2009 Easterns

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General Notes

This year's Easterns were hosted by the Skating Club of Boston. This was very convenient for me since I live here, but I have to admit I thought they were nuts to be holding an event this big at the club rink because of how cramped it is there. They ended up putting a tent in the parking lot and putting the food, registration desk, vendors, etc out there, which was a big help in relieving congestion inside the rink. I also think, though, that attendance at the event was down quite a bit from past years; I recall some past Easterns at rinks with at least twice as much seating where they still managed to fill things up on the final day. I probably wouldn't have bothered to attend myself if I'd had to travel, and some friends who've been regular attendees in past years had other plans for the weekend this time. I have my own theories on what's driving people away from the sport.... more on that later.

The event seemed generally well-run, but I do have one complaint. The restrooms at the rink are cramped and dingy enough normally, but this time the women's restroom was totally disgusting with the toilets leaking all over the floor. Can't they afford to get a plumber in before a big event like this?

Also noted, some hilariously bad mistakes in the program booklet -- aside from all the misspelled names, I was particularly chuckling at that over-used piano piece by Raul di Blasio being listed variously as "Octonel" and "Ofdnal". Huh? Somebody, hire a proofreader!

Anyway, on to the skating. Since the protocols have been published, I'm not going to do detailed notes on every skater's elements; just provide some general impressions and some goings-on that wouldn't be evident from the protocols.

Dance

Dance used to be one of my favorite disciplines in skating, but nowadays about the only time you see the couples actually dancing is the compulsory dances. So, yeah, I sat through the compulsory dances for all of novice, junior, and senior. I missed the ODs, though.

For the free dances, it seems that all the couples at all levels are too busy doing required elements to have any time or energy left in their programs to just dance. Twizzle one way, and then the other. Do painful slow step sequences all the way down the rink. Stop everything and do a spin in some series of contorted pretzel positions. It's apparent that nowadays the major skill required for boy ice dancers is being able to do a besti squat with your partner balanced on your knees in some more-or-less awkward position, as all the teams seemed to be doing two or three lifts of this sort. Likewise the girls need to practice yanking their foot over their head, just like the single skaters. The other thing I saw over and over again was this rotational lift where the boy slings the girl around with one arm, like a sack of potatoes. Um, yeah, that's real dancing, for sure.

I know there was a lot of interest in the competitive debut of the new team of Morgan Matthews and Leif Gislason at this event, so I'll rant a bit about them, too. Their Paso looked OK to me, but Gislason was wearing this outfit that made him look more like the bull with the banderillas stuck in him, than the matador. Eh, the bull charging around the rink with the cape is not quite the right image for this dance.... Also, I think Gislason is quite a good-looking guy, but I have to laugh at him having his hair gooped up to stand straight up, like he stuck his finger in the socket!

Their free dance was to some new age music with a screeching vocal. Matthews was wearing a purple unitard with a filmy tunic top that reminded me of the kinds of outfits Maya Usova used to wear. Gislason was probably going for the Zhulin look, but his shirt just seemed to have too much fabric, with a heavy-looking green cowl around the shoulders as well as big flappy ruffles on the back and sleeves. Anyway, as far as the skating goes, they had a big mistake midway through their straight-line step sequence when Gislason tripped and then Matthews went down; they lost about a third of the pattern as a result.

Novice Men

Christopher Fernandes was the obvious winner of the short program, as the only guy to skate a clean program. That turned out to be the determining factor in the overall standings, as nobody skated a particularly good free skate. Even aside from all the falls and botched jumps, though, I found it hard to see much entertainment value in the programs these guys were putting out there. It's not totally their fault, but since the rules reward it when they spend most of their program doing those labored thrashy step sequences and ugly spins, why bother with real choreography any more?

Not to mention, I miss the "old days" when what separated the men from the boys at this level were things like the ability to do a nice camel spin in a fully extended position. Now it's like a contest to see who can do the ugliest spin in the most contorted bent-over squatting position. Yeccchhh.

Novice Ladies

This event was generally better-skated than the novice men's competition. OTOH, it's somewhat distressing to me to see how few of the competitors are even attempting triple jumps.

Viviana Mathis was the winner of the short program. She skates with a lot of attack and has a triple loop and a big, secure double axel. But she stepped out of the loop in the free skate and doesn't appear to have another triple yet. I was surprised to see from the program that she's only 12, as she both looks and skates a little older than that.

The free skate winner was Yasmin Siraj. She's also only 12 but looks younger; she's so short that she probably wouldn't be able to see over the boards if she didn't have skates on. In contrast to some of the other girls who were playing it safe with only double jumps, she really laid down the technical content, with three triples and two double axels. Her coach Mark Mitchell was so excited that he jumped about three feet in the air himself when she landed her last jump -- I don't think I've *ever* seen him do that before, and everyone was laughing at his antics.

The skater who caught my eye in this event, though, was Holly Alexander, who didn't make it to Nationals after she failed to land anything harder than a double lutz in her free skate. Someone was commenting to me after the short program that she had an unfair advantage from being so long-legged, but the thing I noticed was not so much her limbs, but how her movements derived from a strong body core. It reminded me that in the "old days" one of the criteria for the presentation mark was "easy movement and sureness in time to the music". Nowadays it seems the scoring system rewards labored skating rather than easy movement and sureness, and there's so much emphasis on upper-body movement that nobody cares about whether it has anything to do with the music or not -- except, maybe, us poor spectators.

