Dominic Zito: Something Different Part 2

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Bridgett Anderson/Gymnastike

Part 2 of the Dominic Zito interview continues here.

Tell us more about working with Kyla Ross.
Well, for the entire routine, we definitely tried to show the difference between the supple arms to the stronger arms. The theme behind it was beauty and strength and so I tried to display both of that in the routine. It's not easy with an athlete that doesn't have a large dance background. Throughout the routine, you'll notice the chass├ęs into her leaps with the supple arms and turning her head to the side and all that detail, we worked on, not during the initial choreography process but it was the 3 or 4 visits that I did with her after the completion of the choreography.

With all my choreography, I try to use all three of the levels - high, medium, and low. I think it's important to the performance and... well, her ending is different because we ran out of time. I always end up putting in more choreography but her ending is actually down on one knee and she lays back which is really pretty but we don't have time to get her down to the knee! In the middle of the routine, after her leaps, she does a high jump and then she slides down to the floor so she shows the level change from the high to low and then the chin spin.

With all my choreography, I try to use those levels as much as possible without fatiguing the athlete. You know, their legs going up and down can burn sometimes between those passes.

Do you find that Kyla has a better understanding now of artistry?
The artistry has been there since the first routine was completed. I have the videos of it and it looks pretty much the same. We're using her head a little bit more now and a little bit more with her arms but the same... Every place I have her head, was the initial choreography, and the arm placement. Now, she's getting more comfortable with it and we're making it bigger and bigger each time I work with her. So, people are noticing that she's turning into a performer because she's getting more comfortable with the routine and performing it in front of crowds. She's performed it 3 times so far - at the US Classic and the USA Championships. Each time we see it, I think it's going to get better and better and I'm excited to see her on the international stage with the routine.

Let's talk about beam a little bit since I know you choreographed Kyla's beam. Did you choreograph Jordyn's beam as well?
Yes, I did.

So then what's the process on beam? Is it different than floor?
Well, the process on beam - you have that minute thirty and there are so many skills that they need to put in that 1:30 and not show too much preparation. What I'm really focusing on with the athletes is making them move in and out of the elements. So, if they finish a layout stepout, instead of just landing and pressing back their arms, you land and move into the next pose, move throughout the routine. It's been challenging with a lot of them because they like to prepare and breathe but with Kyla and Jordyn, I think they did a pretty good job of moving in and out of the elements and not just standing there breathing and preparing. We're trying to make it a performance as much as possible but with all of the elements and difficulty they need in the routine, it's a tall order to do.

With Kyla, I did this past time actually, we were working a lot on her eyes. If you notice in Jordyn's routine, she uses her eyes on the side dance. I try using them for that. Even though it's 4" wide, it's still a stage for them. Trying to utilize the head movement, the sharpness within the routine. I like the change of the supple arms to the stronger arms and movement throughout the routine. The level changes don't really happen on beam as much because there's no time! I wish we had a little bit more time to be a little bit more creative but we don't. So, hopefully, we'll get that back when we can go back down to beam, when we don't just mount and get up.

Yes, that would be nice. I noticed the side choreography with Kyla where she turns and does different movements but she holds the eye contact with the audience. I feel like she grows really tall all of a sudden.
Yes! You'll notice more with her hands and the accenting that we're doing that the side dance and stuff. She's never had any of this before. She's never had her beam actually choreographed until I worked with her. Her coaches just kind of put in a few poses here and there for the past couple years. So, this was her first... We just developed what she had and made it bigger but beam is much easier than floor. There's no music.

How does beam choreography work? Do you come up with something and then see where it can fit in the routine?
Actually, no. With beam and floor, I don't do anything outside of the gym with the athlete. I can go in with a couple ideas in my head - you know the part on floor where Kyla does a whip with her hands - I had that in my head before I entered the gym, just thinking about it, listening to the music. I'm like, "Kyla, what about this?" and we jumped straight to that part. She said, "I love that. That's so cool!" So we kept that but I had no idea, I never do. I just work with them. I don't know if they're righty or lefty and entering choreography sessions and that's important to know, especially on beam! They have to have the correct foot in front for each element and it means no shuffling around. I work with them just during that session. I don't go in with any ideas, sometimes a little hand gesture but other than that, we work together and come up with what we like.

