Ice Network

Shibutanis hopeful creative journey peaks at worlds

U.S. champs work tirelessly to wring every possible point out of programs
  • Ice Network on Facebook
  • Ice Network on Twitter
With their programs in the best shape they've been in all season, Maia Shibuatani and Alex Shibutani are ready to contend for the title at this week's world championships. -Getty Images

Usually when Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani visit Los Angeles, fans can catch glimpses of their doings via a vlog, or Instagram and Twitter posts. But their trip there late last month was mostly all business.

"We always try to share what we're up to with our fans," Alex said. "This trip was a little more, not covert, but focused. There wasn't much to share because we were focused on making a lot of improvements."

After winning silver behind Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir at the 2017 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in PyeongChang, South Korea, the U.S. ice dance champions enjoyed a few days in Seoul, conducting a skating clinic and meeting with young people in their new roles as sports envoys for the U.S. Department of State. Then it was on to Southern California to re-connect with some of the people that helped create their programs, including Emmy Award-winning Quest Crew dancers and musicians Hok Konishi and Ryanimay Conferido, and dancer/choreographer Serge Onik.

"This was the longest amount of time we've had this season to take a step back and look at our programs," Maia said. "It was really great to go back to the people that inspired us initially and zero in on how we can make our programs even stronger for worlds."

"They're familiar with our story and what we want to show on the ice, so every time we go to them or they come to us, there's always a very quick jump to what needs to get done," Alex said.

With just a few weeks to go before the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships in Helsinki, Finland, you might think the defending world silver medalists would focus on running their programs with their coaches -- but the trip to LA suited Marina Zoueva just fine.

"It was in the plan," said Zoueva, the siblings' primary coach in Canton, Michigan. "They added little details to make the programs better and fuller, and (gained) ideas on how to perform them better. And they also had a few changes, of course, in the transitions. So, they came back happy."

"The way it's developed the last few seasons, we've looked for some inspiration on the outside, and when we get back (to Canton), it's very apparent to Marina and Massimo [Scali] the work we did because they see the growth," Maia said.

For the last few seasons, Maia and Alex, now 22 and 25, have taken a larger creative hand in their routines. That includes the music for their "Evolution" free dance, which underwent some final editing before Helsinki, five months after its debut at Skate America.

The program's first half is set to "Spiegel im Spiegel" ("Mirror in the Mirror"); only now are the skaters ready to talk about the second-half selections, including "Truman Sleeps" by Philip Glass and Max Richter's "The Departure," from the HBO series The Leftovers.

"Maia and I really liked ["Truman Sleeps"], but the original track didn't have a strong enough ending for our program," Alex said. "I had ["The Departure"] in my head, and we listened to it again and again on our way to the rink. There was a moment when I realized the two pieces fit together. So it was again about talking to Ryanimay and Hok and Marina, and working with family friends in the San Francisco Orchestra, to arrange pieces a certain way. It involved a lot of adjustments over the season.

"We didn't end up listing our music selections; we just titled it "Evolution" because our process was continuing," he added. "It turns out it has taken almost the entire season."

Keen-eyed fans may notice a late addition to the siblings' ISU bio.

"For worlds, we'll actually put down the pieces," Maia said, laughing.

Throughout the season, the siblings kept their collaborators -- including the L.A. group, as well as Peter Tchernyshev, Stéphane Lambiel, Jeffrey Buttle and others -- in the creative loop by emailing and texting links to their latest performances.

"It's always about looking at the program as a whole," Alex said. "So we'll send a link without any comments because we don't want to influence or guide their feedback."

The Shibutanis began working with Onik -- who competed on Season 11 of FOX's So You Think You Can Dance and choreographs live stage shows, music videos and commercials -- at the suggestion of Meryl Davis. Since 2015, Onik has worked with several U.S. ice dance teams, including at U.S. Figure Skating's Champs Camp, to polish programs.

"Just sending me the links, with no comments, lets me tell them if I think a part was improved, what I felt was lacking or if it was brilliant," Onik said. "You have to constantly keep curating, and they know it. When you work with people that hungry, it's easy to keep the choreography growing."

Onik met with the skaters in Los Angeles and also traveled to Canton a week or so before they left for Helsinki. The work focused on details including head and arm movements, and linking steps.

"Because their choreography and routines are already done, we tried to pick it up and have zero moments of emptiness, to constantly have a fluid story being told," Onik said. "It's more about partnering, connecting with your breath, being on the same page and seamless transitions, in both programs."

Zoueva, too, thinks both programs -- including the short dance, set to a mash-up of Jay-Z and Frank Sinatra's "My Way" created with Conferido -- are peaking at just the right time.

"Each competition there is improvement -- they add more and get stronger physically and emotionally -- so it's very promising," she said. "Of course, that's the right strategy because they are young and can improve. Maia is 22, and there are athletes who are almost 30, so that's a big difference. At this point, that helps them because they have a lot of experience together and are still younger than some other couples."

Zoueva and Scali have focused on the blues pattern and partial step sequence featured in the short dance, both of which gained Level 3 at Four Continents.

"We have room, a couple of points here and there," Zoueva said. "The score could change a lot, in a good way."

Maia and Alex let Zoueva ponder points while they stick with their plan: Emphasize the work, not the medal. Take nothing for granted. Keep moving forward.

"The programs feel like they're right where we need them to be," Maia said. "They make me feel completely in the moment, whether we are training at home or competing in front of an audience. I feel like we can share ourselves."

"I don't think Maia and I are thinking about winning the world title; we're really focused on becoming the best team we can be," Alex said. "I know in the sports world a PC answer like that is brutal, but what it means is we want to push ourselves forward and thrive when the spotlight is brightest."