CHINA’S TIME TO SHINE: The Evolution of Chinese Floor Exercise

china team
china team
Contributor Suna Zekioglu provides a history of the development of the Chinese floor exercise, from it awkward beginnings, to its periodic highlights, to the culmination point of its eventual improvement- the choreographic triumphs of the Beijing floor set.
The development of the Chinese floor choreography has been one of the most rapidly changing aspects of artistic gymnastics in past years- and it has just as quickly become one of its most appealing aspects. From the late 1980s and onward, their exercises have changed drastically, coming to match – and eventually surpass – those of their competitors. Changes to their musical choices, choreography, and attention to detail have made Chinese floor exercises some of the most popular in the world.
In the late 1980s, the chief issues that affected China’s reputation on floor was poor musical selection and a general lack of effective choreography. One example is Fan Di’s 1989 floor exercise, where there was a vast disparity between the music and the choreography. Nor did it match Fan Di, or appeal to her style as a gymnast. The design of many Chinese routines at the time, had little to do with the music and lacked in dance.  They simply seemed to comprise of their athletes doing handstands and rolls and strutting back to the corner.
China continued to be patchy. The floor routine of Yang Bo in 1990 provided another example where the root of the problem was the musical selection, which did not suit Yang Bo and her style.  This made it near impossible for her to express herself through her choreography, which was often not synchronized with the music and abruptly changed in style throughout the course of the routine.
Lu Li’s floor exercise was another instance of poor musical choice – the use of the holiday tune “Sleigh Ride” was, although an interesting choice, not suited to the choreography, or to the potential Lu Li showed dance-wise.
One emerging bright spot as China headed towards the Barcelona Games was the floor exercise of Li Li in 1990. The music was engaging, and the choreography suited the music quite well with the music.  It fitted Li Li’s style, and featured her lovely back spin. She also seemed to enjoy her routine, which was important.
Chinese floor exercise hit its peak in the 1990s with Mo Huilan’s 1994 and 1995 famous floor routine, which will be forever known as ‘The Typewriter Routine’. Set to Leroy Anderson’s Typewriter Song, it featured an orchestra playing along to the sounds of a functioning typewriter. Mo Huilan performed a routine with choreography that demonstrated her great expression and personal. The choreography itself was as much of a highlight as Mo’s performance.  Finally, the Chinese had found a way to put to use the captivating qualities of a gymnast as talented as the the young Mo Huilan.
In 1996, we began to see some variation and contrast in the Chinese choice of floor choreography. One highlight was the routine of the 1996 world floor champion Kui Yuanyuan, which was performed to a well-matched mix of fast paced orchestral music and guitar music. The routine had delightful and exciting choreography and engaged the audience. Another floor star of this period was Ji Liya, who displayed vastly difficult tumbling skills. An opportunity to create a standout floor routine was missed, however, as the music selection was a rapidly changing medley of different pieces, none of which seemed to suit her.
For the 1996 Olympic Games, Mo Huilan’s floor exercise was changed from her Typewriter Routine to one set to the Yellow River Piano Concerto. The dramatic music promised much in terms of expression and dance, but the choreography was lacking, and did not suit the piece or Mo Huilan’s expressive style, certainly not as her previous routine did. The use of the Yellow River Piano Concerto did start a beneficial trend in Chinese floor exercise, however – the use of traditionally Chinese music, which proved a hit with crowds, and gave way to more  natural choreographic expression in.
Their floor exercise took another step further heading towards the Sydney Games. One standout was Dong Fangxiao, whose lively routine set to guitar music proved popular not only with home crowds at the 1999 World Championships in Tianjin, but with crowds in Sydney where her routine was showcased in the event finals. Dong often drew the crowd into her routine with her expressive choreography.  The crowds would often find themselves clapping along with her performance.
The Sydney Games were also the only stage for Kui Yuanyuan’s swan song – a dynamic, well-choreographed performance to a violin tune with a strong beat that featured expressive dance by Kui.
Perhaps the overall highlight of the quadrennium, though, was the floor routine of Yang Yun. Her routine proved successful for many reasons.  One was the choice of music, taken from traditional Beijing Opera music that gave it a Chinese ‘feel’.  Another was the original and fluid choreography that was created by ballet choreographers.  Finally, Yang Yun’s expression and natural ability meant she always gave an elegant, expressive and unique performance.
The next four years brought more advances for the Chinese. Zhang Nan’s floor exercise in Athens in 2004 brought a unique touch to the competition. Her music was atypical – a dramatic piece featuring many instruments native to China. The choreography, though relatively slow, was dramatic and expressive.
The standout routine of this era in Chinese gymnastics, however was that of young Cheng Fei. Fei’s routine, set to the exciting orchestral piece, Don Quixote, in many ways, had it all. The choreography was enticing, the tumbling and dance exciting and elegant, and Cheng Fei’s performance was utterly captivating.
China’s improvement and dominance on floor carried over to the lead up to the Olympics in Beijing. Cheng Fei continued her mastery of the event with a new routine that featured more mature and dramatic choreography and expressive performance. This captivating routine brought her the gold medal on floor exercise at the World Championships in 2006.
These championships also turned the spotlight on another Chinese star on floor – Pang Panpan, whose stylish dance work and sassy choreography proved a hit with both viewers and judges alike. Her routine was uniquely suited to her personal style, and her personality shined through in every expressive performance of the routine.
The Beijing Games brought three stunning new routines, as the Chinese gathered their strength to dominate. Yang Yilin performed a dramatic and artistic routine to Bolero from Moulin Rouge, her movements suited exactly to the music and her expressions, an exercise in pure elegance and fluidity.  Jiang Yuyuan performed one of the most exciting routines of the games. The music and choreography were both exciting and enticing, and her performance grew better and more expressive each time she performed the popular routine.
Cheng Fei again brought more improvement to her talent for floor exercise. Her routine was set to a piece of music written specifically for her.  Based on of the Yellow River Piano Concerto, and featuring traditional Chinese instruments the routine allowed for an expressive and captivating performance in Beijing. The choreography was suited magnificently to Cheng Fei’s commanding style, the situation, an Olympics at home, and to the music. 
The Beijing Olympic Games showcased what has been a magnificent turn around in Chinese floor exercise, which went from the uninteresting and poorly constructed routines of the 80s to the captivating and dramatic routines of today. Many factors have been behind their success. One is the use of master choreographers, including Chinese ballet choreographers and the famous gymnastics choreographer, Adriana Pop, who joined the Chinese team in 2002 and has been choreographing unique and expressive routines for them since. The evolution of Chinese Floor Exercise has been an incredible journey that has left us with legendary routines such as those of Mo Huilan, Yang Yun, and Cheng Fei.  But more importantly, it has left us with the delightful anticipation of seeing what China brings next.
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