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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.


  1. This is probably the best review I've read in this blog. Very much agree with all of what you said. I just found it disheartening that the audience, being allured by V&T's great SS, booed the loss to S&S. Although I think The Swan is not as empty as their SP and has a lot of good moments, it is no Pina and besides there were clearly way too many small technical mistakes in their LP (two footed throw, shaky combo at the beginning, the final position in the last spin etc). I really hope S&S wont give up their artistic quest to stay clean because artisitically they are the best thing to happen in pairs since the introduction of COP.

  2. Completely agree. Best analysis I have read in a long time on both pairs, free from any baggage if you will. I also think Pina is "something else" and deserves recognition for it. Ingo Steuer is committed to his quest to offer something unusual, modern and experimental every season and he will put particular effort into the Olympic season. I have been a fan of S and S for a very long time - I think artistically and technically they can go all the way to Sochi and win it.

  3. I LOVE Trankov!So fierce..
    Actually I begin to love pairs because of Savchenko&Trankov's personalities.They are VERY expressive

  4. No offense (this blog IS named aftere him after all) but it seems like one out of about 12 Morosov's routines are gems, and the rest, tacky dreck and/or tedious blatant point gatherers.

    Hope V/T come to their senses and RUN, but I'm not holding my breath.

  5. Ingo Steuer's work with Savchenko/Szolkowy has been brilliant, and they deserve a lot of credit for being up to the challenges he comes up with.

    I was very much in favor of V/T teaming up, and like many fans, I was expecting them to be fantastic together - but I also expected them to have better programs than they do. Of course it doesn't have to be something like Pina, but their programs so far are just meh and they need a choreography intervention (a costume intervention wouldn't go amiss, either). Trankov was complaining about the levels, well, S/S should be complaining about the PCS! No way should V/T's PCS be anywhere near S/S in the LP.

    But the GPF pairs event was fantastic, and the rivalry is shaping up to be a promising one for sure!

  6. Considering Maxim skated with a partly torn groin tendon and Tanya had a problem with her leg, they still managed to make only minor tech mistakes. I think when they'll be healthy they'll be able to surpass S/S technically.
    I don't think that their programs are awful (and I don't think SS sp is that great) but it's true that they need a new choreographer. Unfortunately all the good ones were grabbed by their rivals.
    Anyway, at the moment I prefer them over S/S. Unfortunately it seems that Aliona and Robin lost all their connection on the ice (they used to have lots of that). It's like Aliona drags Robin who doesn't want to be here anymore :( Meanwhile VolTran's chemistry is beautiful.