2015 Cup of China: Welcome back, Princess. Inside Skating gold medal goes to…

Mao Asada, as Madame Butterfly, at the end of her free skate at 2015 Cup of China (photo: Eurosport Screenshot)

Mao Asada, as Madame Butterfly, at the end of her free skate at 2015 Cup of China (photo: Eurosport Screenshot)

Deciding on the highlight of this year’s edition of Cup of China might prove difficult – to say the least. Was it the comeback of Mao Asada, the Japanese lady who won the gold in Beijing 10 years after taking her first senior GP medal, the silver, in the exact same arena? Or was it the glorious feat of the 18-year-old Chinese Boyang Jin who landed a quadruple Lutz-triple Toeloop combination in his short program – the highest scoring element in history – and, a day later, attempted no less than four quads in his long program? All of these, to be clear, in his debut at the senior Grand Prix circuit…
To the ice dancing admirers, the highlight of 2015 Cup of China might have very well been the golden programs of Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte: World champions in 2014, the Italians won in Beijing the first Grand Prix event of their career; a joy to the eyes both of their dances were, emphasizing their skills, their strengths and their authentic love for the sport. But this particular event will also enter history as being the host of a very bold performance of the pair Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov: apart from their (now usual) throw quadruple Salchow, the Russians included a throw quadruple Loop in their long program – the first pair to do that in the history of the discipline; at 33 and 31 respectively, Yuko and Alexander are still moving mountains.
Leaving aside the world breaking records of the event in Beijing, one might find the presence (and commitment) of Japan’s Rika Hongo as the wow factor of the entire Cup of China: this 19-year-old lady’s skating is exuberant, enthusiastic and both of her programs for this season are to die for – and I might have told you that already after Rika’s victory at Finlandia Trophy.
All these moments, and many others, will obviously stay in our minds – but Inside Skating gold medal goes to… Spain’s Javier Fernandez, for his mesmerizing flamenco routine, one that instantly carries you from Capital Indoor Stadium in Beijing to the streets of Andalucia. At the end of a fantastic short program, breathing power, confidence, authenticity, with Javier Fernandez, a flamenco dancer to his fingertips, we at Inside Skating felt like standing up and shouting Olé! But we would also like to raise an imaginary hat to choreographer Antonio Najarro, for tailoring such a perfect flamenco “suit” for Javier, one that holds your attention from the first second to the very end.

by Florentina Tone

Not even 10 seconds had passed from Javier Fernandez’ short program in Beijing – and you could already sense a masterpiece was unfolding its layers in front of your eyes. Wearing the typical black-and-red costume, Javier Fernandez was magnificent in his role of a flamenco bailarin, embracing the gestures and nuances of the dance, making them his own: palmas (handclapping), pitos (finger snapping), proud, upright posture and fingers acting as the bull horns (the leit-motive of the entire performance).

Javier Fernandez as a flamenco dancer in Beijing, at 2015 Cup of China; a performance to watch again and again... (photo: Eurosport Screenshot)

Javier Fernandez as a flamenco dancer in Beijing, at 2015 Cup of China; a performance to watch again and again… (photo: Eurosport Screenshot)

The 24-year-old Spaniard finished the dance as he started it, his hands powerfully curving around his head and body, and I for one was thrilled: a short program with brilliant choreography, to the famous “Malagueña” performed by Paco de Lucía and Plácido Domingo – a program that is worthy of the European and World champion en titre. One of the judges gave him a 10 for Interpretation (a thoroughly deserved 10) and Brian Orser seemed more than satisfied with his student’s skate: “The performance was amazing”, he told Javier in the Kiss and Cry, pointing out to some of the highlights of the routine, “Spin was good, steps were good, Axel… [Thumbs up]. Good job”.

A day later, Javier Fernandez skated to “Guys and Dolls” by Frank Sinatra, a playful, fun program choreographed by David Wilson, but far from perfect when it came to the technical elements; in fact, with three quads scheduled in it, it might be too early in the season to ask for a flawless performance. Still, the Spaniard was able to maintain his lead after the short program and, finishing the event on the first place, he is already one foot in Barcelona, at the Grand Prix Final. I can only imagine that “Malagueña” skated in Spain… Javier’s next Grand Prix assignment is Rostelecom Cup in Moscow.

