Tag Archives: ucla

Born to be NOT wild

19 Feb

How are you, world?  Good?  I don’t know about you, but it has been a long winter (for those of us in the northern hemisphere).  Spring is finally showing signs of life with the slightest rise in temperatures and more sun these days.  So right now I’m feeling like people could use a little encouragement, which I often find from one of my idols, Coach Valorie Kondos-Field (aka “Miss Val”) the head coach of UCLA’s women’s gymnastics programs.  I admire her for many reasons, including the fact that she was a professional dancer and yet she finds herself in a somewhat unrelated career field.  It’s a testament that you never know where your skills and knowledge can be valuable and that people don’t have to be defined by one career.  I think she has a wonderful outlook on life and on teaching and I thought I’d share a couple of quotes from a recently published interview where she discusses women’s issues but also touches on her experiences as a dancer and coach. (read the full interview here)

CC!: You were diagnosed with scoliosis when you were 12. That’s a challenging age for girls without that added burden. How did you get through that troubling time?

Kondos Field: I danced classical ballet for 17 years. I didn’t have a dancer’s body, including the curve in my upper spine. However, I loved dancing so much that I never felt I had to be technically perfect to be a good dancer. My scoliosis was just a part of my body.

I’d also been told by ballet instructors that “Your neck’s too short,” “Your feet are too small,” “You don’t have natural turn-out,” and “You’re not flexible.” Okay… but I could dance! Because I didn’t let those disabilities bother me, I believed – and made everyone else believe – I was an amazing dancer.

CC!: What advice would you give other teacher-coaches to inspire and motivate young women to become the best they can be?

Kondos Field: Always recognize her weakness and then tell her the opposite. When I was growing up, I was the artistic one and my brother was the great student. He went on to become a rocket scientist. Literally. When I was 10, my mom told me I was just as smart as my brother, but I just didn’t care about school as much because I’d rather be playing the piano or dancing. I’ll never forget when she told me that. It hit me – I’m smart? Mom says I’m smart? I guess I am smart. From then on, I got good grades and graduated from UCLA with honors. My brother’s still a rocket scientist, and I’m still smart.

So when a student-athlete is struggling academically, I tell her she’s smart but just needs to learn how to study more effectively. When a student-athlete is struggling with her weight, I tell her she’s beautiful and can become anything she wants to be. If a student-athlete doesn’t compete well, I remind her that she has a very strong mind – so strong that she allows it to get in her way negatively. If she would take that same strength and think positively, she’d have different results.

I discuss this a lot with them: Your perception becomes your reality. When my perception shifted to realizing I was smart, I became a better student. When I danced, my perception was that I was an amazingly beautiful ballerina. Consequently, I got cast in many wonderful roles.

Agreed and agreed!  Nothing much else to say, except I hope that inspires some other people out there to keep chipping away at their weaknesses or maybe compliment someone out there (a student, friend, whatever) who is struggling.

But this really has little to do what I had planned for this entry, so I’m about to ambush you with a DVD review.  Surprise!

I’ve been distracted with the Olympics (hence the infrequent blogging, not to mention an overabundance of posts last week…I needed a little break) but yesterday I did squeeze in watching Born to be Wild: The Leading Men of American Ballet Theater.  A PBS special that was originally broadcast in 2002, it features ABT principals Ethan Stiefel, Vladimir Malakhov, Jose Manuel Carreño and Angel Corella.  I put off watching this DVD for a while because honestly, judging by the title I was prepared to be horrified.  Displays of machismo always fail to impress me and often make the subject of such a display look foolish, in my opinion.  Not to mention the fact that Born to be Wild recalls heinous sixth grade band concerts and marching band tunes that I did not care for.  My fears were somewhat actualized when the documentary opened with Ethan Stiefel, with a creature growing on his lower lip (a “soul patch?”), a bandana tied around his head, talking about how the best part of being a ballet dancer was getting to manhandle beautiful women.  I’m pretty sure (and hope to Billy Elliot) that the comment was tongue-in-cheek (he seemed to be getting a good laugh out of it), but I couldn’t help but feel the urge to “facepalm” and think “well that was two steps back for mankind.”

