by Jacquelyn Thayer | Photos by Robin Ritoss
For Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue, it’s a thin line between creative ambition and long-range practicality.
“I think once we’ve found a piece,” said Donohue, “we go ‘Okay, well what strengths does this piece bring out in us? What can we show that’s different, what can we do to take people by surprise, what can we do to push ourselves?’”
And long-term planning became a necessity in the wake of the series of injuries that beset Hubbell over the past year. A concussion in June 2013 required time away from the ice in the off-season, but it was a torn labrum that took the greatest toll on the team—though it coincided with their biggest international achievements, including the couple’s first Grand Prix medal, a bronze at Skate Canada International, and a victory at January’s Four Continents Championships. Although they qualified as first alternates to the U.S. World team, they declined the opportunity in favor of immediate treatment for Hubbell’s injury, surgery in March.
“We felt it was better to prepare for the next quad,” said Donohue. “So we felt it was better to give up our spot in order to get Madi healthy and get the surgery she needed and get a jump-start on this current year.”
The surgery pushed back the team’s typical off-season schedule by a month: with Hubbell focusing initially on recovery and rehab, program preparation and more intensive on-ice work were delayed. Feedback at August’s Champs Camp meant additional work in the form of revisions to the couple’s Great Gatsby free dance.
“It’s never simple—there’s never just a smooth ride,” said Hubbell. “In general, it’s on an upswing—it’s just one of those processes that’s two steps forward and one step back, so it gets a little bit frustrating sometimes.”
While the team was initially assigned to early October’s Finlandia Trophy, they opted to withdraw in favor of using the additional weeks before Skate Canada International to finalize Grand Prix preparation. “We felt it was kind of better to set our priorities towards the [Grand Prix] Final rather than jumping in before we were ready,” said Donohue.
One of the central pillars of the couple’s focus this season is careful program selection, building with a view towards the 2018 Olympic season. Last year’s more lyrical free dance to “Nocturne into Bohemian Rhapsody” made an impression on spectators—but one perhaps quieter than desired.
“I think part of what was challenging was that we had a lot of comments from judges and from spectators that they really felt an emotional connection to our program, and that the way it ended was very raw, emotional, and they really thought it was beautiful,” said Hubbell. “But the impact that it has on a stadium is kind of this quiet moment at the end. Not the clapping and the cheering and the standing ovation.”
After a review of other programs on offer last season, the team made a goal of creating their own crowd-rousing free, opting to reserve a return to a more inward approach until they’ve become more established on the world stage. “That’s the end goal, to have everyone having some sort of excited reaction to your program,” Hubbell concluded.
Selections from Gatsby, then, provided ample room for energy.
“I think that we fell in love with the idea of using the new Gatsby movie because it’s all kind of overwhelmingly interesting,” said Hubbell. “I don’t know, for me watching it, it’s bigger than life, kind of.” In keeping with that energy, the duo’s first-designed costumes draw upon the scene of Daisy and Gatsby’s reunion at a tea party, fashions representing, in Hubbell’s words, Gatsby’s “fun, ostentatious personality” and Daisy’s “femininity and flirtatiousness.”
For two skaters who express a keen interest in choreography and dance, the effort to narrow down to a single choice from year to year has typically proven challenging. It’s appropriate, then, that Gatsby’s biggest appeal came from the diversity its musical palette offered.
“We’re able to start with something that’s kind of slow and beautiful that builds the chemistry between the two of us, which is ‘Young and Beautiful,’” said Hubbell. “And then we go into ‘Back to Black’ and it kind of gives us a chance to show that we can dance a different style—it’s closer to hip hop, it’s different than what most people put on the ice. It is quite challenging. And then we end on a very high note with Fergie’s ‘A Little Party,’ just trying to create something that’s very exciting for the crowd and the judges and really just bringing the atmosphere of the event as high as possible.”
“We’re really more trying to show our variety and how good we can be at more than just one style in a program, which is not the easiest thing to do, to portray so many changes of character,” said Donohue. “We’re staying, actually, very far away from anything classic—we’re kind of reinventing everything.”
