Though we don’t normally write about sports at CalTV Entertainment, I have been a lifelong fan (thanks Mom!) of figure skating and think it entertaining enough to write about here. Of course, as anyone who knows me will attest, it is also the source of yet another bitchy rant of mine. Yes, I am complaining again. But frankly, I think I channel some inner reservoir of linguistic rage that brings joy to my friends and the lives of others (even if only to become a lightning rod for haters), so please to enjoy: What the fuck is going on at the World Championships?!
The first medals have been awarded at the 2012 World Figure Skating Championships in Nice, France and they have already stirred up controversy. Many sports commentators have often ridiculed figure skating as not being a real sport because a team of judges awards the medals and the judging has long illustrated that it is influenced by widespread corruption and bias that runs rampant (and if we’re being honest, a heavy antipathy to U.S. ice-dance teams). The strange results in the ice dance part of the 2012 World Figure Skating Championships certainly won’t convince anyone that the new judging system has erased predetermined results. With no one from the U.S. (despite having the strongest overall ice dance team in the world) on either the judges panel or the tech panel (both of which had Canadian and European judges) for the ice dance competition, we saw many teams, including those at the top of the standings, achieve season best scores. Except for the American teams. (Davis and White, the top American team, scored 5 points less than their season’s best for each of their cleanly skated and exceptionally performed programs, to come in second).
Though this may sound like nationalistic griping, I must add, it is rare that my favorite skaters are American (in fact I’m usually over the moon about European skaters). And no one disputes that the Canadian and U.S. ice dancers are evenly matched on a technical level (except for some biased superfans who never seem to really see what goes on).
The rivalry between Meryl Davis and Charlie White of the U.S., and their training partners Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, was kicked up another notch by the ice dance judges’ awarding the gold medal to a subpar performance by the Canadians (with a five point margin no less), over a near flawless performance by Davis and White that had the audience delivering a particularly prolonged standing ovation. Adding insult to injury, the judges also awarded a bronze medal to an error-laden free dance by the home team of Pechalat and Borzat (over the 4th place team that performed WAY better), just to confirm that the scores the judges came up with didn’t match the performances we saw.
By their own admission, Virtue and Moir’s performance was filled with “bobbles and stumbles” which at one point Moir admitted to playing off as part of his character to cover up, including a particularly bad one that somehow evaded the judges’ notice. While no performance is perfect (no matter how much a great performance appears to be) and artists are always their own worst critics, from watching their gold-medal winning program here, it would be hard to disagree with Virtue/Moir’s self-assessment that their skating “didn’t come naturally.” You could feel nervous tension and their desperation to win throughout the performance in a bad, palpable way. It makes sense that they would have earned a season-best if compared to their falls earlier in the season, but it even outstripped their scores a month ago at the 4 Continents Championships where they skated cleanly. The writing was effectively scrawled across the wall that no matter what the U.S. teams did, Virtue and Moir would have to fall a couple of times this year for them to lose the gold at Worlds. Last year, when Davis and White became the first U.S. ice dance pair to be crowned World Champions, they had to skate flawlessly combined with mistakes from Virtue and Moir in order to take the title. Few in skating will say it openly, but there has always been a bias against U.S. teams in the ice dance and pairs, disciplines traditionally dominated by European countries. (For much of that time, they didn’t always compare with their European competitors, but that has not been the case for many years). And of the two North American nations that compete regularly in these fields, the judges have only ever truly embraced Canada. The new judging system was supposed to eliminate these biases by awarding specific values to every single move, but it does not eliminate bias in the judging of these moves (the fluctuation in the grade of execution scores and difficulty levels was highly suspicious at this competition). It also randomly picks some of the scores from the whole panel and doesn’t identify the judges or the tech judges with their scores, so if a bias is operating no one will know who is responsible (or if the entire panel is biased). Again, with no U.S. judge here on these panels for ice dance, where the U.S. had the best chance of taking medals (despite the long-standing precedent to have judges from the best-performing countries because they set the technical bar for everyone to measure up to), it raises more troubling questions. No one likes “conspiracy theories” but skating has shown itself to frequently fall victim to such conspiracies (like the one that kick-started the switch from the old 6.0 system to the new “Code of Points” system).