Once you get past that little calamity, it’s actually a really neat (albeit brief, less than an hour) documentary.  All four dancers come from different countries with different training backgrounds so it’s interesting to see all of that in action.  You get to see old competition footage, performance clips and rehearsal video for a piece entitled Non Troppo choreographed by Mark Morris, which is shown in full at the very end.  The documentary was anything but wild, which leads me to believe that the title given to it might very well be the worst title in the history of documentary title bestowing.  I don’t know who thought it would be some kind of effective marketing ploy, but really, such elegant and virtuosic dancing, insightful interviews, footage in the makeup chairs and a whimsical Mark Morris piece to a Schumann piano quintet aren’t going to convince the general populace that ballet is wild.  The only remotely wild element was the fact that Stiefel rides a motorcycle.  And maybe the part when the men were jumping on a trampoline and striking incredible aerial poses for a photo shoot.  I’m all for unconventional definitions of terms like “wild” and there are certainly wild ballets and dancers but this was not the way to do it.  Marketing FAIL.

My favorite profiles were on Corella and Malakhov, because of course I think they had the funniest anecdotes to tell, like how Corella found ballet because he wasn’t good at soccer and at karate some kid had kicked another one in the mouth so there was blood and screaming.  Or how one dance he performed, a Russian dance, included things he couldn’t do now (probably the move where he lands in a center split), not to mention Madrid is such a beautiful city.  Malakhov is far different, with the typical tragic Russian (Ukrainian) story of having to leave his family and also having to deal with politics that kept him out of the Bolshoi Ballet, which he decided on his own he didn’t want to be in anyway.  Through it all, he has a healthy sense of humor, a decidedly human appetite for junk food and of all the men, the loudest wardrobe.  You have to love that he’s daring with color in his dancewear.  While the other men are in black clothes, Malakhov doesn’t shy away from full body red or purple ensembles.  And why shouldn’t he?  He looks great in those colors!

Non Troppo rehearsals are interspersed throughout and Morris himself is quite an entertaining choreographer.  It was just fun to watch his process and see a choreographer who doesn’t take himself too seriously and yet he creates this beautiful work that is incredibly musical.  I love that he always carries the mini-score of the music he’s using (I love mini-scores…cute and useful) and his understanding of the music itself shows in the details of the choreography.  He’ll repeat certain phrases but change them the second time around to reflect differences in the dynamics of the music.  It’s capricious and very satisfying to watch.  It’s organized (again, anything but wild) and while there is no specific narrative there are moments of sensitivity like holding hands or the way they support each other in arabesque and spin their partners ’round in a promenade.  There is of course a “cross leaping” moment, which is signature Mark Morris, where dancers will leap downstage on diagonals crossing in front of each other.  Susan Hadley, a professor with OSU danced for Mark Morris and I remember when she choreographed a piece for BalletMet a few years ago, she too, had a cross leaping moment.  A good idea is a good idea.

While most parts of the documentary are indeed on YouTube, I definitely recommend a viewing of Non Troppo.  It’s seven and a half minutes that are entirely worth your time and you can really see the individual styles of each dancer.  Malakhov in particular (who you can easily identify because he’s the puma in the red shirt that is all limbs) tosses his head back in a way that is so distinctly Russian…you gotta love it.

Imposterous! How dancers can learn to be gymnastics-savvy, Part II

19 Aug

Are there more contemporary styles of dance in gymnastics?  Absolutely.  In the late 80’s/early 90’s, a very special, truly one-of-a-kind gymnast came along, by the name of Stella Umeh.  She is by far one of the best dancers to ever take to the gymnastics floor, and she brought with her an aesthetic that was vastly underappreciated at the time (isn’t that kind of true with all modern dance?  Like, if it doesn’t anger the establishment then you haven’t done enough).  She also hails from Canada, which was never a gymnastics powerhouse and was more than likely a victim of politics and racism.  One of the highlights of her career was winning the 1994 Commonwealth Games All-Around title, after which she retired from the elite scene and accepted a scholarship to compete at UCLA (more on that later!).  Pretty damn good for a girl who got started in gymnastics because her mom got lost and ended up stopping at a gymnastics club to ask for directions.

