Helsinki – The Pairs

Well hello Finland and the first Finish Grand Prix event! This was a bit of a change – because of the change of location (China to Finland), we saw a different kind of pairs event. In China the pairs event is usually dominated by the Chinese pairs but here, without any pairs to represent the host country, the field was a bit more open. It was nice to see teams from some smaller federations like Austria, North Korea, Spain, and Japan too. (Not that Japan’s federation is small but their pairs program is.) It wasn’t a very deep field, say compared to Skate Canada last week where the competition was stiffer, and it wasn’t, unfortunately, terribly well skated. It was a bit of a fight not to fall off the podium here. I think newer teams were fighting nerves and while more experienced ones were trying to deal higher expectations of themselves. But also, we had a few Grand Prix debuts in Finland – three of the eight teams – meaning that there was a wide range of experience and skills. Still, it was interesting to see how it all ended up and what kind of situation their results have placed them in as their season unfolds.

Here are the final results with, as you can see, lots of teams swapping ordinals.

helsinki pairs

The scene was set in the short program as a bit of a battle between matched pairs, as you can see by the scores, with lower (7-8), mid (5-6), on the cusp (3-4) and higher-ranked teams (1-2) teams pairing off.

sp helsinki pairs

And while the competition mostly played out along those lines, there were a few surprises. The order of things got a bit jumbled in the free program!

fp helsinki pairs

Let the tournament begin!

Zabaijako/Enbert

I really tried to watch the short program with a straight face but I couldn’t manage it. Am I the only one who finds this ridiculous? I have heard some people think it isn’t good and strange but I think it is just funny. No one else? It was really the complete contradiction between the program concept on one hand and the nature of pairs skating on the other that got me giggling. First you are holding a person and then swinging an axe at them the next and then your back to physical cooperation again! I guess it’s a love-hate relationship? It just looks so silly. (Also, Alexander trying to catch up after his fall and Natalia carrying on with the choreography, which included taking swipes at him seemed at little unfair. She had him at a disadvantage at that point.) I even like the music but skaters realize that they don’t have to act out the story originally set to the music, right? Because it’s music and non-visual and doesn’t inherently express just one thing. They understand that? I feel like I need to check. Do I need to explain more? I can understand why sometimes skaters choose to dress and play the part with very well known music, with the audience having well established associations, but I don’t think that’s the case with this music, particularly outside of Russia, where most of their competing will take place. “Alexander Nevski” isn’t exactly universally known.

We haven’t even touched on the skating yet but before we move on, I think I need to deal with “sexy knight” costume issue. I maybe touched on this before, and I may come back to it again, but it really bugs me that Natalia is wearing the equivalent of a sexy knight Halloween costume. Why do they have her in shorts? If she is a knight, why not give her at least full length leggings? Why does anyone think she needs to show flesh? Does it make any sense at all? No. In fact, it sort of takes away from the role they given her (which I don’t even know why I am arguing for but this is the situation we’ve ended up in) AND looks rather dangerous. So, now on to the skating…

What is going on with Enbert’s jumps? His jumps were really the main issue of the competition for them. He fell on the toe in the short and were in second at that point to Della Monica/Guarise, which in itself was a bit of an interesting situation. Then he fell on the salchow in the free. He managed the combination in the free (the triple toe-double toe-double loop, which was impressive) but he couldn’t manage the single jumps. So, that’s interesting and makes them technically vulnerable among their fellow Russian competitors if the situation keeps up. The free program itself I found did not quite keep my attention. It wandered there in the middle. I think this may be the fault of the song. It doesn’t have a lot of variation and gets a bit boring during the four minute stretch. It all just feels a bit dreary and overblown all at the same time. I can imagine if I were a skater and I had to skate to this, I would just absolutely hate it by the end of the season cause I’m sort of getting to that point already.

They had a very good twist and a nice throw loop well timed to the music but there wasn’t a lot more that really caught my attention. I still think the second position on their group five reverse lift is terrible (during the carry) and compared to what other pairs are doing, it looks pretty simple and unimpressive. I want to see something that looks more creative and complex and frankly, attractive. So, it was a win overall with their performance in the free and by a substantial margin but it didn’t feel convincing to me. I found in interesting that they only just really passed Pavliuchenko/Khodykin in the technical score. I think they got a bit lucky and were gifted in the free with some poor performances by other pairs. I just feel like they are, again, a bit vulnerable.

