Archive for December, 2009|Monthly archive page

Artistry: Innate vs. Cultivated

In any discipline with a creative facet there are practitioners that emerge on the scene as quite fully formed “artists”. There is still certainly room for growth, but their expression of themselves and their “art” is well on its way. On the flip side, there are those that arrive a mere figment of their later greatness. This certainly holds true for skaters, especially since there is a strong duality of artistry versus (or, with) athleticism.

“Baby Ballerinas” (and Ballerinos)

Here I borrow a designation from Dick Button, which I despised at the time, but which perfectly defines this first category of skater. These skaters emerge as quite (or, at least more) complete artists: highly expressive, sophisticated, and individualized, seemingly from the beginning. Sasha Cohen, Caroline Zhang, Naomi Nari-Nam, Oksana Baiul, Adelina Sotnikova, Johnny Weir, Evgeni Plushenko, John Curry, and Gordeeva & Grinkov, come immediately to mind.

They were either born dancers, had easy extension, or were passionately connected to their choreography and music. And, they seemed to have that something special, the X (or “It”) Factor, since day one. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe artistry ONLY comes in a classical balletic package. It just so happens that most “artistic” skaters at least initially lean heavily on this stylistic direction (excepting the rare few: Gary Beacom, the Duchesnays, etc.).

From Ugly Ducklings to Swans

Then, there are those skaters who hit the international scene, and although technically proficient, and holding great promise, didn’t strike us as having much artistry, or memorable expressive qualities. Or, they appeared to be more purely “athletic” skaters, but in hindsight we see that their artistry was more dormant at first. Sarah Hughes, Shizuka Arakawa, Angela Nikodinov, Ashley Wagner, Alexei Yagudin, Brian Boitano, Evan Lysacek, and Shen & Zhao come to mind.

They were either initially coltish, awkward, inexpressive, generic, or disconnected from their programs. You could chalk their more visible artistic trajectory and growth up to a later maturity (or peeking), to persistence and diligence, in nurturing skills that did not come as easily, or seem innate, OR to collaborating with a new coach or choreographer who helped them evolve.

Ice Dancers are more difficult to group into these two categories, since they are really nothing without artistry (as there are no jump requirements). So, that discipline does not breed or nurture purely “athletic” teams in the same way.

And, there are those skaters that remain primarily “athletic” skaters through the arc of at least their competitive careers (Ito, Meissner, Thomas, Bonaly, Goebel, Stojko, Joubert, Zhang & Zhang, and Brausseur & Eisler), but they are not the focus here.

Cases in Point

The Shizuka Arakawa we saw in Torino was an altogether different artist and skater than the one who won Japanese Nationals back in ’99 and ’00. Who could have guessed that the skater in the first video sample here could reach the artistic heights she did less than a decade later?

Before & After

Angela Nikodinov, in particular, seemed to literally be born again as a completely different skater, once under the tutelage of Elena Tcherkasskaia. She always had one of the best laybacks in the biz, but that was generally accompanied by a detached, going-through-the-motions approach.

Before (poor quality, sorry) & After

However, Sasha Cohen, in her Senior Nationals’ debut appeared with nearly all the extensions and expressivity she displayed nearly a decade later. Yes, there is certainly growth evident, but not in the same drastic way as with the previous skaters.

BeforeAfter

Legendary Gordeeva & Grinkov seemed to leap out of the womb with artistry and line, as in evidence here in both samples.

Before & After

Vancouver Olympic Schwag: Can You Resist?

One of my most curious and amusing memories of attending the Salt Lake Games with friends was the fast emerging and potent addiction to Olympic schwag, particularly collectible pins! I remember running from shop to shop, table to table, in Park City, seeking the most stylish, most beautiful, most perfect pin(s).

I liken it to going to an auction, or taking part in a raffle. Somehow you get roped up into thinking you MUST have the targeted item, and that your very happiness depends on it. Thankfully, I’ve enjoyed wearing the pins I purchased then to later skating events, and around big competition time, so they proved themselves worthy purchases.

I thought I’d share a little taste of this addictive smack with you! I have no association with the Vancouver 2010 Store, and am only sharing these images and links for your enjoyment. Just think of me as your schwag enabler.