So then, with beam choreography, do you just choreograph segment by segment based on what skills are already there?
Basically, their elements are set. We call that the skeleton routine where it's just the skills. She had her mount so that's there and it goes all the way through to her dismount. She has her pads on the beam for her punch front and other things. Basically, we choreograph around those elements because everything's already set in the routine. So beam is so much easier than floor where I can just go in and fill in the blanks of the skeleton and put in the movement that makes the elements flow so it looks like a performance.

The girls are very picky on beam. They have certain poses that some girls like to do before like a standing tuck full. They have to do a certain pose - it's just something in their head that they feel comfortable doing and then they do their skill. I fight with them a little bit but we work around it.

What's it like seeing your routine on the national stage but also, like with Jordyn and (hopefully) now Kyla, at a world and Olympic stage?
Well, all of it's just an honor. It's an honor to be working for USA Gymnastics now and being one of their choreographers and I am just so excited to be working with this level. I never thought I'd be working with girls at this level. I'm so honored, again, to work for Jordyn and Kyla, Olympic Gold Medalists. It's really a dream for myself. Now, I would just love to work with everybody. I'm just so happy that Martha trusts me and I'm looking forward to the future with USA Gymnastics.

What's it like working with Kyla? Is she serious the entire time or what's she like?
No! I think all the girls now are so comfortable because I work with their gyms. I've worked for Gym Max now for about 5 years so I'm in and out of the gym, so I'm very close with the Ross family, very close with Jenny and Howie. I've known Kyla and she's known me but we just haven't worked together. I worked on her other routines a little bit here and there but I didn't choreograph for her so we were both excited to work with each other this time around.

Lexie and Amelia, I've been working with them at Cincinnati Gymnastics since 2003 so I've been working since they were level 9 and 10 and now they're elite. It's very relaxed. It's not too intense by any means. We have fun! The choreography process is supposed to be a little bit more of a reward, I think, at this elite level since it's so difficult.

How involved is Martha in the process? Does she recommend gymnasts to you? Is she very involved with the music selection?
With Martha, I'm not sure if she recommends me to some of the girls. I know there's a small list of choreographers that athletes can pick and I think she gives the approval if they say they want to work with me or another choreographer. She can say yes or no to that, and so far, she's given all the athletes that want to work with me, the chance to.

If they're a brand new junior elite, she's not as involved. With the juniors, we usually don't [get Martha too involved]. But with the seniors, we don't have that many seniors right now so Martha's really involved with everything. So, you want to make sure that Martha likes it because if they go to camp and Martha doesn't like it, then they'll need a new routine. We just try to avoid that whole situation so we try to keep her involved with the music process too.

We can talk about music selection now. How do you feel about a musical selection or choreography that incorporates the gymnast's cultural heritage? For example, Aly using Have Nagila or the piece Kalinka Mia.
Honestly, I love it. I think it's so entertaining. I actually don't think it needs to be their culture or heritage. Like, with Amelia, I used a Russian medley I put together. I love the music and really have a great theme behind the routine. She's a cute little Russian dancer. I love it! Ekaterina Lobaznyuk did Hava Nagila, love that routine. One of my favorite routines. I love all that stuff and it's totally me.

Now, the girls sometimes they don't like that stuff as much. They're not comfortable doing it. I enjoy it. Some people have other opinions but I think it's great.

Do you have a maximum number of pieces that you'll use?
Well, nowadays, we don't [use many pieces]. I try to never use more than 1 piece unless it's very similar - like Amelia Hundley's because there's a smooth transition. Now, there's actually a deduction for that, you can't have that on the elite scene anymore. Lexie had a couple changes back in the day. We try to pick one main theme, one piece, primarily. Again, with transitions, in the music so it's not the same pace or tempo.

