Ice Network

Innovative programs highlight 2017 U.S. Open

Coaches, veteran performers thrive at pro competition in Nashville
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U.S. Open award recipients show off their hardware (L-R): Garrett Kling, Cordero Zuckerman, Kristen Nardozzi and Nick Traxler, and Jonathan Cassar. -Mark Walentiny

For the third consecutive year, the Professional Skaters Association held the U.S. Open Professional Figure Skating Championships to coincide with its annual conference and trade show. This season's competition took place at the Ford Ice Center in Nashville, Tennessee. As in the past two years, the athletes competed in one event, with the ladies, men's, pairs, ensembles and novelty acts in direct competition with one another without rule constraints.

Competing in the U.S. Open for the first time, Garrett Kling performed both a solo piece as well as a group number with American Ice Theatre Boston. In his solo, a collaboration with dance choreographer Marciano Silva dos Santos of Contempo Physical Dance in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Kling explored dance movement. That routine earned him the Ground Breaker Award, given for the best breakout performance.

"I worked with [Marciano] in the studio, where he set the movement on me," said Kling, a show performer, coach and choreographer. "I would then go to the ice and try to translate what he gave me on the floor and then show him. We'd go again to the studio and then back to the ice. It was a really interesting process, to be given movement and then explore how it works on the ice.

"The U.S. Open is such a wonderful event because it offers the platform for someone like me to bring something fresh to the ice that I was excited to show," he continued. "The event brings together so many amazing artists."

Cordero Zuckerman, recipient of the Creative Visionary Award, which is presented to the most innovative skater, is helping young skaters in the Chicago area develop their choreography. He's also preparing to go on tour with Cirque du Soleil's upcoming ice show Crystal, which opens in October.

"This whole experience was so liberating because on tour or in shows you're labeled as 'Boy One' or 'Boy Two,' or you're a character," Zuckerman said. "I love my job and I love being a professional skater; however, I love to try new things. I was so happy I was able to do the U.S. Open this year. I was not expecting to win anything."

Zuckerman infused his program with elements of dance and gymnastics. He said it was emotional and humbling to perform in front of people he respects -- such as judges Cindy Stuart, Adam Blake, Judy Thomas and Douglas Haw -- as well as celebrity judge Manuel Cuevas, a renowned Nashville clothing designer.

Former U.S. ice dance competitors Kristen Nardozzi and Nick Traxler received the Skater's Skater Award for their impeccable technique. Competing in their third U.S. Open, the Dallas-based coaches used Massenet's "Méditation" from the opera Thaïs as an homage to 1964 Olympic pairs champions Oleg Protopopov and Ludmila Belousova, who skated to the same music.

"For us, it's an opportunity to create a program, perform and feel the camaraderie," Nardozzi said. "Throughout our whole skating career, we strived to have that beautiful technique. To have that be the award we won, in a group of phenomenal skaters, was an honor."

Last year's recipient of the Skater's Skater Award, Jonathan Cassar, earned this year's Grand Champion honors. The final performer of the event, Cassar skated to a cover version of Lady Gaga's "Million Reasons" sung by Robert Mauti, a gospel singer who is also a skater and has competed with American Ice Theatre.

"I watched almost everyone and thought there were a lot of great performances, innovative things and really challenging choreography," said Cassar, a coach in San Diego. "I tried to bring passion to what I was doing, and I felt a great connection with this piece of music. I tried to show intricate transitions and things I hadn't done before because I wanted people to feel something when they watched the program.

"I love coaching and doing choreography, but it's truly awesome to also have an outlet like this," he added. "I feel like I'm still growing as a performer, and I'd love to do it again next year."