Report by Karen Frank


Considering that the free dance allows teams to choose from almost every piece of music available — and the original dance music is limited to a 30-year period of time — one might think this would mean that there would be more variety in the free dances than in the original dances. And yet, overall, there seemed to be a general sense of monotony building as one team after another skated to heavy, dramatic music that slowly built to a loud crescendo finish. While it’s true that Pink Floyd, Muse, Hulijic, and Puccini have very little in common, somehow the combination of music cuts employed during the second flight of the free dance added up to a repetitious loop.


The three top teams arrived at their music choice via different methods. Isabelle Delobel & Olivier Schoenfelder, who skated to Pink Floyd’s “The Great Gig in the Sky,” first decided on a particular style of music. Training mates Marie-France Dubreuil & Patrice Lauzon brought them five potential CDs.


“We tried to skate them on the ice, and this one was the best one we felt,” Schoenfelder explained. “A little bit more modern than what we skated before. The challenge was good.”


“The program is much more about our feeling of deciding to continue or carry on,” Delobel added. “The music [reflects] maybe you will continue or maybe not.”


Meanwhile, Tanith Belbin & Ben Agosto also knew what style of program they wanted but had to do more sifting before choosing the specific music.


“We knew we wanted to skate to something dramatic this year. Natalia (Linichuk) is very known for her dramatic choreography, and we definitely wanted to take the best of what we could from her,” Agosto said. “We knew she could do an amazing job with the style. We went over to Natalia and Gennadi (Karponosov)’s house, and we were sitting there with these huge piles of CDs just listening to music, music, music.”


Their final choice was Puccini’s Tosca.

“We knew this music; we’ve heard it before,” Agosto continued. “It had so much power and passion and emotion. That was the music for us.”


Taking a more emotional approach to the decision-making, Sinead & John Kerr decided to skate to music they already knew and loved.


“We always try to skate to something we really enjoy,” Sinead said. “Muse is a British band that we love listening to. One of our favorite bands, actually. We spent a lot of time last year listening to it for our warm-down music. We thought about using it as an exhibition piece.”


“People have accused us in the past of having good ideas but hiding behind a gimmick,” John added. “This was a chance to show a more emotional side. … We really feel this music, so I think we’re much more able to express our feeling for the music. That’s something we’ve never really done before.”


“We wanted to pick a piece of music that showed how we’d worked on our basic skating and not hide behind just a gimmick,” Sinead said.


Taken individually, these programs likely have more of a dramatic impact. When experienced back-to-back-to-back, however, the programs seemed to meld into one long (long) final flight.


Isabelle Delobel & Olivier Schoenfelder finished second in the free dance and first overall. A one-point deduction for an extended lift made the difference between first and second in this segment of the competition. Delobel & Schoenfelder have some of the more creative lift variations, like the rotational lift where Delobel is held inches off the ice. Overall, the program leaves an impression of smoothness. The team skates with a lot of flow, which was reflected in their program component scores. At 46.99, they received the highest PC marks in the field.


The French duo was happy with their performance.


“Tonight I think we skated we the best program so far in the season,” Schoenfelder said. “We need to improve the technique, but we knew this before coming here. Some steps are not ready.”


In fact, their circular step sequence was only judged at level 2 and the midline a level 3. What they did, though, they did well. Out of the 72 Grades of Execution given for their free dance, they received only one -1 and eight 0s. The rest were split between +1 and +2, with a lone +3 for their straightline lift.


Belbin & Agosto were similarly pleased with their performance.


“Most of what I wanted to say, Olivier said,” Belbin stated. “We’re so pleased with the progress we’ve made under the tutelage of new coaches and with our renewed energy and confidence. I think this is the first free dance we’ve skated in several years where we’ve really tried not to hold back, and it felt incredible. I hope this is the platform from which we can build upon towards the World Championships.”


The Americans’ program featured some stunning lifts, including a deceptively simple-looking level 4 serpentine lift that featured Belbin in an extended spiral pose, appearing to sail across the ice. The judges were impressed, giving that lift a majority of +2s and even a +3.


“We worked with a ballet coach to develop these lifts, and I think that it was more successful because we wound up with more appealing positions, a little bit better lines,” Belbin said. “Sometimes you’re so anxious to break the mold and show something new and different that you don’t realize that it’s a truly unattractive position you’re ending up in. It was nice to be able to feel confident and strong in our lifts, whereas in the past [we] maybe questioned whether or not it was suited to the program. This year our free dance is much better as a whole, much more cohesive. Lifts included.”


Unfortunately, their footwork sequence levels did not meet with the same success, with the circular steps being given level 2 and the diagonal level 3. From the elevated media seats, their footwork looked fairly slow, so the primarily +1 GOE came as no surprise.


“Obviously I was disappointed in the levels,” Belbin said. “Well, not disappointment. It was a good recognition of what we need to do to improve the levels. I think it’s typical of this point in the season, and if we hadn’t received levels like this, we wouldn’t have information necessary to continue improving and get strong for Worlds. It’s good that we get this feedback now so we have time to work on it. And we’ll certainly go home and keep pushing in the direction we’re headed.”