I know there are some athletes where you can still identify 3 distinct pieces of music.
For me, it's too collegiate to do anything like that on the international scene or elite scene.

Are there any gymnasts that you would love to choreograph for? Anyone in the world?
Internationally, there are so many great dancers and great athletes. I would love to just work with everybody! I don't know. I like working with the girls that people write off not as a dancer. I like working with the girls that people say, "I don't like her routine. She's not a good dancer." So, any of those kids I would love to help turn around. Those great dancers are gonna look great and I'd be honored to work with them, of course, but I like the challenge of making the athlete turn into a beautiful performer.

Are there any dancers that surprised you - maybe they understood the movements better than you thought they would, or the way they did it looked better than you thought it would in your head?
Bridget Sloan and Amelia Hundley and Elise Ray. Elise Ray is fabulous. I did her college routine for University of Michigan. Those 3 by far - their body awareness. For all these girls, not any routine of theirs specifically, those 3 were just fabulous from the start.

What do you find is the hardest part about choreographing for gymnastics?
The music, of course. The hardest part is teaching them to perform the routines the way that I want it but still utilizing their technique throughout. And what I mean by technique is their dance technique and some of them don't have any dance training so teaching all that within 2-3 hour sessions, multiple times... It's not gonna happen overnight. That's probably the most difficult. Everybody's entertaining. Everybody can be artistic but are you using proper technique is the question. Body alignment, body shape, turnout of their feet - all of these things complete the routine to make that fabulous, awesome performance.

What's the most rewarding part of choreographing for gymnastics?
Well, this has been my passion since I was a little boy so just working with all of these athletes, not just the elites. Working with a level 6 or I work with compulsory girls too. It's something I love to do. And I love gymnastics. It's just a dream come true. Everything's rewarding about what I do and I'm just so grateful that I have a job that I love and it's my passion.

I have a question about athlete's keeping pieces of choreography from old routines. Is that something that you consciously do when you're choreographing or is it easier? What happens?
On beam, it's a comfort thing before their skills. On floor, personally, as a choreographer, if there's something interesting in an old routine, I would love to keep it and build off of it and use it. Like Kyla had that cute little chin stand. I think it's interesting, people like it, so we kept it. As far as movement goes, if they're doing step step pose, we would never use that again but if it's a cute little trick or a fun little high low or a transition to the floor - absolutely, they should keep it! I think it becomes their little signature.

I brought this up because of Amelia Hundley and the "Hundley shuffle" when she has one leg up...
Oh yeah, it's called the Hundley shuffle! Half way through the routine, Amelia said, "Dominic don't forget my Hundley shuffle" and I'm like, "Amelia, I'm getting to it!" The other little girls in the gym, they watch and they do it along with them. It's their thing and that will probably be in all of her routines - her little signature. I think it's fun.

That's why I was asking.
Absolutely. Jordyn's new routine we kept in her knee bounce to full spin. It's the kind of thing everybody loves so we kept it in. I try to think of a little something to keep. Kyla has that cool chin stand and everybody usually has something in there.

On floor, do you find it difficult at times where there's this formula - few seconds before first pass, few seconds before second pass, choreography, now leap series. Is that ever frustrating or is that part of the joy?
I think with the elites, that's set. The passes are set, the coaches tell me what they want and it's something I have to follow. As a choreographer, I understand it. I was a gymnast. They have their 2 passes and then they still have 2 more to do, more leaps, and a turn. You're limited. I'm trying to pull out as much as I can to complete the performance so that it doesn't just look like tumbling passes with music playing.

Thank you for the interview!

Part 1
Dominic Zito 2013 - a playlist of the routines he choreographed at Nationals 2013
@DominicZito - follow Dominic on twitter

1 comment :

  1. Fantastic interview!! Love that he mentioned Elise ;-) I always look forward to seeing his routines.