Report from the 2019 NHK Trophy
December 5, 2019
By Atsuko Kuryu
Photos © Keiko Kasai
The NHK Trophy was held at the Makomanai Ice Arena in Hokkaidou, Japan, November 22 - 24. The way several foreign skaters talked, Japanese fans were enthusiastic and generous, which is nice to hear, and many skaters look forward to upcoming Japanese events. Although each fan has his/her own favorite, they cheered and applauded other skaters too. Various national flags, especially for the international skaters, had been prepared and were displayed before and after their performances. And the enthusiasm peaked when their favorite skater appeared. The press seats were on the ceiling pier and we had a complete view of the arena. It was funny and interesting that the venue somehow turned yellowish as Yuzuru's turn approached. Some people wore Winnie the Poo costumes, or at least Poo colored clothing, and many kept yellow flags to hold or stuffed Poos on their laps ready to throw onto the ice. The NHK Trophy is a kind of festival for fans, but at the same time, of course, a very important and serious competition for both skaters and fans.
Gabriella Papadakis / Guillaume Cizeron (France) dominated, renewing their Worlds score in Rhythm Dance and Free Dance. Their free was beautiful and inspiring, moving everyone watching, with each movement seeming to have a meaning. Until last season, they had incredible speed, but seemed to have slowed down a little to more fully show their beautiful movements and positions. The reason was disclosed at the interview in the mixed zone; their free skating was choreographed by dancer Samuel Chouinard. He and Marie-France Dubreuil talked back and forth and made this program while going on-ice and off-ice like ping pong balls. Looking at the scores from the free, most of the GEO plus points in the detailed sheet were filled with 4s and 5s, and in the second mark there were many 10.0s! Still they aim for more. Guillaume said he wants to improve their acting skills during the season. As for their rhythm dance, Fame; it was very different from their usual style, and Guillaume feared it might not be so popular in Japan. But he found just the opposite and was very happy because of the audience's excitement.
Alexandra Stepanova / Ivan Bukin (Russia) were nothing short of beautiful in their free dance to Primavera/ Cry Me a River. They had such great flow during their performance; I forgot to compare each element with the planned program content, which I normally do. But they moved from element to element too smoothly to recognize when they even started it! I did notice that their third element, a straight-line lift, was the best example of this smoothness. In the rhythm dance, they prepared a traditional kind of program to Moulin Rouge and painted a glamorous night world on the ice. The most impressive part of their program was their step sequence which was brilliant and very beautiful. They said they were satisfied because it was much better than they did at the first Grand Prix event (Skate America).
Charlene Guignard / Marco Fabbri (Italy) showed a decent performance with a fall on their rotational lift, but finished 3rd overall because of a fast and enjoyable short dance. Marco still looked grumpy at the press conference and said they had a lot of work to do because he was not happy with their performance.
From 4th to 7th it was very close. Their points ranged from 68.89 to 76.09 so the outcome was not predictable. Lilah Fear / Lewis Gibson (Great Britain) made the audience wild as expected; they are very popular in Japan because last year they climbed from 7th to 3rd overall and were 2nd in the free dance. This year they showed a really amazing free where they were 3rd. Unfortunately, they finished 4th this time, however, their up-dating and cool free dance was very exciting. Japanese fans will remember and keep cheering for them for a long time to come.
Christina Carreira / Anthony Ponomarenko (USA) seemed a little unpolished, although their Kiss Me Kate was truly fun. Their free dance to Farrucas was very passionate and proved that this young couple is very promising, even if the result was not so great at this competition. They finished 6th overall.
Chinese icedancers Shiyue Wang / Xinyu Liu's Chaplin Medley was lovely but not rewarded well, instead Black Swan was fondly accepted by the judges. I honestly prefer Chaplin because it was fun to watch.
I felt like the rhythm dance was not the big thing here, however, the free dance, especially the second group which I named team BLACK (all dancers wore black costumes with the exception of Charlene's white dress), was very exciting.
For me ice dance is the life and soul of figure skating, so I was very happy to have these gorgeous couples compete in Japan.
