Building Your Kur (Freestyle) - a season at a glance
By Devon Maitozo
(This article, written nearly 15 years ago, was meant for experienced competitive vaulters who were looking for some more guidance on how to develop their Kur (currently known as a “Freestyle”) that would help bring them to the next level competitively as an athlete and performer. Although some of the reverences may reflect outdated terminology, these concepts are all still very much relevant in today’s vaulting.)
Now it’s time to actually put the pieces together. With all these concepts in mind, we are all still left asking some key questions.
Where do I start?
How do I apply all this to what I can do?
What if I just don’t have enough “good” ideas?
The fact is, we all are left with the task of getting a kur ready for competition despite the feeling that we need more practice. When we first build our kur we are trying to find the optimal format for performing what we have to offer as a vaulter. It would be of no use to design a new kur on the barrel made up entirely of brand new exercises and techniques never before attempted. This would most likely lead to a disappointing experience, as well as a dangerous one. We should feel that the new kur is in our grasp, despite its difficulty. After all, the performance of our kur has the most impact on our final score. A kur is only as interesting as is our ability to perform it well. With that in mind, technique, form, and experience with a broad range of vaulting exercises go a long way. When we have assembled the building blocks of what we want to include in our kur, we can then begin the never-ending “refining” process. That’s when our design touches the outside world and shows them who we are, and not just what we can do. In this sense, choreography can be taken one step at a time.
Here’s a basic breakdown:
Scope and Levels
First things first, Experiment!
Expand your Repertoire
Work on your repertoire of exercises, transitions, down and ups, and dismounts. This is crucial in order to have the foundation necessary for the designing process. The more you have to pull from, the more creative you can be.
The fall and early winter tends to be your most opportune time of the year to focus on experimentation, but it should never stop! You should always leave your mind and body open to new ideas.
Where to Create
You can start on the barrel first, but don’t forget that you can discover new material on the horse through trial and error as well. As long as the safety of yourself and the horse is in mind, finding a new exercise or transition on the horse can often lead you to the most unique concepts.
Revisiting the Past
Take a fresh look at what you already have! Often we find our most interesting and progressive ideas when we take an existing exercise to a new level. For example.... Let’s say you have mastered the forward stag jump. Why not try it with a half- or full-turn. This may lead directly into that cartwheel dismount you’ve been working on. Suddenly, without any totally new exercise, you’ve got an exciting and unique ending to your kur. (This example is theoretical of course, but who knows!?)
You can find the seeds of new vaulting ideas in many places. Gymnastics and dance are the most common and often richest resources, but there are many others. Open your mind to the infinite abundance of outside inspiration. Martial arts, exotic animals, yoga, you name it. Enroll in a dance class if you can. There is a wealth of material out there to be exploited. It simply takes you to experience a movement you like, and then to say, “I wonder if that could work on the horse...?” Well then, go find out!
Go ahead and learn the exercises done by other vaulters that have intrigued you the most, then change them to make them your own. I don’t mean copy, but don’t ignore the material out there in the vaulting world to be developed. Applying new styles to existing exercises and concepts has been a part of top-level vaulting since the very beginning.
You should always be listening and exploring different music styles even at this early stage of training. You may find that one kind of music intrigues you, but when you play it while vaulting, it’s just a distraction. On the other hand, you may discover something that gets you energized and inspires creativity. You’ll never know this if you don’t try vaulting to music during training on occasion. The more options you have to choose from later, the more likely you will be happy with your choice when it can’t wait any longer.
Structure. . . It’s time to take inventory.
Okay, you’ve been messing around on the barrel and the horse, and with all the experimentation, there are a couple new “crazy” or “interesting” moves that seem like they might just work. Only problem. . . It’s mid-December, and you don’t have anything resembling a kur as of yet. As vaulters, we are used to cramming before competition, so there’s no need to panic yet, but it is time to put the pieces together as best you can. If you’ve been productive in your training, you will have tried to string different moves together in different ways. Some combinations stuck, some didn’t.
