2015 Skate America: Highlights, Emotions, Remarkable Firsts. And a Bonus Prize from Inside Skating

The first Grand Prix event of the season, Progressive Skate America in Milwaukee, will enter history – the official history of the 2015/2016 skating season, but also the personal histories of the competitors – precisely by its impressive number of firsts. Did I say “impressive”? Yes, this is the exact word I was looking for. Let’s do a recap of these memorable feats in each one of the four skating events, shall we?

15-year-old Russian Evgenia Medvedeva struck gold in the first senior Grand Prix event of her career. Also debuting in the senior GP circuit, Japan’s Shoma Uno ran away with the silver, while Canadian pair Julianne Seguin and Charlie Bilodeau won the bronze. The former juniors took the senior level by storm – and this year’s edition of Skate America will always be the start of their road to success – but the list of the remarkable firsts hosted by Panther Arena in Milwaukee continues with pair Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim’s first medal ever in the Grand Prix circuit (silver), with Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov winning their first international medal as an ice dance couple (silver), with pair Wenjing Sui and Cong Han, on one hand, and Max Aaron, on the other one, taking the gold medal in the Grand Prix series for the first time in their senior careers.
We, the people at Inside Skating, congratulate the winners and wish them good luck in the season; but we’re also debuting our own prize, given for the most impressive performance of the entire event. Of course, this is a very subjective award, since it deals with our emotions, but, nevertheless, we’re committed to handing it out. Looking at all the wow moments of 2015 Skate America, Inside Skating gold medal goes to… dancers Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker. You’ll find our reasons below.

by Florentina Tone

This is only their second season in seniors – but America’s Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, 2014 World Junior champions, are definitely on the right track when it comes to conveying the emotions of their programs to the audience. Take me as an example: standing in front of a TV, 8.293 km from Milwaukee, I was moved to tears by their free dance, to music from the movie “The Theory of Everything”.

Of course, the movie is in itself powerful, intense – a drama inspired by the life of the physicist Stephen Hawking, as told by his wife, Jane Wilde Hawking, in her memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen. The book (and, consequently, the movie) deals with the relationship between the two, with his diagnosis of motor neurone disease and his success in physics – and you find all these details, including a wonderful blue dress and a pair of braces, in Kaitlin and Jean-Luc’s free dance, brilliantly choreographed by Pasquale Camerlengo.

There’s light in the story (Cambridge University astrophysics student Stephen Hawking begins a relationship with literature student Jane Wilde), but, for the most part, there is darkness – and shadows, and struggle; and Jean-Luc is impressive in the role of a sick, troubled man. No less convincing is the 18-year-old Kaitlin (what a maturity these two have), showing him love and support – carrying him through the hard times and helping him reach the stars. Literally – some of the lifts and details in the choreography are really speaking for themselves.

Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker skating to music from the movie "The Theory of Everything" at this year's edition of Finlandia Trophy

Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker skating to music from the movie “The Theory of Everything” at this year’s edition of Finlandia Trophy

In terms of intensity, emotions, this was the program of the night in the ice dancing event – and, to us at Inside Skating, the highlight of this year’s edition of Skate America. Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker skated their hearts out in Milwaukee, being 100% in the story – at the end of the dance, it took him seconds to recompose himself, to turn again into Jean-Luc after being Stephen Hawking for 4 (very powerful) minutes. The Americans were only 4th in Milwaukee – the dance event was really strong – but what a future these two have. We’ll talk in a couple of years.

The real deal
Wouldn’t have been great to have more than one gold medal on the table in the ice dancing event at Skate America? I would have given a shiny, golden one to at least three couples in Panther Arena in Milwaukee, but for very different reasons. The medal for the emotions conveyed by a program is already awarded – but a second one would definitely go to Canada’s Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier. These guys are something else. I was meaning to say extra-terrestrial – and I’ll say exactly that. Their resources of innovation – theirs and their coaches’ – seem to be inexhaustible. Their short-dance this season is completely out of the box – who would have thought you could Waltz to a Beatles’ song? – and I love the tiny details all throughout the 2 minutes and 50 seconds of the piece: Piper and Paul paddling at the beginning of the program (because the song says so: “Picture yourself on a boat on a river…”), Piper and Paul acting like spinning tops (first he, then she), their incredible lifts and the colored peace sign on the back of Piper’s costume, as if it were made from Skittles sweets.