Wenjing Sui / Cong Han (China) conquered the pairs' field, even though other top pairs nailed near perfection and quality in their short programs. Wenjing, unusually, fell on her triple toe, but scored very high, 145.69, for their complete victory. The most exciting part was the last bit of their program to Rain/ In Your Black Eyes, where the music accelerates and the choreographic sequence leads into one lift followed by another. The ending pose was beautiful! In the short program, Blues Deluxe, where they renewed their season's best, they were not as powerful as they usually are, but very sophisticated. Cong said they were very happy with their performance, but there are still some bugs, so they want to work on elements like two combination spins or combination jumps. When asked why they choose Asian competitions, Cong answered there are two reasons: one being food. Asian food met their taste. The second reason is the fact that it's easier to stay in your own time zone.
Canadians Kirsten Moore-Towers / Michael Marinaro's short program Love on the Brain was very dramatic and had good flow through the program. Their only problem was the combination spin where they got level 1 plus V. Kirsten said she was fairly satisfied with their performance, but joked that because of the poor spin element, hellish spin training would await them back in Canada. Maybe it has to because even in the free skate they got “V” for the combination spin. Other than that spin, everything was flawless. The program suits them very well and the highlight was the group 5 reverse lift where Kirsten kept wonderful balance.
Anastasia Mishina / Aleksandr Galliamov of Russia, the Junior World champions, seemed to be very careful when they entered each element in the free, which slightly dimmed the excitement. In the short program there was an issue with a fall on the Salchow, but they still placed 3rd and, if they kept the rank, would get a spot in the Final. Maybe that's why they tried to be perfect in the elements in the free and yes, they did it! They were perfect technically and will compete in the Final for the first time.
The Sound of Silence free program by Alisa Efimova / Alexander Korovin of Russia was very touching. They seemed to move in silence but were very dynamic. I personally felt happy I'll be able to see this program again in the Final. They were also powerful in their short program to Carmina Burana.
But honestly, one of the happiest surprises for me was Japan's Riku Miura / Ryuichi Kihara. They teamed up just three months ago, but nevertheless delivered two unexpectedly good programs. They were very happy with the results; Ryuichi was wild with joy and Riku shed tears. Ryuichi said he was about to quit after the split with his long-time partner, but as soon as he started working with Riku, he found they had good chemistry. I actually don't think I had ever seen such a high throw twist from Ryuichi! They have been working with Bruno Marcotte and Meagan Duhamel, so we now have expectations for their future.
Landing three triple Axels cleanly, Alena Kostornaia (Russia) and Rika Kihira (Japan) came in first and second respectively. Alena was just amazing in both performances. At age 16, she has the potential to become one of the best skaters in figure skating history, which is also her desire. I could think of hundreds of words to praise her (well, not in English cause quite frankly my vocabulary is not that rich). Anyway, she has everything you need to be the queen.
Rika is one who also has everything. Their planned elements were on about the same level, but Alena excelled at the grade of execution and whole impression. Almost everything else was great, including transitions and interpretations. She set a new world record in the short program, but not in the free because of a step out of her second triple Axel. She said she felt a little annoyed since without that mistake, the World's highest score just might have been achieved, but that she was still satisfied with her two performances. Rika's short program was perfect except for the stumble in the landing of the triple loop. Her step sequence was very exotic and fun to watch. In the free skating, she reached her season's best, but could not feel completely satisfied because of an under-rotation. She admitted that it was a tough competition; and that she feared that even if she'd manage a completely flawless performance, she might not defeat Alena. So she wants to polish everything; spins, step sequence and make all other triple jumps more consistent and include a quad Salchow in the Final. She evaluated Alena very highly with her combination jumps and spins and lots of elements, and she wants to work hard to fight her evenly.
Alina Zagitova (Russia) had a disastrous short program, which surprised all the fans, but she returned with a phenomenal free. Without any triple Axels or quads she reached 151.15 points, just a few points behind the top two. We were impressed by her fighter spirit, and she was really beautiful and powerful, and she must be able to compete against young skaters with all her weapons: such as transitions, originality and ingenuity in entering and exiting elements, grace, technique accuracy, and more. She admitted that she was disappointed after the short program, but thanks to her coach, she could renew her mindset.
Japan's Yuhana Yokoi ‘s first year as a senior has been very rewarding so far. She was 6th in Moscow, then 4th here. In her short program to Ten Dark Woman, the music was kind of mysterious, but she moved very well to it. She placed 8th there, but Phantom of the Opera is her free program for the second year and her forte. She finished just behind the big three.
