Issue 1: A Look at Ballet

At the last US Figure Skating Nationals in Philadelphia, Michelle Kwan scored Sixes, perfect scores, in her short program (technical) and her long program (artistic). She finished her long program to a standing ovation. At the same event, Michael Weiss excited the crowd when he opened with a quadruple Lutz but two-footed the landing, to just miss being the first American to land a quad in competition. Weiss credits the attempt as a contributing factor to his success at qualifying for the winter Olympics. The Nationals were broadcast country wide on ABC.

Although sport kiting is different, there are many parallels to skating that might provide insights as to what we need to do to promote growth in our own sport to some day achieve a measure of the success that skating currently enjoys. There are lessons, both good and bad that kiting could draw from. Perhaps one of the most important issues we need to make more clear are the role of judging and judging standards.

In kiting, the Precision event is similar to skating’s technical program, and the Ballet is the counterpart to skating’s long, or artistic program. In Precision, technical ability, difficulty, and execution are the elements that judges focus on primarily, but in the free style section of Precision, choreography still plays a major role.

As in skating, besides the actual maneuvers themselves, the success of a routine to a large degree depends on how the maneuvers are connected, how the routine flows and transitions one trick to the next. The choreography influences what judges perceive as impact, excitement, creativity, and all around performance excellence. In the ballet, the main focus is on the artistic elements such as choreography, creativity, and impact. Does this mean that judges can safely ignore technical merit? In skating, the answer is no. And, in kiting, we would be wise to follow that example. You might be able to construct a good philosophical argument to support the notion that technical merit can be totally ignored in Ballet but, practically speaking, this proves to be a rather weak premise. First of all, the defining difference between Novice and Masters is technical ability. So it seems a little ridiculous to ignore the very thing that separates the classes since if you could do that, what is the point of differentiating fliers by classes at all? Especially at the Masters level.

Is it even possible to have a Masters level routine devoid of any technical merit? Could you construct a series of novice level maneuvers, for example, with choreography so great, that that routine would be competitive in the Master’s class? I don’t think so. Less variety, less risk, less impact, less creativity, less difficulty. Less, less, less. A symphony with only three notes. A dance with only two steps.

Is it possible to present great choreography and artistry with flawed execution, ill timing, and poor control of the kite? Well, you might present it, but it’s unlikely that you would be able to communicate it effectively to the audience without good technical ability. As a boy I played the violin, and although I may have bowed the same notes as those played by great violinists, due my lack of technical ability, the noises my instrument made sounded less like the sounds to sooth the savage beast and more like the sounds the savage beast makes when he’s either angry, or in a lot of pain. Oh sure, I received my share of applause at the end of a typical musical performance but it was usually accompanied with comments such as, “Boy, I thought he’d never end…”

To have art you need three things: the artist, the medium, and the audience. Without all three elements, you have something else. The success of an artist is measured by how well the artist is able to communicate to his audience through his chosen media. Getting the feeling across. We all have feelings. Artists don’t have feelings only artists can have. The thing that differentiates the artist from the non-artist is his exceptional control of his chosen media which could be: writing, singing, painting, or in our case, kite flying. Without this technical ability, the artist cannot successfully communicate his feelings, his insight, or point of view. Again, as a young boy, I always felt the music as much as anyone could that could hear. The problem I had was that my low technical ability on the violin meant that ideas that started off in my mind as whispering woodland springs somehow were translated through my instrument to gangs of angry, wet cats. Control and skill are paramount features of the artistic experience. In the case where beauty occurs without deliberate control, or just spontaneously, is more accurately described as nature.

Philosophical arguments aside, no successful Masters class competitor designs a ballet that is devoid of technical difficulty. It is quite the opposite, especially at the Masters class level. How good can the choreography be if it lacks the variety of groundwork, speed maneuvers, slow rolling tricks, stalls, original moves, and intricate motion? Technical difficulty brings a sense of risk and excitement to the routine.

Unfortunately for kiting, we don’t have the structure or the hard definitions for maneuvers (except for compulsories) that skating does so we have to rely on the wisdom and experience of our judges. Judges measure technical difficulty anyway, even if they think they are only scoring choreography since flying accurately, skillfully, in sync with the music, and not crashing are necessary to communicate the choreography.

Imagine an ice skating event that allowed long programs that were devoid of triple jumps, difficult spins, and speed to score high. Now imagine nobody watching. Michael Weiss attempted the Quad, a breakthrough technical achievement, not in his technical program, but in his artistic program because skating understands the partnership between artistic ideas and technical skill.

There is a school of thought that encourages judges to ignore audience response as an influence on their scores. Oddly enough, this was brought to my attention by the same people that said technical merit was not an element to consider when scoring the ballet. I believe that a technically inferior routine is about the only reason I would disregard audience response. And this is because I believe that rewarding routines that are devoid of technical merit is bad for the sport. But that would really be an exceptional situation. As a competitor, I think that the most I ever really wanted to do was to communicate some of the joy and pleasure I feel when flying, to my audience. As most of us do. I think that to a large extent, that is what Michelle Kwan did with her performance at the US Nationals. I have never skated, but watching Michelle’s performance I sensed the beauty and joy she feels when she’s out on the ice. From my perspective as a judge, fliers who make me feel something get high marks on my score card because I feel it is a measure of how good their choreography is, and how skillfully they are able to communicate it. On a practical level, disregarding our audience is the surest way I can think of killing the sport.

No matter how you look at kiting, whether as a sport or an art, the audience is critical to the event. In summary, as judging goes, so goes the sport. Therefore, it is important to understand current judging standards. The very first measure of good judging, is consistency. Without consistency, there is no point to competition since it produces apathy and confusion for the competitors not knowing what wins, and what does not. Additionally, inconsistent judging hurts any sport in the long term by making the sport incomprehensible to the audiences. In the case of great inconsistency, action–appropriate and immediate–ought to be taken to understand and rectify the situation.

A performance may be divided into technical and artistic aspects. Although one element might be emphasized more than the other, at its highest level, a performance is never completely devoid of either characteristic, unless of course it is a performance that does not represent the sport at its highest level. For example, in skating, you will never see a medal winning artistic performance that is lacking in technical merit. Technical ability is the vehicle that the flier communicates his artistic experience with. Lastly, the audience counts. The audience counts more than the other fliers and the judges. Where the audience doesn’t count is where you will find no spectators. In a real sense, audience response is a direct measure of how successful your performance really is. Did you make someone feel some of the joy and beauty of the sport? For some who had never seen such a thing before, after watching your performance, were they inspired enough to want to go out and fly a kite? After all, isn’t that how we all got started anyway?

Bert Tanaka