I think their program choices this season are intended to fight the “pleasant but boring” image they had acquired but I don’t think they are doing them any favours. I enjoyed both their programs last season much more. Beautiful suits them!

Della Monica/Guarise

On the whole, Nicole and Matteo started off the competition pretty well. Going in, I felt like they could contend with Zabaijako/Enbert and had the potential to come out on top. They are really very evenly matched. (They were so close to one another at Worlds! And both teams had Nina Mozer at the boards…!) So, I was really happy to see them just edging into first with their short program. They did have some issues with jumps and the program is not my favourite but on the whole they looked pretty confident.

However, I have decided officially that I don’t like her outfit in the short. I was trying to keep an open mind at Lombardia but I can’t any more. To me it’s just figure-skating-outfit-gone-overboard and a bit confusing as well. And she and Matteo seem to be skating to different music, based on their outfits, like space jazz vs. country bling. Is it bad to wish for a skater to have an outfit emergency on the ice so they will feel compelled to change it in the future?

Unfortunately, Nicole and Matteo couldn’t hold on to their lead in the free. They were breaking my heart out there. There was a jump issue in the short but the issues in the free were really annoying me. But then I thought, “Wasn’t it ever thus?” Have they ever skated a clean program? I don’t know what their goal is this season but I think it should be to skate clean with every outing and that’s it. That’s what really matters. Here, the jumps and throws were just not good. They were doubling and she was turning out and touching down… it just looked scratchy. It’s at the point with these two that I think they need my clean throw pep talk, like Tarasova/Morozov. Just do the freaking throws! You have been at this long enough you should be able to do the throws. (I don’t know how effective my pep talk is but there you go.)

To be honest, I don’t love this program either – it kind of lost me there for a bit in the middle. But, I think there is more potential than what we saw here. There are some very nice touches and dynamic lifts.  They also just have a lovely pairs sit spin position. In the end they only just managed to hold on to second place.

Mark Henretty is right – there was a real opening for them and they let it go. Maybe nerves? I will say this for them though, there is something I admire about their relationship and attitude. They always seem very supportive of one another. Even after a bad skate, they don’t seem tense with each other. Now, maybe they need to get a little fired up but I’m glad at least that’s it’s not with one another. They seem to realize they are on the same side and I think positive energy always works better than negative in situations like this. (It is an interesting contrast with some other pairs I could name here!) If you are going to accomplish anything is has to be as a team! And it looks like their coach will probably have some words for them to maybe spur them on to better performances in the future. She made her feelings known with that look. I’m hoping for better next time!

Pavliuchenko/Khodykin

Of all the teams here, Daria and Denis, I think, skated up to their ability. I was really happy for them in their Grand Prix debut! My Russian babies (my other Russian babies). She just seems twelve times younger than every other girl out there. But let’s not worry about her face (okay well maybe a little but we’ll get there) – their elements can do the talking for them! In the short, they got a level four in their triple twist (and free too actually – no one else at this competition can boast that), the jumps were nice and the lift was good with that terrific dismount and their side by side spins were excellent (judges, I think you were a little stingy there on the GOE). But they did run into some problems. She had the hand on the throw and then in the step sequence there seemed to be some sort of issue, although I’m not quite clear what happened. I did think Daria looked like she was speeding up, though, and maybe that caused them to get out of sync and then couldn’t complete some kind of … something? I’m guessing it was just a combination of nerves/adrenaline anyway. But they pulled it back together and put out a decent program, placing in third just ahead of Ziegler/Kiefer. I really expected it to be a near run thing between this team and Ziegler/Kiefer and that seemed to be how things were unfolding after the short.

Things got turned around in the free though – not on the face of things, however. They were in third in the short and ended up third overall. But, Ziegler/Kiefer dropped away to fifth and Daria and Denis’ real competition in the free was with Della Monica/Guarise. They were second in the free and almost, almost second overall. It was very close indeed. And it was a big deal for them even to be ahead of Ziegler/Kiefer because they lost to them at Minsk. (In fact, Miriam and Severin won, while Daria and Denis were in third.)

