by Jacquelyn Thayer

 

Cup of China marks the third event on this season’s ISU Grand Prix calendar, taking place for the very first time in Shanghai. The eight teams set to compete here are all making their Grand Prix season debuts, though a few couples still enter with clear advantages over the rest of the pack.

Americans Maia & Alex Shibutani enter after a second-place finish behind training mates Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir at last month’s Finlandia Trophy. The reigning world bronze medalists made an impressive debut on the senior Grand Prix last season, taking bronze at both NHK Trophy and Skate America. This year, the young team is in search of their first senior gold medal, and stands a very strong chance of achieving it here. At Finlandia, the duo presented a spirited and technically sound free dance set to selections from Glenn Miller’s Sun Valley Serenade but saw somewhat lesser technical marks in their samba-based short dance, earning only a level 1 on their second rumba pattern and a level 2 on their no-touch circular step sequence. Given the team’s demonstrated aptitude for swift improvement, however, further mileage and feedback may be the only adjustments necessary, and their scores here are quite likely to exceed those from Finlandia.


Making their own run for gold are Russia’s national champions, Ekaterina Bobrova & Dmitri Soloviev. The couple, who finished sixth at the World Championships, took silver at Cup of China last season after winning gold at Cup of Russia, eventually placing fourth at the Grand Prix Final. This year the team is aiming for another successful Grand Prix series and will debut here their dramatic new “Walpurgisnacht” free dance. While it will offer a fairly stark contrast to the Shibutanis’ lighthearted program, it is also sure to showcase Bobrova & Soloviev’s expressive strengths. Whatever the ultimate outcome here, the couple is almost certainly bound for the podium.

The biggest buzz around the event may be for a team who were only added to the line-up as substitutes in mid-October for Russia’s ill Ksenia Monko & Kirill Khaliavin. Emily Samuelson & Todd Gilles are making their much-anticipated debut as partners and are each returning to competition after a season’s break. While their music choices remain an official mystery in advance of the event, the duo did spend time in Colorado Springs working with Christopher Dean for their new free dance, and the program is sure to generate considerable discussion. Though the team may lack the longer shared history of their competitors here, their individual skating skills and senior international competitive experience with former partners Evan Bates and Jane Summersett could speak well of their ability to post two strong performances.

Making another kind of debut are Charlotte Lichtman & Dean Copely, competing their first international event as seniors. Last season was a breakout for the Canton-trained Lichtman & Copely, who became U.S. junior champions and subsequently won bronze at the World Junior Championships. In July, the team competed at the Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships, where they received the highest senior short dance score overall, but fell to sixth with a problematic free dance to “Dark Eyes.” After the competition, they returned to the drawing board and to a free dance style more in line with last year’s successful Beetlejuice free dance — “Austin Powers” — which they unveiled at October’s An Evening With Champions. The program was a hit with the audience, and it simply remains to be seen if it will fare as well with international judges.

11cochina-pennynickHoping to build on progress made last season are France’s national silver medalists, Pernelle Carron & Lloyd Jones. While their Grand Prix debut in 2009 ended in a ninth-place finish at Trophee Eric Bompard, last season saw the team taking fourth and fifth at Trophee Eric Bompard and Skate Canada, respectively. This summer, Carron & Jones made a coaching change, moving from Muriel Zazoui-Boucher and Romain Haguenauer’s base in Lyon, France to Natalia Linichuk’s IceWorks in Aston, Pennsylvania, and the results of the switch will be intriguing to watch.

With this season’s European Championships set to take place in Sheffield, England, Britain’s Penny Coomes & Nicholas Buckland (pictured) are hoping to make strides from last year, when the team finished eighth at both NHK Trophy and Skate America and 16th at Worlds. The couple kicked off this season promisingly with an outing at August’s IJS Sheffield event, where a 14-point victory over Louise Walden & Owen Edwards may have established them as the nation’s top team in the wake of Sinead & John Kerr’s retirement. Though last season’s results may have been less than hoped for, their programs showcased the creativity of coach Evgeny Platov, and this season’s free dance set to music from Cirque du Soleil’s Viva Elvis show will surely make a memorable impression as well.

Though China is primarily known for its pairs success, the host nation has two dance teams competing here. As four-time national champions, Xintong Huang & Xun Zheng lead the way. Last season, the couple finished a respectable fifth at both Cup of China and Trophee Eric Bompard, and look to replicate similar results here. National silver medalists Xiaoyang Yu & Chen Wang, who last year competed at Cup of China and NHK Trophy, round out the roster.

Practice begins Thursday, November 3. The short dance is set for Friday afternoon, and the free dance will take place Saturday.