by Jacquelyn Thayer | Photo by Robin Ritoss

Russia is taking center stage in the figure skating world in the run-up to the Sochi Olympics, and Rostelecom Cup, or Cup of Russia, marks the nation’s first international event of this season. Moscow, eleven-time host of the competition, is ready to welcome a full roster of eight teams for the fourth stop on this year’s ISU Grand Prix. While some teams are working to improve on imperfect first events, several young duos are ready to make their first splash on this year’s Grand Prix circuit.

In their seventh season assigned to the senior Grand Prix circuit, Canada’s Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir are making their very first appearance at Rostelecom Cup. Two weeks ago, the couple won their fourth Skate Canada International title in a somewhat flawed outing. Their short dance was marred by some atypical technical woes, including level 2s on one polka sequence and the no-touch step sequence, and a major mishap on the closing rotational lift that resulted in a level 1 call for the element. The team indicated that the lift, which also triggered a neck injury for Moir early last month, will likely be replaced, though with only a brief intermission between events, such a change may not yet have transpired. In any event, however, Virtue & Moir are likely to have a much stronger outing of the program here.

But the primary buzz for the team has come for their modern Carmen free dance. While its performance in Windsor came with a couple of stumbles, it was successful enough to generate both considerable discussion and a ten-point lead over silver medalists Anna Cappellini & Luca Lanotte. With any first-event nerves shaken off and a bit of additional training time and feedback, the continuation of Carmen’s evolution will be worth watching.

12WTT-FD-0058-IK-RR 450Rostelecom Cup’s Russian contingent will be led by Elena Ilinykh & Nikita Katsalapov (pictured, right), who finished fifth at 2012 Worlds and most recently won the small Crystal Skate event in Romania. The team’s new programs – an unusual take on the short dance to an “Andijan polka,” inspired by Uzbek traditional music, and a free dance based on Ghost: The Musical – were debuted as exhibitions at October’s Golden Skate Awards. However, it will be more instructive to see them in full competition mode, particularly as Ilinykh has been recovering from a shoulder injury which hindered the team’s training schedule. Ilinykh & Katsalapov earned one medal on the Grand Prix last season, a bronze at NHK Trophy, and in this line-up seem positioned to medal again.

It will also be the first Grand Prix event of the season for Americans Maia Shibutani & Alex Shibutani, who got off to an excellent start in the 2011-12 season, winning their first Grand Prix gold at NHK Trophy, but faced a few health and injury issues towards season’s end and faltered at their late events, eventually finishing eighth at Worlds on some uncharacteristic mistakes. With a long off-season – the Shibutanis are the only team at this event not to have already competed this season – the team will have had extra time to hone their new programs. Their short dance will be set to selections from Mary Poppins, but it’s their Memoirs of a Geisha free dance – a piece the team first visited as novices in 2006-07 – that’s received notice, the team having worked with Japanese dance instructor (and film consultant) Miyako Tachibana to highlight authenticity of movement. With a return to their usual form, the 2011 World bronze medalists (which, it should be noted, were won here at the Ice Palace Megasport in Moscow) would seem in good stead here to make another Grand Prix podium run.

Germany’s Nelli Zhiganshina & Alexander Gazsi finished fifth at first Grand Prix event Skate America. Both short dance and free dance were hit technically with low levels for pattern and step sequences, with the team taking only level 1s and 2s in all, though earning level 4s on all twizzles and lifts. The two will likely improve on those numbers here, though their zombie free dance was also impacted by technical difficulties in its first outing at September’s Nebelhorn Trophy, suggesting the possibility for more program tweaking as the season progresses.

Canadians Nicole Orford & Thomas Williams are making their senior Grand Prix debut. Last season, in only their second year together, the team won gold at JGP Brisbane and finished sixth at Junior Worlds. The couple kicked off this season with a very strong performance at the Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships, where they earned the second-highest scores in both the short dance and free dance, behind only Americans Madison Chock & Evan Bates. Orford & Williams’ country-western short dance to “Sold” and “Tennessee Waltz” is a particular standout for the team and also contrasts well in style with their ballroom-oriented High Society free dance. In this youthful field, Orford & Williams are in position to draw attention on the major stage.

2011 World Junior champions Ksenia Monko & Kirill Khaliavin (RUS) hit a snag before entering senior international competition; Monko contracted mononucleosis in 2011, leading to their pre-season withdrawal from both Grand Prix assignments and leaving Russian Nationals as their only event of the year. This season the team has made up for some lost ground on the Senior B circuit, taking fourth place at Nebelhorn Trophy (third in the free dance) and winning Cup of Nice. Rostelecom Cup marks their Grand Prix debut and their only assignment on the circuit. However, with the mileage and feedback they’ve already received on their short dance to “Sous le Ciel de Paris” and flamenco free dance, and the personal momentum carried over from their events to date, they stand a good chance of making an impact before a home audience.

For Russia’s Victoria Sinitsina & Ruslan Zhiganshin, it’s a quick turnaround from last week’s Cup of China in Shanghai, where the young team finished sixth overall and fifth in the free dance. Their biggest issue at that event was on the technical end, with the team netting only one level 4 and low GOEs in the short dance, and level 4s on only the lifts in the free dance. The goal here for them, as for other teams, will be to improve their technical work, though with the limited time between events, it may prove challenging.

In a fun side note, Zhiganshin is the younger brother of Nelli Zhiganshina, making for two sets of siblings competing at this event — for three different countries!

Penny Coomes & Nicholas Buckland of Great Britain made significant improvements last season, finishing just off the podium at their only Grand Prix event at Cup of China, sixth at the European Championships, and fourteenth at their second trip to Worlds. The team will aim to continue that trajectory this season, and their free dance to music from Basement Jaxx will certainly be one way to stand out from the crowd. Having changed plans to begin their season early at Cup of Nice, Coomes & Buckland will also be using this event to earn initial international feedback and prepare for their second Grand Prix event at NHK Trophy.

The competition begins Friday, with the short dance scheduled as the day’s last event and the free dance closing out competition on Saturday.