Friday, July 13, 2012

Shibutanis are rising U.S. stars in ice dancing

Siblings from Michigan headline Saturday’s ice show

Express Staff Writer

Alex and Maia Shibutani have the kind of musicality in their skating and connection with audiences that portend very well for a long and successful career of competition and ice show skating. And, as anyone who knows them says, they’re just great young people. Courtesy photo

Followers of Sun Valley figure skating and those who love a good show are in for a treat this weekend on resort ice.

Alex Shibutani and Maia Shibutani are coming to Sun Valley for the first time.

They are a delightful Japanese-American ice dancing couple, brother and sister, who have succeeded at every skating level since their competitive career began in 2005.

If you don't know the siblings nicknamed the "Shibs," you might know them better by the time the 2014 Winter Olympics arrives. Their goal is to make it to Sochi, Russia in two years, but in the meantime they are relishing the ride.

"We are completely dedicated to what we're doing right now," said Alex Shibutani, 21, on Wednesday from his home in Michigan. He is a sophomore at the University of Michigan.

Added younger sister Maia Shibutani, a recent Huron High School graduate who turns 18 July 20, "We're still growing. We want to take it one step at a time." She will enter the University of Michigan in the fall.

The 2011 world ice dancing bronze medalists are arriving in Sun Valley today, Friday. You can watch them practicing on the outdoor rink Saturday around noon. You can see them perform Saturday night.

The Shibutanis are headlining the third Sun Valley on Ice show of the 10-show summer season starting shortly after 9 p.m. Saturday, July 14 at Sun Valley Outdoor Ice Rink.

"We've heard so many great things about Sun Valley. We look forward to performing there and being with a great group of skaters," said Alex.

By the time you see them, you'll likely join the fan wagon.

Kimberly Navarro and Brent Bommentre are big fans, and of course the 2008-09 U.S. ice dancing bronze medalists know their sport and its people.

Navarro said, "First and foremost you can tell they're really good kids. And they're amazing skaters and athletes.

"A lot of people say Alex and Maia are 'the future of ice dancing.' I think it's more accurate to say they're 'the now of ice dancing.' They are so great right now, so versatile and fun to see. You just want to cheer and root for them.

"I think they're going to be a great fit for Sun Valley."

Navarro, 31, from Santa Rosa, Calif. and Bommentre, 27, from Pennsylvania, retired from competitive skating two years ago. Prominently pictured in this year's striking Sun Valley on Ice marketing photo, they are in their third full year performing in the core company of the ice show.

They first met the Shibutanis when the siblings were Novice skaters five years ago. The Shibutanis said they consider Navarro and Bommentre as "mentors." Navarro is a Columbia University graduate and Maia Shibutani was a high school honors student who, according to her brother, is mature beyond her years.

Bommentre said, "Alex and Maia are amazing people, just about the nicest people out there in the sport. They're so personable. When you watch them, you can relate to them.

"They have such great senses of humor and are so much fun to be around. Kim and I are so excited to see Alex and Maia here in Sun Valley this weekend. They're the type of performers who should be here, and should do well here."

The quality of their skating sets the Shibutanis apart from other ice dancing teams their age, Bommentre said. Their longevity as a team is impressive, he said. And their results have been medal winning, all the way down the line.

Consider these "firsts" achieved in recent years by the reigning two-time U.S. ice dancing silver medalists:

l The Shibutanis are the first U.S. ice dancing team to medal at the World Figure Skating Championships in their first year as seniors, and the first ice dance team to medal at both of their Grand Prix events in their debut senior season.

l They are the first ice dance team to have medaled every year, at every level of competition (Juvenile to Senior) at the U.S. National Championships.

l They are the first ice dance team of Asian heritage to win a medal at a major International Skating Union Championship—the 2011 Four Continents Championships, and the 2011 World Championships in Moscow, Russia.

Bommentre said, "They've been together a long time, eight years, and longevity helps in our sport. They don't back down from a challenge and are willing to stick to it."

Musicality of ice dancing

Great ice dancers are no strangers to Sun Valley. It may be the most artistic of Olympic sports, requiring a blend of skating and ballroom dancing—perfect for the summer-night spotlights of Idaho.

Headlining this year's Sept. 1 season finale are reigning Olympic ice dancing silver medalists Meryl Davis, 25, and Charlie White, 24, The four-time defending U.S. champions from Michigan are currently the longest-running ice dance partnership in the U.S. at 14 years and counting.

Davis and White, the 2011 world champs and 2012 world silver medalists, have said they consider the Shibutanis very mature and hard-working as competitors. Davis and White have those same attributes, and both have attended the University of Michigan as well.

The Shibutanis credit strong family support and excellent training facilities and coaches for much of their progress.

Parents Chris (flute) and Naomi (concert pianist) Shibutani met as musicians while Harvard University students. Chris grew up in Chappaqua, N.Y. and Naomi, a native of Japan, grew up in Miami. The siblings started skating in New York at young ages—Alex at 7 and Maia at 4. They started skating together when Alex was 13 and Maia was 10.