In the free, they skated first in the second flight and their start to the program sort of blew everybody else who had skated up to that point of the water (and really everybody to follow too) – triple flip, triple toe-double toe-double toe, triple twist – all very well executed, well synchronized, good quality, no falls. I think it must have made everybody watching sit up a little bit. The throws were really very nice with beautiful landing edges from Daria. The only error was the aborted lift which was really a lift that came down early rather than a lift that didn’t happen, so they didn’t lose that mark entirely. It looked like maybe Denis just lost balance a bit and decided to bring the lift down but I’m not sure. It was the third lift and he does it very quickly after the second, so maybe he was just exhausted? (The lifts are the element that seem to need the most work, in terms speed and ease of of flow over the ice.) But, they seemed quite pleased with their performance. I think they will be very happy to have their first big Senior competition over and out of the way. They’ve done that now. And not only that,  they kept their cool and did their job and ended up on the podium!

I do quite like the short. I like the music, even if it’s not terribly distinct. And surprisingly, I’m really getting into their free. There is something about the level of bonkers that strangely appeals to me. Every time I watch it I’m trying to get inside the head that created it. Here there were some substantial changes with the choreographic sequence that coincides with first music change. Funnily enough, although it didn’t seem quite so chaotic, I don’t think it worked as well. At least, it didn’t highlight my favourite moment of the whole program, Daria’s finger wiggle, as well as I would have liked. The finger wiggle is everything! However, that can still get ironed out and perhaps she can look like she’s enjoying the party too. She was really concentrating and looked very serious, although I think I prefer that too the bitey-smile. If it’s not a genuine smile, I think she should go for coldly aloof or sad which I think could be fine for the character she’s playing.

I actually started to think that there were fewer music changes this time around as well! But I think I’m just getting used to the music… again, that seems strange to say. In the end, I had to go back and compare it to an early performance because I couldn’t believe I would get used to it but it was in fact the same: Story of Love introduction, the dark Crazy Right Now, the Movie Opening sequence, the Xylophone Party-Time, Telephone Ring of Doom music and then the Scratchy Record of Death and Destruction. I would like them at least to make a change to the music at the end and just continue with the… what is it?… fourth music edit, rather than change to the scratchy record. It just sort of takes the oomph out of everything and leaves it ending flat. I will let you keep the phone, just please, please, please, take out that last music edit. (A girl can hope!)

They really are babies and I wasn’t sure about them moving up but I think they made the right call to get out there in Seniors in front of the herd of Russian Juniors that are coming up. They skated well, they showed they can compete, despite their weaknesses. They are already adjusting to the new level of expectations. The elements seem really secure with the exception of the lifts – which are the new thing for them, with the new rules and having to do three lifts. Now, they can focus on improving those skating skills and gaining that polish and finesse, to look more the part. But at least they have the technical arsenal, and for that matter, one that teams with more refinement are failing to show. It doesn’t matter if they don’t have the PCs, if no one else can land their jumps and throws.

Ziegler/Kiefer

Finland was a land of opportunity this weekend. Miriam and Severin will never have a better change (at least this season) to get on a Grand Prix podium. And they doubled the salchows! But I’m getting ahead of myself. The short was pretty good. It is a nice program as well, good music, really suited to them. I like the colours in their costumes too, although I’m not sure about the white insert in Miriam’s skirt. It looks a bit like a handkerchief waving about. The jumps were very good and there was just a hand down on the throw and a stumble in the step sequence (very similar to Daria and Denis). The twist too went quite well. In general I’m quite pleased with how their twists have been going this season; just level one but looking smooth, not crashy. They were fourth at this point, in contention for a medal.

It was really the free where the damage was done. Again, I think it’s a good program and I really like Miriam’s dress, and the hair down. I just wish Severin’s shirt was quite so long. It is a bit flappy and distracting. (Maybe it’s the source of all their problems? I’m willing to blame it. Get rid of the shirt!) They started quite well and they do look so smooth and soft over the ice. There is definitely quality there. It’s really nice to watch but then disaster struck. She doubled/sort of fell out of her salchow. That didn’t have to be the end of things though because they do have the edge in PCs over Pavliuchenko/ Khodykin, not to mention their lift issue. Really, Miriam and Severin were right in it, right up to the end. The first lift was very nice and I love her position and spread eagle variation in the carry. It’s a real treat! (Zabaijako/Enbert, take note.) The throws were good and they were really performing. And then, the final lift didn’t go up. It was quite sad. And it really took away from the program because the lift basically ends it. The program lost all it’s momentum and fell flat in the final moments.