Still, it’s the Canadians’ free dance that strikes you as an absolute innovation – a program called “Saudade”, with Piper and Paul skating to “She Said” by Jorane and “Neverland” by Nick Takenobu Ogawa; a free dance choreographed by Carol Lane and Juris Rasgulajevs, alongside skaters themselves. The Portuguese “Saudade” has no direct translation in English – it was once described as “the love that remains” after someone is gone; a bouquet of longing, melancholy, nostalgia – and, exactly like this particular emotion/state of mind/feeling of incompleteness, you need more than one word to describe the Canadians’ free dance for this season.

It’s different, unusual, innovative, because Piper and Paul are not satisfied until they “have pieced together something fresh and novel” (to quote from an interview for Inside Skating). But it’s more than that: it’s addictive, and you can find yourself mumbling bits of Jorane’s song days after the actual performance. From hair and costumes to music, choreography, interpretation, Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier are the real deal in ice dancing. The Canadians were 3rd in Milwaukee, but, for so many reasons, they are golden. Their next assignment is Trophée Eric Bompard.

Visually stunning
The out of the box approach doesn’t apply to these two, but Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov’s skating skills are to die for – and my third (imaginary) gold medal goes to them, for their unison, connection, elegance, speed, sophistication. Have you seen their short dance, to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake? Well, you should. It’s a jewel of a program, more like Victoria’s white dress; simple, beautiful – and visually stunning. And this has to do, of course, with the fact they’re both gorgeous people and dancers; but, more important, with the fact they are now looking like a team. It took them some time to glue – they were a mess in the Grand Prix circuit last season – but they are one now; and a phenomenal one.

Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov, during the gala of 2014 Rostelecom Cup in Moscow - their first season together as a team

Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov, during the gala of 2014 Rostelecom Cup in Moscow – their first season together as a team

A day later, during the free skate, this magic aura kept surrounding Victoria and Nikita, who chose to dance to Andrea Bocelli’s Io Ci Saro and Lang Lang’s piano. It’s the safest choice, of course (no innovations from their part), but it’s also very smart to use your biggest strengths in finding your way to the top – and these particular programs put the Russians’ skating skills in the spotlight. At the end of the day, they were second – their first international medal together – and Russian Championships in December must be a great event to watch. Their next Grand Prix assignment is Rostelcom Cup, on home ground.

Work in progress
The actual winners of the gold medal at Skate America, for the second time in a row, were the World silver medalists, Madison Chock and Evan Bates. They both looked like a million dollars when skating their Foxtrot/Waltz short dance in Milwaukee, to “More” by Andrea Bocelli and “Unchained Melody” by Il Divo. You wouldn’t actually say this was already their third short dance of the season, with Madison and Evan dumping the previous one, to “Dark Eyes”, after being told the rhythm was not the best choice for a Polka. “We made the change after Nebelhorn (Trophy) and decided to completely make a fresh short dance and really try to make something elegant and sophisticated in the ballroom dance world. It was kind of a stressful two weeks for us getting ready for the event, so considering the timetable, we’re really thrilled tonight”, Evan Bates explained during the press conference after the short dance.

A day later, the Americans stayed in the lead, with their free dance to Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 2. But though I’m usually a fan of Antonio Najarro’s choreographies, this particular program hasn’t reached me yet. There’s beauty and wonderful poses, and there’s this piano concerto, one of my all-time favorites, but the Americans’ free dance still looks empty to me – in short, a work in progress. It did receive the biggest scores of the night (102.66 points), but Madison herself acknowledged there was still work to be done in order to improve it: „This free dance was a little bit of a fight for us tonight. It makes it that much easier the next time we go to competition to know that we will always have that fighting spirit. This is a program that is really special to us and we enjoy every time we perform it. We have lots of work to do and we are excited for the season”. Their next Grand Prix assignment is Cup of China.