I have always had a problem with Virtue and Moir on artistic grounds (aside from the fact that this judging bias gives them a huge buffer to guard their placement on the podium against the errors they make, which several teams usually do not enjoy). When they aren’t taking the easy way out by eschewing the problems of creating narrative or characterization with their programs (instead choosing to vaguely embody a mood provided by the music with predictably timed choreography, like their programs to Pink Floyd, Mahler, tangos and their Latin-themed programs), they always seem to miss the specific qualities of the music when they do try to tell a story. I just don’t believe them emotionally on the ice. There is always a disconnect between the story of the music and the story on the ice, which lacks authenticity or a sincerity of expression (their awful overacting never helps either). I always felt that their Umbrellas of Cherbourg program, the one that garnered them instant international acclaim and numerous medals, was deeply flawed in conception. It missed the dramatic themes of the music, while obliterating the niceties of its structure: pairing absurd smiles, jaunty footwork sequences and upper body movement, as well as increased speed, with the dramatic melodies and famous main theme that specifically relate the despair of the painful and irreparable splitting apart by war of the characters of the story (while not using ANY of the livelier sequences of Michel Legrand’s score). Music that tells the painful tale of being separated and the impossibility of coming together again was never an ideal choice for a story-based program, which highlights the very problem I have always had with them- they exploit music for the familiarity of it’s character/s and abandon the more difficult work of truly combining their moves with the music to tell a story.
Something about their programs this year have the same problem. They seemed like sad pretenders to Latin dance in their short program (using music from their failed free dance last season); their lazy reliance on floppy hip wiggles reeked of roquefort rather than “Mujer latina” (one of the musical selections they chose). They had the elements, but their choreography and performance completely lacked any genuine sense of character. In the Free Dance, they mangle the delightful story of Stanley Donen’s Funny Face, somehow missing the frivolity and the seriousness of Audrey Hepburn’s snobby bookworm turned model under the influence of Fred Astaire’s Avedon-esque fashion photographer. Their program often made me wonder if they’d ever even seen the film or if they had any idea what it was about if they had. Needless to say Tessa Virtue, despite her remarkable beauty (her eye makeup, and Meryl Davis’, deserves a gold medal by itself), is no Audrey Hepburn, and her performance on the ice never succeeds in calling to mind either Hepburn or her character in Funny Face. Likewise, Scott Moir is light years away from holding a candle to the magic of Fred Astaire, and similarly fails to conjure anything approximating his spirit in this free dance. Their choreography seems to waste the sweeping romantic swells of the Funny Face score on footwork or the belabored fishing for points that often clogs skating choreography nowadays (combined with the kind of excessive arm and upper body gesticulations that pops up to pepper the paltry material of a bad night at the Improv). It almost seems like they hear a different piece of music than the one playing when they skate. They never capture the true flourishes of this music with their movement, often fighting rather than flowing with it.
So why do the judges prefer them to Davis and White? Nobody seems willing to answer that question forthrightly, but it seems the eastern bloc judging we thought the new system had corrected is still capable of enabling judges to cherry pick the teams they want on the podium in the exact places they want them. Go ahead and hate me for saying it, but I don’t care. I don’t expect U.S. teams to take all the medals in every discipline, I expect only the best to take the medals, wherever they come from. It still pains me to think that Switzerland’s Stephane Lambiel (my favorite male skater of all time, tied with Canada’s Toller Cranston) took backseat for much of his career, in the judges’ purview, while the wildly overrated and not nearly as difficult programs of Evgeni Plushenko sucked up all the gold medals. Or that Tara Lipinski is a freaking Olympic and World Gold Medalist for her awkward, gangly and artless jumping showcases posing as performances while the likes of true artists languished in her tiny shadow. If figure skating wants to be taken seriously, they need to stop playing footsie with each other, and honestly judge the footwork on the ice.
Fierce and Love,
Tyra. d’ah, I mean Samir.