Building beauty


credit: gettyimagesIn synchronised swimming, what do the Olympic gold performance and the 24th place of the duet event have in common? What is the shared experience of the winner of a World Championships’ medal and an athlete coming from an emerging country? Two things: many hours of endless work and choreography in the water. For many years known as “aquatic ballet”, synchronised swimming’s main addedvalue is the display of a complicated figure routine in an element that makes things more difficult to achieve, namely the water.

Many who have once watched a synchronised swimming routine, either on TV or at an international competition, recall the moment as amazing. It all looks so effortless, while the fitness of the swimmers and their radiant smiles stand out as an important prelude to their stunning performance in the water.
If synchronised swimming is often seen as a breath-taking expression of artistic beauty, one often overlooks the technical skills and hard work that athletes endure to achieve excellence.

What steps are necessary for such excellence and success? We put that question to experts in the field. Experienced coaches Denise Sauvé (CAN) and Anna Tarrés (ESP) have placed their teams at the top of the synchro world hierarchy, with Canada winning two bronze medals (Solo Technical and Combination) and Spain sweeping one gold (Combination) and six silvers (Solo, Duet and Team events both Technical and Free) at the 2009 FINA

World Championships in Rome.
The coaches join Virginia Jasontek, FINA Technical Synchronised Swimming Committee (TSSC) Honorary Secretary, and Jenna Randall, the British synchro swimmer, in sharing their keys to success and commenting on the recent evolution of the competition format.

The first steps

Let’s look deeper into the concept of choreographybuilding. Our coaches ex - plain the main steps that allow a vision to become real. Their methods are clearcut and pragmatic.

“The first step is to do a good selection of the swimmers,” says Denise Sauvé. Then the coaches look for a theme and select the music which will inspire and represent the theme. “Music selection and theme go hand in hand and are the most important,” notes Anna Tarrés. The theme must be original (it has never been heard before) and universal (everyone can easily recognise it), she adds.

Anna Tarrés recalls how she found her theme and music for the Team Free choreography performed at the World Champion ships in Rome last year and named “haunted house”: “The idea came from a family visit to the amusement park Tibidabo in Barcelona (ESP), where there was an attraction – a 3D movie – called “haunted house”. It was there that I decided that the next choreography would have the same theme.” A few days later, the Spanish coach brought her swimmers as well as the team’s musician, Salvador Mist, to the park so that everyone could better picture the idea the coach had in mind. Then, a brainstorming of ideas took place before the team started to work on what will ultimately become a complete competitive presentation.

At the same time, Anna Tarrés works on the musical idea and Salvador Mist starts producing different versions. “All that is within my reach is a source of inspiration,” confides the Spanish coach, who also refers to other sports, such as ice-skating, gymnastics and dance, and even turns to theatre plays.

Music selection may depend on the routine as well. For team technical routines, Denise Sauvé provides a tip: “It is better to choose music with the same pace all the time so the synchronisation of the eight swimmers is better.” As for the Spanish coach, she tries to establish a connection between the music and the host country of the competition, or find an original rhythm.

The next phase is probably the most demanding in terms of creativity; the search for movements (which in - cludes acrobatics, throws, lifts, figures, hybrids, strokes, etc.). While processing, coaches must keep in mind both the artistic potential and technical abilities of their swimmers. The Spanish coach pinpoints the basics: “I look for different and interesting leg movements to create original figures. At the same time, the whole team together seek ideas for acrobatics, throws and lifts.

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For her part, Synchro Canada coach comments on the relevance of lifts: “It is very important as our sport progresses, especially because the team events are the most spectacular. It is very important for the research and the movements.” Because these are often the best part of the show – they also demonstrate the athlete’s technical skills – they must be placed strategically within the choreography, where the judges and audience can best appreciate them. Body strength and control also play an important role in figures, adds the Canadian coach: “They need to be the most accurate as possible; at their maximum height, the athletes also need to respect the description of the technical elements.” All this, says Anna Tarrés, takes about a month. Then, the coaches start looking for arm sections, or strokes. “It gives the movement in the choreography,” says Denise Sauvé. They also try to put the finishing touches on the search for movements. The Spanish coach’s modus operandi is very practical in this regard: “I usually try to have two leg figures for each minute of music, one with a high artistic content and the other with a high technical content.” For acrobatic movements, the Spanish coach tries to include at least one in every part of the theme presented in the routine.