Break it down
First you should break down your exercises into small units that fit together. Either an exercise is inherently tied to another, or there are sequences that you have been working on because certain moves just fit together well. Some exercises may still stand alone. Jot all these units or exercises on a piece of paper in a random order. I like to have them in floating bubbles spread around the page. You can also use cue cards to break down these sections or exercises.
Start drawing lines from one bubble to the other (or lay out and number your cards into a specific order), then go and try out the different groupings on the barrel. You should try out many different options, so use your eraser a lot, and don’t hesitate to add new bubbles (cards). At this point, we are only focusing on the general format of your kur. This is rough or “structural” choreography, not stylization.
Beginning and End
Remember that the beginning and the end of your kur will make the biggest impressions, so go to the treasure chest as soon as you can, and save something special (ideally climactic) toward the end.
Now is the time to distribute your exercises with the directions and variety in mind. Spread out those dynamic exercises, change directions regularly, and make sure that the levels can change as you go. (Don’t get too stuck with these problems at this point. This is just the time to make sure that you don’t, for instance, face the inside for three consecutive exercises. Remember, there will be plenty of opportunities to adjust the look of your kur later in the process).
When stringing sequences together, always try erasing the seams whenever possible. A static exercise doesn’t imply that it stands alone, nor should any piece of your kur. Every move should be born from the preceding exercise, as inspire the next. It’s your job to give just as much attention to the connections between exercises as you give their individual development! Pausing or freezing for a movement in your kur is perfectly acceptable and can even be quite powerful, but this should be a choreographic choice made at a later time when your music can play a role.
Start Long, Then Cut
Don’t worry if it’s too long at first. Editing is an easier process than inventing. You will most likely get plenty of input over time as to what is worth keeping and what is expendable.
Once you have an order of exercises that seems to work from beginning to end, document it. Ideally, you should video a run-through on the barrel, but you can also write down a list of descriptions on paper. Repeat this three or more times in order to have entirely different kur formats to compare when you are finished. You will probably end up combining them in some way later.
Scope and Levels. . . Time to Tweak!
Let’s say that it just turned February. At this point I’m hoping that you have strung the most part of a kur together. It may be one of four versions, but their differences are probably more a matter of your kur moves being strung together in various ways. With that said, you may very well have the wealth of three very different kur designs at this point. For those most diligent ones out there, you will have to repeat this process only as much as those routines differ in content, not order. It is now time to adjust what we have already built. Think of it as tuning up your car’s engine. The content is there, but much can be done to improve its performance. The paint job comes later...
Creating Space on the Horse
Think of a great solo dance performance (or ice skating if that is an easier image). Performers have the freedom to explore the space in any way they desire. They may explode from stage-left clear over to stage-right, slowly work their way around the perimeter, and then find a nearly still moment down left. Whatever choices are made, the better performances use that space to express themselves creatively. We must, as well! With some finesse, there are ways to change that horse’s back from the size of a common bench into the immense stage that Baryshnikov would expect in Carnegie Hall. Let’s face it, there just isn’t that much space up there on the horse to work with. Vaulters have to then use some “tricks of the trade” in order to make it appear as if we have all the “space” we need.
This is a technique that doesn’t sound very sophisticated at first, but can, without even being noticed, turn a blocky kur into a smooth one. A very effective way of creating the illusion of travel is to vault in circles. This does not mean to turn around for no apparent reason. The journey from one exercise to the next may look more interesting if you arrived through a turn, but... it should in some way aid in the flow of your previous exercise or transition. Commonly, our center only has to travel less than a foot in order to get from one exercise to the next. A turn can change those few inches into the illusion of expressive travel. Note: Be sure to vary your direction choice. You don’t want to end having a “clockwise” kur
Before you turn in one direction, try reaching or facing as far in the other direction as you can. This technique can be used with the arms while standing, the legs while upside down, or simply with the turn of your head. Take this example for instance: A common way to come out of a shoulder-stand is to slide to outside seat on neck, and then turn over the outside handle to forward prince or kneel on the back. To give this transition flow and scope, one can first split their legs and twist their body in the opposite direction before they “helicopter” their legs around through outside neck and turn seamlessly into the next move. Just open your mind. You can lean or reach backwards before moving forwards, reach to the sky before collapsing down into a ball . . . The possibilities are endless.