As another point in why figure skating is driving away spectators.... it is really, really tedious to see one girl after another going out there and doing exactly the same spiral sequence and exactly the same layback spin. They're doing it because the ISU has decreed that these things are the most difficult and therefore get the most points, but how difficult can they really be if every novice lady is capable of performing them? Not only do these elements drag out the programs while having nothing to do with music and not even being particularly attractive to look at, what does being able to yank your foot over your head have to do with actual skating skills, anyway? Sigh.

Junior Men

It was pretty much a foregone conclusion that Ross Miner would win this event unless he had a total meltdown -- which, to tell the truth, he's sometimes done in the past. But this time he held it together and won both programs by a solid margin. I was relieved to see that he's dropped the gimmick with pulling the bandanna over his face in the short program, although he's still doing the equally gimmicky fiddling with his tie and rolling up his sleeves in the free skate. I know I've seen him doing triple axels before but he played it safe here with only a double in the free skate.

Alexander Aiken turned in two decent performances to finish second. One thing that really bugged me about his skating, though, is that he doesn't really have a back sit spin -- he does this really ugly squatting thing, that's not even trying to be one of the twisty positions that counts as a "feature" under the new judging system. On the positive side, I enjoyed the unlikely Villa-Lobos music he used for his free skate.

Peter Max Dion skated OK to get the third spot. He landed a lot of jumps (a couple were a bit wonky), but he was comparatively slow and the program seemed like it had an obvious hole where the second step sequence used to be.

Beyond that, it was really a mixed bag. Michael Chau got the fourth spot for nationals by virtue of his short program placement; he's quite an elegant skater, but a waxel and two falls really sucked the energy out of his free skate. Alexander Zahradnicek landed lots of nice jumps in his free skate and is one of the better spinners of the group, but he'd botched all 3 jump elements in the short and couldn't make up the gap. Scott Dyer, the clear "artist" of the field, had two messy performances and I think was lucky to finish as high as he did (5th).

Junior Ladies

Like the junior men, in this event there was a lot of shuffling of places as skaters who'd bombed the short program skated good free skates, and vice versa. And, when the dust settled.... what the heck is going on with sending a skater without a triple jump to Nationals? Don't get me wrong, Gretchen Donlan is a very pretty skater, and she skated a very nice free skate.... but it was a very nice free skate for an intermediate or novice lady, not a second-year junior. On top of that, she'd even botched the double axel in the short program. The USFSA's stated goal is to win medals at international competitions; do they think this is the kind of skating that's going to do it? Far better, IMO, that they would have sent somebody like Haley Dunne to Nationals -- she had three triples (salchow and two toe loops) in her free skate, and I thought she was undermarked in the short program as well.

Among the others.... I didn't care for the techno music Kendall Wyckoff used for both her programs, but I loved the unitard she wore in the short. The salchow seems to be her only triple but her skating is very fast and powerful. Samantha Cesario has both salchow and toe, but they're a bit "spinny", and she was slower over the ice. Kristiene Gong has flip as well but obviously two-footed it in the free skate. There were three or four other girls trying lutz and/or flip as well, but making too many mistakes, in either the short or free skate or both.

Senior Pairs

I'm not much of a fan of pairs, but the senior pairs free skate was sandwiched in another session, and there were only three of them, so I figured I might as well watch..... Well, then the first team came out, and I was wondering if I'd made a mistake. It was Paetsch & Meekins, and about the most charitable thing I can say about them is that I hope they can forget this performance, too. I think it might be a good idea for newly-formed pair teams to spend a whole year just learning how to *skate* together before they try doing any pair elements, or competing.

Denney & Barrett were at least not frightening. Their "pitching the broad" pair tricks were very strong, but they still have a lot of work to do on the "two skating as one" part, and not just because of the things like the obvious unison problems on their side-by-side spins; there were partnering and timing issues as well. Denney also needs to work on stronger positions in the lifts.

I thought Katz & Lynch were the most pleasing and polished team to watch. I'm sure they're never going to get anywhere without harder jumps, but they seemed very secure on what they did do.

Senior Men

The men are always my favorite part of the competition, and at this event the audience seemed particularly jazzed for the free skate. I happened to be sitting in a section with many of the Boston-area skaters, and they were cheering like crazy for all the competitors, not just their friends, or the ones who were in contention for the medals. You realize that skating is a pretty small world and they all know, more or less, what each other is capable of doing -- the real goal is for everyone to skate up to their own ability, whatever that might be. And that was very evident in this event.

