2013-14 Grand Prix in Review: Dance

The six events comprising this pre-Olympic Grand Prix series established more firmly than ever the central storylines for North American ice dance as the countdown to Sochi continues. By the numbers and more than a little data analysis, the key takeaways.

1. The Battle for First – No contest has been more discussed or more debated than the showdown to come between Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir and Meryl Davis & Charlie White, 2010 Olympic gold and silver medalists, alternating world champions, and, immediately relevant to our purposes here, multiple Grand Prix gold medalists. With a season’s best total of 188.23 at Skate America to Virtue & Moir’s 181.03 at Skate Canada International, Davis & White would seem to hold an early season advantage, as has traditionally been the case between these rivals going back to the previous Olympic season. More useful, however, is a deeper analysis of the numbers to date.

Davis & White kicked off their Grand Prix series at Skate America with a total of 188.23, highest among all teams this season, and a season’s best short dance score of 75.70 for their program to selections from My Fair Lady, which included Level 4s on both sequences of the Finnstep. Their Scheherazade free dance also received the best free dance PCS of the season, 58.61. While NHK Trophy netted the team a personal best and world record 112.95 in the free dance, total score declined by nearly two points in the short dance, due to L3 twizzles in addition to a L3 on the first Finnstep sequence.

Virtue & Moir’s series began with Skate Canada International, where the team picked up 73.15 in their Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong short dance with one L4 Finnstep sequence and a perfect step sequence — Level 4 and a maximum GOE of 3.00 — but lost points on errant L2 twizzles. They also earned a season’s best 107.88 for their Seasons free dance, though the score included a hit from two extended lift deductions. Trophee Eric Bompard saw key growth with a revised short dance that shifted the twizzle sequence to a more favorable earlier placement and earned the team a season’s best 75.31, despite L3s on both Finnstep patterns, and a PCS of 38.37, best among all teams this season. Once more, however, the free dance, though achieving a season’s best PCS of 57.87, was affected by level hits and two extended lift deductions, resulting in a drop to 105.65 with a TES of 49.78 reflecting the source of the change.

This battle, then, is largely a story of levels. The second short dance outing for each team suggests that segment may be Virtue & Moir’s to lose; while their score grew by over two points, Davis & White’s declined by two, and while TES was a central source of the change in each case, Virtue & Moir additionally set a new PCS standard with their Trophee Eric Bompard outing. Free dance marks, however, remain more distant. Virtue & Moir’s best PCS of 57.87, from Trophee Eric Bompard, is lower than D/W’s lowest Grand Prix PCS of 58.09 at NHK Trophy, with the Canadian team’s fairly apparent timing issues at that event likely impacting the components. However, marks alone are less informative than larger trends. Despite the technical decline, Virtue & Moir’s PCS in Paris showed a 0.41 growth from Skate Canada International, while Davis & White lost 0.52 in PCS from Skate America to a 58.09 at NHK Trophy. With Virtue & Moir losing two points in deductions at both outings, their scores would otherwise have ranged from over 107 to almost 110, also diminishing the gap between teams. Given these patterns, it seems a strong possibility that component marks for the teams should meet in the middle as they face off against one another rather than lower-ranking teams, leaving the TES — and lift timing — to be the major decider.

Davis & White’s technical marks for the short dance have, as indicated, fluctuated, but their free dance TES rose from 53.92 at Skate America to 54.86 at NHK Trophy due to a L4 circular step sequence and L4 rotational in the combination lift. However, GOEs on most elements actually declined or remained unchanged, with improvement appearing only on the curve lift, which grew from +1.43 to +1.50. With only one element, the diagonal step sequence, not achieving a L4 at that outing, Davis & White’s base value can at most increase by 1.50, with a GOE likely to range between 2.00-2.43 based on marks to date. Virtue & Moir’s strongest technical outing, Skate Canada’s, saw the team earning L3s on their circular step sequence and second rotational lift, and a L2 on the diagonal step sequence; that second rotational lift is the one lift for the team to have not yet received a L4. The addition of a single level on both the lift and the second step sequence would provide 2 points, and a L4 step sequence a further 1.50 — granting the team a score of 111.38 without the inclusion of GOE, and 113.38 with the removal of deductions.