Figure Skating Pins


These two are available here and here. Other figure skating pins include: hanging skates, glitter skatesladies’ spiral against Canadian maple leaflayback spin, Mukmuk mascot on Zamboni (hilarious!)Quatchi & Miga mascotspairs’ silhouette (garish), dimensional skating figure (tacky!). And, if you just MUST have an Olympic “Happy Easter” skating pin, it is available here.

jcm’s Favorite Vancouver 2010 Pins


This left pin features an Aboriginal salmon illustration. This is part of a beautiful, larger series. To be honest, I had no idea there was Aboriginal culture or history in Canada. I only knew of it in Australia. Whodathunkit? These pins ALSO educate!

The right pin has a cut-out of the Paralympic logo in silver. I actually prefer the Paralympic logo and pins to the Vancouver Olympic logo and pins. I also like the looks of this simple pin quite a bit, and for other sports, this Canadian maple leaf ski pin is the coolest!

More Figure Skating Schwag


Other figures skating schwag that is not yet out of stock including this hot pink luggage tag, a rather drab looking magnet, and poster.

Even though Christmas is past, I’ll be placing my order for the top left skating pin, and likely the Aboriginal salmon pin today! You see any favs on the store site?

“The 12 Gays of Christmas”

Enjoy jcm & CJ’s Christmas e-card here!

Blessings to you!


Nearly Missed Skating Glories & Curiosities

So often we focus on “what could have been”, or titles that we feel were taken undeservedly. Well, this time I’m going to take a look at it from the cup half full perspective, or “what almost wasn’t”.

Wylie Squeaked into Albertville?


Rewind to the ’91-‘92 US Nationals. Many (including Dick Button) felt Paul Wylie was outskated by Mark Mitchell, however, he was awarded the silver, ahead of Mitchell’s bronze. Before the scores were posted, Button felt Mitchell’s triple axel would be the deal breaker. The US men had three spots to the ’92 Winter Olympics in Albertville, secured the previous year by ’91 National Champion Todd Eldredge. However, Mitchell was left off the team due to a medical bye given to Eldredge.

Because of Wylie’s mediocre performance at Nationals, and the fact that he had never finished higher than ninth at Worlds (four years prior), critics questioned his placement on the Olympic team. He had also surprisingly never won a National title.

However, he was sent to his second Olympics, and won the silver medal, with two very strong performances. What a way to make an exit from amateur competition, especially from a career without any international titles (excepting the ’88 Trophee Lalique). His SP was flawless, and his LP, although not containing a real jump combination, had only one error in a two-footed landing.

Alternatively, the USFSA left Wylie off the team for the ’92 Worlds, naming Mark Mitchell in his place, where he placed 5th, ahead of Eldredge.

From Middling to The Top


Sarah Hughes won the bronze at US Nationals the year she was Olympic Champion (’02). She, in fact never won gold at Nationals, receiving two silvers and two bronzes, behind Kwan (and Cohen). (Ironically, I rooted for Angela Nikodinov to snag that third ticket to Salt Lake, as I was always a fan of her quiet elegance. In hindsight, I’m sure glad Hughes prevailed, given the outcome.)

Shizuka Arakawa won her Olympic Gold SEVEN seasons after winning Japanese Nationals (in both ’97-‘98 and ’98-‘99). But, she never again won Nationals, curiously loosing them to a Chisato Shiina in ’99-‘00. Ever heard of her? (Shiina was in 14th place the following season, and then seems to have disappeared.) After that Arakawa lost to Suguri, Ando, and Asada.

Like Hughes, she won the bronze at her Nationals the year she was Olympic Champion (’06). And, she won nothing else in the seasons in which she won both her World and Olympic titles. Fascinating! She was on the ’98 Japanese Olympic Team, but did not make the ’02 Team. It seems extremely rare for a skater to attend two Olympics, but miss one inbetween. (Anyone know stats on this?)

Alexei Yagudin NEVER won Russian Nationals. He brought home four silvers, and a bronze, loosing to Ilia Kulik the first two times, and then Plushy the following three. Plushy has SEVEN golds from that event! However, when it really mattered at the ’02 Olympics, he delivered the goods, and brought home the goldthankfully before his hip gave out.