I feel quite badly for Severin because he was so upset with himself. (Just remember,  she doubled!) But that is the second time that lift has not gone up in competition. That is not a good percentage. I think a change is in order. I think they need to change the lift entrance or where it is in the program or something. Please give this some consideration.

Ryom/Kim

They are so cute. But they know they are allowed to skate other programs, right? This is now going to be the third season with this short program and if Ashley Wagner can tell you anything, it’s that the third season is a season too far. That’s maybe a bit mean, since I don’t know what kind of circumstances they are in, but I think they deserve a new program. I would love to see them do something else. Also, for having done this program many times, it was oddly ragged and unsure. I’m not sure how much time they’ve had to train but it certainly made me wonder. Although, they did not look happy afterwards, so maybe it being their Grand Prix debut performance got to them a bit and they under performed. Whatever the case, it wasn’t their best outing.

The free skate was a bit better. It felt like they were more on top of the elements and actually, it was one of the better performances. They got under-rotation calls (well, an under-rotation and a downgrade) on their jumps but other than that the elements were alright. And yes, thank you for pointing out British Eurosport woman that he does have fantastic posture in the lifts! I just wish they had a new program for the free too. I’ve never really been into this program and I would like to see them in something else. I would love to see them try something softer, more balletic. They look like they have the lines for it. Anyway, that is something to hope for.

They ended up fourth in the free and fifth overall. It seemed like they would be competing with Stellato/Bartholomay and they were very close together in the short (56.87 to 56.44) but they ended up being quite close to Della Monica/Guarise in the free (117.59 to 117.37) and in closer contention with Ziegler/Kiefer in the end (174.81 to 174.24). So who are their real rivals? It’s hard to say but overall, I think fifth is the correct placement, ahead of Stellato/Bartholomay but behind Ziegler/Kiefer. It’s just too bad that this competition didn’t go better. They had an opportunity to make a breakthrough here (and maybe still this season) but they didn’t look really ready and their old programs are letting them down.

Stellato/Bartholomay

Despite placing a sixth here and by no means being the bottom of the heap, this was not a good competition for Deanna and Nate. That being said, I don’t know if we have every seen them skate clean, so I don’t really know what exactly this team’s potential is. They would seem to have everything necessary to be successful but it is just not coming together and that makes me wonder what is going on here?

The short was okay, not great but not terrible. There were issues on the twist, jumps and throws (actually, in both programs). But the side by side spins were well done and the lift was quite nice. I particularly like how she step ups on his knees before he presses her up. There was some character and energy that carried through the program despite the mistakes. I think I like this program more out their two and I feel like this one has improved and is a good vehicle for them. It does need more confidence though.

The free program did feel like a disaster. Things were going wrong pretty much throughout. The protocol just does not read well. The twist wasn’t clean, they didn’t make either of the jumping passes, there were issues on both the throw – there was a lot of popping going on – and the final lift in the free was only a level two. Pretty much everybody had some problems in the free program but I found this one the hardest to watch. I’d happily watch Junior pairs all day long rather than watch this. It felt like an implosion. They are still a newer team, so maybe the expectations are a bit high, but they clearly did expect more and the feeling in the Kiss and Cry afterwards was very uncomfortable and tense.

Which brings me to another point – and this might be entirely unfair, albeit an honest impression – but watching the exchange in the Kiss and Cry just made me say to myself, “I don’t think I could work with her.” Her edge was hard. And yes, there is something to be said for calling a spade a spade (she did say, “That was a disaster” and certainly it’s not a result that is going to help them in their competition at home) but there are times when it is not helpful or productive. (I think everybody there knew it was bad and didn’t need it pointed out to them at that moment.) There is a kind of negativity that excludes encouragement or taking away lessons for positive change and just alienates everybody. That is what I was getting from Deanna. If you ever played volleyball with Sarah Johnson, you know what I’m talking about. The change in that team when she moved away was amazing. (We got second as WOSSA!)