Five years ago the Shibutanis moved from Colorado Springs, Colo. to the Arctic Edge Ice Arena in Canton, Mich. Father Chris Shibutani works with a hedge fund in Chicago and joins the family in Ann Arbor, Mich. on the weekends. Neither parent had much of a skating background.

Their location in Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan, helps the siblings maintain a rigorous training schedule of seven or eight hours a day—along with an academic life and all the good things that come with living in a bustling college town.

"It's important to have balance in your life," said Maia.

For the Shibutanis, balance also comes with rubbing elbows with dignitaries. Alex, an avid fan of all Boston sports, particularly the Celtics, would love to throw out a first pitch at Fenway Park or sit courtside at an NBA game.

Maia had one of the thrills of her life May 1 when she met the accomplished Japanese violinist Midori at a fancy dinner in Washington, D.C. in honor of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's first official visit to the United States.

On the occasion of Alex's 21st birthday April 25, the Shibutanis received an email invitation from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to attend the Washington dinner. It was going to be a whirlwind of a week, since the Shibutanis would be performing a weekend ice show in Denver, Colo. before the Tuesday dinner.

Between shows in Denver, Maia and "Showtime on Ice" co-performer and friend Adam Rippon had to go out and help Alex pick out a proper tie to wear for the dinner. They rushed back to Michigan, rushed down to Washington and ended up being two of the youngest people at the dinner.

"We ended up feeling energized and amazed by the experience," said Alex.

Maia added in a report to, "Once dessert had been served, the famed Japanese violinist Midori took her place and began to play. Alex and I recognized her immediately. We had grown up listening to her recordings. Watching her, I was too enthralled to touch my dessert."

The Shibutanis, proud of their heritage, are also excited about their upcoming trip to Japan for The Ice Tour there.

After leaving Sun Valley on Sunday, July 15 and returning to Michigan, they will fly to Japan on Tuesday, July 17 for two weeks. Performances are scheduled for July 21-22 in Aichi, July 24-25 in Nikko and July 28-29 in Osaka.

"We've competed in Japan many times," said Alex.

The couple won their 2011 world championship silver medal after the competition was moved from Japan to Moscow due to the devastating tsunami earthquake in Japan.

Alex said, "We had a great world championships in Moscow, although the circumstances weren't the best because of what happened in Japan."

In the meantime, their laser focus is on the Sun Valley visit. The Shibutanis plan to perform two numbers in Saturday's show.

For their long dance, they will skate to Michael Bublé number "Lost," third single from Bublé's third studio album "Call Me Irresponsible," recorded in 2006. Bommentre said, "Bublé always has such great arrangements, it will be interesting to see what Alex and Maia bring to it."

It's tricky for the Shibutanis, as a sibling team, to bring out the kind of romantic aspect that is so important in the appeal of ice dancing. But they're so technically proficient and engaging that audiences and judges can quickly forget that they are brother and sister.

Their choreographer and coach Marina Zoueva has said, "Maia and Alex are absolutely unique. Their bodies follow the music. They have musician's bodies—they can explore and feel the music."

They adhere beautifully to the beat of the music and are willing to try new things.

For instance, they changed their short dance to Latin early in the 2011-12 season. By all accounts, the change has been successful. Their short dance at Sun Valley is a Latin samba they developed with five-time U.S. National Professional Latin champion Corky Ballas and debuted at this year's 2012 U.S. national championships.

The Shibutanis, after their 2011 world championship success, immediately went to Los Angeles, met with "Dancing on the Stars" performer Ballas and started developing their Latin numbers. Ballas suggested movements that weren't too suggestive but that emphasized wonderful flow.

Said Bommentre, "The samba should highlight their skating strengths."

They also share a positive view of the future.

Alex said, "We've been very fortunate to have had great results right now in competition." Maia added, "If we are happy with what we've done and how hard we've trained, that's all that matters."

They are grateful to be performing in Sun Valley Saturday with their good friend Adam Rippon, the 2012 U.S. silver medalist known for his donut spins and his signature triple lutz. He was the 2008-09 World Junior champion.

Rippon, 22, from Scranton, Pa., placed 13th in men's singles at the 2012 World Championships. If there's one thing you don't want to do, it's engage Maia Shibutani and Rippon in a team board game. "Anyone who plays us had just better watch out," said Maia.

And watch out for a very entertaining show Saturday.

Said Kim Navarro, "Alex, Maia and Adam, they are bringing in the younger side of competitive skating. It should be such fun for the audience.

"Skating-wise, people should see performers who are totally different—from Craig Heath, Jason Graetz and Joe Sabovcik who are the other soloists with Adam, to our ice dancers and pairs, all completely different."

Nonrefundable tickets are now on sale at the Sun Valley Recreation Office, 622-2135. Tickets may be purchased online at All seating is reserved and advance reservations are recommended. You can also buy tickets at the gate before the shows.

Day care at the Sun Valley Playschool during ice shows is available by advance reservation at 622-2288.

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