Not only did Stella use percussive music (which was virtually unheard of), her floor routines were choreographed by her sister who would turn on the music, have Stella improvise and they would clean things up from there.  This resulted in the most exhausting floor routines known to man, because the movement would basically never stop and continue from phrase to phrase (As it should be…today we just get a lot of crappy posing).

As I mentioned before, Stella went on to compete at UCLA in 1994, which was also around the time when gymnastics dance started to get really crappy.  Some of the best dancing then appeared in the “underground” so to speak, which was NCAA gymnastics.    Stella continued to have her sister choreograph for her, but she was recruited by one of my idols, the one and only Miss Val (short for Valorie Kondos-Field) to compete for UCLA.  Miss Val was actually a professional dancer herself before having anything to do with gymnastics.  From her bio at the UCLA gymnastics website (Read her full bio here):

Kondos Field’s professional journey has been a unique one. A former professional ballet dancer with the Sacramento Ballet, Capital City Ballet and Washington, D.C. Ballet, she initially got her start in gymnastics at Agilites in Carmichael, Calif. by playing the piano for floor exercise music. From there, she became a dance coach, and under the guidance of current University of Minnesota co-head coach Jim Stephenson, learned the fundamentals of the sport. In 1983, she was hired to be UCLA’s assistant coach and choreographer.

She is now the head coach, and THIS is the recipe for success people.  While Umeh had artistic reign over herself, Miss Val was busy creating routines dances for the other members of the UCLA team.  Even though her background is in ballet, she does EVERYTHING including jazz and modern, and even recently recruited a gymnast a few years ago (Ariana Berlin) who is a hip hop dancer, and included some popping and breaking in her routines.  And it’s REAL hip hop…because it should be noted that there’s a lot of Billy-awful “hip hop” routines in NCAA gymnastics.  Come to think of it, there’s a lot of lackluster dancing in general, because not every college can be in a situation like UCLA, and have access to a really great choreographer, but there’s much more of the good stuff in NCAA rather than international elite (which basically consists of unstylized poses with flexed wrists and hyper extended fingers).  Pop quiz (assuming you read my previous entry) but what is one of the factors that this can be attributed to?  If you answered “NCAA still uses the 10.0 scoring system”, you would be correct.  If you had no idea, it means you’re not a cheater because I don’t think I mentioned anything about the NCAA scoring system.  Oops.

Anyway, lots of Miss Val’s work is legendary, consistently amongst fans’ “favorite floor routines” lists, so I shall give you a sampling of her works.

Something a little jazzier, performed by Jamie Dantzscher to music from the Tomb Rider soundtrack:

Something a little more modern (coincidentally, Kate Richardson is another Canadian.  Her Leah Homma, and Yvonne Tousek are among my favorite UCLA gymnasts, all Canadian.  Miss Val has a knack for picking out Canada’s best)

Miss Val was once asked what her favorite routine was, and I believe she responded with a routine she did for Heidi Moneymaker (now a stuntwoman) set to Taiko drums.  One of the best things about Miss Val too is that she picks a diverse array of music.  The Taiko routine is the second routine in the video below (although Heidi’s other routines were also fantastic).

Now if Miss Val is the queen of choreography, there is another coach, Kristen Smyth (head coach at Stanford) who deserves an honorable mention.  Smyth was a gymnast and danced professionally for a few years in the Bay area, and while her body of work as head coach at Stanford hasn’t been the strongest, one of the most legendary floor routines of all time was choreographed by her for Liz Reid while an assistant coach at Arizona State.  This routine is held in even higher regard to much of what Miss Val has done.  A definite must see:

So there you have it…a crash course in the history of gymnastics dance.  Although far from in depth, at least you have an ace up your sleeve to make you seem like a gymn-snob, and that’s always fun to do once in a while.  Or at the very least, now you have something to help you procrastinate if you feel like trolling around youtube for great dance combined with the cheap thrills we get from awesome tumbling, while avoiding the sheety stuff.  Lots of UCLA and Stella Umeh to see, and so little time!