A quad festival in Beijing

But Javier Fernandez’ biggest threat in Beijing didn’t come, as you might have expected, from his traditional opponents – such as Russia’s Sergei Voronov – but from an 18-year-old skater from Harbin, in his debut at the senior Grand Prix circuit. Junior World silver medalist last season, Boyang Jin took the senior level by storm, throwing a quad festival at this year’s edition of Cup of China and finishing the overall event on the second place. His forte? The quads – this young man can jump three of them, Lutz, Toeloop and Salchow, and in Beijing, Boyang Jin threw to gauntlet to his more experienced colleagues, attempting (and landing) in his short program a quad Lutz-triple Toe combination plus a quad Toeloop in the second part of the routine. That combo in particular entered history as the highest scoring element – 19.19 points; the record had been previously held by Kevin Van der Perren, who received 19 points for his quad Toeloop-triple Toeloop-triple Toeloop combination at 2010 Worlds in Torino.

A day later, Boyang Jin’s Technical Element Score was, once again, unbeatable, since he attempted no less than four quadruple jumps in his long program. But don’t let this quad façade fool you: there’s so much more to Boyang Jin than the jumping elements – and he already shown that during his short program, to Edvin Marton’s Tango Amore. This young man has the attack, the sharpness, the attitude – and he’ll grow better and better with the years. He’s already determined to show progress, as stated in the press conference after the short program: “My technical difficulty is quite high, but I want to improve my spins and skating skills”. And he’ll do that, I’m sure. One of my vivid memories from last season’s Grand Prix Final in Barcelona features (then junior) Boyang Jin: wearing his orange jacket, the teenager was always in the arena, paying attention to the senior skaters – and this particular detail says a lot about an athlete’s will to absorb everything and move forward. His next Grand Prix assignment is NHK Trophy.

A very attentive Boyang Jin, at the Grand Prix Final in Barcelona, last December

A very attentive Boyang Jin, at the Grand Prix Final in Barcelona, last December

In Tallinn, at 2015 Junior Worlds, Boyang Jin won the silver medal, behind Japan's Shoma Uno

In Tallinn, at 2015 Junior Worlds, Boyang Jin won the silver medal, behind Japan’s Shoma Uno

Butterflies on her shoulders and Mao herself, a butterfly
Coach Nobuo Sato attentively watches Mao as she takes the ice for her short program. He looks calm – as so does she; the only one nervous here is me, since I’ve missed her dearly last season and I was looking forward to her comeback. Well, the wait is finally over, and this is me paying gratitude to this beautiful 25-year-old lady for everything she has given to figure skating all over the years – and continuing to do so.

Ten years after winning silver at Cup of China, her first senior Grand Prix medal, Mao Asada returned to Beijing, and the ice of Capital Indoor Stadium was once again her stage. Skating to “Bei Mir Bis Du Schoen”, a short program choreographed by Lori Nichol, Mao was everything you expected – and more. I loved the dress, the red lipstick, the carefree attitude of this amazing skater who, a while ago, stated loud and clear: “I could truly say figure skating is wonderful”. This waggish, playful routine embraces Mao’s fluid, smooth skating – and watching her glide over the ice you feel like singing, as the song says, “Bella, bella…”. In her comeback, Mao Asada received 71.73 points for her short program – but, truthfully told, you can’t put a scores tag on her: the Japanese lady is in a class of her own.

A day later, butterflies on her shoulders, Mao Asada is the last to take the ice in the ladies’ event; she hasn’t even started and I already have my own butterflies. As the first music notes diffuse in the arena, she takes a deep breath and enters the role of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. A nervy, flawed routine this was (after hitting a cracking triple Axel, Mao’s knees jellified during the opening combination – and she did give up on some of her jumps while in the air), but the softness, the fluidity, the elegance of her skating, the fragile, graceful arms in the air, there’s truly no comparison to that. Third in terms of scores in Beijing, Mao’s free program has amazing potential – and it will only grow during the season. As for Mao, she was harsh on herself during the press conference at the end of the event: “I am not satisfied with my free skating today as I didn’t do all the elements. I have some problems to solve. I won thanks to my short program, but it doesn’t satisfy me to have won this way”. Her next Grand Prix assignment is NHK Trophy.

