Making of a Hit Freestyle–Steffen Peters & Ravel

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The Slovakia orchestra recording the new freestyle for Steffen Peters and Ravel based on music from the movie, Avatar. © 2011 Ondrej Puffler

By KENNETH J. BRADDICK

When the crowd packed into the 5,000-seat Deutsche Bank Stadium booed the judges for not giving a higher score to Steffen Peters and Ravel in the CDIO Grand Prix Freestyle at Aachen, Germany, it was resounding approval for a performance that was the result of an unparalleled commitment in American dressage.

The effort was led by Akiko Yamazaki, who had bought Ravel, now 13 years old by Contango, in 2006 as a prospective Olympic mount for Steffen Peters, based in San Diego, California.

The investment has paid off in results–a third place finish in the freestyle that was not enough by the slenderest of margins for their score combined with the Grand Prix Special to put them on the medals podium at the 2008 Olympics, thanks to what is widely acknowledged as a reflection of national bias in judging.

Then the 2009 World Cup Final title, followed by Dressage Champion of Aachen later in the year and an historic first for the U.S., two individual medals at the 2010 World Equestrian Games in Kentucky.

After WEG, though, the time had come to retire the choreography to music by Coldplay, an English alternative rock band, that had been popular for accompanying increasingly difficult rides with harmony, precision and style.

“We all thought he had reached a level of maturity which required new music to reflect this next level,” Akiko explained.

Along came the movie Avatar that to Steffen, although not a fan of science fiction, carried messages that appealed in many ways. Not as a possible kür, though.

That is, not until the eighth playing of the movie on a DVD while flying across country, did it finally get through his “thick head” that the music that had been composed by James Horner was perfect for Ravel.

As soon as the plane touched down in Houston, Texas, he called Terry Ciotto Gallo, whose 30-year career in sports, dance and music has made her company, Klassic Kür, based in Oviedo, near Orlando in Florida, a favorite among top American dressage riders, including Debbie McDonald, Günter Seidel and Lauren Sammis as well as Steffen.

He sent a video of Ravel performing the freestyle at home to Terry. She used it to create “rough drafts” for Akiko, Steffen and Anne Gribbons, the U.S. Technical Advisor that essentially means coach of the American team.

“This process was interactive and very efficient,” Akiko said. “The whole process took a few months, much shorter than I would have anticipated but this is because we are dealing with experienced professionals in Terry and Steffen.”

The next stage was to put it together as a complete freestyle–orchestra, singers and a choir.

The pieces fell into place when Greg Sims, an award-winning composer, arranger, orchestrator and producer of music for movies, television and albums and, coincidentally, for Klassic Kür, was approached by an agent in London following the release of Lion of Judah with Greg’s critically acclaimed soundtrack.

Greg, the agent hoped, would consider the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra for his next movie score.

As luck would have it, Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, could provide the three critical elements–a 75-piece orchestra, an adult chorus and a boys’ choir.

The voices--chorus and choir--for the Steffen Peters and Ravel freestyle. © 2011 Ondrej Puffler

“We were quite impressed with the quality of all involved, including the production staff,” Terry said.

The orchestra and chorus had no clue as to the purpose of the performance, the conductor asking at one stage: “What is dressage?”

Although Akiko did not go to Slovakia, “to think that somewhere far away, boys with angelic voices were singing for my horse, really touched my heart.”

Steffen received the finished music only two weeks before the CDIO Freestyle at Aachen.

Ravel was almost foot perfect in a choreography similar to the old Coldplay freestyle, but more emotional and performed at a higher degree of difficulty.

“To hear the music in the Deutsche Bank Stadium in the competition atmosphere was a completely different experience,” Akiko said.

“I was almost too nervous to really enjoy it, but I thought Ravel truly looked magnificent. The music elevated him to another level. I have to commend Steffen to be able to pull it off. He was able to match every foot step even though this was the first time they were performing it in a show.

The horse-savvy crowd showed their appreciation with their voices.

The judges scores were tallied and were less than one percentage below Totilas ridden by Matthias Alexander Rath of Germany and slightly ahead of The Netherlands’ Adelinde Cornelissen and Jerich Parzival, ranked No. 1 in the world.

In what Steffen later described as an “honor,” the spectators loudly booed the judges to let them know the American pair should have been awarded higher marks.

“The credit goes to Terry,” Akiko said, “who had done all the hard work at home to have the perfect freestyle and Steffen, who can always deliver at the show and, of course, the musicians and choir who played and sang to move us to tears.”

Steffen Peters on Ravel knows he nailed the CDIO Grand Prix at Aachen. © 2011 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com