by Anne Calder | Photo by Robin Ritoss

Skate America officially kicked off the 2020 Grand Prix Series of Figure Skating October 22-24 at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.

The six Series events had already been whittled down to just four, with Skate Canada and Internationaux de France recently canceled due to the pandemic.

Skaters, coaches and media who arrived at the Orleans Hotel found a very different environment from previous Skate America competitions. Everyone involved with the event first had to be tested, then quarantined alone until the results were known. Afterwards participants were kept in a bubble, with no outside or casino activities.

Due to strict accordance with the Nevada Gaming Control Board guidelines, no spectators were allowed to attend the event, so the USFS conducted a virtual fan experience. In addition to televised programming, practices and competitions were live streamed within the United States.

Inside the arena, the usual cheering audience was replaced with cardboard cutouts and pumped-in applause. Coaches weren’t allowed in the Kiss and Cry area, so the masked skaters sat alone to await their scores. Skaters donned their own medals and individual photos followed. 

RHYTHM DANCE

Friday the Rhythm Dance was the last event of the evening. Eight couples participated, with seven representing the USA and one skating for Hungary. Two of the American teams and their coach travelled from Montreal, Quebec Canada.

There was no change from last season’s pattern dance and rhythms. The teams had to perform one section of the Finnstep, skated to Swing, Charleston, or Quickstep. 

The teams finished in the following order: (1) Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue, (2) Kaitlin Hawayek & Jean-Luc Baker and (3) Christina Carreira & Anthony Ponomarenko.

Hubbell & Donohue introduced their new rhythm dance to a Burlesque medley by Christina Aguilera. At the press conference after the event, Hubbell discussed the rationale behind closing down last year’s music and moving on.

“We worked really hard and got the program to the point where we felt it was very strong and consistent. We didn’t feel there was much left to squeeze out of the program.”

“We wanted to take all the things we learned from that character and apply it to something that’s a little bit more modern, sexy, powerful and allowed me to be a little more authentic to my character.”

“I love Marilyn Monroe, but she was a very shy woman who didn’t have the most self-confidence. I was ready to step out and be very strong and powerful.

The Finnstep, twizzles, rotational lift and Donohue’s Pattern Dance Type Step Sequence earned level 4; the other elements were all level 3. The total segment score was 85.30.

Hawayek & Baker kept last year’s disco Saturday Night Fever, but changed the middle music.

“We changed a bunch of stuff with the middle piece of music this summer, and its potential is really huge,”  Hawayek said. “We just need to maximize the cleanliness and the flavor of that part even more. This was the piece of music we wanted to use in the beginning, but we couldn’t because of the rules. When there was a shift of rules this season, we grabbed the opportunity right away. We wanted to bring more of a personality from the first and last piece, but in a lighter more playful way.

The 2020 USA bronze medalists earned level 4 for five of the possible seven marks; the other two were level 3. Their segment score was 81.15

Carreira & Ponomarenko kept last year’s Rhythm Dance to “It’s Too Darn Hot” from Kiss Me Kate.

“It feels very comfortable skating the program a second year in a row,” Ponomarenko said. “Everything feels natural, so we really want to take it to the next step with more energy and more power, showing what we can do.”

“It’s a program we loved last year, and we’re not sick of it yet,” Carreira added. “It feels great to keep improving and making it better.”

The 2018 World silver medalists received the only level 4 Midline Step Sequence and scored 11.35 points for the element. In addition, they earned level 4 twizzles, rotational lift, and Ponomarenko’s Pattern Dance Type Step Sequence. The Finnstep and Carreira’s Partial Step Sequence had level 3. The total segment was 78.63, which was eight points higher than their 2019 Skate America debut.

The remaining competitors: Caroline Green & Michael Parsons (74.98) introduced their new Thoroughly Modern Millie program; Molly Cesanek & Yehor Yehorov (66.01) in their senior debut with selections from Aint Too Proud and Walking on Sunshine; Lorraine McNamara & Anton Spiridonov (63.50) debuted as a new team with music from Sweet Charity; Eva Pate & Logan Bye (59.61) with selections from Motown the Musical; and Emily Monaghan & Ilias Fourati represented Hungary (54.88) with music from Fosse.

FREE DANCE

The Free Dance produced no changes in the final standings. All eight dancers remained in the same positions from the previous night’s Rhythm Dance.

Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue claimed their third straight Skate America gold medal; Kaitlin Hawayek & Jean-Luc Baker won silver, followed by Christina Carreira & Anthony Ponomarenko with the bronze.

Hubbell & Donohue returned to their 2015-16 Rhythm Dance music, “Hallelujah”, with new choreography by Scott Moir and the addition of Jeff Buckley’s voice and guitar to that of k.d. lang. Karl Hugo’s original piece, “Pray Gently to the Light” added a seamless transition between the two vocalists.

“We have an easy time skating to “Hallelujah” because every part feels purposeful,” said Hubbell. “There’s something about each part we enjoy.”

Donohue used to sing Jeff Buckley’s version to Hubbell prior to competitions to calm her down.

Hubbell continued, “We used “Hallelujah” the first year we moved to Montreal. It felt like a way to restart our careers. We felt really hopeful in 2015.”

“We kept coming back to that [music] for exhibitions in monumental moments in our careers.“

“During the off-season, we were inevitably drawn to marry the two versions – one by k.d. lang and one by Jeff Buckley,” Hubbell added. “It showed different sides to “Hallelujah” – something that hadn’t been explored as much, a kind of raw, intimate quality. It’s something that’s definitely part of our partnership.”

The reigning World bronze medalists showed off their speed and flow across the ice with a seamless presentation that earned a 126.09 segment and 211.39 total score. A highlight was the unusual “hydro blading-like” Choreographic Slide that perfectly hit the beat of the music and scored 4.97 points.

Hawayek & Baker were pleased with the dramatic presentation of their new free dance. It was a different look for them. The team has worked this year on staying 100 percent committed and focused on the story from the very beginning of the program.

“Tonight we had success staying invested in every moment, and it made it fly by,” said Hawayek.

The Montreal-based duo chose “Heart of Glass” by Phillip Glass and Blondie plus they added the violin strings of Glass’s “First Movement” and earned a 121.32 segment and 202.47 total score.

“We came across the version of Blondie’s beautiful cover of “Heart of Glass” and felt a connection to the music,” noted Hawayek. “The original Blondie song is very upbeat. Even though the words are the same, the new version resonated with us so differently.”

“We wanted to tell a story for ourselves and this program for us is really powerful and is important for our own story. We also wanted to have a story that was universally understood by anyone watching.”

Carreira & Ponomarenko showed more variety and maturity in their third year on the senior Grand Prix circuit. After an interesting entrance to the twizzles, he fell out of rotation, and then later she had a problem exiting the spin. Both glitches resulted in level 2 elements. The lifts were level 4 and the step sequences (one foot and circular) were level 3. The segment earned 107.15 and the total 185.78.

Ponomarenko spoke about their music choice.

“Dr. Zhivago is classical music that’s been skated many times before, so we used some of the soundtrack from the 2002 [British Television Miniseries].”

“We have some new ideas to expand on when we get home. We enjoy this piece of music with a story that can easily be told. We look forward to developing it.”

The remaining competitors and their total scores: Green & Parsons (178.05); Cesanek & Yehorov (168.09); McNamara & Spiridonov (159.89); Pate & Bye (151.40) and Monaghan & Fourati (127.70).