By the numbers, the competition between Davis & White and Virtue & Moir is thus in theory considerably closer than actual outcome suggests, but central going forward will be real execution. Historically, Virtue & Moir are certainly capable of skating a free dance with fewer errors than have manifested this season, especially in a lyrical program that challenges the physics of skating far less than did last year’s modern dance interpretation of Carmen. The couple’s approach to skating and program construction, however, is such that much is left exposed; with an emphasis on pure skating, bobbles may be considered particularly apparent in their performances and thus there is little room for error. For Davis & White, meanwhile, the primary task will come down to continuing in their same vein of performance. With TES that has already surpassed that rewarded at 2013 Worlds, and with their short dance best of 38.50 (achieved at the 2011-12 GPF) only one point better than that earned at Skate America, the main area for growth is in PCS. The team’s best marks in that capacity were a 38.83 in the short dance and 58.79 in the free, both set at 2013 Worlds, and on the Grand Prix the team has already received a 38.35 (NHK Trophy) and 58.61 (Skate America).

From a consideration of head-to-head results extending to the 2012-13 season, momentum would seem to be in Davis & White’s favor. In concrete terms, however, the opening certainly exists for the 2010 Olympic champions to regain their footing in this rivalry.

2. The Battle for Olympic Bronze – As favorites for national silver in Canada and with no immediate Canadian or American rivals, Kaitlyn Weaver & Andrew Poje stand alone in this discussion: their sights for this season are set on a high Olympic finish, a not unattainable goal, nor one easily achieved. Skate Canada International was the most successful event of the team’s career, with the couple picking up silver while setting personal bests in each category, including 70.35 in their 42nd Street short dance and 104.88 in the Maria de Buenos Aires free. That same free dance also saw the team earning a slight event-best technical mark of 51.67 with L4s on most elements and L3s on both step sequences. After the highs of that event, though, came rougher results at Rostelecom Cup, another silver medal outing. A less polished short dance earned the team only 61.50, a decline of nearly 9 points from low levels on most elements, including L2 and L1 Finnstep sequences and a L2 curve lift, though they were able to rebound with a win in the free dance, picking up 101.64 with most of the point differential from Skate Canada coming on a L3 rotational lift and much-reduced GOEs across the elements.

After a difficult 2012-13 Grand Prix, in which the team failed to reach the Grand Prix Final, and Weaver’s December ankle break and surgery, Weaver & Poje made a clear statement with an excellent fifth-place performance at 2013 Worlds. Despite the double-digit decline from Skate Canada’s 175.23 total to Rostelecom Cup’s 163.14, the 2013 Grand Prix Final-bound team is certainly in better position than at this time last season, where their best total was a 158.97 at 2012 Cup of China. Most notably, the team’s season’s best total puts them in third place internationally, 4 points ahead of Elena Ilinykh & Nikita Katsalapov and former training mates Nathalie Pechalat & Fabian Bourzat. Among the teams behind them within single digits of their total, however, Ekaterina Bobrova & Dmitri Soloviev are the only ones they have so far faced, and behind whom they finished in Moscow. Much more remains to be seen as Weaver & Poje take on Nationals and those several other teams in the running for a spot on the Sochi podium, including as well Anna Cappellini & Luca Lanotte, battle at Europeans. The race to date, however, is certainly an intriguing one.

3. The Battle for the U.S. Berths – No contest may be as entirely unpredictable as the three-way battle for two U.S. Olympic berths behind presumed team leaders Davis & White. Two-time national silver medalists Maia & Alex Shibutani enter as reigning bronze medalists on an international resurgence; 2012 bronze medalists and 2013 pewter winners Madison Hubbell & Zach Donohue bring a streak of early successes but injury concerns; and reigning silver medalists Madison Chock & Evan Bates own a Grand Prix bronze and a consistency issue.

