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Sport as Art
An Alternate Olympic Commentary
[This article was never printed by ARC, and I never argued too much about it. It is a bit off topic. Still, I took the time to write it, so I may as well post it here.]
Some may find it odd to discover sport commentary on ARC, especially from one who, only scant weeks ago, dismissed sport as unimportant. And odd it is—so much the better, I think, in this age of conformity—an age when the range of discussion upon almost every topic has constricted to near unity. A bilateral argument has become a sign of great tolerance; and a trilateral argument, well, that would be considered chaos. So if I don't appear gloriously out of touch and fabulously marginalized here, it won't be from a lack of trying.
I honestly have nothing against sport, as a category, or even against watching sport. As a young man I pursued several sports seriously and I still keep myself in sporting shape. I have watched a lot of sport with great enjoyment, and I sometimes enjoy watching it even now. But the commercialization of sport—the disproportionate amount of money and hype involved—has come very close to souring me on watching sport altogether. I do not think I am alone in this.
Concerning the Olympics, it occurs to me that it was a great mistake to allow professionals into the games. They have not so much raised the bar as polluted the pool. The so-called Dream Team is the best example. Allen Iverson, with his full-body tattoos, trash talk and flagrant fouls, is a disgrace to his country, and the rest of the team and coaches are not much better. Nor is good sportsmanship in evidence in other venues or from other countries. Swimmers refusing to shake hands with eachother, cyclists throwing their bottles down and stamping their feet, track stars strutting and posing, and everyone making excuses and filing protests. The doping scandals are only the cherry on top of this infamous sundae.
Now is where I become eccentric. The whole worth of the Olympics has dwindled for me to the beauty of one sport: Rhythmic Gymnastics. Not what is called Artistic Gymnastics—the tumbling and balance beam and all that. No, there is a lot of skill but very little art left in Artistic Gymnastics. As the girls have become younger and younger the art—that is to say the dance—has been gleaned out of the exercises. Beyond the physical beauty of the bodies there is little left to appeal to an artist's eye.
But Rhythmic Gymnastics, as almost pure dance, has remained an art, even when lost amidst the deafening spectacle of hypersport surrounding it in other venues. Invented by Isadora Duncan, one the founders of Modern Dance, Rhythmic Gymnastics is unlike any other event of the games. Although Duncan was American, Rhythmic became big first in the East, especially in Russia. It was dominated by Eastern Bloc countries until recently, when the Mediterranean States have also taken an interest, and taken medals. Some will remember that Spain's program peaked in Barcelona, and Italy is now strong as well.
In the US most consider it a joke, I take it, somewhere beneath the seriousness of bad minton and skeet shooting. Underfed waifs from Kiev kicking a hoop about on a mat. It normally gets aired after Letterman and Conan, and even then the announcer will cutaway for an emergency update from synchronized shuffleboard or the knitting heptathlon. Fortunately, here in Europe the coverage is much better. The Spanish and German stations carry it in primetime, and today I even got to watch team Rhythmic for the first time—full coverage of a qualifying round! But you have to understand that there are no car or drug commercials here, so the stations have an extra six or eight hours to fill out of every 24. In the US and UK it is also required that you watch touching and poignant mini-biographies of all the millionaire athletes: their trails and tribulations and all recent family tragedies—how Dad is suffering from chilblains and how Rover the three-legged dog saved the neighbor's guinea pig from that open well, and so on. It is a blessing they even have time to run the events.
Rhythmic Gymnastics is deceptively simple. It is a dance to music, performed with a prop. The props are five in number: ball, hoop, ribbon, rope, and clubs. Each prop is used alone; that is, the dancer works with a ball or a hoop, but not both. In team Rhythmic, the team of five uses either ribbons or hoops and balls. The purest routine is performed by a single dancer with a ball. The ball, despite being thrown, bounced and balanced in extraordinary ways, is meant to appear an extension of the dancer's body. Some will think of a stripped-down Cirque du Soleil when they first see Rhythmic, but it has more in common with the ballet. Like the ballet, Rhythmic showcases feminine beauty. But here males do not take part even as courtiers. Dancers have years of ballet training and they look like ballerinas, tall and lean. There is a greater attention to costumes than in Artistic Gymnastics, although dancers never wear tutus or headpieces. Many routines are performed to classical or orchestral music, or, as in the case of the Chinese or the Spanish, to regional music. The music is not just background, as it is in a tumbling routine. It sets the mood for the art.
Rhythmic dancers are famous for their rubber backs and legs, but unlike the Chinese acrobats in the circus, they never put themselves in ungraceful or painful-looking positions. The art is to make every leap and turn look easy and flowing, not to make it look freakish. A ball or hoop is balanced or caught in midair not to elicit a gasp but to create an artistic effect. The greatest gymnasts are not those with the greatest technical difficulty but those who have demonstrated the greatest artistic use of the prop. This has not changed in recent years, although difficulty has definitely increased. Dancers are still shown tapes of masters like Timoschenko, who dominated the sport with routines of relatively low difficulty and innovation. And judges seem to remain aware of their sport's tradition, despite the pressure of novelty.
Not that there isn't some danger of Rhythmic devolving into circus tricks. Cirque du Soleil often hires from the Rhythmic corps, and the modern tendency to turn everything into a glitzy spectacle has not escaped the sport. It, like everything else, is liable to fall prey to its own success. In trying to appeal to a wider audience, it sets itself up for bastardization and Bowdlerizing. But, as of now, it is still a very beautiful form of disciplined dance—one of the few left in the world.