Down & Ups
Find a way to connect exercises directly into your down & ups (a.k.a. “ground jumps”) If you normally go to a sitting position before your down & up, try getting into it in a more dynamic manner such as a handstand down & up or a shoulder-stand into a roll down & up. You might just be able to surprise everyone with an unexpected use of momentum and space.
A Musical Choice
Now is the time to get serious about your music if it really is January or February. Not only do you need to decide what it is, but unless you are very lucky or very lazy, you will be editing it together to make a true one-minute musical journey. All of these adjustments to the structure of your kur can be helped by the guidance of well-edited music. If you put as much time and passion into the music as you hopefully do into your kur design, the two will fit together like soul-mates when eventually paired up. Take this process just as seriously as exercise. It can make the difference between a medal and a handshake.
Contraction/ Release (Big/Small)
One level of your kur that you can adjust is your own size. How much space are you taking up at a given time? This can change in response to your music, and can also help accentuate the variety of exercises in your kur. This can mean squeezing into a ball before or after any kind of extension, or it can be a subtle closure before or after encompassing any larger amount of space. This can also express the holding and releasing of energy. This has been a foundation of modern movement for most of a century, but also plays a role in many forms of dance. Try combining this idea with the preceding ones, and your kur may start to have a life of its own.
At this point in the season, you better start editing your kur if you have ninety seconds worth of material strung together. If you can, video yourself at practice. You will probably be able to decide which exercises are worth keeping, and which ones aren’t. If you’re like me, you will have great difficulty letting go of exercises. In this case, trust your coach! You should have yourself timed on the barrel often until it is easily done in under a minute. This timing should then be repeated on the horse. Not all of the time reduction has to be made removing exercises of course. We can always shave seconds off our kur by not wasting any time with unnecessary waiting or sticky points. Just beware of having a kur that looks rushed. Don’t forget that judges are looking for mistakes, and that performance score is still the most important. As I will expand on later, sometimes less is more!
There is not a specific time when a vaulter should start working at this more personal level. The process of coloring your kur with choices of style and expression should play a role throughout the training season. Most of this step is in the revealing of your personality and couldn’t be avoided if you tried. After all, we all naturally express ourselves in different ways. Not only that, some of us are more apt to experiment with different themes or styles over the years, and others work on developing and refining a more signature look. Neither tendency is better. What’s important is that you are excited about the path you are taking. This step comes last because it can only be completed when your music is finalized.
Here are a few of the many methods of exploring and developing the expressive potential of your kur.
What’s Your Theme?
We all have a general idea as to what this means, but not many of us have thought about the different ways of using a theme in our kur. The best fitting definition from the O.E.D. is: an idea that recurs in or pervades a work of art or literature. “Idea” is a pretty vague word, giving us quite a lot of freedom. We don’t have to turn into Batman! That is of course unless Batman is something important to you. All we have to do is think about something, develop that thought through our kur, and make it a part of our performance. Sounds simple enough, or is it?
Do I need one?
Do we want an idea to pervade our work of equestrian art? A specified “theme” is only as important as is its ability to help your kur reach out and impact your audience (especially those judges). Since a theme can help you create cohesion in your own mind of what you are trying to express, it has a great ability to help you express yourself to the outside world. So, the answer is yes, but only if it means something to you. Remember what I referred to earlier about outside inspiration. The same goes for theme. Open your eyes to the world around you and try some “ideas” on for size.
Your theme can be anything from a story expressed through movement and gesture, to the continuity of the forms and shapes that pervade your routine. You can, for example, explore the theme of “water” if you can translate that idea into choreographic choices. You could take one of the qualities of movement referred to earlier and explore it to its full potential. Just always ask yourself if it helps you tie your performance together. You could be a character in a predicament. See if a choice can help create a sense of drama to your routine. Music from a soundtrack can often times inspire a kur to take on the theme of that particular movie. Whatever theme you decide to choose, don’t forget that you are trying to make a memorable experience, and this can be as abstract or literal as your imagination allows.
