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The Inside Edge: Wagner debuts free at Japan Open

Experimental judging system proves complicated at Nebelhorn Trophy
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Ashley Wagner used the Japan Open as an opportunity to debut her 'Moulin Rouge' free skate, along with a new hairstyle. -Getty Images

The Japan Open pitted three teams against one another on Oct. 4 in Saitama, Japan. The winning European team comprised Elena Radionova, Anna Pogorilaya (replacing the ailing Julia Lipnitskaia), Javier Fernández and Tomáš Verner; they scored a total of 551.95 points.

The tiny Radionova earned a score of 136.46 in her Rachmaninoff Trio élégiaque No. 1 program. Her blue dress, heavily encrusted with pearls and crystals, was wearing her, but the reigning world junior champion looks ready to make her mark in the senior ranks. Pogorilaya also presented a lot of look in her "Firebird" program, skating with great speed and flair in a flame-like dress and long orange gloves. Both Russian ladies landed clean triple Lutz-triple toe and triple loop-half loop-triple Salchow combinations.

Fernández is playing Figaro this season, in The Barber of Seville, but he was tripped up by the Zayak rule, tripling his quad Salchow and, therefore, getting no points for the third triple Sal in the program. Verner has retired from competition, but he still went for a quad and landed a good triple Axel.

The North American men were composed of Patrick Chan and Jeffrey Buttle. Chan skated a brilliant program to Chopin pieces and scored 178.18, landing a quad toe-triple toe combination followed by a good triple Axel that brought a smile to his face. Professional skaters are sometimes included on the teams, and it was nice to see Buttle lay down a competitive program again, to Alexander Scriabin, no less. Mirai Nagasu and Ashley Wagner rounded out the second-place team, and contributed to the 522.09-point total.

Wagner debuted her Moulin Rouge free skate in a beaded scarlet dress with an elaborate crystal neckpiece and a sassy short haircut. It wasn't the performance she was hoping for, but we could see that the back-loaded program has a lot of potential.

"Even though it's a competition, it's almost a show setup," Wagner said. "I didn't have any serious plans. I definitely intended for it to go better than it did, but it was an opportunity to get my program out there and get in front of the technical panel."

As always, the enthusiastic Japanese crowd cheered wildly for all the skaters, adding to the festive quality of the event. Each team sat in a kiss-and-cry box and supported one another.

"It's a really fun event, and the Japanese audience is so great," Wagner said. "They're one of my favorite audiences; they're always right behind you."

Shae-Lynn Bourne choreographed Wagner's free. At first, Wagner was unconvinced about the choice in music.

"To be honest, when she told me she wanted to do Moulin Rouge, at first I was disenchanted by the idea," Wagner said. "In my mind, Moulin Rouge can be ice dance music. It's a showgirl and it's cheesy, and it isn't something that comes off as a refined skater. I was a little worried, but when she sent me the cut, I was totally sold. It's a very emotional piece and it kind of speaks to the ups and downs of my career. You have to keep your chin up and the show must go on."

At 23, Wagner is hardly a senior citizen in the skating world. Nevertheless, she feels a lot older than the flock of young Russian ladies currently storming the ranks.

"I'm up against kids who weren't even alive when I started skating," she said. "It's a whole new generation, and I have to be smart now and strategic. At Japan Open, I gave away a ton of points, but if I was going to have a bad program, I'd rather have it be rock-bottom bad. We've been pretty busy working on different combinations, different entries, unique exits. I ended up skating like a chicken with my head cut off, but once I get the feel of that competition environment, I'll be able to show off what I've been doing."

And on to the really important thing: the new look. Like Jeremy Abbott and his beard, Wagner has decided to change things up this season. Well, not exactly like Abbott.

"I haven't started growing facial hair yet!" Wagner said, laughing. "I've been wanting to cut my hair short for a long time. It's very easy to feel like you have to fit into a certain mold. I wanted to do something drastic. I love it, it's really fun. Of course, every now and then I see people with mermaid hair and I miss it. For now, it goes with the character, and I'm going to keep it short for a little longer."

Jan Longmire designed the dress, which echoes Nicole Kidman's red dress and diamond necklace from the movie.

"I'm trying to keep it as classical as I can possibly get," Wagner said.

Nagasu has already performed her Madama Butterfly free skate, choreographed by Adam Rippon. She showed off a new violet costume for the first time, however. Rippon is certainly taking center stage as a choreographer this season. He also choreographed Wagner's short program to Spartacus. We can't think of anyone else, at least recently, who has done that while still competing.

The home crowd was probably disappointed that Team Japan finished in third place, hampered by the reported illness of Takahiko Kozuka. He fought through his Andrea Bocelli/Lang Lang "Io Ci Saro" program, but he was clearly struggling. It was interesting to see that Kanako Murakami was playing the Phantom, not Christine, in her strong and dramatic Phantom of the Opera program. Teammate Takahito Mura also skated to Phantom. Satoko Miyahara skated extremely well to Miss Saigon, earning 131.94 points and finishing second of the six ladies.

Nebelhorn panel

The recent Nebelhorn Trophy in Oberstdorf, Germany, featured a judging experiment, as the powers that be continue to tweak the system, looking for ever-better ways of judging. In the men's and dance events, a panel of 12 judges was broken down thusly:

- One person judged only Grades of Execution (GOE) on technical elements.

- Four people judged GOE on technical elements, plus one of the five program components.

- Each of the remaining seven judges was responsible for three components, but none judged the same three.

The results showed, perhaps, greater disparity between the technical and component scores than usual, at least for some skaters, and there was a fairly wide range of component marks between judges.

Alex Johnson received a 5.50 in Skating Skills from one of the components judges, but 8.25 from the judge who looked only at Skating Skills and technical elements.

"If you're only scrutinizing the second mark, you're going to be more particular," Johnson said. "As a skater that has stronger components in general, I think it played to my advantage. Obviously, the technical mark is a lot more straightforward than the component mark."

"The good thing is, they're trying to have less for the judges to concentrate on," Johnson's coach, Tom Dickson, added. "The human mind can only think about so many things at once. One judge only did GOE and skating skills, and that particular judge gave Alex first [place]. Another judge gave him three components but had him fifth."

It was interesting to see that Sergei Voronov's interpretation scores ranged from 3.75 to 8.50, and his performance/execution marks went from 4.25 to 8.25. (The high and low scores are still dropped under this system.) Skaters' components can certainly vary in strength, and perhaps the test panel was able to have a closer look at the different components.

"It's possible for someone to have interesting choreography and not put a lot into interpretation," Dickson said.

"The judges have so many things to do with GOE -- marking down the transitions -- I feel like they miss part of the performance," Johnson said. "If you're just doing skating skills and transitions, you can sit back and watch the performance as a whole, and maybe get a better sense of what the skater is doing."

We have no idea if a similar panel will be used in future; it does seem rather complicated. Dickson wondered about the possibilities of experts, even non-skating experts, judging specific components: a dancer could judge interpretation, for instance.

"I'm not sure if it's the ideal method, but at least it's a step toward what's humanly possible," Dickson said. "I think it's worth experimenting on."


Ice Theatre of New York will be performing its ICE:DANCE show in Santa Rosa, California, at Snoopy's Home Ice on Saturday, Oct. 11. The troupe then returns to New York for three shows Oct. 16-18 at the Chelsea Piers Sky Rink, before heading to the Skating Club of Boston on Oct. 25 and Plymouth State University in New Hampshire Oct. 26 the next day. We are looking forward to seeing the show in Boston! We'll report in the next Inside Edge.

Sarah and Drew
Follow them on Twitter: @SarahandDrew