I suppose the question is, in this forum, why do I consider Rhythmic to be dance, and therefore a form of art, whereas all the other events at the Olympics are only sports. It is due, in the main, to its emphasis on artistic presentation. It was invented by a dancer to be a dance, and it remains a dance. That is, it is set to music and, at its best, expresses emotion. It is not just a limit of speed or endurance or precision, it is a complex craft learned to produce an artistic effect. No other Olympic sport can say this. Diving is a lovely use of space, and were it set to music and a bit more complex it might claim to be dance. Its setting and judging preclude this however. Diving judges can legally take no note of the diver's body or clothing. An ugly swimsuit or bad haircut is of no interest. In Rhythmic these things matter because they are part of the effect of the dance. Even a bruise or a bandage can cause a negative impression. The dance cannot be beautiful if the dancer is not beautiful.
Some of course will say that all this makes Rhythmic sexist, regressive, and prejudicial against non-waifs. But for me it is the very reason that it transcends the category of sport. It is not about higher, stronger, faster. Nor is it a game, where one tries to outscore an opponent by completing a practical task—putting a ball into a basket, hitting a target, jumping a fence. The dancer's sole object is to create beauty, and she is judged predominately on her ability to do so.
The Winter Olympics has figure skating, which retains its marks for artistic impression. But although it can sometimes attain the level of art—I am thinking of Oksana Bayul in 1994—it rarely does anymore. Figure skating has followed Artistic Gymnastics in preferring jumps and spins to artistry, and a routine that has very little dance or art in it may score high if it has the requisite number of triples. Few skaters outside Russia have extensive dance training, and the trend seems to be to make skating more athletic and less artistic. Even when dance remains in skating, it remains only as a cool formalism. The difference between Michelle Kwan and Oksana Bayul is one of feeling. Oksana intuitively understood that dance was invented to express emotion. Michelle learned the movements by rote, so that her grace carried no feeling with it. She was lovely but flat.
Of course this is always a problem in all dances, from ballet to tango, and indeed in all the arts. Most Rhythmic Gymnasts suffer from it, most pianists suffer from it, most painters suffer from it. A technique that is flawless but flat. Athletic performances need not concern themselves with such things, since flawless execution is all there is in sport. Sport generates excitement in other ways—competition, rivalry, patriotism, suspense, and pure sweat. Melancholy, nostalgia, longing—these subtler and deeper emotions of art have no place in sport. No one was surprised to find them in Oksana's Black Swan routine, since she was skating to Tchaikovsky, but these emotions would be strange if elicited by an archery contest or a hockey match.
That is the ultimate difference between art and sport. That is why art is a skill of a different order and why artists have historically been valued over athletes. They are rarer; they cause a deeper and more lasting impression. And they educate the spirit. Watching sport is a temporary thrill; viewing art is a broadening of the mind. Beyond the passion to win, and the emotion of winning (and losing), sport is mostly passionless and emotionless. The emotional complexity of sport is near zero. This is part of its charm, no doubt, even for intellectuals: it allows the mind to rest. Sport is a physical activity requiring little or no intellect. Athletes may be intelligent, but there is usually no reason for them to be. The finest athletes are often quite ignorant people. I know this is the common opinion regarding artists, too, but if you read the letters of Michelangelo or van Gogh or Rodin or Whistler or even Duchamp, you discover an intellect of a much higher order than that of a Michael Jordan or a Jack Nicklaus.
You will say that is not the question here. I am proposing Rhythmic Gymnastics as an art, so I must prove that these girls with their hoops and balls are smarter than their counterparts in the 110m hurdles or in weightlifting. That would be beyond me, obviously, but it is not necessary. Most of the intellectual content and some of the emotional content of any dance is provided by its inventor, its choreographer, and the composer and performer of the music. A dance is artistic not because the specific dancer is a genius but because its form sets up the potential for a beautiful performance in the hands, or legs, of a talented dancer. Sport has none of this. The closest it comes is a coach preparing a play, as in basketball. I don’t think I need to prove that Isadora Duncan, Tchaikovsky, and dance choreographers trained at the Kirov are intellectually and artistically superior to the Dream Team coaches.
In closing I will make a couple of comments concerning the presentation of Rhythmic Gymnastics. I feel that the artistic effect of the dance would be greatly increased by better lighting. Lower, warmer lighting and the use of spots, rather than the superbright floods, would create a much more pleasing atmosphere. The audience and surrounding walls should also be blacked out, for the same reason. The background is entirely too busy for the viewer to see the subtle movements of the various apparati.
I also noticed that most routines in these games were choreographed to very up-tempo music, in order to allow the dancer to better pack the routine with maneuvers. This is a mistake, I feel. Many of the finest routines of the past, especially with the ball, were danced to slower, more lyrical music. The hoop and even the ribbon can also be danced quite successfully to slower music. As a dance the appeal of which is due mainly to its classical elements, Rhythmic should flee more modern noisy music and all hectic disquieting music. It should also beware of garish colors in costume and prop. This year’s winner Kabaeva danced with an apple-green ribbon while dressed in a sequined black leotard—a major visual faux-pas. Other competitors’ costumes were equally colorblind. For me, the costumes are most effective that are both regional and traditional. Either that or completely simple—like a one-color leotard that takes into account the dancer’s skintone. Baby blue on black skin or hot pink on alabaster skin cannot work, for example.
And finally, the dance has an entire category specifically reserved for artistic effect, but the judges seem unaware or unconfident how to use it. It should be used as a very strong counterweight both to the “difficulty” mark and to the marks for errors in execution. An extraordinarily beautiful dancer with a couple of minor errors should never lose to a less beautiful dancer with a perfect routine. Nor should a boring routine with great difficulty outscore a beautiful and exciting routine with less difficulty.
As in figure skating, the judges and ruling body of Rhythmic must continually strengthen the marks for artistic impression or they will end up being drowned out by ever-increasing difficulty in execution. Until very recently, Rhythmic seemed to be dealing with this issue. These Olympics games gave me somewhat less confidence.