Jan. 31, 2003
Although freestyles were a normal part of the dressage world by 2003, the debate continued over how to marry the artistic and technical merits.
The musical freestyle, once a rarity, is now firmly entrenched in the world of competitive dressage. The World Cup first required freestyles in 1986, and they were added to the Olympic format in 1996. And while it is growing in popularity among riders and spectators, many people are not sure just what it should be.
Some horsemen believe the freestyle is not “free” enough. Others, especially more technically-oriented riders, said it is already too free. “For years I hated the freestyle because I preferred the technical side of dressage,” said Tom Noone. “My mom made me do one when I was 15, and I still hated it.”
But by the time he reached Grand Prix, Noone had acquired a taste for the discipline, and in 1997, aboard Fresco, he earned the national freestyle championship. “When I started doing Grand Prix freestyles I thought, ‘Hey, I do really like this,’ ” he said.
Not every rider goes through such a conversion. “A good number of the Grand Prix riders I know feel that the freestyle is arduous and not very fun,” said Patricia Norcia. “They feel the competitive freestyle is too constraining.”
Norcia, of New York, N.Y., competes in dressage but not freestyles. An actress, choreographer and dancer, she created Dances With Horses, a theatrical troupe of 15 dancers and eight pairs of riders and horses that has performed throughout the East Coast.
Promoters of the freestyle want more individual expression in competition and hope to draw more spectators to the sport. Few spectators find the standard tests entertaining, and the freestyle is definitely more popular. At Dressage At Devon (Pa.), for example, a full house can usually be found for the Saturday evening freestyles.
These spectators, however, still tend to be those who love horses. In order to attract more mass appeal, dressage needs to reach outside the horse-loving crowd and into mainstream society. The freestyle can help do this, but many riders, judges and even those whose business it is to create freestyles admit that a good freestyle is not always easy to find.
“They often lack artistry,” said FEI judge Volker Moritz.
“The [freestyle] must make the audience feel what you feel,” said Germany’s Ulla Salzgeber, who won the freestyle at the 2002 World Equestrian Games. “You must take this special relationship that you have with your horse and bring that feeling to the audience so that they also have that special feeling.”
According to Norcia, making the audience feel something is a key component of art, and this is where competitive freestyles seem to fall short. It has long been debated whether dressage is art or sport, but the freestyle clearly aims for art. Still, there is room for improvement.
A Creative Challenge
Choreography is one place where the freestyle could be improved, as many riders find it difficult to think “outside the box.”
“The choreography of many freestyles is very organized and rigid, much like the standard tests. It’s like taking the tests and mixing them up with music,” Norcia said. “The movements are done the same way that they are done in the tests, because the tests are all that riders know. They don’t see ‘prettier’ ways of putting the moves together.”
Norcia believes many riders could improve their freestyles with the help of a choreographer, perhaps even someone from outside the equestrian world. “I think that many freestyles would be less boring to spectators if riders worked with someone who is a specialist in movement,” she said.
Terry Ciotti Gallo, founder of Klassic Kur, a Florida-based company that creates freestyles, agreed that riders, accustomed to the movements of the standard tests, often don’t see other options. “In dressage tests, the moves tend to be in isolation rather than in combinations. However, for the freestyle you want to combine movements,” she said.
Gallo has helped several top international riders develop their freestyles. While many of them come up with creative choreography on their own, Gallo adds her extended experience in choreography and dance.
Bettina Drummond, who is known for her musical demonstrations of classical riding, understands why many riders have difficulty with choreography. “If you have trained for 10 years to ride in a particular space to letters and to ride certain moves to please the judge, it’s hard to break out of that. Even the judges are trained to think in terms of the rectangle and certain movements,” she said.
Noone has learned to develop creative choreography, and he admitted it wasn’t easy. “I was very focused on the technical side of dressage, and I really liked the structure of the standard test,” he said. “Now I purposely try hard to avoid the tests. I think neither the judges nor spectators want to see the same moves performed on the same line as the tests.”
Some riders and trainers who focus more on the performance side of dressage rather than the competitive believe that changing the format of the freestyle would go a long way toward increasing its mass appeal.
“The addition of more spectacular movements would make them so much more interesting, such as Spanish walk and trot, pesade, trot and canter to the rear,” said French equestrian artist Jean Louis Sauvat.
Sauvat is involved in the Versailles Academy of Equestrian Performance, which is being created in the centuries-old equestrian school at the Palace of Versailles in France. The leader in the creation of the school is Bartabas, known to most Americans for his equestrian theater troupe, Zingaro, which as occasionally performed in the United States.