Two other ‘technical’ aspects are not to be omitted in synchro choreography; deck work and pool coverage. Deck work – it lasts ten seconds before the swimmers’ entry into the water – is prominent because it gives the ‘flavour’ of the routine; the audience and judges build their first impression on it, notes Denise Sauvé. “It also allows you to show the athletes’ skills on the ground before they do it in the water,” she adds. TSSC Honorary Secretary Virginia Jasontek, comments on pool coverage, the importance of which may at first not be obvious: “This refers to the pathway the swimmer takes through the water. In today’s world of swimming for large audiences, it is especially important to cover the pool and demonstrate the strength of propulsion throughout the performance.”

Technique alone is not sufficient to build-up a synchro choreography. Artistic creativity is all the more important, says Denise Sauvé: “It gives the quality of the movement.” Anna Tarrés adds: “It comes from the constant search for new movements.” Still on the artistic side, Virginia Jasontek sees the creation of patterns as an essential step in the choreography plan: “They are constantly changing and occur so quickly that it is amazing. Most take place on the surface and can be almost magical in how effectively the change occurs.” The Canadian coach sees it as a good way to score as well: “The fact that your choreography has many variations shows the difficulty of the routine.” 

The last artistic step is the design of swimsuits, together with makeup and headpieces. They will emphasise the theme and music of the routine. Anna Tarrés says it also gives way to their artistic will: “We try to go beyond the established norm with the use of sequins, and find innovative ideas, simple but representative.” These are pretty much the bare bones of synchro choreography building. It gives a telling indication of the numerous aspects coaches have in mind when creating from scratches and the long process that applies afterwards. The balance between artistic creativity and technical exigency is also not easy to achieve.

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Putting all the pieces together

Once all the elements of the choreography have been created, the coach must now find the right combination to give the routine its smoothness and homogeneity. “It’s like making a puzzle,” says Anna Tarrés. There is a part in the choreography where each element best fits. The Spanish coach takes a systematic approach: “Firstly, we place the figures, then the acrobatics and the combined elements, and finally the arm sections, and from there, we fill the remaining spaces with strokes.”

It is astonishing to see how a complex construction can transform into a perfectly homogeneous and fluid performance. Following this idea, Virginia Jasontek explains the importance of harmonising it all: “All of these elements must be coordinated and in harmony if the choreography is to achieve that level where the athletes are communicating with the judges and audience.” She also reminds us that the final result is obtained after a long but exciting process, which evolves and changes constantly: “Great choreography is the result of endless hours of playing with ideas, creating new hybrids, playing the music and allowing creative genius to flow from swimmers and the choreographer together. Finally, the choreography gels and the ‘team’ can see that the choreographic picture is a whole entity that has taken on a life of its own. What a thrill!”

During the whole process, team members are as active as their coach. Asked whether she can add her personal touch, Jenna Randall, says: “Yes all the time; our routines are mainly choreographed by us, the athletes. We all work together. The coaches help us to develop our ideas to a high standard and will also have some ideas they think would go well into the routine. At the end of the day, we are the ones swimming the routine. It’s a great feeling when you know you have had input into it and worked hard to make it your own.

The importance of these elements lies also in the fact that many of them – variety, creativity, pool coverage, patterns and transitions – account for half of the artistic impression score.

Each event its choreography

Whether you swim a Solo, Duet or Team event – free or technical – the elements you will highlight and enhance in the choreography are not the same. For example, Solo is the type of event that re - quires great charisma from the swimmer, explains Jenna Randall: “Solos are all about just you portraying a story to the audience and the judges. Because of this, everything has to be bigger and better. You need to show your own style in the routine to make it unique.

