2014 NHK Trophy: no butterflies and hurricanes at GPF in Barcelona

Penny Coomes and Nicholas Buckland, as the butterfly and the hurricane, at this year's edition of Rostelecom Cup in Moscow, where they won the first Grand Prix medal of their career, a bronze; unfortunately, this gorgeous program won't be in Barcelona next week

Penny Coomes and Nicholas Buckland, as the butterfly and the hurricane, at this year’s edition of Rostelecom Cup in Moscow, where they won the first Grand Prix medal of their career, a bronze; unfortunately, this gorgeous program won’t be in Barcelona next week

The final Grand Prix event of the season, the Japanese NHK Trophy, was truly an emotional roller coaster: having probably one of the most innovative free dance of the season – starring the helpless blue butterfly and the powerful hurricane – the British ice dancers Penny Coomes and Nicholas Buckland failed to earn their ticket for the Grand Prix Final in Barcelona; practically qualified after their short dance, Penny and Nick made important mistakes in the free – and their errors made room for a brand new ice dance couple in the rooster of GPF: at their first season together, Elena Ilinykh and Ruslan Zhiganshin will have the chance to skate their wonderful Carmen routine in front of a Spanish audience. And, from where I’m standing, the choreographer Antonio Najarro must be a happy man right now: the director of the National Ballet of Spain choreographed three flamenco-themed short dances this season – and at least two of them, if not all three, will be skated in Barcelona next week: Elena and Ruslan’s Carmen, Madison Chock and Evan Bates’ Don Quixote and Sara Hurtado and Adria Diaz’ version of the “dance” between the torero and the toro; the Spaniards have been invited to skate in the gala of the Grand Prix Final…

by Florentina Tone

Leaving aside the results of the ice dancing event (with their second gold in the Grand Prix circuit, Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje earned their spot in the Barcelona’s final next week), this year’s edition of NHK Trophy featured also the first encounter between two of the most powerful pairs this season: Meagan Duhamel&Eric Radford and Yuko Kavaguti&Alexander Smirnov – and, in spite of their flaws in the free program, the Canadians dominated the event, winning the gold medal, and by a large margin (more than 16 points). All the three teams that medaled in Osaka – the Canadians, the Russians and also the Chinese Xiaoyu Yu and Yang Jin – qualified for the Grand Prix Final.

In the men’s event, Jeremy Abbott skated a gorgeous set of programs (as if his Japanese fans gave him wings to fly…), but the star of this particular Grand Prix was the Japanese Daisuke Murakami; after Takahashi’s victory last season, another Daisuke ran away with the Japanese gold. For the thousands of fans of Yuzuru Hanyu, this was a tough competition to take: only fifth after the short, the 19-year-old Olympic champion barely managed to squeeze into the Grand Prix Final, as he finished fourth at NHK, just 0.15 ahead of fifth-place Jeremy Abbott.

The gold medal in the ladies’ event was won by the 19-year-old American Gracie Gold, followed by the Russian Alena Leonova and the Japanese Satoko Miyahara; with her bronze at Skate America and gold at NHK, Gold (!) earned her spot for the final in Barcelona. Unfortunately, while preparing for the GPF, the American skater suffered a stress fracture in her left foot and had to withdraw, even if with a lot of regrets. She’ll be replaced by the first alternate, the Japanese Rika Hongo.

Those being the most important results (and their consequences) at 2014 NHK, here are some of my personal highlights, condensed in a sentence or two.

Vera Bazarova and Andrei Deputat: if you ask me, these two make a gorgeous pair; and their programs this season are a joy to the eyes. She’s a ballerina, a soft and delicate ballerina, and they both have wonderful skating skills. If only they’d address their technical inconsistencies… In their case, time might prove a great ally.

Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford: their short program – what a great piece of music they chose: uplifting, with a crescendo that carries you away with it – is breathing an air of power and confidence. Technically (with their Lutz and all), Meagan and Eric are out of this world.

Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov: now the Grand Prix events are over, I can finally tell you: the Russians’ free program, to “Manfred Symphony” by Tchaikovski, is my favorite program this season in the pairs’ event. If the Canadians seem to be unbeatable when hitting their technical elements, the Russians have no match in terms of musicality, interpretation, drama. To me, their Tchaikovsky’s routine is the best program of their career – I can only hope they’ll skate it clean at the Grand Prix Final, Europeans, Worlds.

Polina Edmunds: she’s definitely the future of the American skating. Don’t be fooled by her 8th place at this year’s edition of NHK Trophy, Polina does have the whole package to be a champion the following years. She did collapse in the short program in Osaka – I guess the errors on her opening combination took her by surprise; and she didn’t manage to put it aside – but her free is like a fairy tale. And Polina herself is a fairy, beautifully portraying the character. She’s already one of my favorite ladies out there – she just has to learn to live with her long legs and arms, and use them in her advantage. She has a great model ahead, the amazing Carolina Kostner.

Alena Leonova: I’m such a fan of this Chaplin routine! I wish this were Alena’s free program, that much I like this joyful routine, with loads of character and attitude. I’ll say it simply (and convincingly): Charlie Chaplin found in Alena the best interpreter of all (and, yes, I took into consideration Javier Fernandez’ version of Chaplin too…)

Kanako Murakami: the girl with golden dress – and golden smile. I love this lyric “face” of Kanako – I wish she’d skate more often to soft, touching music as “Think of me” (from “The Phantom of the Opera” by Andrew Lloyd Webber). I’m not a fan of her free program, but this one, the short, is a gem. Literally. Have you seen her golden dress? There’s more to it than that: Kanako hugging Akiko Suzuki and Nobunari Oda after this particular program – now that’s what I call a precious memory. For her and for the rest of us watching.