Backing up a bit to the short programs, Curran Oi skated a nice clean program from a technical point of view, but I can't say I care much for the glove gimmick, and I always get a "my choreographer told me to do this" vibe from watching him. I thought Tommy Steenberg had a better performance in spite of the crash on his triple axel -- very aggressive and intense. Shaun Rogers had hands down on his quad toe and only a double toe after it, plus a messy landing on his solo lutz; and I have to say that I found his music and choreography utterly cringe-worthy. My personal favorite of this group, Jason Wong, had a really bad skate, popping his axel and then crashing into the boards on his combination, plus he was really slow and tentative; he was lucky to be as high as 6th, I thought. So that's how things were set up heading into the free skate.

The first skater who really made me sit up and take notice in the free skate was Schuyler Eldridge. I've appreciated his creative choreography at previous competitions, and he did it again here, with a program set to some jazzy piano music in which he variously mimed dancing with an imaginary partner, being drunk (or perhaps hung over), and the like. Allen Schramm is listed as his choreographer. He also landed most of his jumps (although some of them were obviously not clean) so it had to have been a satisfying performance for him, as well as very entertaining to watch.

Next, Robbie Crowley came out and skated what had to be the performance of his life -- two triple lutzes, two loops, a flip, etc. Again, many of the jumps were not clean, and on an absolute scale there wasn't anything particularly artistic about the performance -- but in terms of what he's capable of and how he ordinarily skates, this was exceptional. He was obviously thrilled to death by the way he skated and broke down in tears on the ice at the end of his program. Awwww.

Shaun Rogers led off the final group and turned in a pretty good program to electric guitar music. He made a couple mistakes so it wasn't an unbeatable performance, but with a quad toe and two triple axels, it was obvious he was going to Nationals.

Colin Pennington skated to the "Cinema Paradiso" music that I remember Jon Cassar skating to, but alas, without Cassar's spectacular spread eagle. He also had a fall and a couple popped jumps. I dunno, Colin's been skating for quite a while now, but I never really see any improvement from year to year, so I wonder what his motivation is to continue at this point.

Michael Solonoski was next, and here's a skater who really *has* improved since I first saw him some years back as one of those "older" novice men that you doubt are ever going to be able to catch up to the younger ones. At 25 now, he's the oldest competitor in the field, and confounding all expectations, he's developed into a perfectly respectable senior man. So he started out with a clean triple axel -- good for him! There were other mistakes, but overall a decent skate that he should be quite pleased with.

Next up was Jason Wong, and here the crowd really went nuts for the local boy. The beginning of the program was not auspicious, with a single axel and double lutz, but then he hit the second triple axel and from there on his confidence just grew and grew as he knocked off one jump after another. There were things he could have done better, but taken as a whole the performance was really the highlight of the whole competition as far as I'm concerned. The program is set to "The Mission" and it has a quiet, contemplative feel to it, with footwork sequences that actually flow and go with the music. I believe Jason was off the ice entirely for a while after blowing out his knee a few years ago, and since then he's been focused more on college and coaching, so it's a real triumph for him to qualify for Nationals again. He was also really emotional coming off the ice, and every time I saw him for the rest of the evening he was just beaming. Very, very nice to see.

Tommy Steenberg had to follow that, and it was just not a good skate for him at all. After he splatted on the opening axel again, it seemed that he just gave up, with popped jumps and sloppy landings on the ones he did rotate -- according to my notes, the only clean triple he managed was a triple toe. Looking at the breakdown of the marks, it seems particularly nuts that his PCS marks for this trainwreck of a performance were virtually identical to the ones he got for his short program, where he seemed really "on" -- in particular, looking at the protocol, I see at least two judges who gave Tommy their highest mark of the competition for performance/execution. :-P About all I can figure is that the judges just do not want to send Michael Solonoski to Nationals no matter what. I know Tommy can do a lot better than this so I hope he takes advantage of his "gift" to redeem himself at Nationals.

Curran Oi was the last skater of the group. Not much to say about his performance; it wasn't perfect, but he got the job done. His program is set to "On The Waterfront", and I kept thinking of his coach Mark Mitchell's program to this same music back in 1991 and 1992. Curran is a pleasing technical skater but still needs to develop some sort of emotional or intellectual connection between what he's doing, the music, and the audience. I wonder, again, whether it's the new scoring system that's at fault; it's got to be hard to develop that connection when you've got to do that apparently random thrashing to rack up points. Sigh.

Senior Ladies

This is going to be quick. I'd been warned by others who'd seen her recently that Joelle Forte had turned into someone to look out for, and indeed, she demolished the competition here, with clean performances in both the short and free skate. In spite of that, her programs were rather unexciting; I kept wishing for more speed and power, and I had to laugh at the totally random selection of music she used for her long program (pieces of the Tchaikovsky 6th symphony, "Madame Butterfly", and the "Much Ado About Nothing" movie score). One of her coaches, BTW, is Elaine Zayak.

The other two skaters who stood out from the crowd were Brittney Rizo and Blake Rosenthal. They each blew a jump in the short program but came back and skated good free skates. Rizo is the more athletic and aggressive skater, while Rosenthal is more musical -- I particularly liked her dancey short program.

Beyond the top three, things got messy. Taylor Firth got the fourth spot to Nationals but there really wasn't a whole lot to choose from, there. Many people were surprised and dismayed by Melissa Bulanhagui's poor showing here, but she made a lot of jump mistakes and her programs were just not strong enough to hold her up.

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