First, the gripe. Why do the women gymnasts have to do all of these goofy, stagy, choreographed arm movements? The men don’t do them. If I wanted to watch ballet I would watch ballet. In gymnastics I am impressed by the astounding athleticism and the skills I could never do (not that I can dance either). These girls have been coached to wiggle their arms and torsos around in pre-determined ways during their routines, and in most cases these gestures are meaningless and distracting.
But occasionally there is one who gets it. One whose gestures seem to communicate something, and who flows from one pose to another in a way that is beautiful, and who makes a coherent performance out of her series of movements.
As far as I can tell, there is no room in the scoring system to acknowledge these artists – the tenths of points just keep being deducted at the same rate for the missed landings and minor form breaks – but as a spectator, I appreciate their care and their commitment to the routine. I root for those gymnasts who are more than mere athletes, and enjoy their performances. They make me sit up and take notice.
And, of course (you knew it would come back to the oboe) that is exactly what I want to do. The girls who flip their arms around only because they were told to remind me of musicians noodling meaninglessly, or, frankly, of the music of Couperin and other French Baroque composers, with all of the little mordents trying their best to obscure the line. I am not against embellishment, or fancy phrasing – far from it – but there needs to first be a strong, clear line to ornament.
If the basic phrase doesn’t mean anything, all the nuance in the world won’t make it better. But tasteful ornamentation can add depth and interest and beauty and joy to the music.
Or the balance beam.