Dec 14, 2011
The Good Fight
Some of the most indelible skaters and moments in figure skating history have been formed under the heat and pressure of larger-than-life rivalries. Alexei Yagudin vs. Evgeni Plushenko. Brian Boitano vs. Brian Orser. Mao Asada vs. Yu-Na Kim. Michelle Kwan vs. Tara Lipinski. Virtue/Moir vs. Davis/White. At their worst, rivalries in sport can degenerate to petty name-calling and one (or both) of the competitors cracking under the immense pressure. At their best, however, rivalries can propel the competitors to push themselves to greater heights, inject some excitement into the sport and provide an interesting (and marketable) narrative for both fans and casual viewers to chew upon.
Thankfully, it appears that the latter scenario may be materializing in the pairs discipline right now. This is fortuitous as the pairs discipline has sometimes seemed like the bête noire of the four skating disciplines over the past few years. For better or for worse, ice dance has had Team Canton generating a fair bit of excitement and interest for the discipline, while the ladies' and the men's disciplines have traditionally accrued more attention than pairs among fans of the sport. Throw the fact that more than quite a few pairs teams have been visibly struggling to adjust to certain features of the CoP pairs requirements (e.g. contortionism as a level feature, etc), it's not entirely surprising that the pairs discipline has been overlooked by many. However, the rise of the new rivalry of Aliona Savchenko/Robin Szolkowy and Tatiana Volosozhar/Maxim Trankov looks like a godsend in terms of generating some excitement in pairs. Last season's Worlds in Moscow was only the beginning--the very close results and very fine skating at the recent Grand Prix Final have firmly cemented the makings of a rivalry that can only get more intense in the next couple of years until the Sochi Olympics.
With three world titles, an Olympic bronze and many more years together, Savchenko/Szolkowy's experience gives them a noticeable edge over Volosozhar/Trankov in some aspects. Savchenko/Szolkowy gel together more as a pairs team (something that is rather more noticeable when they are doing elements like footwork and spins...though not their side-by-side ones) and they have by now carved out a unique identity distinct from the Russian and Chinese domination of the pairs discipline. Although their style, costumes and Ms. Savchenko's makeup can be polarizing, Savchenko/Szolkowy's repertoire of programs over the years have shown impressive and unusual range, demonstrating their creativity and willingness to stretch themselves artistically as they have portrayed everything from aliens at a disco (Lost in Space) to clowns (Send in the Clowns) to Inspector Closeau and the Pink Panther (Pink Panther), as well as styles such as their more classical and sweeping Out of Africa and this year's modern dance piece Pina. It is perhaps unfair to compare Savchenko/Szolkowy's far-larger repertoire to Volosozhar/Trankov, who have only skated to literally four programs together, but it is worth noting that three of the four programs Volosozhar/Trankov have skated to so far are classic warhorse material: Carmina Burana, Romeo and Juliet, and Black Swan, i.e. Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake.
Savchenko/Szolkowy's long program this season is an excellent example of the emphasis they place on choreographic complexity, innovation and ambition. Although their Angels and Demons short program is quite different from their past programs due to the unusualness of the music selections used (all that chanting would not be out of place at an elaborate cultish sex ritual) and its complexity is undeniable (e.g. that step sequence), the light/dark duality Sachenko/Szolkowy are going for is not particularly unique and the choreography is not particularly memorable, especially by their own very high standards. The Pina long program, however, has the makings of a modern masterpiece. Pina is ambitious, innovative, and buzzing with ambition and artistic intent. Under the constraints of CoP when the free/long program isn't quite so 'free', it's so difficult to fit in innovative choreography between all the elements and create something new on the ice, but Savchenko/Szolkowy somehow manage to accomplish just that with Pina. Indeed, the combination of Pina's unusual style, complexity of overall structure and incorporation of unique modern dance movements without sacrificing athleticism makes the program novel and interesting as opposed to merely beautiful.
