by Karen Frank
(24 January 2016) By the time Maia & Alex Shibutani took the ice for their Fix You free skate, the audience in the Xcel Center was already reaching peak excitement. As team as team laid down strong performances, the buzz grew. It started with the second warm-up group, when new team Karina Manta & Joseph Johnson stole the show with a quirky Christopher Dean choreographed rag time free dance to Maple Leaf Rag, Bethena, and The Entertainer. With tricky knee bendy movements and broad facial expressions, Manta & Johnson brought a sense of fun to the afternoon. They finished in seventh (with a sixth place free dance).
Then in the final warm-up group, the audience was first treated to Kaitlin Hawayek & Jean-Luc Baker’s sympathetic interpretation of The Theory of Everything soundtrack. Using rising and falling choreography, the team told the story of Steven Hawking and his struggle with ALS. The eventual fifth place team finished their programs visibly moved.
Following that performance, Anastasia Cannuscio & Colin McManus, kept up the excitement with a passionate performance of Beethoven. Using the Romantic Composer’s music to propel their movements, the program employs sweeping motions choreographed perfectly to the orchestrations of Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Moonlight Sonata and Symphony No. 5 in C minor. Competing at their eighth Nationals together, Cannuscio & McManus have been slowly climbing the standings, finally reaching the podium this year.
Of course the question on everyone’s mind was whether or not the Shibutanis, whose Free Dance score at the 2015 Grand Prix Final was only one tenth of a point behind the 2015 National Champions Madison Chock & Evan Bates, could buck protocol and history (it hasn’t been since the early 1990s when Elizabeth Punsalan & Jerod Swallow traded titles back and forth with April Sargent-Thomas & Russ Witherby and Renee Roca & Gorsha Sur that a National Dance Champion has been dethroned) to overtake them.
Both performances were powerful. Both were emotional. Both teams skated high scoring free dances – Chock & Bates, an impassioned interpretation of Sergei Rachmaninoffs’ Concerto No. 2 and the Shibutanis, a sensitive performance to Coldplay’s Fix You. When the dust, or, rather ice chips, settled, it was the Shibutanis on top. In the end, it came down to a matter of levels. The Shibutanis received level 4s on all their elements, while Chock & Bates had a spin downgraded to level two and their diagonal steps downgraded to level three.
To the audience, it was more than just math.
Having to follow the history making performance, Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue, stepped onto the ice while the audience were still cheering the Shibutanis marks. “The uproar when the Shibutanis won was pretty intense, but we tried to use that energy and skate our best,” said Hubbell. “We're proud of what we did.” Skating to Daft Punk’s Adagio for Tron, Hubbell & Donohue created dark and powerful piece, though they stated that the story of the program has lightened throughout the season.
“It started out very dark and ominous and with the idea based on the journey toward death. We kind of shifted away from that and we really weren't quite feeling it,” said Donohue. Hubbell added, “We felt like there was a lightness to the music toward the end, a piece that we found in the music. It's really about the journey of a man, it's very similar, but it's a many struggling and he's attracted to death. I come as his angel to show him the way. It's still evolving.”
With such strong performances at U.S. Nationals, the question is whether or not these three teams can top themselves at Worlds (and the Four Continents Championship). Ice Dance, more than any other track of Figure Skating is, to use Hubbell’s word, about the evolution of programs from the beginning of the season to the end. There’s always something to change, insights to use, moments that can be tweaked.
“We are confident that there is so much more we can accomplish on the ice and that's what we are really looking forward to doing," Alex Shibutani stated. As Chock put it, “There is always room to grow. We're always looking to keep pushing ourselves to be better than we were the day before.” It will be fascinating to see how these three teams evolve over the next few months … and years.