Emanuel Sandhu’s International Moment


Building up to the ’03-‘04 GP Final, Sandhu was the SECOND substitute, but thanks to Jeffrey Buttle and Timothy Goebel’s withdrawals, and Brian Joubert’s inability to step in quickly as first substitute, he competed and seized the gold! He was one of only two skaters (the other being Brian Joubert) to beat Plushy in that quadrennial. This win was even more notable, given that he had not medaled either of his GP events that season! He never returned to that level of glory again in his skating career.

The “Chinese National Games”


Did you know that there is a quadrennial competition in China called the National Games? Some of the top Chinese pair skaters do not participate in the Chinese Championships, preferring to compete solely at these National Games instead, for which they receive byes. (The Chinese Championships serve to qualify some skaters for these National Games.)

The big name teams competed at the National Games in those seasons, thereby filling up these podiums with teams unfamiliar to the West. Therefore, instead of names like Zhang, Pang, or Tong, etc. as Chinese Champions, in ’05, we see pair Ding Yang & Ren Zhongfei, in ’06, Zhao Rui & An Yang, and in ’09, Dong Huibo & Wu Yimin! Ever heard of any of them?

A Russian Star Still Under Wraps


As a curiosity…I could find no record of last year’s (’08-‘09) Russian National Junior and Nationals champion Adelina Sotnikova attending the recent ’09-’10 Junior Worlds (or, any record at all of her at isu.org)? That is because, amazingly, at 13, she was STILL too young for the event! The current requirements are for the competitor to have reached the age of 13 by the previous 1 July. She was born on July 11, 1996. Perhaps this 10-day discrepancy will proove fateful, allowing her time to evolve at this tender age, before her international debut. I’m sure she’s being nurtured well, as she could be Russia’s future, eclipsing Alena Leonova.

Have any memories of nearly missed glories, or curiosities you’d like to share?

Finding inspiration…in the bathroom

I recently stumbled upon this beautiful and inspirational piece of prose, nicely framed on a friend’s bathroom wall. Doesn’t one often seem to find such inspiration in this most unlikely locale?  ;-)

I sensed that I may have encountered it before, but that didn’t keep it from resonating so strongly to me this time. I’m sure you will find it meaningful too.:

Fully Alive


I will not die an unlived life.
I will not live in fear
of falling or catching fire.

I choose to inhabit my days,
to allow my living to open me,
to make me less afraid,
more accessible,
to loosen my heart
until it becomes a wing,

a torch, a promise.
I choose to risk my significance;
to live so that which came to me as seed
goes to the next as blossom
and that which came to me as blossom,
goes on as fruit.

— Dawna Markova

It seems such a perfect life anthem, as we prepare for a new year, full of resolutions and fresh goals (however formal or informal). The concept and visual of “loosening” one’s heart is so apt, as mine often feels so tight…clinging so unnecessarily to resentment, anger, fear, grievances.

I am thankful that, perhaps out of all my years, this, my 38th to 39th year has probably been my most “lived” and “inhabited” yet. It’s been chock full of challenges, joys, setbacks, triumphs, and so on.

According to her website, by profession, Dr. Markova is a psychotherapist, a researcher, a consultant to leaders, an author, a storyteller, a parent and grandmother. She has PhDs in psychology and education. It seems all of that living has enabled her to bring us this wisdom. LIVE FULLY!

Hankerin’ for some fresh Christmas music?

Looking for some fresh (if not new) Christmas/Holiday/Winter music to add to your annual listening tradition? I know, nobody really buys or listens to “albums” anymore, with our iTunes-driven music world being so song-centric. Well, that may be true most of the time, but at Christmastime I’m still quite album-centric, since I prefer to pack my cds away with the decorations, and essentially rediscover them each year.

Plenty of the mainstream classics are among my annual favs too, including those by John Denver & The Muppets, Vince Guaraldi, The Carpenters, Leontyne Price, and Mariah Carey. BUT, it’s a relief to have less touted treasures to lean on, especially when the classics are getting overplayed…like right about now! Please weigh in on your own rarer holiday favorites.

Classical


Images de Noël: Karina Gauvin (’99)
A phenomenal, underrated crystalline soprano, who specializes in baroque repertoire. Here, she offers spirited renditions of holiday-themed art songs.

The Christmas Album: Original Masters: Various Artists (’03)
Vintage German/Austrian favorites, originally recorded from ’52 to ’70. Includes greats Gundula Janowitz, Fritz Wunderlich and Hermann Prey. You’ll feel like you’re having a Christmas in Salzburg! The retro graphics are charming too.

