I don’t think this is news: I have an obsessive love for ice dance. Ice dance takes jumps and failed landings out of the picture. This may mean a lack of suspense and interest for some (aren’t jumps the point?!) but for me it means that skaters have time to build a coherent routine, one that expresses an emotion or an idea. I value qualities that are specific to good skating like speed and strong edge quality, but I haven’t skated since I was a kid and I’m not an expert on these things. So I am most interested in overall artistic impression: the theme, the vision, the emotional expressiveness. This is what is often referred to as artistry.
In ice dance, as in the other forms of figure skating, there is a tension between artistry and technique. Technical elements like twizzles, lifts, step sequences need to be executed cleanly and properly. This can take so much concentration that the artistry gets left behind. On the other hand, a powerful, artistic routine can be so passionate that it gets sloppy technically and then skaters lose points. I gravitate to the more creative routines and am less invested in the “perfection” of the execution. It’s great to try to have good technique, and it looks awesome out there, but “perfection” can kill off what is interesting and unusual about a routine and an ice dance couple.
This puts me at odds with the judges who value execution more. Scoring changes have led to more emphasis on judging technique. The claim is that this is “objective” since the subjectivity around what constitutes good artistic expression doesn’t necessarily produce a fair winner. This is supposed to be the safe route. Except it doesn’t reward the best ice dance and nothing is really “objective” anyway.
What happens too easily in this system is that cold precision creates higher scores (and more medals) than passionate artistry. In other words, this is what allows the robotic Shibutani siblings (or “ShibSibs”) to win (or at least medal) so much. They do the right steps at the right time and they get far this way. They know that they are supposed to be expressive, so they get overwrought Coldplay songs to do all the work. The cloying over-sentimentality of lyrics like “I try to fix you” (which, by the way, is enabling) is supposed to compensate for the absolute lack of expression of these skaters. Since they have no other strategy than this, they keep skating to Coldplay songs and claim they are doing a “trilogy.” It’s a little sad. But they are giving artistic expression enough of a nod that the judges are comfortable rewarding them for their technique. (And they are very good at twizzles in unison, which is one of the joys of ice dance).
Then there’s Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue. They strike me as the opposite of the ShibSibs in that their artistry is off the charts — they smolder in everything they do together — but sometimes they make technical errors at the worst moments. Considering the judges’ “objective” focus on technique, Hubbell and Donohue lose much more than the Shibs in podium standing. They are more vulnerable because their mistakes are more easily quantifiable than a sense of “this is bland and I’m bored.” Which I feel during every Shib performance that has ever happened. (I’m sure they’re nice people, but I’ve come to find their skating deeply, deeply irritating.)
Hubbell and Donohue have been known to have potential — after all, they train in Montreal at the relatively new Centre Gadbois or “champion factory” where former elite dance pair Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon train the top two teams in the world. (Those teams are the French, Papadakis and Cizeron, and the comeback Canadians, Virtue and Moir, who, frankly, probably deserved the gold medal in 2014 in Sochi over Americans Davis and White. I suppose there could be another post for that.) They’re the “almost but not quite” couple.
This was especially painful at the World Championships in Helsinki last spring. Madi and Zach were poised for a bronze medal after a great short program, but in their achingly beautiful long program, which included some melancholy Sam Smith and Ingrid Michelson music, Zach fell during several sets of twizzles. They were not able to get credit for any of the twizzles and dropped to 9th place in the standings. You’ll never guess who got third place behind the top French and Canadian teams. That’s right. The Shibutanis.
But I decided that day that even if the judging had to punish Madi and Zach, I did not. It may be corny, but they won in my heart. (So did Zach Donohue’s tight blue shirt.) They didn’t have to be perfect in technical execution or standing on the podium to be perfect to me.
It is the perfect vindication, then, that at U.S. Nationals this year, Hubbell and Donohue managed to pull it all together. Their execution was nearly flawless and showed off their artistry, as unparalleled as ever. This year they did an edgier free dance to music by Rag n Bone and Beth Hart. Their theme, the push-pull of attraction and repulsion in an illicit affair, even overcomes the slightly tacky saxophone music at the beginning and turns it into something forbidden and exciting. With that, and a wonderful cha cha rumba samba short dance, they won Nationals and are heading to the Olympics next month. Naturally, the ShibSibs got second place and are also on their way to the Olympics, too. So is the excellent third place couple, the superbly flexible Madison Chock and her blond curly-haired beau, Evan Bates. They are right in the mix and can beat their American rivals at any time.
The ice dance field is so strong right now that, despite this triumph, I’m really unsure Madi and Zach will be able to medal in PyongChang. Besides the French champions I mentioned, there are the amazing, theatrical Italians, Cappellini and Lanotte, Russians Bobrova and Soloviev, and the Canadian field is absurdly strong. There are the indomitable Virtue and Moir who already have two Olympic medals, the revamped and always beautiful Weaver and Poje, nicknamed “Weapo,” and the wonderfully quirky and sadly underrated Gilles and Poirier. Making the top 5 in this mess is an accomplishment.
But for now, Hubbell and Donohue actually managed to get what they deserve, and they’re going into the Olympics on a high note.