In contrast, Volosozhar/Trankov have the clear disadvantage when it comes to program quality. Compared to Savchenko/Szolkowy's programs this season, both of Volosozhar/Trankov's programs look pedestrian and quite simple. Nikolai Morozov has not provided this team with choreography that comes anywhere near what Ingo Steuer has done for Savchenko/Szolkowy. The main attractions--outside the elements themselves--in Bring Me to Life and Black Swan are Maxim Trankov wearing tight pleather pants and flapping his arms around like a giant hulking bird respectively. Take out the elements, and the choreography of Bring Me to Life and Black Swan mostly relies on upper-body movement and quite a bit of posing around. In Black Swan, for instance, there is that part in the program that very obviously screams "RESTING POINT HERE!" with around twenty seconds of at least one of the two standing around and posing in a way that neither reflects the music particularly well nor uses their bodies in a special or creative way (see around 3:00 of the above video). There are some interesting moments here and there in Black Swan, but its conceptualization and arc seems rather inchoate as a whole and thus typical of the vast majority of Black Swan programs this season. Not bad when looking at many of the other pairs programs, but it pales in comparison to the brilliance of Pina.
Yet there is a sense of excitement in Volosozhar/Trankov's skating that shines through their mediocre programs. Their powerful variation on the classical Russian pairs style and the undeniable attack and command they display in their skating understandably has had the judges lunging for the upper range in PCS marks as well as Canadian audiences booing the judges in their favor. Part of it is because of their impressive technical elements--Volosozhar/Trankov's triple twist reaches near-empyrean heights, their lifts are fast and cover a lot of ice, and their throw jumps are massive--but it's also the champions' aura they project as they skate with the speed, presence and confidence of a team with much more than two years of experience skating together. At their best, there's a real sense of Sturm und Drang, a raw sort of drama Volosozhar/Trankov--particularly Mr. Trankov--exude that contrasts them with Savchenko/Szolkowy, who often go for a more cerebral style. It's clear that Volosozhar/Trankov are the dream team that the Russians need to atone for those ignominious lost years of Russian pairs skating after the retirement of Totmianina/Marinin.
Disappointingly, however, the judges have not appeared to notice the considerable difference the two pairs have in their transitions and choreography. Although the judges scored Savchenko/Szolkowy higher at the recent Grand Prix Final, the marks for these two particular PCS components--separated only by about a tenth of a point overall--are arguably too close between the teams...which, again, demonstrates the judges' apparent inability to separate the components of PCS properly as they appear to be swayed by Volosozhar/Trankov's strong skating skills. This is worrying not only because Savchenko/Szolkowy deserve to be rewarded by the risk, effort and thought they put into their programs, but also because this may mean that Volosozhar/Trankov will continue to have their potential limited by Mr. Morozov's less-than-inspired choreography. There is, after all, no point in improving by seeking greener choreographic pastures if the marks are so high already. Alternatively, it may also cause Savchenko/Szolkowy to water down their choreography in order improve on the execution of the individual elements and their consistency...either way, a lose-lose situation.
In terms of technical elements, it appears that Volosozhar/Trankov have more room to improve despite their already-high technical scores. Savchenko/Szolkowy's throw 3F and their incredible last-element throw 3S are of a higher level of difficulty than Volosozhar/Trankov's current throw 3Lo and 3S. Unsurprisingly, Volosozhar/Trankov are reportedly working on a throw 3F, which is more likely to successfully materialize than Savchenko/Szolkowy's throw 3A. Similarly, Savchenko/Szolkowy's side-by-side jumping passes also gain more points than Volosozhar/Trankov's, especially because Volosozhar/Trankov's jumping passes are both before their program's halfway point in the long program, which is something that can be tweaked next season if necessary. Both teams could stand to upgrade their current level 1 triple twists as well, a change that could (slightly) benefit Volosozhar/Trankov more as they tend to get higher GOEs than Savchenko/Szolkowy on their twists. Expect both teams to struggle with consistency over the next couple of seasons as they work to out-do each other in the TES arms race.
It is very difficult to predict the final outcome of this rivalry down the road to the Sochi Olympics. Savchenko/Szolkowy's inconsistency and past struggles with cracking under pressure (i.e. most of the 2009-2010 Olympic season) has caused some to predict the ultimate victory in favor of Volosozhar/Trankov in Sochi, particularly because Sochi is home territory for Volosozhar/Trankov and it's expected that the Russians will go all-out in ensuring a happy outcome in Sochi to atone for the indignity of being left off the pairs podium in Vancouver. However, Volosozhar/Trankov are an extremely new team and as such, it's difficult to say exactly how they will respond to the increasing burdens of expectation and ramped-up technical content. What is certain, however, is that if both teams continue to skate like they did at Moscow Worlds and the recent GPF when they meet head-to-head, pairs may become one of the most exciting, nail-biting and drama-laden disciplines this Olympic cycle. There's only room for one pair at the top, and Maxim Trankov's bitchface and Aliona Savchenko's fierce ways guarantee a good fight for it.