More than just conveying difference, the team is determined to showcase their movement with a sense of off-ice authenticity—a difficult task when presented with a style like hip hop.
“I think it’s challenging to find the right execution,” said Hubbell. “We really tried our best to do something that both works with the glide aspect of skating and still exhibits a different style and maybe a little bit more of a staccato motion.”
While coach Pasquale Camerlengo shaped the general concept, he brought in additional aid from Italian dance choreographer Barbara Melica to hone the niceties of movement and program cohesion. “She especially helped with that hip hop feel, showing us the little tricks of how to create something that’s sharp even though the rest of our body’s doing something fluid like skating,” continued Hubbell.
If their free dance takes the duo to new terrain, the Paso Doble short dance has allowed them to draw upon some lessons learned through training the Spanish free dance they competed in the 2012-13 season.
“The first year, it was quite challenging,” said Hubbell. “It was something neither one of us had ever done, and just all of the knowledge that you have to learn in that off-season with the arms and the posturing was quite difficult, so I felt like it really gave us a good advantage.”
Though the comfort level is key, the new program has its own flavor, taking a stricter Paso route than the flamenco fusion on offer in that previous free. Too, the team has received guidance this off-season from former Dutch National Ballet dancer Veronique Breen and ballroom champion Ilya Iframov.
“A free and a short are very different when it’s this much intensity,” said Donohue. “Most Spanish rhythms are very intense, at least in the way that ice dance wants it to be portrayed—it’s very driving, very pounding, very sharp, strong movements. It’s quite draining, but it’s also a lot of fun because there’s a lot of energy you can put into it.”
“We chose traditional music that’s just very powerful, and we feel like it suits us very well,” said Hubbell. “We’re one of the biggest teams out there, in the way of height and extension, so I think it’s a great way for us to show our command of the ice and show how big we can skate.”
And in the new choreographic step sequence, Donohue sees a special opportunity for added authenticity.
“We kind of have a way of bringing our Spanish interpretation into a required element, which is very rare,” he said. “I mean, you can do a lift or move an arm here and there, but it’s nice to be able to kind of skate a compulsory with that intention in mind.”
And the two, like most, are seeking to enhance their elements, including new lifts, an element Donohue noted as a former “weak spot” given the comparative heights of the partners.
“We’ve changed up the spins, twizzle sequences,” he continued. “We’re going for a lot more in character, less of ‘here’s an element, let’s just skate and get it over with’ and a lot more incorporating into the actual program so it’s better blended, which of course adds a high level of difficulty, because any time an arm’s off or something’s off, it throws the whole thing off.”
Hubbell’s time away for recovery meant an unusual benefit in an off-season marked by some significant rule revisions: a chance to postpone program development until ISU decisions were more firmly in place.
“I didn’t have to go through that process of trying to get ahead and then being told it wasn’t right; I just had all of the knowledge from everybody else already trying things. So that actually worked out really well for me,” she said with a laugh.
“The off-season can be quite frustrating when you’re trying to create new things and be creative and push the boundaries,” she continued. “With the injury and the recovery and everything, I think so much of both Zachary’s and my focus was just on being strong and getting back to the technical skaters that we weren’t really able to be last year. And so that actually, I feel, worked really well in our preparation, and we’ve learned to just take it one step at a time and do what we’re told and let go of the control a little bit, which has been really good for us.”
Indeed, the couple are making technical consistency one of the centerpieces of their goals for long-term development.
“It’s a new quad, which leaves open a lot of doors,” said Donohue. “Growing stronger as a team is always something that’s kind of been at the forefront, because we feel it’s way more important to have a good strong partnership and relationship and a united passion about our skating, moreso than it is to just have the best technique or the longest lines. But at the same time, we are working on technique, looking at all of our top competitors and saying ‘Okay, what do they do best? Let’s do it better.’”
“I think we’ve both always been skaters who just go based on feeling, and that can be used as a strong point, but we also need to make sure that the training is there and we’re a little bit more methodical and consistent with exactly how we do things,” added Hubbell. “When you’ve been from the top ten and you are trying now to push from the top five and then to the podium, those tiny little differences are what makes or breaks you.”
