Break Out The Protractor, Calculator And Vodka: I'm Breaking Down Program Component Scores
You heard me right, it's time to break out the protractor, calculator and vodka! I'm breaking down Program Component Scores. In her 2009 article "Art Not Math: There's No 'Component Skating'", Monica Friedlander talked about Program Component Scores and how the aspects that quantify those scores vary so differently from judging the actual artistry or impact of the performance. "A closer look at the second mark," explained Friedlander, "reveals how little it does to measure art - not that anyone even claims it does so. After all, those who concocted the new system named the second mark, most creatively, 'component score'. What it actually assesses is a patchwork of randomly-selected categories that have little in common with each other and even less with our notion of beauty on ice." Friedlander raises an excellent point in this article, one that's certainly not new. Our concept of an aesthetic, of a magical performance or a magical skater is built in that moment, in that performance and in that skater's presence on the ice. If we break down the math and look at the Program Component Score categories, which are each evaluated out of a perfect 10 in increments, we really see how little artistry and the overall performance is factored into a skater's PCS scores and how judges have and will continue to allow room to use PCS scores as a way of justifying whatever placement they choose to rank skaters in. There's room to hide. Let's take a look at each of these categories:
Right off the bat, we see that the first category has NOTHING to do with presentation. If anything, it's judging something that's really far more difficult than any jump or spin (or damn close). A skater's overall skating quality and ability to control edges, steps and turns and use of "effortless power to accelerate and vary speed" tells us nothing about the skater's ability to present a program. "Skating Skills" were first introduced when I was skating long before the IJS system came to town here in Canada by CFSA (now Skate Canada) as a means to teach edge control and good footwork technique and mainly, as a replacement for patch (compulsory school figures). As you can see in today's program composition and the way skaters move from 3 jump combination with arm variation to haircutter spin, the long, deep, controlled edges and straight backs of school figure days are not what the "Skating Skills" program has taught today's skaters or what the majority are translating into their "skating skills". Furthermore, there's a lot of room to hide for judges here. If things like knee action, foot placement, glide, power, "sureness of deep edges, steps and turns" and "mastery of multi-directional skating" are what the judges are looking for, do you see a HUGE difference between skaters like Patrick Chan and Daisuke Takahashi for instance? I really don't. However, Chan earned more than a point higher than Takahashi in this department at the short program at the World Championships and almost a full point more in the free skate. If you look at the results of any competition, you can easily see how this is one area where judges can use PCS scores to 'correspond' to technical scores, especially the judging of footwork sequences.
Time to break out the flash cards and check off another box. Keeping in mind that I'm referring to each of these categories as they relate to singles skating and not pairs or ice dancing (that's a whole other beast on Riedells we'll talk about another day). 'Transitions' as it relates to PCS scoring refers to the footwork, positions and movements that link elements. This includes the variety and difficulty of the entrance and exits of jumps and spins. They're all doing footwork into those triple flips. They're all performing convoluted steps and connecting moves in their program, as much as I wish they wouldn't. Again, this leaves room for judges to kind of they want but doesn't address the artistic impact, presentation or musicality of the skater.
Now, we're getting into something with some substance. Get out your protractors and graph paper... we're talking about performance/execution. Performance is defined as the involvement of the skaters physically, emotionally and intellectually in their music and choreography. Carriage, style and individuality, clarity of movement, variety and projection are all things being assessed in this category of the PCS mark. While this category does address a skater's actual performance ability on the ice, you have to question how this particular score is being evaluated. If you look at things like individuality and projection, you would assume that a skater or team who is putting on a show would be more rewarded in this category. Again, going back to last year's World Championships, which I'm using as an example, the German team of Nelli Zhiganshina and Alexander Gaszi's theatrical and very creative free dance earned a PE score of 8.43, the exact same score awarded to the American team of Madison Chock and Evan Bates, who placed two spots ahead of them in the free dance with a more traditional program. Their scores in 4/5 of the categories in the Program Component Scores (PCS) were equal or more than that of the Germans.
The choreography category of PCS judges the arrangement and choreography of the program itself, taking into account pattern and ice coverage, phrasing and form, originality of purpose, movement and design, idea, vision, proportion, unity, utilization of personal and public space... I'm going to go back to Monica Friedlander's article when I talk about the mathematical judging of choreography, which is completely open to interpretation: "The best computer scientist on earth could not program a machine to judge an impressionistic painting. After all, a child will draw a tree that looks much more like the real thing than Claude Monet's does. Yet most of us will still give the thumbs up to Monet." And let's be real here for a second. That's the problem with the way most judges are judging choreography as it relates to PCS. The choreography and program structure and concepts that skaters are presenting in their competitive programs is designed not to be that child's painting but to be the Monet. The constant recycling of tried and true music and choreography from skater to skater by the same choreographers in the same movement styles shows that a certain model is often rewarded by the judges and the skaters and choreographers are clearly dishing up "choreography" and not choreography because "choreography" is that Monet that will trump the child's painting in many judges eyes.
