Ice Network

Zoueva grooming new generation of ice dancers

Sinitsina, Katsalapov head renowned coach's restocked stable
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Much of the buzz surrounding the sport of ice dance has been the new partnership of Russia's Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov. -Lynn Rutherford

Banners hailing Meryl Davis and Charlie White, and Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, hang in the lobby of Canton's Arctic Edge ice rink, and likely always will. The parking spaces reserved for the two Olympic champions stand empty.

Davis and White will not compete this season, and their longtime Canadian rivals have not announced their plans. But Marina Zoueva, who coached the teams to a combined four world titles, has no time to reminisce. On a recent morning, she was supervising the work of more than a dozen senior ice dance couples.

"I'm looking forward, starting the new cycle," Zoueva said last week. "We have a great group and good material to create something new and go forward."

One of Zoueva's top teams, Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani, was on tour in Japan. Still, the rink brimmed with talent.

Italian world champions Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte, who also train in Italy under Paola Mezzadri, arrived a few days before. New Russian team Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov settled in more than six weeks ago. Two-time U.S. junior champions Alexandra Aldridge and Daniel Eaton recently made the move from Detroit Skating Club (DSC), and Japan's Cathy Reed and Chris Reed are new this season.

Zoueva's renowned scheduling skills were on full display: Her associate, Oleg Epstein, led a group in a footwork drill. Massimo Scali, who moved from DSC to Canton this spring, worked on choreography. Former U.S. pairs and ice dance champion Johnny Johns was replaying video, showing lifts in slow motion.

"It's a good amount of skaters, not too much," Zoueva said. "Everyone pushes each other. Each team does something the best and each learns from the others."

Much of the buzz revolved around Sinitsina and Katsalapov, whose pairing shocked the skating world. 

In February, Katsalapov and former partner Elena Ilinykh's free dance to Swan Lake electrified the Sochi crowd and won them an Olympic bronze medal. But, after a fourth-place finish at the 2014 World Figure Skating Championships, where they won the free dance, they split.

"Thirteen teams (ice dance and pairs) who competed at the Olympics split up," Zoueva said. "Thirteen! Something happened this year. It's very popular. Who knows."

The 23-year-old Katsalapov, who previously trained under Nikoli Morozov in Russia and the U.S., is convinced he has found the right partner and the best coach. 

"I came here because of Marina," he said. "When I called her, maybe I heard something in her voice. She didn't tell us something special. She just said, 'OK guys, you can come if you want.' And I was thinking, 'Of course I will come.'"

Sinitsina, 19, smiled in agreement. She is still developing her English-speaking skills.

"I'm really happy and I'm really proud of Victoria, because she has never been in the States for so long without friends and family," Katsalapov said. "She trusts me to take care of her. She tries to learn English and everyone helps. Everyone is so friendly."

The skater endured criticism, and a lot of questions, when he decided to team with Sinitsina.

"Even my friends were saying to me, 'Are you sure, Nikita?' Yes, I was sure and I did it," Katsalapov said. "After worlds, I called Marina. I called Victoria, and I was actually surprised when she said, 'Yes, I will go with you.'"

"I feel inside I can realize more [with Sinitsina], and I think I made 100 percent right choice," he continued. "It's like a new start, but from another level, because Victoria [has] also been to Olympics. She knows what she wants, and I know what I want."

Sinitsina and former partner Ruslan Zhiganshin -- who is now partnered with Ilinykh -- placed 16th in Sochi and seventh at the 2014 World Championships.

To Zoueva, the new team is a blank canvas -- yet another chance to mold a couple whose style will dazzle judges and fans alike.

"For me, with this new girl, Nikita looks like a man," the coach said. "Before, [his skating] was a little bit young; now it is mature. [Sinitsina] is a very wonderful, rich-looking girl. It is a very rich-looking team -- beautiful lines, lots of ability."

Zoueva has created a short dance for Sinitsina and Katsalapov set to familiar paso doble and flamenco music. She is still considering their free dance. There is no rush.

"When will it all come together? They just started," she said. "I am doing it step by step. They improve every day. It's impossible to finish a program now. They are doing lots of stroking exercises; they work with different coaches for their lifts, their ballroom."