Casting a spell on the audience
Japan’s Rika Hongo, silver medalist at this year’s edition at Cup of China, looked anything but nervous in Beijing, putting together two almost flawless programs and establishing herself as a top contender in the ladies’ field. I am a fan of both her routines this season – and you might know that already, since Inside Skating featured Rika after winning the gold at Finlandia Trophy, a month ago – but what I most admire is this girl’s exuberance and commitment while skating. She doesn’t hold back, Rika Hongo, attacking her programs whatever the event she competes in and you cannot resist being carried away by her enthusiasm and the stories she tells on the ice.

Japan's Rika Hongo took the new season by storm - here she is in Espoo, at 2015 Finlandia Trophy, skating her short program; Rika won the gold

Japan’s Rika Hongo took the new season by storm – here she is in Espoo, at 2015 Finlandia Trophy, skating her short program; Rika won the gold

This season, she skates to “Incantation” in the short program – and she truly is an enchantress – whilst in the free she’s the iconic Irish dancer, whose feet are on fire. Both music pieces she skates to are powerful, intense – and might very well eat her alive. Well, with Rika Hongo is exactly the opposite: the Japanese lady masters the music, showing every second she has everything under control. Inspired and impressive, the 19-year-old won the free skate in Beijing – and people’s admiration: the audience clapped along her “Riverdance”, giving her an additional boost of energy. Rika Hongo’s next Grand Prix event is Rostelecom Cup.

Third and fourth in Beijing were Russia’s Elena Radionova and Anna Pogorilaya, separated only by 0.12 of a point. And they are gifted and hard working these skaters – not to mention beautiful to watch. 16-year-old Elena Radionova, with her lyrical programs this season and airy, layered dresses, has been one of the highlights of the ladies’ event at 2015 Cup of China, whilst Anna Pogorilawa was a convincing Scheherazade, with her expansive movements and attack; in the end, she was completely exhausted, but this powerful, driving routine suits her like a glove. And a point in common: Nikolai Morozov choreographed all of these young ladies’ programs, short and free. We’ll see them again at Rostelecom Cup (Elena) and NHK Trophy (Anna).

For the love of the sport
Let me say just that: Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte’s enthusiasm and joy while skating were the highlight of the entire dancing event at 2015 Cup of China – and the proof wonderful things happen when you least expect; namely, when you’re not carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders and you skate because you love it. Simple as that.

Setting a new personal best for their free skate (106.91 points) and a total of 173.30 points in Beijing, the Italians won last weekend the first Grand Prix event of their career, in their tenth year in the senior GP circuit and two years after they won the Europeans and Worlds. As Anna said, in the press conference at the end of the event, “It is a very sweet win, a bit anachronistic, because we won Worlds two years ago and we never won a Grand Prix before. It is nice, especially since we were able to skate well. Definitely today [November 7th] we skated the best we could”.

Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte - and their playful free dance in Beijing, at 2015 Cup of China (photo: Eurosport Screenshot)

Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte – and their playful free dance in Beijing, at 2015 Cup of China (photo: Eurosport Screenshot)

From where I stand, they skated brilliantly in both segments of the ice dancing event in Beijing – even if, during the warm up prior to the short dance, they took a bad fall and hit their heads. Well, you couldn’t see that misfortune in their program, which was spot on technically and beautifully presented. To music from Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow – I raise my hat to whoever chose it – this short dance was a joy to the eyes, with Anna and Luca literally floating over the ice. Breathing with the music, looking sharp and elegant, they captured the lead over 2015 World silver medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates and Russia’s Elena Ilinykh and Ruslan Zhiganshin – and, a day later, they were again on the top of their game, skating to music from the soundtrack of “La Dolce Vita”, composed by Nino Rota.

They skated to Nino Rota’s music before, Anna and Luca (during 2011-2012 season, in their “La Strada” free dance), and the character of this particular music seem to wonderfully suit them and their style of skating. Inviting, playful, flirtatious – this free dance had it all, and Anna and Luca took over the audience with their smiles, their joy, their excitement. From music to costumes, to choreographic details, this was a golden package, a very clever routine putting their qualities on the spotlight – and we’ll see them and their dances again, at Rostelecom Cup in Moscow.

