Ice Network

Davis, White seek speedy angst for 'Scheherazade'

Shibutanis take ownership of material; Hubbell, Donohue buck trend
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Meryl Davis and Charlie White will unveil a new closing lift in their 'Scheherazade' free dance Saturday at Skate America. -Jay Adeff

When Meryl Davis and Charlie White unveiled their Scheherazade free dance at the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic in Salt Lake City last month, they liked what they did. Their coach, Marina Zoueva, was happy. The judges were impressed.

They also had a few suggestions. One might come as a surprise.

"The judges' biggest comment was they needed more speed," Zoueva said with a shrug.

More speed? From a couple generally acknowledged as the Andrettis of ice dance?

"Of course they have speed, but they are world champions, and the judges want to see even more," Zoueva patiently explained. "Is a good thing, this comment. More speed gives them a chance for better edges and also helps the transition and skating skills [marks], and the level of footwork."

The coach talked with reporters in Joe Louis Arena's mixed zone Thursday, after overseeing what she called a "seriously good" practice from her top U.S. team. She has a few ideas of her own on how to build on Scheherazade's successful debut.

Tops on Zoueva's list: Dial up the program's drama, especially at its climax, when after 1,001 nights White finally decides he loves Davis enough not to have her head cut off.

"The king has fallen into Scheherazade's net," Zoueva said. "She is telling story after story, and she won his heart. But he is afraid to be dependent; he wants to escape."

To help make that point, the team is unveiling a different final lift Saturday. As a "choreo" lift, it doesn't get assigned a level, but Zoueva still wants it to earn maximum grades-of-execution (GOE) points.

"This lift is technically difficult to perform; we began working on it months ago," Zoueva said. "They could not perform it in Salt Lake City because they were physically not ready. The introduction, position and ending are difficult. She can't sit on his shoulder; it has to be a transition."

"The lift certainly isn't new to us, but it will be new to audiences," Davis said.

And with fewer than 150 nights to go until they hope to go for gold in Sochi, the tweaking to perfection goes on.

Making the whole world dance

Zoueva's other U.S. team here, U.S. bronze medalists Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani, will unveil their free dance to Michael Jackson hits, including "Ben" and "Thriller."

"I tell them, 'Michael Jackson was cool, so don't do it all seriously. Have some fun with it,'" Zoueva said. "[Jackson] improvised his performances. He wanted the whole world to dance."

The "Shib Sibs" won world bronze in 2011, and Zoueva said they have grown both technically and as performers since then. She thinks their routine this season will be startin' somethin'.

"If they can make the audiences get up and dance, it will be probably be one of the best free dances this year," she said.   

Although more modest, the skaters are clearly happy with the program's progress thus far.

"We trust Marina," Alex said. "We know we have something good.

"And yes, we're having fun, but we're also working hard to take ownership of our material."

Through their agent, they made contact with 1966 Quartet, a Japanese string ensemble, to specially record "Ben" for the program's lyrical section. Mike McKnight, who worked with Jackson, is their music technician. They went to Los Angeles on their own to work with choreographers Travis Payne and Stacy Walker.

"We initially figured out what movements translated to the ice, so we've been a bigger part of our choreography this year," Alex said. "We want to be as authentic as possible."

While Zoueva oversees the finished product, she welcomes input on how her skaters can gain authentic King of Pop moves.

"I am not a specialist in Michael Jackson dance, so they invited in specialists who made [Jackson's] choreography and performed it in shows," Zoueva said. "They have worked on each connecting step, making it the Michael Jackson style. The lyrical part is more me."

Alex said they will continue to work with Payne and Walker throughout this season and likely in the future.

"Everyone has a relationship with [Jackson], whether it's sitting in front of television watching 'Thriller' and figuring out the dance moves or just listening to the music," he said. "Everyone has that emotional connection, so we want to tap into that as much as possible."

World spot in reach for Hubbell, Donohue

Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue come to Skate America fresh off a win at the Nebelhorn Trophy last month, where they unveiled their romantic and subtly dramatic free dance (set to Lucia Micarelli's "Nocturne" and "Bohemian Rhapsody") to good reviews.

After a month of endless run-throughs and off-ice training, the skaters -- who are also an off-ice couple -- are back in fighting shape and recovered from time lost this summer, when Hubbell's concussion took her off the ice for six weeks.

"The win was a confidence booster for us," Hubbell said. "[Nebelhorn] was a great competition with our Detroit training mates (Alexandra Paul and Mitchell Islam of Canada). To prove we had it in us to skate clean, and skate well, feels great coming into Skate America."

The team and its coaches, including Pasquale Camerlengo and Anjelika Krylova of the Detroit Skating Club, didn't make any major changes to their programs. Their biggest goal here is to up the levels on their step sequences.

"Our short dance [at Nebelhorn] was a little shaky; we had a problem with the twizzle," Hubbell said. "Overall, though, we had fairly good levels for the beginning of the season. Footwork is a huge part of your score; you can get a lot of points if you do well. Zach and I are capable of doing Level 4, and that's what we need to work on."

Hubbell and Donohue also won Nebelhorn in 2011, just months after teaming up. They took bronze at the 2012 U.S. Figure Skating Championships and placed 10th at the ensuing world championships. Last season, they dropped to fourth in the U.S. and were off the world team.

"Probably after nationals and how it turned out, we seem like the underdogs, but I don't feel like the underdog," Hubbell said. "I feel it is very possible for us to attain our goal of making the Olympic team. I feel confident with our material. It's not where it needs to be at nationals yet, but that's the process. I really believe we can have something special."

To regain a U.S. world spot, the tall skaters -- Hubbell is 5-foot-8, while Donohue stands well over 6-foot -- said they must capitalize on their sultry, romantic connection and buck a trend for lifts that sometimes favor petite women.

"To compete with more acrobatic lifts, we have to be smarter," Donohue said. "We're limited in what we can do lift-wise, to some degree. We need to make up for that with strength and being clean."

"What we have over some other teams is our chemistry and ability to create a performance that will draw in the audience," Hubbell said. "We've got just as good a shot as anyone else. I think we bring a lot to the table that's been missing from the sport."