Summer Updates! Shoma, Jason, Starr, Kaori, and More

Image by iguana012 on Tumblr, from Nobunari Oda’s Twitter

This blog went on hiatus while I plowed through an enormous pile of work and moved to my dream home, but I have emerged from hibernation. While I was gone, Jason Brown dropped the most deliciously fanboyish program music announcement in figure skating history. That got me back onto the skating side of YouTube, and I ended up watching several of the new competitive programs that athletes have been premiering at shows and club comps. As usual, a lot of the Japanese skaters are using their summer tours as an opportunity to work the bugs out of their new routines, and some are still too buggy to write about: Keiji Tanaka can’t get through his intriguing, bluesy free skate without falling all over himself, and Turandot looks several sizes too big for Marin Honda at this point. Meanwhile, the fan videos haven’t emerged from North American club competitions as readily as usual – I hear some events are cracking down – so we don’t get to preemptively judge the performances at events like the Chesapeake Open or the Broadmoor Open. But that still leaves me with several programs that I just can’t wait any longer to write about.

The program I’ve been itching to write about for the longest time is Shoma Uno’s new short program, which he’s been workshopping as a show number for the past month. Uno is the kind of brazen daredevil who not only attempts quadruple flips in a dark rink with no boards, but lands them. It’s a smart strategy: those jumps will feel so much easier this autumn, with the lights on. The new program is clearly a work in progress and needs significant refinement in the choreography, especially after the midpoint, when Uno stops connecting with the music so he can concentrate on his quad toe loop and triple Axel. It’s an unfortunate break in an otherwise captivating program that melds familiar Vivaldi strains with brooding teen angst. I assume that by October, Uno will have filled in the empty spaces and turned this promising piece into a nonstop Olympic highlight reel.

Starr Andrews does a great job of getting her skating up on YouTube, and that means we get an early look at her senior debut free skate. For those of us old enough to remember the 1988 Olympics, “One Moment in Time” seems a little on the nose for an Olympic year, but Andrews wasn’t born yet and therefore deserves a pass. Whitney Houston is a great fit for Andrews in general – something about the phrasing just works – and her commitment to the music sometimes makes up for moments in the choreography that don’t give her enough to do as a performer. It’s cool that she put the triple Axel attempt out there, although the jump is nowhere near ready. The triple flip-triple toe loop-double toe loop combination, on the other hand, is spectacular, especially with the difficult and beautiful spiral entrance. I worry that her performance quality is still a bit simple and juniors-y – she’s capable of more. But that’s exactly how I felt about Ashley Wagner at the same age.

Lots of Japanese ladies field-tested their new competitive programs on tour, and most filled me with doubt. In a field as crowded as Japan’s, with only two Olympic spots available, these athletes need to fight to stand out. In spite of this, most of the Japanese ladies seem to be playing it safe, choosing musical warhorses and conventional choreography that disguises, rather than highlights, their personalities and artistic quirks. The most notable exception has been Kaori Sakamoto, who has found a potential signature program in the Amelie soundtrack. The choreography is clever and demanding, often asking Sakamoto to establish her character with her upper body while twisting through footwork or firing up from a dead stop. She also gets to show off her high, muscular triple flip-triple toe loop, then save most of the other jumps for the high-scoring second half. Sakamoto kept elbowing her way into the spotlight as a junior last season – few predicted she’d take bronze at both the Junior Grand Prix Final and Junior Worlds – and this program suggests she’ll storm the senior ranks with the same power, mental toughness, and musicality.

It is possible I am almost as excited about Jason Brown’s new short program as he is. I’m thrilled about the music choice, of course: I love Hamilton, and this is one of the best songs from the show, as well as a non-obvious choice for a skating program. But what makes this so terrific is the program itself. Choreographically, it’s the kind of Advanced Rohene we’re used to seeing Brown perform, so crammed with transitions and difficult turns that I’m tired just watching it. With some pieces of music, that feels like too much movement and too little room to breathe, but the choreographic details feel so intentional here, from the triple Axel that drops right on the beat to the high front kick with a back arch that’s a split-second Fosse tribute. Besides, “The Room Where It Happens” is a song about frustration, so it makes sense that Brown looks like he’s trying to tear himself out of his own skin. He’s also playing the villain, which is a compelling character stretch. Most of the time, Brown is more of a Hamilton than a Burr, and it’s a rare pleasure to watch him seethe. The program sends a satisfying message for an Olympic year, the time when no athlete wants to be on the outside looking in.


Next on The Finer Sports: A recap of Skate Detroit, and a return to regular blog updates now that the pre-season is under way.

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.

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2017 World Championships Field Guide: Men Part 3

Welcome to the third and final section of my guide to the men’s event at 2017 Worlds. We’re down to 36 competitors, as Han Yan confirmed on Saturday that a shoulder injury will keep him from participating, and China has not assigned an alternate in his place. (If you’re wondering what he needs his shoulder for, watch how skaters pull their arms in as they launch a jump – without that quick snap, you can’t rotate in the air.) This part of the field guide includes everyone else in the last third of the alphabet. If you haven’t read the previous two sections, check out Part One and Part Two before moving on to this one. Part One gives a more detailed explanation of how these field guides are structured, and how my five-point rating system works.

Since the start of the competition is closing in, I’ll keep the preamble short. On with the skaters!

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2017 Asian Winter Games Recap: Triumph of the Improv Quad

It is lovely to finally have time to write about figure skating. In terms of relevant blogging, I missed the window on the European and Four Continents Championships, although I watched both and had very strong opinions at the time, most of which have been swept out of my memory in a mixture of mounting job responsibilities and dread for the future of my country. But I took a break last weekend to watch the men’s free skate at the Asian Winter Games, and during the week, I caught up enough on the ladies’ event to say a few words about that, too. So here are my hot takes, while they’re still lukewarm.

The Asian Winter Games is an oddity among skating events. Held every four years, it’s a sort of mini-Olympics for Asian athletes. In addition to figure skating, there’s curling, snowboarding, ice hockey, and more. Because it took place only a week after Four Continents this year, a lot of the bigger names in figure skating sat it out, especially those nursing injuries: Yuzuru Hanyu, Satoko Miyahara, Wakaba Higuchi, and Wenjing Sui and Cong Han all rested instead of making the trip to Sapporo. On the other hand, because the AWG doesn’t require minimum technical scores, it included skaters from countries we don’t normally associate with the sport. In the men’s event, the crowd clapped encouragingly for an Indian skater as he struggled with double jumps. Tumblr giddily shared photos of Zahra Lari of the United Arab Emirates, whose costumes beautifully incorporated a hijab. North Koreans Tae Ok Ryom and Ju Sik Kim took bronze in an otherwise predictable pairs event. Australians placed fifth in both ladies’ and men’s singles, a promising development for a country that has put some resources into being taken seriously in the sport.

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