Carols From the Old and New Worlds: Theatre of Voices (’93)
I first experienced this album thanks to my old voice teacher, who was a member of Theatre of Voices at the time of this recording. It features TIGHT harmonies that feel authentically old world, but still fresh.

Pop/Rock/Folk


A Cold December Night: Erin Bode (’08)
This album offers perfect winter simplicity, delivered in Bode’s gentle spirit.

Classic Christmas: Billy Gilman (’00)
This is easily my most fun and cheerful Christmas album…it’ll make you feel a bit more like a kid again.

The Hotel Café Presents: Winter Songs: Various Artists (’08)
A great compilation of atmospheric, moody contemporary performances, including many originals. Tracks 1, 7, 11, and 15 are favs.

Christmas Means Love: Joan Osborne (’95)
Originally released by Barnes & Nobles, this album didn’t get wide enough distribution. You’ve gotta listen to “What Do Bad Girls Get?”. Her inspired pipes are showcased throughout!

Jazz



Have Yourself A Jazzy Little Christmas: Various Artists (’89)
There is NO better jazz compilation than this. All tracks are mid-century recordings, performed by jazz greats. Originally given to me as a gift, it has become a necessary annual tradition for me! Truly perfect!

An Oscar Peterson Christmas: Oscar Peterson (’95)
Tired of Guaraldi, but you like the whole jazzy Christmas thang? This is another great option.

Hymns Carols and Songs Sbout Snow: Tuck Andress (’91)
Of Tuck & Patti fame, Andress offers up some gentle renditions of the classics.

Misc.

Christmas Disco: The Mistletoe Disco Band (’78)
Wanna shake things up a bit (literally!)? I grew up on this album, and was SO obsessed with the girl on the cover (or, was it her outfit?)! This is some of THE finest Christmas cheese, and the periodic sexy back-up singers are priceless.

The Bells of Dublin: The Chieftains (’91)
I’m honestly not sure how many or few have this album, but I’ve never heard it get any play on the radio, nor heard a friend reference it. So, I’m going to assume it’s not as well known as it should be. Do some vicarious travel to Ireland, thanks to this cd.

So, pour a glass of egg nog, nestle under your most comfy blanket (with a loved one, pet or just yourself), and enjoy some less “played” tunage!

GP Final: A Look Back

Kudos to Team USA on an historic first GP Final gold medal in Ice Dance for Davis & White, an historic three men competing, with TWO landing on the podium (Evan Lysacek, gold; and Johnny Weir, bronze), and Ashley Wagner holding on to the pewter with a strong LP.

Pairs

I’m very amused that Kavaguti (partner of Smirnov) apparently returned to the surname Kawaguchi, at least while in Japan (“When in Rome, do as the Romans do”?). Perhaps she’s trying to avoid getting tarred and feathered in her homeland? Have you ever watched her in the kiss-’n-cry? She appears so vacant, and I can never tell if she’s going to burst into tears or laughter.

I really wish Szolkowy hadn’t touched down in the SP. This, and the fact that they (he and Savchenko) didn’t skate their best in the LP, robbed us of an apples-to-apples comparison to Shen & Zhao. Have you heard any scoop if Savchenko and coach Ingo Steuer are a couple? I’ve been getting that vibe in the kiss-’n-cry lately, but haven’t seen it qualified anywhere.

I wept watching Shen & Zhao’s LP. Their comeback is the most beautiful gift to this sport. They just have an ability to tug my heartstrings, and their “Adagio” LP really milks that. Perhaps their off-ice love imbues their skating with that extra something special.

It was nice to see Mukhortova & Trankov deliver two very strong, clean performances. Zhang & Zhang just seem to be languishing. Now is the time for them to RETURN to a program from a past season to salvage this more important Olympic season. And, something to keep the focus on their athleticism, and off their (mostly her) artistic and expressive deficiencies.

I predicted the correct teams on the podium, just in the wrong order. Not too bad, although very predictable.

