Off the Podium

We are now in the home stretch of the 2018-19 season and skaters are preparing for the biggest competition of the year: the World Figure Skating Championships. Given the ferocity of competition and paucity of spots, many a spectacular skater will be at their home rink while their national teammates compete to gain or retain World berths for next season. This also means that some of this season’s best programs won’t get their final hurrah at Worlds. But I think it’s too soon to say goodbye to these programs, so consider this a viewer’s guide to what we’re missing at Worlds.

Wakaba Higuchi (JPN)

“Energia” by Sofi Tucker
Choreography: Shae-Lynn Bourne

Upbeat programs are deceptively difficult to perform: you want high energy, but not so high that the adrenaline disrupts your jump timing. If your timing is off you can’t lose the performance quality, otherwise you look like a clown telling jokes at a funeral. And finally, you don’t want the program to look too showy or insubstantial, lest the judges tip the GOE in favour of safer classical pieces.

Trust Shae-Lynn Bourne to find Portuguese jungle pop and transform it into the kickiest short program of the season for Wakaba Higuchi. Figure skating skews young, so it’s rare to see a program that fits the age of the skater (in Higuchi’s case, 18) without coming across as juvenile. This SP is sophisticated fun, and it strikes the perfect balance of performance and pizzaz. It’s a brilliant reminder of how skating can be solidly entertaining and technically spectacular at the same time.

Karina Johnson & Joe Manta (USA)

“Sweet Dreams” by Eurythmics (cover)
Choreography: Christopher Dean

If I had a nickel for every hackneyed boy-meets-girl/tragic love story/lovers quarrel program skated in ice dance (or pairs, for that matter) Julian Zhi Jie Yee would never have to train in a shopping mall again. “Sequins + Heteronormative Clichés 4Ever” might as well be the unofficial slogan of ice dance. So when a team comes along and kicks that thematic crutch out from the discipline we all reap the rewards of seeing figure skating for what it could be.

The moment Karina Manta and Joe Johnson drop into the opening pose of their free dance you know you’re about to see something special. “A cover of Sweet Dreams” could easily drift into kitsch, but Manta and Johnson backed up their choice by calling on Christopher Dean, the King of 80s Ice Dance, to choreograph the program. The result of that pairing is a slinky synth-drenched free dance that stands out in a sea of lyrical music. Rather than cram in the maximum number of transitions and positions, Manta and Johnson’s elements are languid and cool. It takes confidence to stare the judges down while vamping across center ice, but Manta and Johnson sell the hell out of that tension. This is a free dance that allows Manta and Johnson to be the best club-kid versions of themselves.

Daisuke Takahashi (JPN)

“The Sheltering Sky” by Ryuichi Sakamoto
Choreography: David Wilson

The best moments in a program seem to happen by accident, a happy natural extension of the personality of the performer. When Daisuke Takahashi unfurls his hands at the close of his short program to “The Sheltering Sky,” you know you’re in the palms of a master. Most skaters would let their arms fall with exhaustion at the end of their first appearance at nationals in four years. Takahashi elevates that gesture into art.

I’ve already written about the return of Daisuke Takahashi, but I will say it again: the programs he chose for his return to competition are stunning. Four years on from his last competitive outing Takahashi’s skating is just as deft as it was at the height of his competitive prowess, and his short program is one of the best men’s programs I’ve seen in the last four years.

The gap in Takahashi’s competition history may explain the romantic quality of this program: it is beautifully out of step from the rest of the field in its approach to composition and execution. It is deceptively simple by contemporary IJS standards, but every element is placed exactly where it should be within the music and the arc of the program. Nothing is rushed, no movement unaccounted for, and not a moment goes by where you think, “Could have done without that stray arm wave.” By the time Takahashi reaches the footwork sequence that crowns the program he’s wrapped you up in a dream.

Do you have a favourite program you wish you could see at Worlds? Let me know in the comments!

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