The intensity of emotions
In the men’s event, my eyes were glued to Shoma Uno. Simple as that. This 17-year-old Japanese, already a star in his country, won everything he could at junior level – he is, after all, the 2014-2015 Junior Grand Prix Final champion in Barcelona and the 2015 World Junior Champion – and seems decided to knock figure skating admirers off their feet with… well, yes, with the movement of his own feet on the ice. But this young skater is the complete package and his silver medal in his debut at the senior Grand Prix says a lot about his future and, more importantly, about his fighting spirit. Some of the landings of his jumps in the free skate were a little bit rough, but he nailed them altogether – and his amazing knee bend proved to be one of his allies. Not to mention that we at Inside Skating are fans of the half-circle Shoma draws on the ice while landing, already one of his signature-movements during a routine.

Leaving aside the jumping-content of the programs, with Shoma Uno is all about music and the intensity of the emotions conveyed to the audience. The short program, to “Legends” by Sacred Spirit, is in itself a tiny piece of art, but it’s the free skate, to Puccini’s Turandot, that sets him apart. Or is it the other way around, with the Japanese skater highlighting the colors and nuances of every musical piece he chooses to skate to? Both programs were choreographed by coach Mihoko Higuchi and, watching them in the Kiss and Cry, all smiles and freely talking to each other, even after Shoma missed the quad in the short program, you understand they have this great relation, these two – and maybe, just maybe, this is one of the reasons for this young man’s success. Next time in the Kiss and Cry, just look at Mrs. Higuchi: her eyes are sparkling and she’s as proud as she can be of her student. In Milwaukee, at this year’s edition of Skate America, Shoma Uno won the free skate (and people’s appreciation – have you seen the standing ovation after his performance?) and only lost the gold due to errors in the short program. His next assignment is Trophée Eric Bompard.

Shoma Uno and coach Mihoko Higuchi during a practice session at 2015 Worlds in Tallinn

Shoma Uno and coach Mihoko Higuchi during a practice session at 2015 Worlds in Tallinn

The new Max
The winner of the gold medal at 2015 Skate America is the 23-year-old Max Aaron, but, really, not the Max we used to know, running after his jumps all throughout his routines and completely disintegrating when things didn’t go according to plan. No, this Max who took the gold at Skate America – his first gold medal in the Grand Prix circuit – is a completely changed skater, a new Max, we might say, skating with flow and ease, and, most importantly, paying attention to the music. His jumps are still his forte – apart from a stumbled double Axel at the end of his free skate, everything else was spotless – but it’s the presentation that improved tremendously during the last couple of months.

His posture on the ice, connecting steps, transitions, pirouettes, all of them are Max’s allies at the moment – and you have to say hats off to him for his strive to improve; as you’ll have to raise an imaginary hat to Phillip Mills, the choreographer of both of Aaron’s programs: the short one, to Puccini’s Nessun Dorma, and the free skate, to music from the movie “Black Swan”. Max’s tears after an impeccable short program and his overall joy while skating were among the biggest moments of this year’s edition of Skate America. His next Grand Prix assignment is, as in Shoma’s case, Trophée Eric Bompard.

“Do what you do”
One thing is sure: both of Jason Brown’s programs for this season are prone to success: the overall packaging – music, choreography, costumes – is to die for, and Jason, more elegant and sophisticated than ever. Of course, the quadruple jump is not there yet – he started nailing it in practice a month ago, but it wasn’t one of his allies in Milwaukee; still, Jason Brown’s skating skills are absolutely amazing and had him on the third place at the end of the men’s event at 2015 Skate America. This was Jason’s third medal in the Grand Prix circuit – and that’s something to admire, considering he is only 20 years of age.

