Skating to Stravinski and wearing Vera Wang, world champion Evan Lysacek embodied both athlete and artist at Skate America.
Dressed head to toe in a black costume designed by Wang, and performing to what he termed "sort of bizarre music," Lysacek dominated the short program Friday night. The world champion put out a powerful routine to Igor Stravinski's "Firebird" that increased in intensity by the second.
"That music builds so powerfully for me that it helps me grow as we get to the end," Lysacek said. "Hopefully, it will continue to be like that for me.
"I was quite skeptical at first," he added of the program presented to him by coach Frank Carroll and choreographer Lori Nichol. "I thought this was so not me, how will this work?"
Works great, Evan. So does the outfit.
"When I first saw the costume, I thought it looked like a piece of art," he said. "Vera is a good friend of mine and she has such interest and excitement in developing these for me. I didn't ask for black, and she didn't even know I liked wearing black."
The two-time U.S. champion vastly improved on his work at Cup of China two weeks ago, scoring 79.17 points to outdistance France's Florent Amodio by 6 1/2 points. American Brandon Mroz was third.
"I felt a lot of pride skating in my country tonight," Lysacek said. "This is more of an athletic competition for me, a test of strength."
The men's free skate is Saturday night.
Earlier, China's Zhao Hongbo and Shen Xue won the pairs short program, and Americans Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto took the dance compulsories.
Zhao gave his wife, who happens to be his skating partner, a memorable 31st birthday present. Zhao and Shen performed their best short program, quite an achievement for two-time Olympic bronze medalists (2002 and '06) who are back for one more shot at the games _ and, he says, "the gold medal."
They earned 74.36 points, more than two points better than when they won Cup of China to begin their comeback after two years on the sidelines.
"The Olympics," Shen said of why they returned to the sport.
"We dream," the 36-year-old Zhao added, and he meant golden dreams.
Their performance featured a huge twist lift, synchronized side-by-side triple toe loops, a high lift punctuated by an intricate dismount, and a death spiral in which she holds onto her left blade while being twisted around.
They even wowed American champions Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker, who were fourth after botching their side-by-side jumps.
"It's an honor to be on the ice with them," Brubaker said, admitting he has some of Shen and Zhao's programs on his iPod. "You know when you see something great out on the ice."
Shen and Zhao have been great very quickly in their return. They retired after winning their third world title in 2007 and came back to training in May.
"Today, I'm so happy we could do that," he said. "It was a good short program."
Ukraine's Tatiana Volosozahar and Stanislav Morozov were second, 12.66 points behind. Canada's Meagan Duhamel and Craig Buntin were third. Current world silver medalists Zhang Dan and Zhang Hao of China, who finished second at the Turin Olympics, were a disappointing fifth after some sloppy spins and footwork.
The pairs finish Saturday afternoon.
Belbin and Agosto, silver medalists at the world championships and 2006 Turin Olympics, scored 39.28 points for the golden waltz. They were well ahead of Russia's Jana Khokhlova and Sergei Novitski at 36.94. The original dance is Saturday and the free dance Sunday.
The compulsory dance is usually something of a snoozer, but Belbin and Agosto made the audience _ and judges _ take notice because, well, they just looked so darn good.
Belbin couldn't have been happier with her outfit, called Tiffany Ribbon and provided by Designs to Shine, a ballroom costume company that supplies dresses for "Dancing with the Stars." She changed costumes after the couple won Cup of China.
"This is a beautiful and regal dance and I wanted to have something special," Belbin said.
The turquoise dress, as ice dance costumes usually go, was noticeable for all the right reasons. She also sported faux diamond earrings given to her by a South Korean fan.
"There are some very friendly fans," she said with a laugh.
As for participating in "Dancing with the Stars," that isn't in the plans. There's a little something called the Vancouver Olympics on the horizon.
Belbin and Agosto are on pace to qualify for next month's Grand Prix Final in Tokyo. Another U.S. team, Meryl Davis and Charlie White, already is in the final, underlining the strength the Americans at last have in the discipline.
"It makes it more exciting for nationals, for the audience," Agosto said. "And more for us. You never want to go to a competition and feel you don't have to do anything to win. We know we have to go and do our work and do things well."
Khokhlova and Novitski scored a season best with their performance.
"That was a very good beginning," he said.