Beauty in beastly athleticism
Biles defends powerful routines that some say lack artistry of more graceful gymnasts
Simone Biles is rarely sour, but one way to darken her day is to bring up how some members of the gymnastics literati rate Simone Biles the Artist.
“They don’t want to talk about my artistry. They already say it’s horrible,” she said. “I think I bring power and elegance in power. I feel like that’s different.”
Biles is a different gymnast than the likes of Nastia Liukin, the 2008 Olympic gold medalist who works for NBC Sports; Svletlana Khorkina, winner of two Olympic gold medals on uneven bars; or Svletlana Boginskaya, the 1988 Olympian known as the Belarussian Swan (and who now lives in Katy).
All were in the 5-foot-2 range; Biles is 4-foot-8. What worked for them would not work for Biles, and vice versa.
While Liukin comes from a different tradition of the sport as the daughter of the great Soviet/Kazakh gymnast Valeri Liukin, she sides with Biles’ defense of her own artistic merit.
“The beauty of the sport is that
you can be the best in the world and be the most powerful, run fast, jump high, be strong and win Olympic gold medals,” Liukin said. “Or you can be flexible and graceful and taller at possibly 5-2, taller than the rest of your teammates, and win an Olympic gold medal.
“There is artistry in power, as Simone said. Artistry is subjective.”
Routine construction is a significant part of gymnastics, particularly on floor exercise and to a lesser but still significant degree on uneven bars and balance beam. Biles believes she exhibits her artistic side through the manner in which she presents herself to judges.
“We get to craft our routines to our liking and to our abilities.” she said. “So I would say I’m an artist in some form. Most people might say not as much as other gymnasts around the other countries, but I would say in a way we all are.
“I try to express the enjoyment from doing the skills as well as showing strength and power.”
Arguably the best combination of expression and power is on floor exercise, an event in which Biles has won five national championships, four world titles and the 2016 Olympic gold medal.
Her routine this year, to the soundtrack from the movie “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift,” was choreographed with Sasha Farber, the Australian professional dancer who has worked with Biles, Mary Lou Retton and Liukin on the ABC series “Dancing With the Stars.” The music track was compiled by District 78, which also works with the “Dancing” show.
“The difference between a sport and an art is that an art form can make people cry by the way the artist performs or moves or tells a story. It’s like the universal language of the world,” Farber said.
“Simone is a very strong artist because she has so much movement through her body. She is built for gymnastics, but her performances don’t just come from power. It comes from being slow, then fast, then powerful. It’s not something that’s just constant throughout the routine.”
Farber said Biles wanted to retain her two signature floor passes that bear her name, one of which ends with a double twisting double somersault and one with a double layout somersault with a twist. She also wanted to keep a kiss-blowing sound effect that precedes one tumbling pass and her signature “bum drop and spin,” as Farber described it, at the end.
The routine is so packed, he said, that it requires major concentration as well as skillful performance.
“It can’t be, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m just going to move through this,’ and then, ‘Here I go,’ ” he said. “You have to mentally prepare yourself for executing that degree of difficulty.
“I wanted to get her to move as much as she can to where it doesn’t affect any of her tumbling passes. She’s definitely moving her hips and moving her body and really giving it. I’m excited for her and for the Olympics.”
Laurent Landi, who with his wife, Cecile, coaches Biles, said their goal for Biles’ floor routine was to focus on dance and performance and for her to “have some fun.”
Farber also wanted to showcase Biles’ unique combination of skills in a way that displays the range of the art embodied in her gymnastics.
“You don’t want to watch the different people using the same style or trying to tell the same story,” he said. “They all have their unique style and their own technique. Simone is in a league of her own with her styling and technique and her power and her drive.”
Biles also has an admirer in Lauren Anderson, former principal dancer with the Houston Ballet and now the company’s associate director of education and community engagement.
“I have enjoyed watching Simone Biles,” Anderson said. “As a dancer, I understand that each performance is a one-shot deal. You don’t get to stop and say, ‘Hang on. May I do that again?’ ”
Anderson said she admires Biles’ speed, her seemingly effortless jumps, and her ability to “suspend herself in the air so that you see every move.”
“I see the rhythm coupled with precision in all her routines that have dance elements,” she said. “She connects with the audience and draws you in. What more do you want when you are performing skills no one in the world has done yet?”