Second in Beijing were America’s Madison Chock and Evan Bates, already at their second Grand Prix event this season and the first ice dance team to qualify for the Grand Prix Final in Barcelona, in December. But in the three weeks that had passed since Skate America, Madison and Evan improved tremendously when it comes to their short dance, to Foxtrot and Waltz. Let me remind you this was their third SD this season – and in Beijing, at 2015 Cup of China, the Americans finally looked relaxed and owning the dance. And not just owning the dance, but selling it beautifully, as if they’d spent hours and hours on the ballroom floor: the posture, the arms, Madison’s back extension, everything about this dance “yelled” distinction and sophistication. Smooth, graceful, controlled – no better match to Andrea Bocelli’s voice singing “More” – and a program that grows on me, already one of my favorites this season.

Their free dance, on the other hand, still hasn’t got me yet. It’s difficult, dramatic, requiring a great deal of athleticism, it’s brilliantly presented and features gorgeous poses and lifts – but, as an absolute lover of Rachmaninov Piano Concerto no. 2, I feel there are so many great music parts left outside; but, of course, this is my Rachmaninov-mania talking…

In their second season together as a team, Russia’s Elena Ilinykh and Ruslan Zhiganshin showed up in Beijing with a set of programs meant to knock everyone off their feet. And, if I may say so, their short dance did just that – a powerful, driving routine, led by Freddie Mercury and his incredible voice. Elena and Ruslan chose to skate to “Somebody to Love” (as their Waltz) and “We Will Rock You” (as their March) – a risky choice, indeed, but a short dance performed with confidence and conviction, highlighting their speed, their sharpness, their unison. At the end of it, they were exhausted – you must have seen (and heard) Elena in the Kiss and Cry: “Mamucika, papucika, vsem… – she’s gasping for air – …privet!”

Elena Ilinykh and Ruslan Zhiganshin, as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, at 2015 Cup of China (photo: Eurosport Screenshot)

Elena Ilinykh and Ruslan Zhiganshin, as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, at 2015 Cup of China (photo: Eurosport Screenshot)

But it was the Russians’ free dance, to music from the movie “Frida”, the one creating a huge amount of expectations among the figure skating fans all around the world. This was clearly one of the most awaited/discussed routines of the season – starting with the month of May, when we only knew it would be about “the love story between two famous artists”. The story is, indeed, about two famous people, painters Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and Elena and Ruslan are definitely trying to be as convincing as possible while playing their parts. Still, a week ago, in Cup of China, this particular free dance looked to me a work in progress, lacking the power needed for the story, with the skaters showing us too many details from the “kitchen” of the routine. One thing is sure: they do look like a million dollars, Elena and Ruslan, but the overall dance still needs polishing – and it’s in their power to do so.

In the pairs’ event, it was the Russians Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov who stole the show and ran away with the gold, adding even more power and details to their “Manfred Symphony” routine (a year later, and I’m still a huge fan of this program) – and, the cherry on the cake, including two quad throws in their routine, Salchow and Loop. The reigning European champions achieved a new personal best for their free skate and an overall score of 216.00 points. At the press conference at the end of the free skate, Alexander Smirnov commented: “I am very pleased with our performance today. I am glad that we did the two quad throws and that we gave an emotional performance. I am happy for us, for our coach Tamara Nikolaevna and our fans”. In doing so, the Russians overtook the leaders after the short program, China’s Wenjing Sui and Cong Han, and a second Chinese pair, 2015 World Junior champions Xioayu Yu and Yang Jin, already in their second season on the senior GP circuit.

One final note: as in Skate America, my attention was drawn to this incredibly talented pair skater Wenjing Sui and the power and intensity in her arms and overall posture. “Can’t take my eyes off her”, someone left a comment at their Spanish short program on youtube – and I’ll second to that. Truthfully told, Wenjing and Cong have great programs this season, both choreographed by Lori Nichol, and might have a serious shot at the gold in Boston, next March. Until then, they’re the first pair qualified for the Grand Prix Final in Barcelona.