Ice Dance

To my eye, Virtue & Moir should have come out on top both after the OD and FD, but this is the one discipline where the most subtle nuances between a performance or team often elude me, or feel highly subjective, because they are so comparable. Davis & White appeared more controlled in the OD, skating with less abandon, but that may just be the nature of an indian dance, versus a spanish flamenco number, which has inherent abandon. I understand that D&W may have skated with greater speed, but that is harder to perceive on tv, since the cameras trace the movement.

However, enormous accolades to D&W on their win! It’s especially interesting that they landed this distinction, not Belbin & Agosto. I do wish I cared more about D&W’s skating. I experience it on a more cerebral level, and it feels more technically strong than transcendent. But great work nonetheless!

I have a skater crush on Fabian Bourzat of France. Yum! His wavy hair and powerful legs get me.

Again, I predicted the correct teams on the podium, but, only the bronze medalists were in the right placement.

Mens

The men’s SPs made for a positively exhilarating competition! Now it’s REALLY heating up. This is the first moment where I felt that real Olympic vibe coming on. I believe Johnny’s SP is the best I’ve ever seen him skate. It was the most honest and revealing performance he’s ever given. In the past, his SPs may have been clean and even inspired, but they were more detached and inward (ie: “The Swan”). Daisuke Takahashi and Evan were perfection in the SP. Daisuke’s SP music is so rhythmically complex, and sophisticated, noone else could make it work like he does. Nobunari Oda didn’t have the luster of past competitions in either program, but skated cleanly enough, continuing to feature his miraculous jump landings…“like buttah”!

I was SO proud of Johnny for reaching his personal best in each scoring phase, as well as delivering the fourth highest total score of the season! I imagine this will be a great confidence booster for him. His legs did seem to be a bit tight in his jumps throughout (ala Butyrskaya). I hope he can soften his knees at Nationals, to offer up his signature smooth ride-out.

I LOVE Jeremy’s Abbott’s new ice-colored satin shirt. It has the glow and allure of a champion of the Winter Games, a great direction visually. He skated beautifully in the LP, after his initial quad fall. He has an ability draw me in to his lines, edges, and the ebb and flow of his footwork. When a skater like him or Kim Yu-Na use a mix of fast AND SLOW footwork, I find it much more effective.

Poor Daisuke. He could beat all of the men with two clean skates, but this LP wadn’t it, of course! It’s still not clear to me if this is training or more mind-related. We’ll see as the season progresses. We know he has it in him! Tomáš Verner is such a head case right now. I fear this could be a confidence killer. I hope he moves forward and learns from it. It would be hard to attend an event you didn’t initially qualify for.

Here, I only predicted correctly two of the medalists, and in the wrong order.

Ladies

I thought Ashley skated beautifully in her SP. She seemed to have good energy and was at least superficially clean. But, I understand there was a two-footed landing and edge deduction. However, her grace and facial expressiveness always make me care about her program and performance!

Miki Ando and Joannie Rochette were duller than dirt in their SPs. They’ve got to shape up.

It was heart-wrenching to see Joannie and Alena Leonova tank in the LP. This does not bode well for Joannie in Vancouver. Akiko Suzuki delivered the goods, and then some! I had hoped she would get the silver, and felt she was undermarked (or Miki was overmarked) in the LP. It is criminal that her PE, CH and IN component scores were nearly 1 point lower than Miki’s. Perhaps her transitions are simpler, but that should just influence TR (and SS at most).

Although Kim didn’t skate near her best, Miki’s LP fell completely flat for me, as it has all season. Yes, this does make the ladies’ field more interesting, for Kim to not win by slam dunk, but (whew!) close call.

Again, I only predicted two of the medalists, and in the wrong order.

Commentating Gripes

Since I tivo’d some of the competition on multiple channels I had the opportunity to see the men’s and ladies’ LPs commentated by Scott Hamilton on one channel, and Peter Carruthers on the other. The experience was night and day! Hamilton made the experience enjoyable and engaging, Carruthers, quite the opposite (annoying and disjointed). I really dislike his offering as a commentator, especially when covering the ladies. Give me ANYONE else, please!

I also found it amusing that when Evan was .10 behind Daisuke in the SP, the commentators called it a “virtual tie”, BUT when Kim was .56 behind Miki in the SP, they talk about it as if it was a near apocalypse. Puh-lease!!!

Next up: possible musings on Japanese, French and Russian Nationals at the end of December, and Canadian, US and Chinese Nats in January!

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