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Thursday, November 22, 2012

On transitions and complete programs

How often have we seen someone remark that [insert skater(s) name] was overscored on PCS because their program was empty and had no transitions? Some fans have so internalized this notion that they even complain about “empty” exhibition programs! (as Saffron noted, there are bigger problems with many current and recent gala numbers) If I had a dollar for every time I heard complaints about transitions and empty programs, I could consider a life of luxury and skating competition attendance. But are transitions really as important as many now claim they are?

It is often claimed that programs for the 6.0 judging system had little to offer between the elements, with skaters proceeding from jump to half-baked spin to eight-second step sequence. This is, of course, untrue; consider the programs skated by some of Moskvina’s pairs, or the great John Curry, or others who incorporated beautiful moves and steps into their programs. It is true, however, that this was not explicitly rewarded under the 6.0 system, and at times even discounted, as skaters with simpler programs found it easier to skate clean and earn top marks.

 Not an empty program

The ISU Judging System (IJS) introduced five components that comprise the PCS score, rather than a single artistic impression mark. A common mistake is to refer to these components as reflecting “artistry”; even Scott Moir, who really should know better, has done so. But two of the components do nothing of the kind, covering instead technical aspects of the skaters’ skill and program content. These are the skating skills component and today’s villain, the transitions component.

Perhaps because it appears relatively easy to judge and quantify while still retaining a shred of resemblance to the measurement of artistic ability, the transitions mark is of particular interest to many. Programs are judged by fans as lacking if they lack sufficient transitions, or simply transitions of that person’s preference. In that case, the skater is summarily declared overscored and the program dismissed as “empty”, lacking in merit, and (horrors) “a 6.0/pre-IJS program”.

I resent this greatly. 
 Pre-IJS: I do not think it (always) means what you think it means

Leaving aside the question of whether IJS programs are necessarily superior to 6.0 programs, I do not believe transitions are more important than the other four components. Do you know who else does not believe this? The ISU! Transitions, after all, are not factored more highly than the other components.

When we pay more attention to transitions than to the other components, we are attaching greater importance to them than they deserve. Not because skaters shouldn’t be judged on their ability to incorporate difficult, varied and interesting linking movements – but because they should also be judged on their ability to execute their technical elements, display flow and effortless glide (skating skills), utilize the ice surface and show pattern (choreography), express the music’s style, character and rhythm (interpretation) and project to the audience (performance and execution). I chose just one bullet point for each component, but I encourage readers to review the whole thing, the choreography component in particular. If one looks at all of the components and the bullet points for each, I think that there’s an argument to be made that in some respects, IJS programs may actually be inferior to 6.0 programs.

This focus on transitions can be a disservice to skaters whose strengths might lie elsewhere; a program might be weaker in terms of transitions or when it comes utilizing the ice surface (to borrow from the CH mark), but stronger when it comes to interpretation and performance ability. Conversely, a program can be chock-full of transitions that do little to reflect the music, engage the audience, or look remotely appealing to the untrained (or even well-trained) eye. 

 Expressing the music while (occasionally) dancing in place

By emphasizing transitions, we are also doing a disservice to skating in general, because we are perpetuating the fallacy that a single aspect of skating holds the key to a great performance. Just as it was wrong to focus on jumps in the final years of 6.0, so it is wrong to focus on transitions now (as well as their cousins, creative jump entries). We should expect skaters to be strong, or at least to seek to become better, in all aspects of their skating - not just to try to insert transitions into their programs wherever possible. It is a special program that is truly strong across the board, and it’s only appropriate to recognize the importance of each element and component and its contribution to the whole.
While many agree that skating judges should not be afraid of varied component scores that reflect a program’s strengths and weaknesses, it’s no secret that the marks tend to cluster together (more on that in a future post), and that the judges may not be as free to really utilize the full range of the point scale as we would like them to. But as fans, and we have much more freedom. So let's keep in mind that transitions are a part of a great skating performance, and an important one; but they do not necessarily affect other aspects of the program and are not enough, by themselves, to make a program great – or forgettable.

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