Wednesday, May. 22, 2024

They’ll All Be Aiming For Anky

Lightness, suspension, electricity, harmony, emotion. These are the highlights of any freestyle that Anky van Grunsven rides.

Aboard Salinero, van Grunsven has been undefeated in the musical freestyle ever since her Grand Prix debut on him in 2003. At the Mechelen (Belgium) World Cup qualifier in December 2003 she scored 80.82 percent. And ever since the percentage has oscillated between 83.45 percent (2004 World Cup Finals), 85.82 percent (2004 Olympic Games) and 83.60 percent at her last World Cup qualifier in 's-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands, in March.
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Lightness, suspension, electricity, harmony, emotion. These are the highlights of any freestyle that Anky van Grunsven rides.

Aboard Salinero, van Grunsven has been undefeated in the musical freestyle ever since her Grand Prix debut on him in 2003. At the Mechelen (Belgium) World Cup qualifier in December 2003 she scored 80.82 percent. And ever since the percentage has oscillated between 83.45 percent (2004 World Cup Finals), 85.82 percent (2004 Olympic Games) and 83.60 percent at her last World Cup qualifier in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands, in March.

One secret to her perpetual success is that she’s performing to specially and professionally composed musical freestyles, performances that trigger emotion through beautiful and graceful riding. And the melodic geniuses behind her are Dutch composers Cees Slings and Victor Kerkhof.

The musical duo has been van Grunsven’s in-house freestyle team for almost 10 years. When in 1996 they heard about freestyle dressage and listened to the unprofessional hodgepodge to which some were riding, they decided they should design one for van Grunsven, who’d won her first World Cup title a year earlier.

Slings and Kerkhof sent a fax to her stable, explaining their eagerness to make a world-class musical composition. “It was a pretty arrogant fax they sent me,” said van Grunsven, “but I invited them over so that they could show me what they had.”

The result of this aggressive introduction was Bonfire’s Symphony, her silver-medal freestyle at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. It was the first of six freestyles that Slings and Kerkhof have composed for van Grunsven, including the tests that earned her gold medals at the 2000 and 2004 Olympics.
It’s an extremely labor-intensive process that requires advanced musical and computer skills, and they approach it like a TV show.

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“It has to be drama, suspense, a show that is captivating,” said Slings. “It has to be one piece of music with a broadcast-quality standard.”

Their most recent artistic collaboration with van Grunsven resulted in L’Esprit Chanson, which earned her the 2004 World Cup title and the Olympic individual gold medal. The process began in 2003, when van Grunsven asked her composers to make a Salinero’s Suite along the lines of Bonfire’s Symphony. During a brainstorming session in the car, Slings and Kerkhof decided to use French Chansons for the new freestyle.

“Victor thought that Lac du Connemara had an excellent, forward-thrusting tempo for flying changes, and I said that Je ne regrette rien and Poup饠de cire would make a good string of French melodies for a unified freestyle,” Slings explained.

Step 1 in creating a freestyle is designing the choreography. “A kur has to be as difficult as possible, but within the ability of the horse,” said Sjef Janssen, van Grunsven’s trainer and romantic partner. So he designed a highly symmetrical choreography, which he and van Grunsven videotaped at their stable. The duo made movie clips from different angles to transfer the ideal clip onto the computer as ground material.

The next phase was making the “click track.” Kerkhof reviewed the video clips and recorded “clicks” to the rhythm of the horse. These clicks differ in walk, trot, canter, piaffe and passage, but they’re vital to getting an overview of the horse’s complete rhythm.

Slings and Kerkhof then created different layers of music to that rhythm. Because Kerkhof is the main keyboard player and a skilled computer technician, he first added a piano layer of Edith Piaff’s Je ne Regrette Rien to the draft track. Then he gave the music more body by adding a drum beat and a horn melody.

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When the first layers of music were finished, the duo went to van Grunsven’s to try out the first, rough version.

“It’s very hard to practice it,” admitted van Grunsven. “I’m wearing a headset and trying to listen to the music, but Sjef is screaming training instructions in one ear and Victor is helping me with the timing in the other. It drives me nuts!”

With a large list of revisions, Slings and Kerkhof headed back home for the fourth design phase, the “coring” of the music. They “cored” the musical layers into a MIDI file (Musical Instrument Digital Interface). Because Slings and Kerkhof like vocals, they decided to add van Grunsven’s voice. She went to the studio to sing Belle Histoire for the canter zigzag.

The composers had to do endless revisions, forcing endless new problems. Salinero was rapidly improving over the months as he became stronger and more confirmed in the movements. And so the rhythm of his gaits constantly changed. Van Grunsven rode L’Esprit Chanson for the first time at the CDI-W Maastricht (the Netherlands) in December 2003, but the test changed seven more times before the final version unveiled at the Olympics.

“We want to have broadcast quality, so knowing that Athens was going to be outside, with lots of wind, we chose a flugelhorn (a low-key trumpet) for the walk. This sound is carried by the wind, while a flute or oboe, for instance, stops dead,” Slings said.

For L’Esprit Chanson, they also used real instruments to give the music more body. “Real instruments have more depth and vibration and come to life in a freestyle,” Slings said.

The result, after more than one year of tinkering, was L’Esprit Chanson, a truly elegant, energetic, emotional freestyle that captivates judge and spectator with its five minutes of sublimely flowing music.

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