By Anna Rose Johnson
Analyzing choreography is my one of my very favorite parts of watching gymnastics. I was curious what some of the top gymnastics choreographers had to say about their work. I asked two of the best in the business about their typical sessions with gymnasts, exciting and not-so-exciting elements, and the composition of floor routines.
Valorie Kondos Field is the head coach of the NCAA women’s gymnastics team at UCLA. The Bruins’ coach for 25 years, Valorie is widely known for her exquisite work in choreographing routines for the athletes at UCLA. Geza Pozsar, a longtime coach and choreographer, is probably most famous for creating routines for Nadia Comaneci, Mary Lou Retton, Kim Zmeskal, Dominique Moceanu, and many others.
FT: Can you walk us through a typical choreography session with a gymnast? How do you come up with the routines?
Valorie Kondos Field: When I find the right music I start seeing choreographic pictures in my head. The pictures range from seeing a particular style of movement, to different rhythmic changes, high and low parts to the choreography, and where a “signature” skill could go. I then map out the routine and write the music and movement ideas on paper with my very crude stick figure drawings. I like to go into a choreographic session with about 80% of the routine done. One thing I really enjoy is collaborating. I love getting other ideas, whether it be from another athlete, coach, athletic trainer, or any passerby. I enjoy asking them if they like a particular passage of movement and what they would do differently. I’m this same way with the shows I choreograph at SeaWorld. I enjoy getting a lot of feedback, input and ideas, and I enjoy seeing someone light up when I use one of their ideas.
Geza Pozsar: The session starts with the selection of the music. The parties involved: the gymnast, coach, and choreographer are the deciders. The choreographer will ask the gymnast to show him [the] current routine [or], if she’s a first-time optional routine candidate, I will ask her to show me the compulsory floor routine. This process helps me to determine the personality of the gymnast and [to] choose a style for her: classical, neoclassical, jazzy, national folk, pop etc. The age and dance experience of the gymnast plays a great role in the decision.
After the music is selected I start by finding a starting pose that helps me to find out if the gymnast responds quickly to directions, [if she will] participate in the creative process, [whether she’s a] slow learner etc. The first step before the tumbling pass helps me to figure out if the music selection was successful or we need to find a different music. The music gives me the ideas in combination of the gymnast’s personality and level of collaboration. The session usually takes 3-4 hours. After the routine is done I ask the gymnast to come back for a review the next day. The second session involves some changes if [they are] necessary and the gymnast ‘absorbed’ the routine overnight and her movements can be refined and polished.
FT: What elements of choreography do you find exciting? What elements do you find dull?
VKF: I enjoy coming up with a particular style and overall theme. And I enjoy working out intricate specific parts of the routine. What I find the most dull—actually the most challenging—is that on a typical dance floor you can move in all directions… inside turns, outside turns, leaping and landing on one leg and turning out of it. Because of the foam layer and carpet of a gymnastics floor, it is very difficult to turn “outside” (as in away from your standing leg) because your baby toe often gets caught and prevents you from turning. The same is true for leaping and turning away from your landing leg, it is quite possible for the foot to get stuck on the carpet and the knee keeps turning and then you open yourself up to possible injury. I find it uninspiring to always have to turn “inside” or toward the turning leg.
GP: There are no choreographic elements. Dance has no elements, just style. No style is dull if the music and style fits the gymnast.
FT: What would you think of choreographing balance beam routines to music? Would there be a better flow?
VKF: I don’t choreograph balance beam routines to music but I do have our athletes pick a song that inspires them to have the type of movement quality they want on beam and have them work their “dance throughs” to their music. Music is a great way to override the brain and get the energy flowing in the right direction.
GP: Music on balance [beam] is impossible due to the fact that during competitions, to play floor music and beam music would be impossible. For training purposes, music can be used on beam.
FT: Do you think there should be fewer tumbling passes and more dancing on floor exercise?
VKF: No. I don’t think that would be fair to the athletes that are powerful but not great dancers. I do think we can get much more creative by how we reward bonus on floor. Per example; I really like the college rule that rewards a tenth for a tumbling pass that has a C element followed by an immediate leap or jump and another flipping skill. I love seeing a gymnast perform a series of fouette turns, which are difficult to do, but there is no reward for a series of single turns in a row. Or even a series of single jump full turns in a row. Tanya Service did a beautiful turning grand jete into an immediate one and a half turn on her landing leg. That is HARD but there is no extra value rewarded for doing it.
GP: Yes, FIG destroyed artistry with the new rules.
FT: What do you think of the new rule in elite gymnastics in which gymnasts cannot stand in the corner of the floor mat? Do you think it has improved routine choreography?
GP: After the FIG realized that [there is not too] much more dance possible [despite] the new rules, they came up with the idea to force the gymnast to dance in the corner before tumbling and start to tumble from one leg. Does not help the tumbling or dance.
FT: What is your favorite part of being a choreographer?
VKF: Teaching athletes how to move differently than they ever have. Teaching them how to project and tell a story through their movement; how to bring the music to life, how to hear little nuances in the music that can motivate the slightest yet interesting movement. I love teaching them how to count music and that all music is not composed in 8’s. And I love encouraging them to Perform…that once they are inside those white lines they are on stage and in character.
GP: Seeing the girls happy and excited about their new floor routines makes me feel wonderful.
Many thanks to Valorie and Geza for taking the time to answer our questions!