With their performances at Skate America and NHK Trophy, the Shibutanis picked up two bronze medals and established the best U.S. season totals behind Davis & White, with their 157.58 on two clean skates in Japan giving them a four-point advantage over the best totals from their opponents, a 153.37 for Chock & Bates at Rostelecom Cup and a 153.20 personal best for Hubbell & Donohue at Skate Canada International. While the siblings’ scores across the board are on par with or better than those doled at last year’s major internationals (barring 2012 Rostelecom Cup, an event at which Alex’s sudden quad cramp necessitated a program stoppage) — 2012 NHK’s free dance earned a 93.72, versus the 94.49 received at this year’s event and 93.21 (including a one-point deduction for Alex’s non-element fall) at Skate America — potentially of note is the redistribution of marks that has accompanied the development. With a clean performance, components improved by 0.60 points from Skate America to NHK Trophy, 47.21 to 47.81. Last year’s NHK Trophy performance of the team’s Memoirs of a Geisha program, however, earned 48.28 in PCS, while it earned 48.45 at 2013 Worlds. Choreography and Linking Footwork were essentially unchanged, while Performance and Interpretation marks each declined by 0.18, but most strikingly, Skating Skills dropped from 8.07 to 7.93 and from an even better mark of 8.14 at Worlds. Given the unlikelihood that the team’s strength as pure skaters has declined in a matter of months, this shift could point to simple differences between panels, but may also suggest that a program of Geisha‘s lyrical nature may have showcased skating outright in a more obvious manner than the more rhythmically-diverse Jackson program, which in multiple sections calls upon less fluid and more staccato and pop-based movement. The Shibutanis would seem to have a reasonable advantage in the short dance; with quickstep and foxtrot among the duo’s most comfortable rhythms, their best mark of 63.09, received at NHK Trophy, is 3-6 points superior to their opponents’ bests while their 61.26 Skate America mark is still 0.34 ahead of Hubbell & Donohue’s next-best U.S. score. But free dance marks have been far tighter, with Chock & Bates possessing a best of 95.57 and the Shibutanis’ marks sitting closely between that and Hubbell & Donohue’s 92.28 best, and for the team to succeed overall, the panel’s investment in the Shibutanis’ energetic program may need to match that of the audience.

Hubbell & Donohue had the relative misfortune of back-to-back Grand Prix assignments, finishing fourth at Skate America at home base Detroit before tackling Skate Canada in Saint John, New Brunswick, one week later. The fast turnaround had no deleterious effect on the couple’s on-ice efforts; at Skate Canada they set new personal bests in all categories, including a free dance mark of 92.28 — 0.01 better than the best set one week earlier — and won their first Grand Prix medal, also a bronze. With a growth in total scores over last year’s Grand Prix events (Skate Canada and Trophee Eric Bompard) ranging from 7 to 18 points, and a set of programs in their swing short and “Nocturne into Bohemian Rhapsody” free which they seem comfortable competing, the team has made considerable strides and stands in a far better position at this point to return to the national podium; totals this season of 153.20 and 152.98 sit close behind Chock & Bates’s Rostelecom Cup best and over two points better than that team’s Cup of China result. While the couple’s free dance has fared reasonably well, clearly scoring closely to those of the other two teams, Hubbell & Donohue’s advantage may come in the short dance. Both Grand Prix performances rank behind those of the Shibutanis but ahead of those from Chock & Bates, with a technical mark of 32.50 at Skate Canada actually the best earned by the three teams, thanks to L4 and L3 Finnstep sequences and a strong L3 on the no-touch circular step sequence. However, their PCS in the short dance has run lowest among the three, the better result of 29.92 at Skate America still 0.49 lower than Chock & Bates’s PCS at Cup of China. The decline of free dance PCS in all categories, from 48.06 on home turf at Skate America to 46.95 at Skate Canada — where the slight improvement in score came from L4 twizzles and improved GOE on most elements — might signal a matter for concern, though their mark remains superior to the 46.33 netted by Chock & Bates in Beijing. Such decline, however, may also be attributable to the team’s challenging schedule and the evident physical struggles faced by Hubbell in particular after completing three competitions within a month’s span.

