Ice Network

Weir shows 'human' side at 'EWC' benefit show

Abbott debuts two-week-old short program; Sawyer goes 'full-on leopard'
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Johnny Weir gave a crowd-pleasing performance to Christina Perri's "Human" at the 44th annual 'An Evening with Champions.' -Sarah S. Brannen

The 44th annual An Evening with Champions benefit show brought a large and distinguished cast to Harvard University on Sept. 19 and 20.

Headliner Johnny Weir, skating in the show for the first time since 2001, arrived in a cloud of fan excitement. The still unofficial news that he and Tara Lipinski would be the new commentary team for NBC caught the skater off guard.

"Actually, officially, that story came out without any of us being aware," Weir said Saturday. "So I am not allowed to comment."

On the ice, Weir was greeted with rapture by his many devoted fans. He skated an emotional program to Christina Perri's "Human." Wearing fur sleeves over plain black, he performed with passion and precision. Giving an interesting impression of some kind of otherworldly bird-animal hybrid, the program clearly meant a lot to Weir.

Whatever his new job may be, Weir emphasized that he plans to continue performing.

"My favorite thing about life is being busy," he said. "I don't like to wake up having nothing to do; I don't like to relax. I can't do more than an hour of vacation without freaking out that I don't have a chore, or something to do. I will fly around the world to make my fans happy."

Emily Hughes and Paul Wylie co-hosted the show, which benefits the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute's Jimmy Fund. Wylie was presented with a plaque acknowledging his 15th year as host.

"Goodness, I've been hosting this show as long as Nathan Chen has been alive!" Wylie said, laughing.

Hughes has just finished a stint working with the International Olympic Committee in Lausanne, Switzerland. She said she will be returning to Deloitte Consulting next week. Tim LeBlanc produced the show, and Marissa Castelli choreographed the opening and closing numbers.

The show always gives fans an early look at what skaters have been working on all summer. The timing gives skaters a chance to try out their programs in front of an audience, before they compete on the Grand Prix or Junior Grand Prix (JGP) series.

Jeremy Abbott revealed his brand new short program to Sam Smith's "Lay Me Down," which he has had for less than two weeks. The program, which he choreographed with coach Yuka Sato, shows off his intricate footwork and superb dance styling to good advantage. In it, he attempted a triple Axel, the only skater to do so under the show lighting.

Abbott said he had planned to skate to a different song for his short program, "Latch," but he couldn't get the music cut to work. At first, he wasn't sure "Lay Me Down" would work, either.

"I didn't want to do a slow piece," he said. "I listened to it again, and the way it built, from the beginning to the end, feels so vintage, like doo-wop '50s, and I immediately fell in love with it. The lyrics are so sad, but the music itself makes me feel very uplifted and happy. It's a weird juxtaposition, where I'm smiling and the lyrics are so crushing. When I hear the song, I don't feel sad -- I feel happy and empowered."

Josh Farris also skated his new short program, choreographed by Jeff Buttle, to Ed Sheeran's "Give Me Love." He has just recovered from two different ankle sprains suffered in the past six weeks and toned down the jumps a bit. The program, however, is lovely, both delicate and powerful, and delivered with pathos. He says he'll be ready for his first Grand Prix event in China.

"I just started doing triple Axels again at the end of last week, so I'm a little undertrained," Farris said. "But I'm not stressing; I have plenty of time before my Grand Prix. I'm going to come back stronger."

Marissa Castelli and her new partner, Mervin Tran, skated their short program, to "Summertime," with a double twist instead of a triple.

"We do a full short back home, but since it's spotlights, we're just going to do a double twist," Castelli said. "We're still getting used to skating with each other, and not being able to see where we're going doesn't really help. We're just here to get used to each other."

The Haydenettes also premiered their new short program, to "Agua" by Los Van Van.

Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford chose to perform a show program to "Say Something." Radford showed off his great strength, lifting Duhamel up, down and around, without her touching the ice. The pair skated with terrific speed and commitment in the program choreographed by Julie Marcotte. They head into the Grand Prix season with one goal: their first gold medal on the circuit.

"We want to win a Grand Prix. We've never done that!" Duhamel said. "We have a throw quad sal that we're doing now, and it's become surprisingly more consistent than we expected it to be. We can do one every day. We've incorporated it into our long program fairly naturally."

"I think another big area that we've improved is just feeling more relaxed when we skate," Radford said. "It was pretty easy to see that we carried a lot of pressure on our shoulders when we competed in the past, and with the Olympics having come and gone, I think we feel lighter and a little more liberated when we skate."

"That's one of our biggest goals this season: to be able to compete with the freedom that we have in practice," Duhamel added.

Courtney Hicks delivered the best jumps of the ladies in the show, landing a big triple Lutz, triple flip and double Axel in her powerful "Amazing Grace" program. Her spins were also superb.

"I'm really working on my skating skills, and expressing the music and feeling the music," she said. "I'm trying to work also with my choreography, having more intricate programs, so that it's fewer cross-steps and more connecting moves."

Among the performances by professional skaters, Shawn Sawyer's self-choreographed program was a major highlight. Dressed in leopard print, Sawyer embodied the spirit of the animal, snarling and prowling across the ice in inimitable style.

"I had an idea in mind, and I went 100 percent with it," he said: "A leopard who's running 100 miles an hour. I wanted it to be a little bit of a jungle theme, but I didn't want it to be tacky. I decided to go full-on leopard and really get down as much as I could to the ice. I have a lot of moves very, very low to the ice, where I was hiding. And any time I did something up, it had to be very explosive."

Kimmie Meissner stretched herself in a new direction, skating a fun, very contemporary pop program to Lady Gaga's "Applause." Alissa Czisny was ethereal and serene, floating over the ice to Liszt's "Consolation No. 3" (in D-flat major). Czisny mentioned backstage that she is spending a lot of time coaching these days, assisting her old mentor, Sato.

Wild screams from classmates greeted Harvard students Christina Gao (who was on the event committee), Yasmin Siraj and Maria Kalina. Shotaro Omori skated a stylish and crisp tango program to music from the Scent of a Woman soundtrack. Nathan Chen showed off his speed and technical skills to "Best Day of My Life."

Chen will be competing in only one JGP event this season, in Croatia, a decision reached jointly by his coaches, U.S. Figure Skating and himself.

"We decided it was a good stepping stone for the season," Chen said. "I'll be competing as a senior at nationals this year. This season, ultimately, I would just like to put myself out there as a senior, see how that goes."

The U.S. champion Theatre On Ice team, Act I of Boston, opened Act 2 of the show, performing a contemporary, abstract program choreographed by Kate McSwain. Called "Love Dance," it interprets various Cirque du Soleil selections; it was seamless, moving and spellbinding. Usually, Alexandria Shaughnessy and Jimmy Morgan do some pairs skating in the program, but with Shaughessy still out with a broken jaw, Morgan partnered her understudy, Alexandra Iovana.

Ashley Cain was fluid and emotive to Beyoncé's "I Was Here," showing off a fast and centered combination spin. Anastasia Cannuscio and Colin McManus performed a lovely, romantic number to Alex and Sierra's "Gravity" with grace and intricate lifts. Ross Miner charmed the crowd with his "Luck Be A Lady" program.

After a night filled with rather angsty programs, Hughes' energetic and upbeat skating to Pharrell Williams' "Happy" was a welcome change of pace. Alexandra Aldridge and Daniel Eaton skated a comic number to "Blurred Lines," in which he removes her big glasses and shapeless house dress to reveal a slinky black costume.

Doug Razzano also turned up with energy, wiggling his hips from one end of the ice to the other while "Don't Stop the Party" blared.

To date, An Evening with Champions has raised $2.7 million for pediatric and adult cancer care and research.