Satoko Miyahara: my favorite Japanese lady these days. My secret wish for this year’s edition of NHK Trophy has been that Satoko would skate an impeccable set of programs and qualify for the Grand Prix Final in Barcelona. This was a difficult mission for this wonderful, petite Japanese skater and the pressure of these particular thoughts might have interfered with her performance in Osaka: Satoko’s short program to Mozart was a precious moment in the ladies’ event, but in the free her fragile legs seemed to be shaking; she finished the event on the third place, being the second alternate for the Grand Prix Final in Barcelona.

Daisuke Murakami: skating to “El Tango de Roxanne” as a tribute to Daisuke Takahashi. Well, if you’d looked at the 23-year-old Murakami from the neck down, while skating his short program to “El tango de Roxanne”, you would have sworn it was Daisuke Takahashi there, on the ice of Namihaya Dome in Osaka; that much he resembled him while performing the tango. I found out later this was exactly his purpose: reportedly, Murakami changed his short program, switching to Roxanne, after hearing about Takahashi’s retirement – his way of saying thank you for Takahashi’s wonderful contribution to the sport. And, coincidentally or not, Murakami skated to Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in the free, another musical piece used in the past by Daisuke Takahashi. All in all, Murakami’s performance was truly golden in Osaka – he did win the first Grand Prix medal of his career – and I’m thrilled that Daisuke Takahashi continues to inspire. (And Frank Carroll must be proud: his students – Daisuke Murakami and Gracie Gold – won two of the four gold medals in Osaka…)

Joshua Farris: he totally collapsed in Osaka, but what a talent. The 19-year-old American skater, World Junior champion in 2013, finished the event in Japan on the 11th place – but, in spite of the disastrous skate both in the short and the free, I could still see the amazing potential this skater has. Wonderful spins with difficult variations, beautiful, impressive skating skills – and a skater to watch the following years.

Elladj Baldé: a wonderful surprise. From the flamenco program skated by Stephane Lambiel some years ago, I haven’t been impressed with any of the programs of this kind in the men’s event. Well, the 24-year-old Canadian skater Elladj Baldé performed a powerful and convincing flamenco in Osaka last week, to “Barrie San Miguel” and “Galicia Flamenca” – and I can only say hats off to him for nailing it (and selling it) and hats off to Pasquale Camerlengo, the choreographer. I’m glad Camerlengo did come back to choreographing for the men too (I do remember the masterpiece he created for Daisuke Takahashi, in 2011-2012 season, to “Blues for Klook”).

Jeremy Abbott: flying on the wings of love (of his Japanese fans). Well, Jeremy always skates in Japan as if Japan would be his second home. And I have to be honest with you: I’m so impressed with his short program, to “Lay me down” by Sam Smith: such a smooth, flowing, airy performance. And the free one, to “Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber, is equally great, a performance that warms your heart. Well done, Mr. Abbott, and thank you.

Yuzuru Hanyu: the nostalgia, the emotions, the goose bumps, I just love Yuzuru’s short program to Chopin’s Ballade no. 1. As if the Japanese skaters have found the secret formula to brilliantly interpret Chopin: need I remind you Mao Asada’s masterpiece, to Chopin’s Nocturne, from the Olympic season? A flawed routine in Osaka for Yuzuru Hanyu, I agree, but what an amazing choreography – and how much he matured from last season. If you take out the jumps, it still stands out – and I for one can’t wait to watch this program live in Barcelona. I’m sure it will be marvelous; to say the least.

Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker at 2014 Rostelecom Cup in Moscow

Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker at 2014 Rostelecom Cup in Moscow

Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker: what a wonderful pair to watch. If I were Anjelika Krylova these days, I’d be jumping with joy: such a talented ice dance couple she and Pasquale have at Detroit Skating Club in Michigan. These two, Kaitlyn and Jean-Luc, are the 2014 Junior World champions and they do have a great future ahead; their free dance, to “Romeo and Juliet”, is here to prove it. They’re skating as one, Kaitlin and Jean-Luc, and their performance was exactly as the pearled shoulders of her dress: a jewel.

Penny Coomes and Nicholas Buckland: such an amazing set of programs – and such a disappointment they won’t be in Barcelona, for the Grand Prix Final. After their intense, powerful short dance – with Nicholas owning the space in Namihaya Dome in Osaka – all they needed to do was to stay on their feet and, of course, brilliantly interpret their masterpiece of a free dance, to a Muse Medley. Well, in the middle of a step sequence, disaster struck: the butterfly and the hurricane entangled themselves into the storm; a storm was on their faces too, at the end of their routine: they’d just missed their chance to enter the first Grand Prix Final of their career. Hard as it was, they have to get on their feet in no time: the Europeans are just around the corner – and they have to do justice to their free dance.

Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje: a grandiose short dance and a beautiful, enlightening Vivaldi performance. I’ve told you that already after this year’s edition of Skate Canada: Kaitlyn and Andrew’s short dance, to “La Virgen de la Macarena”, is just wow! One of my favorite short dances this season, skated with power and conviction – and winning a lot of admirers, me among them. The free dance seems to be completely the opposite – but it’s just an impression: looking all subtle and discreet, it is intricate and sophisticated, with Kaitlyn and Andrew punctuating all the nuances of the Vivaldi’s music. The Canadians’ encounter with Madison Chock and Evan Bates next week in Barcelona will be, I already know, one of the highlights of the entire event.

Let the Grand Prix Final begin!