Chock & Bates, also bronze medalists at both GP events, possess one particular edge over their rivals by holding that best free dance mark behind Davis & White, earned at Rostelecom Cup. While the overall total for their Les Miserables free dance showed improvement from an already good score of 93.76 at Cup of China, the biggest growth came in PCS, jumping from 46.33 to 49.42 even as TES declined by a point courtesy of reduced levels in the back rotational half of their combination lift and the circular step sequence. Technical issues have been the central story of the outings for Chock & Bates’s “Hollywood” short dance: their 56.77-point performance at Cup of China included the unusual juxtaposition of L4 and L1 on their Finnstep sequences, in conjunction with L3 twizzles that earned a neutral GOE. Their follow-up at Rostelecom Cup saw the team once more picking up L3 twizzles and a L1 on the second Finnstep sequence, as well as a L1 call on their closing rotational lift. That performance, however, actually received an improved total of 57.80, courtesy of a PCS growth of over two points from 30.41 to 32.80. That 32.80 was, in fact, the best short dance PCS picked up by an American team behind Davis & White, and likewise for Chock & Bates’s 49.92 PCS in the free dance at Rostelecom Cup — though their 46.33 at Cup of China was the lowest among these three rivals on the Grand Prix. Chock & Bates’s scoring history also provides minimal insight into potential greater patterns; though this year’s Grand Prix totals are stronger than a 149.54 picked up at last year’s sole Grand Prix assignment at Cup of China, that event saw the team’s better marks coming on a 59.26 short dance.

Given such relative parity between team results, the national contest for silver, bronze, and two slots to Sochi is entirely too close to call with any accuracy. Based on marks and performances to date, the Shibutanis would seem in good position overall to maintain a podium position, but for Hubbell & Donohue and Chock & Bates, much may equally depend on technical acuity of performance and panel reception — the first within the hands of the team, the second far less so.

4. The Battle for Canadian Bronze – A strictly-Grand Prix analysis must first factor in assignment disparity, with Piper Gilles & Paul Poirier taking on both NHK Trophy and Rostelecom Cup to Alexandra Paul & Mitch Islam’s Skate Canada International. Both teams did, however, compete two major autumn internationals, with Nebelhorn Trophy’s marks overall indicating a relative par with typical Grand Prix scoring, and thus trends may still be spotted.

For Gilles & Poirier, late assignments were favorable given Poirier’s off-season ankle fracture, an injury which hindered serious training and on-ice program development until a fairly late point in the summer and early fall. To their credit, the lack of training time did not seem in obvious evidence at either outing, with no major stumbles and with somewhat steadier edgework than seen previously. Their NHK Trophy scores also showed progress for the team from last season’s Grand Prix marks, with a 55.20 in the short dance a two-point boost from last year’s GP best of 53.71 at 2012 Skate Canada, and the 88.87 in the free dance not only an improvement from an 83.87 at 2012 Trophee Eric Bompard, but also a 7-point bump from their immediate prior international outing at Worlds. While some credit is due to better level success in each segment, particularly the short dance, free dance growth came courtesy of a significant 1- to 3-point PCS increase over the GP and Worlds for their much-discussed “Director’s Cut” program, a dark piece set to selections from Danny Elfman’s Hitchcock score; the biggest boosts came in the categories of Choreography and Interpretation — 0.39 and 0.35, respectively, over Worlds. The team’s fortunes, however, were less favorable at concluding event Rostelecom Cup. Evident bobbles in the short dance contributed to a score of 51.14, their lowest internationally to date; an 83.52 free dance score saw some loss of PCS, but technical issues, especially a major stumble from Poirier on the second twizzle set — dropping the element to a L3 with -0.57 GOE — proved the bigger problem.

Paul & Islam’s Nebelhorn performance was analyzed here, though of immediate note from that event is their short dance high of 59.06, best behind those set by Virtue & Moir and Weaver & Poje, and free dance mark of 82.93 courtesy of a lost twizzle. With a cumulatively stronger performance at Skate Canada International, the couple set an ISU season’s and personal best of 143.77 — just 0.30 below that of Gilles & Poirier’s for the season to date. Paul & Islam’s particular technical strengths were showcased in a high level-hitting 90.03-scoring performance of their W.E. free dance — another ISU personal best — though PCS in Saint John was offered more conservatively than in Oberstdorf, 43.27 to the prior event’s 45.43. Troubles here came in the short dance: while the team performed the Gershwin-scored piece with particular energy and no disruptive bobbles, missed key points and a slight issue of timing knocked their Finnstep sequences to a L3 with negative GOE and a L1. This dropped the score considerably in conjunction with a 1.14 decrease in PCS. The team’s comeback from a seventh-place standing to finish fourth in the free dance and fifth overall, however, points to some important development in the couple’s on-ice confidence and ability to perform with attack despite perhaps unfavorable circumstances.