As it relates to PCS, "interpretation" refers to the personal and creative translation of music to movement. Skaters are judged on effortless movement, expression of the music's style, character and rhythm and "use of finesse" to reflect nuances of the music. The problem I have here is not the subjectivity of these definitions but the fact that you see such variations in the scoring of musical interpretation. I'm going to go back to the free dance at Worlds again. Sara Hurtado Martin and Adrian Diaz Bronchud of Spain finished 19th out of 20 couples in the free dance at Worlds. Their interpretation score was the second lowest of any team in the competition... but if you really watch each dance and forget skating skills, twizzles, footwork, dance spins and even choreography and focus strictly on musical interpretation and expression of the music's style, character and rhythm and just step back and watch as a spectator as it relates to this particular free dance as compared to the others, lesbihonest... this does not make a heck of a lot of sense. Computer says no.
As Monica Friedlander said it best when she wrote, "but what does a pointed toe and beautifully arched back give you? What about a program skated with pathos, flow, deep edges, and a tingling sense of musicality? On a lucky day maybe a few extra points. Hardly worth killing yourself for. Everything else being equal or nearly equal, sure, every point counts. Competitions have been won or lost by less. But given the limits on the time and effort skaters can invest in their training, what would you rather focus on the most? Landing that quad even if it kills you, or making sure your body looks good while you do it?" And I think that's the bigger problem with PCS scores, bigger than the obnoxiously inflated scores you'd see sometimes when Patrick Chan went out and missed a ton of jumps and that "room" the judges had/have to use these scores subjectively to their end. It's that skaters and choreographers that are choreographing IJS programs aren't seeing the kind of rewards or an "EDGE" for the skaters in the PCS marks if that is the program's strength. Not only are the first 2 categories not even really related to presentation but more to skating skills themselves, the latter 3 often don't reflect in the marks the true nature of what we always see out there. Take a skater like Jeremy Abbott and his "Bring Him Home" free skate. At last year's U.S. National Championships, where he finished 3rd behind Max Aaron and Ross Miner, he did best both other skaters in PCS scores overall, but if you look at the margin in certain categories (especially from certain judges) it kind of makes you wonder how these scores are even being reached. I'm not talking about who has the highest PCS scores here, I'm talking about whose scores are close to that score. And that's in general.
The problem with IJS judging of presentation, artistry and "PCS" is that the moment and that magical program are often not being rewarded with that momentous, magical mark. A big part of that problem stems from the fact that judges are asked to evaluate each program and skater independently of one another. When it comes to PCS, it just doesn't make a lot of sense. Monica Friedlander put it very well: "As human beings we intuitively judge by comparing. We can look at a piece of paper and guess very accurately where the middle point is simply by comparing the two halves. But if we had to guess how many inches across the paper is, we’d not do nearly as well. Why are judges expected to do just that?" On her blog sk8maven, fellow blogger Terese raised another excellent point about PCS judging: "Yes, I understand that falls, step-outs, stumbles, etc. are already assessed lower marks in the TES (Technical Element Scores), but I don’t have to tell any of you who are reading this that multiple mistakes effect the flow and emotion of a program. That’s just the way it is. The PCS rules as written now theoretically provide a given skater with a relatively fixed mark from performance to performance, which I think is a mistake." There are clear flaws with the way PCS scores are reached that are glaringly obvious.
When I interviewed Allison Scott most recently, she reminded me that "6.0 is not coming back". But what those technical merit and artistic impression/presentation/composition and style marks did for skating was allow us to revel and share in those moments that the skaters and choreographers created. There was a connection between the performance and those marks given in the "kiss and cry" area that allowed us to step into that world of the competitor and feel a CONNECTION with them and their results in competitions. As Monica Friedlander eerily foretold in another 2009 article called "Kiss And Cry Drama Is Dead": "The silence of the audience is deafening, and not only because the arena is often empty. What exactly is there to get excited about? The drama of competition is over with the summary, monotonous announcement of one solitary, totally meaningless, ugly, incomprehensible global score: 127.3. Art has never been assessed in a more mechanical way. The skater, baffled as much as anyone, instantly gets up and vanishes behind the curtain, where he will have ample time to dry his tears or give free reign to his elation after the cameras have moved on to the next competitor. So why have a Kiss & Cry at all with a Code of Points scoring system? It’s so anticlimactic, it’s embarrassing to the sport. Its only purpose nowadays seems to be to show off the stuffed animals the skaters struggle to clutch onto while snapping their skate guards back on. Everything else happens so quickly, no one has time to either kiss or cry. Skaters, coaches, and audiences are equally perplexed and unemotional during the brief moments when the spotlight visits that little area between the ice and the backstage, where skaters sit down, listen to the score, and failing to understand it, get up and leave. Maybe we should rename it the Sit & Shrug. It’s us, the skating fans, who now cry. And so should those who dreamt up the new scoring system and who now see the fans, the networks, and the corporate sponsors walk into the sunset."
It's hard not to be pessimistic when you know someone's right and there's honestly nothing you can do about it. Evolution and change happens and has happened. 6.0's not coming back, figure skating won't be what it once was because Marie-Reine Le Baguette or whatever her name was ruined all of our fun and we're now being unwittingly turned into skating fans watching skating being scored like gymnastics. We don't and won't stop watching though, because we love watching figure skating. And there's something beautiful in that - it's like supporting a wayward child or a lost friend. Giving up on people and on anything isn't and shouldn't be easy, especially when we love them... even if we feel disheartened with or don't agree with the direction they are taking.