensitive to repeated N-bombs or in the vicinity of people who are. 

Spider-Boyang and Kendrick Lamar’s latest do not mix, except that they do. “The Heart Part 4” grooves at the exact same tempo as Jin’s program music, which means that his shimmying and web-slinging were tonally inappropriate but right on rhythm. Jin’s performances lack sophistication, and his steps lack intricacy. But it’s clear he’s not skating to rapid-fire political hip hop, which is more than you can say for a lot of athletes. Team China greeted him with colorful wigs, a creepy horse mask, and a well-timed spider-shimmy.

Jason Brown

It’s never been clearer that Brown can’t keep up with the big guns unless he finds a way to rotate and land a quadruple jump. Still, he’s now proven twice consecutively that he can clear 90 points with a short program that maxes out at a triple Axel. He earned the second-highest components score of the event, and if the judges weren’t awarding a de facto PCS bonus for quads, it would have been the highest. Brown benefited from skating after Kovtun and Jin, because in comparison, his skating skills and transitions were in a different galaxy.

This song is so similar to Brown’s actual music – same tempo, similar instrumentation – that his performance should have disappeared into it. But Brown has an exceptional talent for interpretation, and it was clear throughout that he was telling the story of “Writing’s on the Wall,” not of “Atomic Number.” I’ve weathered two years of Brown’s serious side, and I’m beyond ready for something lighter, faster, and less dour. It seems that he is, too, because he broke character immediately after his final pose, grinning and waving at his standing ovation. His teammates danced and cheered in the kiss and cry, but nobody could match Brown himself for bounciness or patriotic wig shenanigans.

Patrick Chan

Chan began in ideal form, with edges and extension that surpassed even Brown’s, and a gorgeous quad toe loop-triple toe loop that burst seamlessly out of his choreography. Sadly, the other side of Patrick Chan took over when he attempted a quad salchow: he tripled it, then made a complete mess of his triple Axel. Sometimes, Chan can finesse a fall, holding onto the character of his music as he recovers, but he was visibly rattled after both errors. Some judges forgave the lapse, but one dissenter slapped him with a 7.75 for Performance.

It goes without saying that swapping Chan’s Beatles medley for Tori Amos doesn’t make sense. He’s far too nuanced a performer for that, even on an off day like this one. But now I want him to skate to Tori Amos. Team Canada was subdued, offering conciliatory hugs and a red Mylar balloon.

Shoma Uno

The irony is, this isn’t the best Uno can do. His quad flip was a little scratchy, and he doubled the back half of his combination. His triple Axel was literally perfect, though – every judge gave it +3.00 GOE – and the hair-ography in his step sequence has never been more on point. Most importantly, Uno showed that the difference between him and the other guys who can land every quad in the book is, he can do it all with speed, deep edges, and no space to take a breath.

Of the twelve music substitutions I made, this is the only one that doesn’t just live up to the original, but improves upon it. That’s partially because the devil-may-care lyrics of We Are Augustines’ “Headlong Into the Abyss” suit Uno’s personality better, but more because his muscular skating style has grown too big for delicate classical selections. As Uno develops further as an artist, he can double back on that and find some sensitivity. The problem, however, is not with Uno, but with his choreography. It fits into this very wrong music all too well, which suggests that Uno’s prescribed movements are too generic. I hope that next season, he’ll get to rock out a little more, but it’s more important that he gets to shape a fuller narrative, as he does in his free skate. Likewise, Team Japan was low-energy in the kiss and cry, like they didn’t know what to make of such a high score.

Yuzuru Hanyu

Hanyu hopped aboard the disaster train immediately, popping his planned quad loop down to a single and missing his combination as he barely saved his quad salchow. He rallied in the second half, with a great triple Axel and a showy, light-speed step sequence that earned perfect grades of execution. Despite the errors, this didn’t feel like a meltdown, because Hanyu maintained the style and momentum of his program throughout. He’s already World Champion; who cares what happens here?

When in doubt, swap out one rock legend for another. Setting this program to Jimi Hendrix made one thing clear: Hanyu has logged some hours watching videos of Prince, learning his mannerisms and mimicking his sensuous hip rolls. A Hanyu program to Jimi would be just as uncanny a tribute, and would look totally different. That’s why this dumpster fire tied Jason Brown’s flawless performance in components: even when Hanyu can’t find a landing, his interpretation and quality of movement are right there. Maybe that’s also why Team Japan made at least as much noise for him as they did for the triumphant Uno.


Next on The Finer Sports: I still have Worlds recaps to finish, followed by the season in review.

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