Katsalapov is putting artistic and musical decisions squarely in Zoueva's hands, while he and Sinitsina concentrate on polishing their elements.

"We come [to the rink] in the early morning. We are first on the ice usually," he said. "We already started to do run-throughs and hard work. Marina is thinking like a professor; she knows what she is doing. For now, the short dance is 95 percent done. Of course, [some portions] may change.

"Marina is changing music for the free dance. We tried already a few different styles. That is the way she works. Every day she speaks about it a little bit different, maybe she found another idea. We have all of the elements for the free dance: lifts, spin, footwork."

Canton's team coaching approach appeals to Katsalapov.

"This is actually really different for me. Nikoli did all the work by himself," he said. "I think it's really great. Every coach can see one piece of program from [his or her] own view, and everyone wants to give you the best. When you skate in competition, everybody has different tastes, and I think our coaches have the same [goal] but different tastes. If you want to be a good skater, you have to feed on these different [viewpoints]."

After a month at a hotel, the skaters have settled into more permanent living arrangements. Sinitsina rooms with Cathy Reed. Katsalapov found an apartment about five minutes away. His new challenge: learning to cook. His mom, herself a skating coach, shares tips, including which spices to use, over Skype.

"We are in the 21st century and, with Skype, I can talk with friends and family every day for as long as I want," he said. "Actually, we don't have time to miss our home -- we spend the whole day here. Right now, I am just thanking God I have a great coach like Marina."

Sinitsina and Katsalapov plan to compete at a senior B prior to their first Grand Prix event, perhaps the Finlandia Trophy or Cup of Nice.

Aldridge, Eaton's Godfather is Gone With the Wind

For Aldridge and Eaton, who previously trained under Pasquale Camerlengo and Anjelika Krylova at nearby DSC, the move to Canton in June was easy geographically but difficult in other respects.

"We've been at DSC for years," Eaton said. "It was a tough meeting to have. We thanked Pasquale and Anjelika for everything. They really taught us how to be a top-level team. We just felt we needed a change."

"Since we are growing as a senior team now, I think we need a different look to us; basically, change our style, refresh our partnership," Aldridge said.

The two-time world junior bronze medalists, who placed 17th at the 2014 worlds, arrived with two programs: a short dance to Carmen and free dance to music from The Godfather.

"I think Carmen works brilliantly, especially for Alex, because she is very, very expressive. But I changed the arrangement of music," Zoueva said. "As for the free dance, [U.S. Figure Skating] judges were here and we decided to change the music and total idea."

Zoueva turned from the streets of Brooklyn to Civil War-era Atlanta and Gone With the Wind, which she called "very American and classical."

"It has a beautiful finale: strong, very powerful," she said. "And then there is a polka part, which has never been used in ice dance."

The idea was music to Aldridge's ears: GWTW is one of her favorite films.

"She burns the VHS out, she watches it so much," Eaton said.

"I could probably quote every line," Aldridge said. "[Scarlett O'Hara] is definitely going to be a challenging role. Our past programs kind of focused dance styles; we did Irish and Bollywood dances.

"We really want to focus on the relationship of Rhett Butler and Scarlett, so the polka is a great piece to have in there, to show where she finally gives into him a little bit."

Reporter's notebook: Zoueva's summer group includes several new partnerships. U.S. skaters Charlotte Maxwell and Ryan Devereaux competed at the Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships, where they were coached by Zoueva assistant Tim McKernan ... Michael Bramante, 11th in the U.S. last season with Isabella Cannuscio, has teamed with Peroline Ojardias. They plan to represent France and will also train in Lyon ... Laura Bonacorsi, the 2011 U.S. junior silver medalist with Travis Mager, has partnered with Francesco Fioretti of Italy. They will be coached by Walter Rizzo in Milan ... Czech Lucie Myslivečková now skates with Pavel Kaska, a former singles skater. Her previous partner was Neil Brown ... Taylor Tran, 13th in the U.S. in 2013 with Sam Kaplun, partners former single skater Saulius Ambrulevicius for Lithuania ... Maurizio Margaglio, the 2001 world champion (with Barbara Fusar-Poli), brought three Finnish couples to Canton for the summer. He works with Zoueva in a consulting capacity.