Vulgar Art: A Gymnastics Routine to the Music of the Movie "Schindler's List"

Neviana Vladinova from Bulgaria placed 7th at the Olympics in Rio. She has also consistently been placing among the top 10 gymnasts in the world. Lately, prominent American journalists, who normally do not watch rhythmic gymnastics, much less write or talk about it. These include none other than Stephen Colbert himself, but also an article in Slate:

The article also references a much more famous performance, one by Olympic champion in ice skating Yulia Lipnitskaya, who works with world famous Jewish choreographers:

Before I provide the link to Neviana's routine, I would like to confess that I absolutely love both gymnastics and ice-skating, but that Neviana's performance at the Olympics has moved me more deeply than usual, because, unlike so many others, her routines go beyond showing difficult athletic moves: they make a statement. Now, we can read this statement in more ways than one and, clearly, the author of this article has chosen to read it as vulgar.

  1. lacking sophistication or good taste; unrefined.
    "the vulgar trappings of wealth"

Sure, Neviana placed 7th out of 10 gymnasts, as the author points out, but she is one of few gymnasts in the world to consistently receive scores over 17.5, and over 18 for her routines. The maximum score is 20. While there are at least 6 other people in the world who perform better than Neviana, I think pinning the label "vulgar" on her routine may have just been an attempt to call it "different." This is hardly an unsophisticated piece. In fact, it is a very complex choreography, imperfect as it may be.

We may choose to write in really sophisticated terms, and, of course, subjectively, about the meaning of art. But to me art is a way to express ideas and thoughts through words, musical phrases, images, or movement. Art interprets other ideas as well, it seeks to evoke, and to bring change. And, if 2 minutes of dance to a popular music have managed to disrupt someone's daily routine, that is hardly vulgar. It is extraordinary.

I have been watching gymnastics since 1991. I have watched somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 routines in the span of these 25 years.  I would not go as far as to call any of them "bad taste" but some were more interesting than others, and quite a few of them were beautifully choreographed. Regardless, very few of them made the papers, which is unfortunate. Not even a pretty spectacular routine to "Fiddler on the Roof" by the three-time world champion Maria Petrova!

So, if by "vulgar," we somehow mean that this routine is easier to access on a popular, mass media level, I suppose I would accept that term.

But the truth is that choreography is just like writing, and we ultimately write about the human condition and experience, and, most definitely, about love. This routine writes about love through movements. So does Yulia Lipnitskaya's performance. They would not have been any less about love if the choreographer had chosen a musical piece by Mozart, or by Eminem.


Five Gymnasts Who Can Define and Change Rhythmic Gymnastics Today

So, now that we discussed the gymnasts who did not make the final but one day will be very powerful, how about the ones who shine brightly in the top spots? Who are they and what could they do better?

1. Ganna Rizatdinova, Ukraine - her fierce look, long legs, ability to interpret any music, the speed of her pivots. Everything speaks of a winner and she can win this Olympics. But, as you may see on the picture, her hands are often free while the apparatus is on the floor or held in one spot. If she changed this, she would be unstoppable.

2. Margarita Mamun, Russia - Rita may not be as famous as her illustrious teammate Kudryavtseva, but she is more diverse and interesting to watch, more expressive. She should just focus and believe in herself. Physically, she is ready to take the world's gymnastics throne. Mentally, she is centimeters away.

3. Yana Kudryavtseva, Russia - a triple world champion at age 19 and a true innovator who creates new element and style, glides effortlessly on the carpet and just appears to look in control about 101% of the time. Of course she can win. My pet peeve: her leaps. Leaps are one of the most impressive and "superhero" moves in gymnastics and without them, routines just don't look as masterful to me.

4. Son Yeon- Jae - incapable of making a move that fails to look elegant in a classical ballet sense, Son has the most beautiful arm and head movements in the world. She is very clean and stable during most events and performs with real joy.  On this first picture, she looks as though she is a bit surprised the ball is there. This is what can change for the better: like Rizatdinova, she could add more risk and apparatus difficulty.

5. Neviana Vladinova, Bulgaria - so refreshing to see a gymnast who does not remind you of anyone else but herself; with a truly original style including very innovative moves such as elements from break-dancing in her routines, she is both statuesque and fragile, and strong and dynamic. Poised to make grand contributions to the future of our favorite sport, Neviana can work on her pirouettes and the overall fluidity of going from one element to another. It will take time, but she has made a giant leap into world class quality and has brought a lot of excitement to the Rio audience. I tried to capture the moment of her coach kissing her when the Olympic rings suddenly showed up on my screen, so here are Brani and Nevi in the sparkle of great success!

5 Gymnasts (from 4 Continents!) Who Did Not Make the Final

1. The beautiful Nicole Ruprecht from Austria - She has very clean lines, strong pirouettes, good apparatus work. We have seen Nicole in top 10, but this time she did not make the final. Best of luck and her wonderful Bulgarian coach, Luchia!

2. Danielle Prince from Austalia -  Danielle has advanced a lot and  is no doubt, Australia's strongest rhythmic gymnast of all times. Australia has a powerful tradition in artistic gymnastic and I hope that with Danielle's influence, rhythmic will become more popular there as well.

3. Kaho Minagawa from Japan -  Flexible, strong, elegant, always smiling, frequently positioned in top 10. This time she did not make the final, but if she keeps competing, she will be quite a threat at the Worlds, to everyone in top 10.

4. Elyane Boal from Cape Verde - the only African in the competition, she performed with a lot of joy and showed potential. The audience enjoyed her vibrant personality. She should continue to do her best and inspire other African girls to take up this sport.

5. Varvara Filiou, the diva from Greece -  Born to a Bulgarian mother and a Greek father, coached in Russia by a Russian coach. Varvara is everyone's favorite because she is dramatic, flirty, original and a natural born dancer. As a gymnast, she has the potential to perform many difficult elements a lot more cleanly than she did this time. Still a delight to watch!