Artistry and Athleticism: The Best Storytelling of the 2015-2016 Figure Skating Season

11:48 AM Amanda Prahl 0 Comments

I'm guessing most of you didn't expect to see anything about sports on this blog, did you? Not on a blog about storytelling and artistry. Not on a blog written by someone who is about as far from sporty as you can get. But here's something you might or might not know: I'm a big fan of figure skating. Love it. Always loved watching it. Even trying to learn it- finally found myself an athletic activity that 1) I don't loathe on sight and 2) I'm not completely terrible at.

I've grown to love the feel of blades on ice

But one of the things that has always drawn me to this sport is how it lives in two worlds: that of performance and artistry, and that of strength and athleticism. When skaters perform elegant step sequences, acrobatic lifts, or dizzying spins, it takes an immense amount of training and physical control- but it also produces something entertaining, beautiful, and often very moving. At its very best, this is a sport where we can not only marvel at the feats of athletic prowess, but at the lovely stories being told out there on the ice. So if you're a complete novice, these videos will give you a taste of some of the best the sport has to offer and a jumping off point should you want to watch more; if you're a longtime fan, it's a highlights reel of a top-notch season (and feel free to let me know if I've left off a favorite program of yours!). In no particular order, then, here are some of the highlights of the just-ended 2015-2016 season.

*Note: The majority of the programs in this article are from the discipline of ice dance, for two reasons: it's the discipline I follow most closely, and it's the discipline that places the most emphasis on interpretation and storytelling (rather than point-grabbing jumps).

Maia Shibutani & Alex Shibutani (USA), Free Dance, Four Continents Championship

Sibling teams can be tricky in ice dance, which often includes pattern dances that traditionally involve a passionate or romantic connection between partners. The rapid rise of the Shibutanis this season, however, proves that it's emotion, not romance, that makes for a truly special performance. And this was never more in evidence than their gold-medal-winning free dance to Coldplay's "Fix You" at 4CC this winter. Their win here confirmed the deservedness of their National title and helped pave the way for an eventual silver at Worlds in Boston. The anguish, hope, and determination portrayed in this program might as well be the story of the Shibs' career path so far. And for newbies and fans alike, check out their worlds-best twizzle sequence starting around 3:20, right on the music, right in the heart.

Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue (USA), Short Dance, Four Continents Championship

In most countries, being ranked third domestically spells little success internationally. But in the deepest field of ice dance in the world, the bronze-medal-winning team is also one of the top six teams in the world. Figure skating blogger Sarah Rasher describes Hubbell and Donohue as having the most "intense emotional connection" in the sport, and this short dance showcases both their intensely emotional style and their newfound lyricism, setting them apart from a million ballroom waltzes (this season's compulsory pattern was the Ravensburger waltz). Set to k.d. lang's "Hallelujah," the choreography tells a story of tentative fear and longing and love, with a song that the team has described in interviews as something deeply personal to their partnership. 

Ashley Wagner (USA), Free Program, World Championships

Wagner's performance at Worlds in Boston was memorable for several reasons, not least of which was that her silver medal broke a decade-long medal drought for US ladies at Worlds. But in her second year skating her Moulin Rouge free skate, Wagner embodied her character more fully than any other lady in the competition. From her red hair to her glittering costume to her emotional expressiveness, Wagner embodied an arc familiar to any who love the film: Satine's soaring hopes, her crashing, bitter realization, and her determination that "the show must go on" even if her own hopes are dashed. Nicole Kidman would be proud.

Elena Ilinykh/Ruslan Zhiganshin (Russia), Free Dance, Rostelcom Cup

One of the most overlooked and ambitious programs of the season came from 2015's Russian national champions and fan favorites. In their second season together, the duo created a program set to the music from Frida and telling the tumultuous love story of artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Their creativity is on full display in this program (see their challenging combination lift starting around 0:55), displaying a less traditional mode of storytelling. Ilinykh is one of the most expressive ice dancers in the world today, and this program makes full use of her capabilities (and Zhiganshin's strong partnering skills) to produce something sophisticated and memorable.

Ekaterina Bobrova/Dmitri Soloviev (Russia), Free Dance, European Championships

I know what you're thinking. Russians skating to Anna Karenina. Obvious, and probably boring. Well, you'd be wrong. This team has had its fair share of disappointments, from injuries to poor performances when it's mattered the most. But in this free dance, Bobrova and Soloviev showcase their athleticism (check out that perfectly balanced lift at 1:35!) and their ability, built on talent and the trust of a sixteen-year partnership, to tell this complex story of love and loss. No one else could have so perfectly preserved the character of the quintessential Russian romantic tragedy.

Javier Fernandez (Spain), Free Program, World Championships

In recent seasons, men's skating has often been decried as turning into nothing more than a quad-jumping contest, with the insanely high point values for the seemingly-impossible quadruple jumps making those jumps the elements most focused on. This season's bronze medalist, Jin Boyang of China, is proof that such a strategy (jumps first priority, artistry tenth) can work. But in Fernandez, the surprise repeat World Champion, we can see the best of both worlds: solid quad jumps and an unmatched ability to embody an character- in this case, doing his best Sinatra circa Guys and Dolls- and charm an audience to its feet. 

If all this hasn't made you sick of figure skating yet, I would also highly recommend the Worlds-winning free dance from French ice dancers Gabriella Papadakis & Guillaume Cizeron; fan-favorite Mirai Nagasu's (USA) Great Gatsby free program; British ice dancers Penny Coomes & Nicholas Buckland's bright, light short dance; Russian wunderkind and newly-crowned world champion Evgenia Medvedeva's short and free programs; and the free skate from up-and-coming Canadian pairs team Julianne Seguin & Charlie Bilodeau. Enjoy!