And in this first year of the new cycle, the duo’s competitive focus is international, aiming for podium finishes at both Skate Canada International—their third consecutive assignment to that event—and Trophee Eric Bompard, where they’ll be competing for a second time. In the wide-open field left in the wake of the absences of previous series leaders like Meryl Davis & Charlie White, Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir and Nathalie Pechalat & Fabian Bourzat, the couple is concentrating their efforts on their first qualification to the Grand Prix Final.
“Of course, Nationals is on our radar because that’s always in the back of your mind,” said Donohue. “But I really feel like if we can set ourselves apart in the Grand Prix season, then all we have to focus on is ourselves and our job and not so much what place we’re going to get at Nationals, because the chips will fall where they may.”
And in the training environment of the Detroit Skating Club, where they skate alongside couples including World silver medalists Kaitlyn Weaver & Andrew Poje, Olympians Alexandra Paul & Mitchell Islam and World Junior champions Kaitlin Hawayek & Jean-Luc Baker, the team finds some particular advantages.
“I would say that Pasquale and Angelika [Krylova] do a really great job of listening to their students,” said Hubbell. “[They] always make sure that nobody has any ego or anything. We’re all athletes and we’re all training really hard—I think we all appreciate what everyone is doing and putting out on the line every day, so it’s nice. I think there’s always going to be pressure when you’re training with someone who is either on top of you, coming up behind you, right on the same level as you, and we’ve got all of that at our rink right now! But it’s kept me realistic over the years and I think that for everyone, we can appreciate everybody’s strengths and weaknesses, and that helps everybody grow.”
“This year, especially in the U.S., is a big year—there are a lot of teams in the top 5 or 6 this year, where it hasn’t been that way as much the past few, or at least not so close. A lot of teams are getting close to the same playing field now that Meryl and Charlie are stepping away,” said Donohue. “I think at the end of the day, it’s very motivating. We’re always kind of keeping an eye on the other teams, and I think we all use each other to push ourselves.”
But it’s the collaboratively creative approach of Camerlengo that looms especially large for the team.
“We generally choreograph with Pasquale only and he’s very much about ‘This is what vision I have, this is where I’d like you to go on the ice. I’d like you to show this’ and so we’ll go and try something and we just kind of mess around to see what we’re comfortable with and listen to the music,” said Donohue. “Sometimes he loves what we’re doing, sometimes he hates it, sometimes it’s ‘I want you to do this specifically,’ sometimes it’s ‘I want you to show me how you feel comfortable portraying this.’ So it’s always a back-and-forth of finding the best way of doing it, what gets the right shapes and idea across, but also right from the start we know we can already start working on execution and it speeds up the process a lot without having to memorize steps that we may or may not like but that our coach told us to do so we’ve got to have time to get comfortable. It’s a nice edge.”
“I think that Pasquale would agree that Zach and I both take a pretty big interest and are both pretty talented at working something out together,” said Hubbell. “I think Zach wants to eventually be a Pasquale—a person who brings up teams to the top and choreographs for them, and I know that we’ve talked about my interest in coming in and helping him with choreography, so I think we both have a future somewhere in the sport, and definitely on the creative side.”
And Donohue has found show programs one indulgence for his creative inclinations, including a new one the team aims to unveil on the Grand Prix, a funk piece—”much quicker than usual,” he noted.
“Show programs are interesting to me, because most people like to just take parts of their old shorts and frees and do that, and I’m like ‘Nope! We’re gonna make a whole new program from scratch, and we don’t have to worry about lifts or being in hold, so we can put in the cool stuff’ and then, oh my gosh, it’s harder than a free dance,” Donohue said with a laugh.
Whatever the program or performance setting, Hubbell & Donohue are confident in the path they’re forging in this new quad.
“We like to reinvent ourselves all the time, and I for one don’t like to do something more than once, unless it’s absolutely required,” said Donohue. “I like catching people by surprise, so I think we’ll do that pretty well this year.”