The British swimmer refers to Spanish icon Gemma Mengual to illustrate her thought: “She does it with such passion and grace that it makes me want to watch her all day. Over the years I have really tried to copy her in a way, to get the feeling of how much I need to pour passion into my routine. I think you can never do too much.

Asked about what makes a “good” Solo choreography, Jenna Randall gives a few tips: “In Solos we have a lot of spin figures in the routine; this is because spins show the strength and great technical skills of the athlete. To get the artistic scores up at the same time, you need to show passion, look confident in the pool like you own it, eyeball the judges and have interesting and different movements in the routine.” Two (Solo technical routine) or three minutes (Solo free routine) are really a challenge to put all that together! Similarly, the Duet has its own specificities regarding choreography building. One aspect which specifically relates to Duet is symmetry, or mirror effect. Not surprising then that we sometimes find twins or sisters as Duet swimmers. Jenna Randall describes how she works that aspect with coach Elizabeth Price, together with swimming partner Olivia Allison: “We will use the video camera to film ourselves and try to make it exactly the same. The camera will be played back in slow motion to make sure we are in synchronisation with each other, as this shows the mistakes more clearly. We also do a lot of dry work too. We will walk through the routine with our arms making sure we show all the movements and transitions underwater the same and together. Land drill is an important part in our sport. If we correct everything on land it will then translate into the water.

Jenna Randall, whose goals for the 2012 London Olympics is to finish in the top six for the Duet event and between the eight and sixth places for the Team event, sees the home Games as a real chance for the British synchro team to evolve quickly, while gaining momentum and credibility: “We are working extremely hard to make the routine at 2012 our masterpiece, hoping that this will show our country that synchronised swimming is a sport!

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Evolution prospects… endless or limited?

The need for constant renovation and update of the ways to build a choreography has also been dictated, these last years, by the transformation of the sport into a more spectacular (and specialised) discipline. The creation of the Combination event (mixing the “traditional” solo, duet and team into a single routine) and the introduction of the World trophy (where only artistic impression counts for final ranking and accessories can be used) accelerated this process. The synchro family is obviously thrilled with these new possibilities. “The Combination event is a great opportunity to show the artistic side of the sport. Also, with ten athletes in this event, it allows us to present more swimmers on the international scene,” says Denise Sauvé. Virginia Jasontek also compliments the creation of the Combination event: “It continues to evolve into a truly unique and entertaining phenomenon.” Anna Tarrés concludes: “It was a very wise decision, since we can now show two important aspects of synchro; technique on one side and artistic on the other. It is also important to reward teams that make significant efforts in bringing new creative elements in the free routine choreography, while the separation of free and technical routines at the FINA World Championships makes the competition fairer.”

The same level of acceptance is valid for the World Trophy. Denise Sauvé confides: “I think it shows the artistic and ‘show’ side of synchronised swimming at its best.” TSSC Honorary Sec ret ary Virginia Jasontek adds: “The FINA World Trophy highlights the artistic side of synchronised swimming. More over, the use of accessories in some of the events has resulted in some very interesting performances.”But do these new trends have their limits? In the Team and Combination event, the tendency (well received by spectators, media, and in some extent by the judges) for more spectacular figures and faster-execution of transitions or leg movements has become quite strong. Virginia Jasontek provides the keywords of this new reality: “Speed, repetition of movements, connected movements, height and explosiveness of lifts, energy.”

Canadian coach Denise Sauvé gives her experimented view on this phenomenon: “We are actually in that tendency. However, I think we get more and more away of the beauty of this sport. I think we are more and more ‘robotic’ and then, we are more away of the creation of an emotive relationship with the audience.” While Anna Tarrés favours that tendency and hopes it will last, the Canadian coach thinks the faster-stronger-more-spectacular trend is short-lived: “I have been a coach for 30 years now and, during all those years, I saw all styles. In the past, choreographies were slower. I think we will see the pendulum effect at some point. I don’t think we will be able to always be at the maximum all the time. It’s like fashion: it is cyclical!”

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