Scores to date, segment to segment and as totals, are clearly quite comparable between the presumable front-runners for position of Canada’s number three. For Paul & Islam, the marriage of a Nebelhorn short dance with a Skate Canada free dance would provide a total of around 149.09, five points above Gilles & Poirier’s current high-water mark, but achieving such results will necessitate program-to-program consistency. For Gilles & Poirier, much may depend on what is valued by their next panel: each of the team’s free dance performances this season has held a 1-point PCS advantage over Paul & Islam’s Skate Canada International performance, despite the latter’s overall higher score, suggesting that judges are responding quite favorably to Carol Lane’s dramatic choreography and Gilles & Poirier’s delivery of such. While Paul & Islam’s free dance is constructed almost wholly on the fundamentals of ice dance — closed hold and close footwork, connection between partners, and clear execution of multiple rhythms as demonstrated through bladework — Gilles & Poirier’s is in a more open, theatrical mode, using music to create tension and release and including some creative shapes in elements.

In preparation for Canadian Nationals in January, Paul & Islam indicated after Skate Canada their aim to zero in on key points in the Finnstep and further build the performance and projection aspect of their programs. For Gilles & Poirier, meanwhile, further training of footwork sequences is likely to be a major focus. Both teams enter having taken separate turns on the senior national podium — Paul & Islam as new seniors in 2011 (and alongside Poirier and then-partner Vanessa Crone), Gilles & Poirier the subsequent two seasons as the other team dealt with injury and incident. Much has changed since last year’s event, however, as results this fall reflect, and if both teams skate to their demonstrated ability, the podium may see a change for the old as well.

5. The Battle for the Future – The Grand Prix contingents for both the U.S. and Canada were each rounded out by younger teams assigned to one event each: 2013 Junior World bronze medalists Alexandra Aldridge & Daniel Eaton and 2013 Canadian bronze medalists Nicole Orford & Thomas Williams, in their second year on the senior international circuit.

Aldridge & Eaton made their senior Grand Prix debut at Cup of China, where they picked up a total of 132.06, a 1.57-point improvement on their performance at Ondrej Nepela Trophy. While the team finished fourth in the short dance with a mark of 52.92, their Indian free dance ranked fifth in the segment, earning only 79.14 though with a fourth-place PCS of 41.55. A L1 rotational lift and L3 twizzles had the biggest impact on the score, losing 3.5 points that might ordinarily be anticipated.

Trophee Eric Bompard was the sole outing for Orford & Williams, who last year competed at both Rostelecom Cup and NHK Trophy. While the team won bronze at September’s U.S. International Figure Skating Classic with a total of 137.60, performances in Paris were more troubled, resulting in a total of 119.60. The team earned 47.45 in the short dance, a 7-point drop from Salt Lake City, due primarily to two L1s on the Finnstep. More problematic was a 72.15 for their Love Never Dies free dance, courtesy of L1s on both circular and diagonal step sequences and slightly wobbly L3 twizzles which also netted a negative GOE.

Despite disappointing results for each couple on the circuit, further opportunities for improvement remain in the second half of the season. Although an Olympic spot may be difficult to attain, Four Continents, with three spots for each country, will be hosting those teams not traveling to Sochi, creating opportunity overall for the top 6 finishers at both national championships.

6. The Next Steps – The Grand Prix series officially wraps with the Grand Prix Final in Fukuoka, Japan, from December 5 to 8, where Davis & White, Virtue & Moir, and Weaver & Poje will all be contending. For the other teams, Nationals will be the next testing ground; senior events at both the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Boston and the Canadian Tire National Skating Championships in Ottawa are scheduled for January 9-12.