Taking the ice for his short program, to “Live is Blindness”, from the movie “The Great Gatsby”,
you might have heard Kori Ade’s last words of encouragement: “Stay on your knees” and, most importantly, “Do what you do”. The knees failed him a little bit (or was it just the rink in Milwaukee, narrower than usual?), with Jason only rotating once the second jump of his planned triple-triple combination, but the American skater really did what he does best: performing for the audience, all slick and refined, highlighting all the nuances of the music. A day later, leaving aside the underrotated quad, Jason was on top of his game, skating a joy of a program to “The Scent of Love” by Michael Nyman. A gorgeous musical choice, wonderful choreography (here’s to you, Rohene Ward), a very elegant Jason Brown and stunning pirouettes, some of the best in the business. From being 8th after the short, America’s Jason Brown won the bronze medal in Milwaukee – his next Grand Prix assignment is NHK Trophy.

The snap, the attitude
I’ll be honest with you: I’m a fan of these two, China’s Wenjing Sui and Cong Han, for quite a while now – and seeing them shine in international competitions makes me thrilled and over-joyous. They are a talent, Wenjing and Cong – and you can tell that only by the number of medals won in the senior Grand Prix circuit over the years: 10 overall and the shiniest of all won in Milwaukee, at the end of last week. If you ask me, it was about time for them to move to the next level – that good they are; and you could already sense their progress, their class at the Worlds in Shanghai, in March. They were second there, behind Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, but I’m sure they’ll have their eyes on the gold in Boston, next year.

Their short program this season, to “Spanish Romance” and “Farrucas”, brilliantly choreographed by Lori Nichol, is a work of art and already one of my favorites. The Chinese are owning the space and Wenjing in particular has an incredible feel for the music – she has the snap, the attitude, the gestures, she’s all there, in a Taberna Flamenca. A day later, they’re Samson and Delilah, as imagined by composer Camille Saint-Saëns – again, a program made by Lori Nichol – and my eyes are glued. An impressive routine, with speed, confidence, crescendo, goose bumps – and, above all, Wenjing’s posture, proud, upright. And I haven’t said anything about their 10 points-worth quadruple twist… Their next Grand Prix assignment is Cup of China, on home ground.

China's Wenjing Sui and Cong Han, at the 2012 Worlds in Nice; a couple of years later, they have their eyes on the World gold

China’s Wenjing Sui and Cong Han, at the 2012 Worlds in Nice; a couple of years later, they have their eyes on the World gold

A clownish, fun routine
The silver medal in the pairs event in Milwaukee went to America’s Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim – with their out of this world quad twist, boldness and attack (and Alexa’s joyful scream: Yeaaah, medaaal!) – but let me raise an imaginary hat to the surprise bronze medalists, Canadians Julianne Seguin and Charlie Bilodeau, in their debut at the senior Grand Prix circuit.

Of course, Julianne and Charlie are not new at winning medals – they are, after all, the 2014-2015 Junior Grand Prix Final champions and 2015 World Junior silver medalists – but, this being their first big international event in seniors, they didn’t set the bar too high or put huge expectations on themselves. In fact, their relaxed approach towards Skate America might have been very well the key to their success. Taking the ice for their short program, to music from one of Cirque du Soleil shows, choreographed by Shae-Lynn Bourne and Shae Zukiwsky, the Canadians skated it with ease and confidence – but also with speed, exuberance and no sign of visible efforts. The result? A clownish, light routine, with lovely steps and rhythm, one of the best of this particular segment of the pairs event.

A day later, skating to “A Whiter Shade of Pale” by Procol Harum, a program choreographed by Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon, Julianne and Charlie were in a bubble, all eyes, all connection – a glorious skate, sweeping the audience into the story and sending them among the greatest three pairs of this edition of Skate America. “Vous serez quatrième”, their coach said with a smile, in the Kiss and Cry, at the end of their routine – three more pairs were set to compete. Well, they were third in the end – and the unexpected success left them speechless. “Wow. I mean, when I arrived here, our only goal was to increase our score and that’s it”, said Charlie Bilodeau at the post-event conference. “We just skate like we do at home. The bronze medal is really great for our first Grand Prix and I’m really proud of that”. Their next assignment is Trophée Eric Bompard.