After dominating the field at Finlandia Trophy two weeks ago to win gold, the Kerrs took bronze in Everett with a total score almost six points lower. Two weeks ago their curve lift rated a level 4, today only level 3. Their rotational lift was knocked all the way down to a level 1 from the 4 in Finland. It didn’t help that Sinead lost control on the synchronized twizzles, costing them greatly in GOE, although she was able to salvage a level 4. However, prior to the problems on the twizzles, their flow, speed and ice coverage were looking very strong — their jump in overall quality from last season is amazing. They’ve always been charismatic performers, but this season, their technique is catching up to that.


“We worked a little bit with a sports psychologist early on in the season,” Sinead said, “more to organize what we were going to do throughout the season, because we tend to be a bit scattered. We don’t quite focus our mind well enough at the beginning of the season. It was good to really focus on what we had to do to be ready that early — breaking it down and having talked about weekly where we were at with our targets and goals.”


“I think we probably skated a little bit better at our first event of the season in Finland,” John said. “This was a lot higher level of competition, so we felt more pressure to perform well. I think we were ever so slightly behind the music, so that was a bit disappointing. For us coming in to this event our aim was to finish in the top three, and we achieved that. We can probably skate a lot better, and we’ll try to achieve that in our next event in Paris in two weeks.”


For Americans Emily Samuelson & Evan Bates, they came to Everett for their first senior Grand Prix and left Washington with a jaw-dropping performance that earned them the highest technical scores in the free dance and third place in that segment of the competition. Only their midline step sequence rated a level 3. Everything else received level 4. And not only did they do the difficult stuff, they did it well, earning only 10 out of 72 marks below +1. Those 10 marks were no lower than base 0, and half of them came on that level 3 step sequence.


Their program to “Amazonic,” while technically superior, fell somewhat flat in the artistic impression. The music tends to stay at the same level, so the highs and lows that bring out the excitement in the choreography just didn’t have the punch that their original dance did. While certain moments and beats are nicely synchronized to the music — for example, a stationary lift characterized by Samuelson’s high kick — the music doesn’t allow much opportunity for that kind of highlight moment. Samuelson & Bates’ next Grand Prix event comes at the end of the season, when they head to Japan for NHK trophy, giving them more than a month to keep polishing their dance.


Pernelle Carron & Mathieu Jost, who had placed above Samuelson & Bates in the compulsory dance, fell to fifth in the free dance and overall with their program that was also to music by Muse. Sloppy twizzles gave them their only negative GOE, but they couldn’t match the scores that gave them the gold medal last week in Vienna.


The next three teams battled throughout the event, trading placements in each phase of the competition, with only 2.75 points separating them in the end. Russians Ekaterina Rubleva & Ivan Shefer came out on top in the mix, skating to an upbeat flamenco medley. These days free dances that are dance — rather than theater — are increasingly rare, but this style suits them, and they made good use of the rhythms in the program. Their first five elements were all marked as level four, and with the exception of the final combination lift, they had positive GOE on everything they did.


Americans Jane Summersett & Todd Gilles continued to please the crowd with their performances, and their circus-themed program to Nino Rota’s La Strata was characterized by acrobatic lifts (although in this performance, one lift received a time deduction). One such lift (more of a “Summersault”) that starts off as a horizontal lift, switches to Summerset in a handstand on Gilles’ ankle, and then switches again to a shoulder-high rotational lift. This program is packed with difficulty (it’s second only to Samuelson & Bates’ program in base value), but the numbers don’t show how much fun they are to watch. No moment is wasted, and the story of the waif and the clown is told eloquently yet enthusiastically.


Slipping a place in the final standings, Lithuanians Katherine Copely & Deividas Stagniunas are similarly impressive in their lifts. Copely hits some gorgeous positions and Stagniunas does a strong job in displaying her. A highlight of the program is a no-hand rotational lift, where Copely’s only connection to Stagniunas is her knee hooked around his neck. Their program to Evita has some pretty moments, although at this stage in its evolution, it’s a little light when it comes to linking elements.


Though Allie Hann-McCurdy & Michael Coreno of Canada finished in ninth place in all phases of the competition (a drop after finishing 4th at last year’s Skate Canada) they were philosophical about their placement.


“We’ve improved,” Hann-McCurdy said. “We’re doing well, but so is everybody else. I think that exposure to competition is a real good kick in the butt to get back home and amp things up.”


Their program, a piano piece called Pankakoski by Risto Laurito, was cleanly performed, but had more open holds than most of the others. Coreno remarked that this field was particularly strong.


“All of the teams are really good here,” the Canadian said.


In that, he is correct, as this field included the first, fourth, eighth, 14th, 15th, and 19th ranked teams from the 2008 World Championships, plus the Junior World champions. And while the program music choices may end up seeming like the audience is stuck in the film Groundhog Day, the evolution of the performances throughout the year still indicate this will be an exciting season.


Though fans may wish to supply their own soundtracks.