by Jacquelyn Thayer | Photo by Melanie Hoyt
The senior Grand Prix begins this week with Hilton HHonors Skate America at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena. Detroit often held major events during the 1990s—including Skate America in 1995, 1997, and 1998—but this will be the first significant competition for the region since then. The location holds special significance for the dance roster: all eight teams can claim a local connection, whether training full-time at one of the area’s elite skating clubs or working part-time with one of their leading coaches. The more pressing storyline of the competition, however, is less about regional pride and more about the ultimate goal: each team here has something to prove on the road to Sochi.
2013 World Champions and Detroit-area natives Meryl Davis & Charlie White, who train at the Arctic Edge Ice Arena in Canton, Mich., kicked off their second Olympic season in Salt Lake City at September’s U.S. International Figure Skating Classic. The team set a high-water mark for themselves with a particularly steep set of scores for an early event, including a free dance score of 110.02—only two points shy of what they achieved at last season’s World Championships. While their short dance to “My Fair Lady” and their “Scheherazade” free dance were obviously well-received, the team has recently stated their aim to further emphasize the musicality and character of each program going forward. They have also continued their work with outside lift instructors, suggesting the possibility of a tweak or two in that element, particularly as the team incurred one extended lift deduction in the free dance’s first outing. Despite Level 3s on all step sequences and both Finnstep sequences, strong marks for an early first event, the duo has also stressed their intention of improving their levels. It will remain to be seen how their Grand Prix scores compare with their Senior B competition, but they are certainly likely to attain their fourth consecutive Skate America victory this weekend.
Italians Anna Cappellini & Luca Lanotte (pictured, right), the other veteran team in this field, wrapped their most successful senior season to date with a fourth-place finish at the 2013 World Championships, where they also placed third in the free dance. The team was scheduled to begin their season at Ondrej Nepela Trophy early in October, but withdrew after a minor neck injury to Lanotte. Skate America, therefore, will be their first competitive outing of the season. Cappellini & Lanotte train part-time in the region with Igor Shpilband at the Novi Ice Arena and during the summer, they presented their short dance to “42nd Street” to a local audience. The major debut here will be their “Barber of Seville” free dance, a program that should play on the couple’s strength with character pieces. Last season, the team picked up silver at each of their Grand Prix events; as they begin their push for a chance at the Olympic podium, they should be in good position here to make another strong medal claim.
Maia & Alex Shibutani, 2013 U.S. bronze medalists and training mates to Davis & White, were originally slated to begin their season in Salt Lake City but, like Cappellini & Lanotte, found themselves withdrawing due to a neck injury to Alex. The team, then, will be unveiling their programs before a local crowd, the first stop in their bid to reassert their position in the U.S. scene. Ballroom expert Corky Ballas, who helped revamp the duo’s Latin short dance in the 2011-12 season, was tapped to assist on their Michael Bublé-scored foxtrot and quickstep short dance. The program generating more early buzz, though, might be their Michael Jackson free dance. To create that dance, the Shibutanis looked to choreographers Travis Payne and Stacy Walker, who worked on several Jackson tours. Since the outstanding success of their first senior season in 2010-11, the Shibutanis have struggled with inconsistent results, beset by injury or illness on a few occasions and making more than one major mid-season program revision. They have plenty of technical strength, so with the right dances, they could certainly put themselves back in position to reclaim a solid position in the national scene, and contend for a medal here.
Joining the hometown field are Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue of the Detroit Skating Club, who were assigned to the competition in August as the final U.S. host pick. The couple began their season on a high note, winning gold at Nebelhorn Trophy for the second time in three seasons, where they also a new personal best free dance score of 90.58. Last season, the team encountered a few technical snags on the Grand Prix and finished fourth at the U.S. Nationals, missing the world team. Their efforts in Oberstdorf, though, demonstrated a good comfort level with both their swinging Big Bad Voodoo Daddy short dance and their more lyrical free dance to Lucia Micarelli’s “Nocturne into Bohemian Rhapsody.” Determined to make their case for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team, Hubbell & Donohue will want to place well this weekend. They will, however, face a scheduling issue that the rest of the field does not share—this is their first of back-to-back events, with the team set to head for Saint John, New Brunswick, for Skate Canada International next week.
Pernelle Carron & Lloyd Jones finished second at the French Masters earlier this month, so far defending their domestic position against new seniors Gabriella Papadakis & Guillaume Cizeron. The team struggled on the Grand Prix last year, but pulled up as the season continued, and eventually finished 12th at the World Championships, where they also set new personal bests in both the short and free dances. Like several other teams at this event, Carron & Jones have worked part-time with Igor Shpilband. With video from their programs in Orléans unavailable, at Skate America they will unveil their new programs, including a free dance to Camille Saint-Saens’s “The Swan,” to a wider audience. Their results at that initial event suggested particularly strong technical work from the team, and if carried through here, they should see a better beginning to this Grand Prix series than last year’s.
The season has been busy already for the Novi-trained Isabella Tobias & Deividas Stagniunas, who have competed at both the U.S. Classic, finishing seventh, and Finlandia Trophy, where they placed fourth. The team won a surprise bronze medal at 2011 Skate America, but skipped last season’s Grand Prix due to a back injury to Stagniunas. Their 15th-place finish at the 2013 World Championships ensured an Olympic spot for Lithuania in ice dance, though the team’s ability to fulfill that berth hinges on Tobias’s appeal for citizenship after her application was intiailly denied. Here, the team will seek to regain some footing after disappointing results at their Senior B events, where they struggled on the technical end, picking up Levels 1 and 2 in their Finnstep at each event and incurring extended lift deductions in three of four performances.
Julia Zlobina & Alexei Sitnikov of Azerbaijan started their season at the U.S. Classic, finishing sixth in the field with programs that include a free dance to selections from Pina. Although Zlobina & Sitnikov train with Alexander Zhulin, Shpilband sat with them in the kiss and cry at the U.S. Classic. Last season saw the team making strides that included a fifth-place finish at Trophée Eric Bompard and a seventh-place finish at the European Championships, with new personal best scores set at each event. While their outing in Salt Lake City was affected by some low levels, a cleaner performance here could help them continue last year’s progress.
Rounding out the event roster are Japan’s Cathy & Chris Reed, who most recently qualified an Olympic spot for Japan with a seventh-place finish at Nebelhorn Trophy. The team can claim their own link with Detroit, having received choreography from Shpilband for the past two seasons; the siblings were also born in Michigan, though in Kalamazoo, several hours west of Detroit. However, the Reeds are also facing a continuation of recent injury woes, with Chris having torn his meniscus in August, an injury on which he continued to train for the next several weeks. Their readiness will remain to be seen, but their gutsy performances in Germany of their short dance to “Puttin’ on the Ritz” and “Harlem Nocturne” and their “Shogun” free dance certainly point to their determination.
Practices get underway Thursday, October 17. The short dance is scheduled for Friday evening, and the dance event wraps with the free dance on Saturday night.