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Shibutanis hope "Paradise" paves the way to gold

Coldplay single completes career-changing trilogy for American siblings
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Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani are looking forward to performing their emotional "Paradise" free dance this week at the Rostelecom Cup. -Getty Images

Fix You, Evolution…Paradise.

The idea for Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani's free dance this Olympic season, set to Coldplay's 2011 single "Paradise," began taking shape two seasons ago, when the siblings reignited their career with another Coldplay song, "Fix You."

But it's been gestating for nearly two decades, ever since Maia took the ice at age 4, inspired by visions of Kristi Yamaguchi, Michelle Kwan and the Olympic rings.

When she was just a girl, she expected the world
But it flew away from her reach
So she ran away in her sleep and dreamed of paradise

"We connect to those lyrics so well," Alex said. "Maia started skating first; it was her dream. Then it became both of our dreams, something we could do together. And if you've followed our career, you know things flew away from our reach at a point. There were trials and tribulations and gut-check moments where you have to continue to dream."

"The song is something we feel in a layered, personal way," Maia said. "It's allowed us to find new ways to share who we are as people. To reach the point we're at, it wouldn't have been possible if we didn't believe in ourselves."

The two-time U.S. champions begin their eighth Grand Prix season at Rostelecom Cup this week in Moscow, where they will square off against Russian champions Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev, Canadian bronze medalists Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier and world junior champions Rachel Parsons and Michael Parsons of the U.S. It's also their season debut.

Like last season, they elected not to compete at a Challenger Series event.

"We got early insight from officials on our plans for our programs back in June," Alex said. "We got more input at Champs Camp (in late August), and judges have visited us since then. We feel we got the feedback we needed to make a strong competitive debut."

The confidence springs in part from two season's worth of reinvention. By midway through the 2015-16 campaign, Maia and Alex knew their "Fix You" free dance was reaching audiences differently than any of their past programs.

"We were hungry for more; we wanted to win our first U.S. title, and we hadn't been on the world podium since we won bronze in 2011," Alex said. "'Fix You' was an honest, raw way of expressing ourselves. People saw the change, and it was rewarded. So last season, we were in a different place -- we were riding high and felt good. We wanted to challenge ourselves with something that would help us grow, and that was our evolution year.

"This season is about culminating this particular chapter of our skating," he continued. "We're dreaming of paradise together. That's the concept of the trilogy."

The week after winning bronze at the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships, the skaters visited two-time world champion Stéphane Lambiel in Switzerland to workshop some ideas. Peter Tchernyshev, the five-time U.S. ice dance champion who helped choreograph "Fix You," came to their training site in Canton, Michigan, for a week as well. They worked with ballet dancer Alex Wong in New York City and with three-time U.S. ice dance champion Renée Roca in Los Angeles.

"You know, in skating, you hire someone to do choreography, or you pay someone to create with you," Alex said. "We've been very lucky and really grateful that the relationships that have started out as purely business have turned into really valuable friendships. I think that's what helps our work quality."

Coaches Marina Zoueva and Massimo Scali remain the primary choreographers, with collaboration from Alex and Maia.

"I don't know very many coaches that are open to working the way Marina does with us," Alex said. "That's the strength of our relationship for 10 years. She loves us, and she wants the best for us. Anyone who can help us along the way is good with her."

Glimpses of "Fix You" and "Evolution" -- what Alex calls Easter eggs -- pop up in "Paradise," but the program stands on its own.

"There is a lot of new stuff; we pushed ourselves to come up with new lifts, reflective of the story we want to tell," Alex said. "We're working to do the best we've ever done."

The siblings' Latin short dance is set to instantly recognizable mambo, cha cha and samba selections from Perez Prado. A new arrangement by Alex and Quest hip hop dance crew member Ryanimay Conferido -- who worked with the siblings on last season's Frank Sinatra and Jay-Z hip hop mix -- gives the routine a twist.

"We're really going for that fun, high-energy feeling," Alex said. "Ryanimay has been critical to helping us turn all our ideas into a reality."

Zoueva brought Latin ballroom champion Maxim Kozhevnikov to Canton to help add authentic ballroom touches, and the siblings also worked with So You Think You Can Dance veterans Serge Onik and Jenna Johnson.

"We did Latin (in the 2011-12 season), but the choreography is so much more exciting this time around," Maia said. "We've realized how much stronger a team we are, and we are able to get into details we weren't even thinking of the last time around."

The Shibutanis take the ice in Moscow for their Perez Prado short dance Friday; on Saturday, they will perform to "Paradise," hoping to make the audience feel the same way they did when they attended a Coldplay concert in Las Vegas last month.

"[Coldplay] concerts are all about love and light and the beauty of your dreams," Alex said. "There's always a stunning energy. When we go, it's emotional for us, because we're connected to the music. That's what our free dance is about this year."