Mako Yamashita (Japan) seemed to have been struggling with jumps recently, but she delivered a near flawless and full of fun short program to Una Voce Poco Fa (from the Barber of Seville but sung in a non opera way) and the beautiful Tango Pol Una Cabesa for her free to rank 5th.
Karen Chen (USA) had a very good short program but ended up in 9th place after breaking down in the free skating. Eunsoo Lim (Korea) had a short pro-grand, but made several mistakes in the free and finished 10th, 7th overall. Since both of them are elegant and sophisticate skaters, I hope they will be back and present beautiful performances of their free programs in other competitions.
The men's field is now very interesting because there are so many exciting skaters. Especially the second group was hilarious with Yuzuru Hanyu, Japan, standing out in every way. His only mistake, if you can call it that, was coming down too deep while landing the quad toe in the combination. He seemed different from the opening: dynamic, enthusiastic, beautiful and classy. Yuzuru said this competition was very good for him because he finished it without any major injuries. He used the word “healthy” and “without injury” so many times while talking to reporters during this event, which was natural given the serious injury he sustained in practice at the 2017 NHK Trophy and also at the 2018 Cup of Russia. After the competition was over, he admitted that he had been nervous during practice; what if it happened again? He was really relieved afterwards. He would now like to aim for starting the next straight victory at the up-coming Grand Prix Final.
Kevin Aymoz (France) has quickly climbed up the international ladder of stardom since he finished 4th at the European Championships. His movements are full of originality and variety; his exciting step sequence really wowed us! And as for some of his characteristic positions and the movements in the field, we were just in awe over them. Kevin was partly off during his free program and was very despondent in the kiss and cry. But at the press conference he said that he was ok with his performance because he did his best in a tough competition.
Roman Sadovsky, Canada, performed a breath taking free with smooth skating and brilliant spins. He included three each of quads and triple Axels and displayed gorgeous spins and fantastic step sequences, all level 4s. In my opinion a skater of his dignity is hard to find. This was his first medal in the Grand Prix, and he said he felt like he was just new as a senior. He was very pleased with the results and added humbly that it hopefully wouldn't be the last time for him to sit next to Yuzuru at a press conference. His long term goal is definitely going to Worlds and the results from the NHK would boost his confidence.
Our respectful veteran, Sergei Voronov, Russia, (32 years old) was 4th with a perfect short program and a free skating with only a few mistakes. We hope he will continue as long as he can because he is an inspiration to others by competing as an eligible skater at his age.
Jason Brown, USA, finished 4th with a great performance to Shindler's list. Only he could present such program utilizing his flexibility, and his skating skills delight the audience no matter how high or low his ranking is.
Sota Yamamoto (Japan) ranked 6th overall. He landed most of his difficult jumps, but two popped jumps and some other mistakes kept him in 6th place. However, his step sequences were excellent and matched the music very well.
Koshiro Shimada (Japan) showed a pretty good short program to Stay. He took a fall and placed 6th, but the free skating had quite a few mistakes and made him 9th overall. Despite the mistakes, his long program to The artist was very enjoyable. When he was 14, he also skated to this music, back then choreographed by Kenji Miyake, and he was really adorable. Now he is much more artistic thanks to his coach, Stéphane Lambiel. Watching Koshiro's new Artist, I realized his great growth.
As some of the fiercest champions gathered here in Makomanai, the results were mostly predictable. Yuzuru Hanyu was amazing. So are Wenjing / Cong and Gabriella / Guillaume. When we traced their history, we understand a person isn't born king or queen. He/they have to grow to dominate their field with their skills, experience and confidence, developed by their own track record. Long time figure skating fans knew these skaters when they were young competitors. The early Weijin / Cong were lovely jumping beans. Yuzuru placed 13th in his first Junior Worlds and Gabriella / Guillaume's first appearance at Worlds they placed 13th as well. But they are very special; although they all very early won their first title in the senior field, they've still continued to grow after becoming champions, and kept growing while at the top.
In the ladies, there have been many very young Russian medalists lately, not just at Europeans, but also at Worlds. These girls are amazing and all of them have very high technique. I am concerned though about such young skaters who run up the stairs in a matter of seconds, but then go down struggling and in pain. So, young lady skaters: please don't be in such a hurry! You are all very charming and remarkable. I hope you will stay in international figure skating for a long time so we can enjoy your growing process for years to come.