Olympic silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov were ranked second in the Free Skating and finished the event in Milwaukee on the fourth place; their programs are still a work in progress and they definitely need more run-throughs. Still, the potential is all there: I’m intrigued by the costumes and choreographies – they do breathe an air of distinction and sophistication – and can’t wait to see them again, at Rostelecom Cup in Moscow.

Throwing down the gauntlet
And then this happened: 15-year-old Evgenia Medvedeva ran away with the gold medal, in her debut at the senior Grand Prix circuit – following in the footsteps of another Russian wonder girl, Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, who won her first senior Grand Prix, Skate Canada, when she was only 14 years of age (2011-2012 season). In Milwaukee, Evgenia Medvedeva – 2014-2015 Junior Grand Prix Final champion and 2015 World Junior champion – threw down the gauntlet to her more experienced colleagues, America’s Gracie Gold, Japan’s Satoko Miyahara and even to her Russian teammate Julia Lipnitskaia. She ended up defeating all of them and you could already sense she was a tough competitor from the short program, with the Russian placing all of her jump elements in the last minute of the routine. The reason is obvious, and Evgenia explained it at the press conference after the short: “It’s the second season that I have been using this layout of my program (putting all jump elements into the second half). At the beginning, it was a little harder, but now I am used to it and obviously I’m doing it to get more points”.

Evgenia Medvedeva at 2015 Junior Worlds; she won the crown in Tallinn and she now takes the senior level by storm

Evgenia Medvedeva at 2015 Junior Worlds; she won the crown in Tallinn and she now takes the senior level by storm

Still, with Evgenia is not only about the jumps – or about her extraordinary mobility: she’s a wonderful skater, more like a leaf, like a feather, and her short program, to “Melodies of the White Night” (choreo by Alexander Zhulin), is a joy to the eyes. A day later, putting together another memorable performance (a program choreographed by Ilia Averbukh and Igor Strelkin), Evgenia, in her beautiful, sparkling blue dress, was only second behind Gracie Gold, but she had quite an advantage after SP and this was enough to help her capture the gold. Her next Grand Prix assignment is Rostelecom Cup.

“They’re the Firebird”

Gracie Gold, on the other hand, won the silver in her second Skate America of her career – and she doesn’t seem to have any confidence issue this season; she kept struggling with those all throughout last year. In Milwaukee, she skated a sharp, convincing tango, to the famous “El Choclo”, but it was the free skate that set her apart, to Stravinsky’s Firebird. And what a glorious Firebird Gracie Gold was, the best I’ve seen her skate in a while, punctuating all the nuances of this amazing musical piece. The jumps are definitely her forte – no better jumps in the ladies event at Skate America, to be honest – but it’s the overall choreography that puts Gracie into spotlight (hats off to Lori Nichol).

Holding a wonderful yellow-orange-red bouquet, matching her dress, while waiting for the scores in the Kiss and Cry – now that’s one of the most beautiful images of this year’s edition of Skate America. “They’re the Firebird”, said Gracie to Frank Carroll, showing him the flowers, and I for one love the fact she finally seems happy with her skate: “I’m happy with how the competition went. I had a really good short program and a very solid long program, which has been harder for me in the past to put two together. One usually burns really bright and then one might fizzle out. So we’ve been working really hard all summer on putting two programs together and I want to continue doing that all season”. Her second Grand Prix assignment is Trophée Eric Bompard.

One word: noblesse
I’ll admit: I have a soft spot for this young lady, Satoko Miyahara, and her hazy dresses – as I love her overall routines and beautiful skating skills. The 17-year-old Japanese is the 2015 World silver medalist – and there’s a reason for that; you understand that quickly watching her skate. Her short program to “Firedance” by Bill Whelan has attitude and confidence (tiny as she is, this girl has fire within), but the free one, to Liszt’s Un Sospiro, is the one that suits her skating like a glove. A royal glove, since Satoko is wearing a layered dress, as if she were dancing at a Royal Court. She’s light, and elegant, and sophisticated – floating over the ice – and her arms in the air give her height and noblesse. In short, I’m a fan. Satoko won the bronze medal at Skate America and her next Grand Prix assignment is NHK Trophy.