Barquero/Maestu

I was so happy that Barquero and Maestu got a Grand Prix assignment! Helsinki was a Grand Prix debut for them here but they really did not have anything at stake. I totally think they are deserving but really for them, at this point, it’s an added bonus. They could go out and skate and learn, and I think that’s what they did. I enjoy their short program but now that I’ve seen it a couple times there is something about the music. Maybe it’s just too slow – it seems to drag at times. It actually feels like it is holding them back in places. I don’t know if anything can be done about that? (I would be okay with them speeding up the tempo.) It was too bad about his fall on the jump. It looked like he just stuttered or lost his balance right before and it probably interfered with getting the jump done. Other than that, the twist was quite nice and the throw was pretty good and the spins, athough slow, were in sync. No element was stellar but they were getting things done and looked like they were enjoying it.

The free program was sort of in the same vein – getting things done but the elements were on and off and nothing done very cleanly. There were no real stand-out elements, with the exception of the triple twist, which they seem to have down really well. Actually, the throw triple loop was quite nice too. I like the program fair to middling but again, I feel like the music is holding them back at times. I do want to see more flow in and out of elements though, and I think that might improve the program as a whole, give it more cohesion and make it feel less choppy. They ended up last in the free but I think it did leave a better overall impression than the short. And they finished seventh overall. I’m not sure when we will see them next. Maybe at a Challenger? Or maybe Europeans? It is their sophomore year, so I’m not expecting anything lights out but I like their trajectory.

I just want to say that I feel like Laura just added in that flourish before the final pose on the spur of the moment because they were done a little early and needed to make up time, and I like her for it.

Suzaki/Kihara

It wasn’t a great short program but it got better in the free! Even if they were in eighth, I feel like they made a really nice impression in the free program, placing seventh there. Going into the short I thought Miu looked super nervous but I think it was with cause. She seemed to be struggling a bit in warm up and they go for those flips right off the bat. I think they should maybe rethink their strategy. A mistake on the jump is so costly in the short, I think they should do a surer jump and get some consistency going. (It’s okay to do a toe. Lots of people do toes.) But, I wouldn’t ditch the flip altogether. If they can do them they should, so I think they should keep the flips in the free where at least they have another jumping pass and a mistake on one isn’t necessarily quite so critical. (That’s what Daris and Denis are doing!) The throw technique seems a little wonky too and then with two falls, the short never really had a chance to get going. It didn’t have a lot of energy. I wrote, “It never looked like it was happening today,” which is too bad because I really liked the program the first time I saw it. Hopefully better next time and I think it will be, at home in Japan.

I really like this free program. I think of all the programs this season skated to one song, this is maybe the best choice (or at least one of them). It’s quite beautiful and has variety and power to it. It really builds and has a nice finish. Good choice, guys! I think the program also really suits them too, her especially. They seem like they like this program and seemed way more relaxed. I like the new costumes too! I was fine with the old blue but these are quite nice. I like the colour and the detail on hers is nice. The combination was quite good, also the spin, and I think the lifts move quite nicely across ice. And, there were just some very nice moments in the program and a nice musicality. I love when they just let go near the end. I definitely enjoyed it the most of the programs in the first flight and when I think of it, almost of the whole free program portion of the competition. (I also really enjoyed Ziegler/Kiefer and Pavliuchenko/ Khodykin’s programs, as discussed, but I didn’t really get into anything else.)

Overall, I just think they have to keep at it and they will improve. They already are, despite the obvious issues. The twist has improved for one, I think, and the lifts. And it’s very clear where the work needs to be done. They struggled with the flips and on throws. The other area to work on is PCs but that will also come with time. I just think Miu needs a bit more assurance in her performance. She seems tentative, and of course, they are still learning as a pair, but you’ve got to sell it. I think if she believes it, we all will. And I don’t mean to pick on her because she is really quite nice to watch but I just think so much depends in pairs depends on the ability of the woman to appear confident in what is going on on the ice.

I just want to give a shout out the to side by side spins her in Helsinki. I think they were better than what we have seen so far.

Next week we are on to… I’m not even sure… oh, Japan! So, we will get to see Suzaki/Kihara right away. I hope they aren’t exhausted! We have seen most of the others teams already as well: Moore-Towers/Marinaro, Peng/Jin, Zabaijako/Enbert, Barqureo/Maestu – Hey! When did that happen? – and Scimeca/Knierim. We are also seeing two teams for the first time this Grand Prix season, Kayne/O’Shea and Lu/Mitrofanov. (I heard that Kayne/O’Shea changed their short but I hope it’s just rumour. I loved their program.) Should be fun!

 

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