Sharp vs. Soft
Make sure your kur explores both abrupt and gentle movements. Too much flow without any edge or break can be monotonous. On the other hand, we shouldn’t just jerk around the horse. The most powerful moments tend to be those when we suddenly change our manner of movement.
Try to think about the shapes you are making with your body as well as in space with your extremities. Straight lines and sharp angles can be very interesting when mixed with curves and “roundness”. When exploring the shapes in your kur, try to break them down to the purest form possible. Don’t get too complicated. We are trying to invite the eyes of our audience, not create confusion and disorder.
This does not mean the flow of transitions, rather the flow of movement within your own body. Break dancing is full of this kind of movement. If you have seen “popping”, you notice waves of energy move from one part of the body to another. A kick of the foot can roll all the way through the body until it is released with a tip of the head. You can try turning one part of your body, before letting another part follow. Again, this has infinite potential for application.
This one is hard to explain (much easier to demonstrate) technically, by this I mean the communication of tactile sensation through expressive movement. One can move a hand through the air and communicate the feeling of silk. A choice to grit one’s teeth, claw the fingers, and scratch ones way to the next exercise could be equally as affective in drawing the audience in.
When trying to define how one moves through space, sometimes it is helpful to imagine moving through a substance. This can create a look of resistance to your movement. Try a sequence as if you are moving through oatmeal. Then try with the image of water. Fire could pep up a piece of choreography. Jell-O. The world is your oyster. Yuck, Okay, not that far. That was cheesy. Cheese Whiz? Enough is enough!
Many of the preceding techniques will have an effect on speed. I’m sure you have already gotten the message that speed needs to vary throughout your kur. When making the final touches on your kur, work on your ability to slow down or speed up a section according to the highlights and nuances of your music. Besides improving your composition score, if you are able to perform your kur exercises slowly, you will have much more control when speeding things up later.
Holding the Spotlight!
This is where your personality and passion truly shows. You can spend a year of hard work in training your kur, developing your skill, and refining every nuance, but if you don’t lift your head, open your eyes and look at the outside world during your performance you are removing your ability to create a personal connection with the audience. The expression on your face is the strongest way to express the mood of your kur, and any developments and changes that take place within it. While performing on the horse, you need to create your own little world in that one minute, and you must use every bit of your expressive instrument to bring the spectators inside. If you pull a judge into your world, they become a participant being taken on a journey, and are less in the role of outside critic.
Using Your Music
The music should create the energy that both empowers your performance and in turn draws the audience in. In all the techniques I have listed before, music should play an integral role? If you have found music rich with levels of its own, you will be able to interact with it as if it were a partner. You can do more than just hit the beats occasionally. Try to adjust your choreography to react not only to the highlights in your music, but also let your music react to the highlights in your choreography. Subtle changes in the speed and this call and response can give yet another level of creativity to your kur.
Here’s the final defining moment of your creative process. This is actually a choice that can appear at the very last minute to the surprise of all. A well designed uniform creates that final unified look that makes your kur a multidimensional performance and not just a bunch of tricks and stunts to music. I’m not going to elaborate on the kinds of uniform choices that can be made. Let me list a few important factors you should keep in mind when deciding upon your uniform.
Your uniform should reflect your theme if possible, but not at the expense of your overall aesthetic look. If a choice can be made in a more “simple” or uncomplicated manner, it may have a more powerful, and less distracting effect. In other words, often “less is more”
Remember that your uniform has as much effect upon the lines and shapes of your kur as does your choreography. Beware of lines that cross your limbs and break their length. The look of length in your kur helps your scope and overall composition.
Try not to use too many colors, but pick ones that will help create the mood you are aiming for.
Keep in mind the color of your horse and the colors of your pads. If you plan it right, you can create an entire picture that fits together well.
With the limitations in what is acceptable as uniform in our equestrian sport, have fun with this decision. The first impression of a vaulting performance is the entrance into the arena, not the touching of the grips.
Good Luck! I hope your creative process is a success.