Monday, July 30, 2012

July 30

Carl Hester 
Openly Gay Olympic Competitor

There are only three out gay male athletes competing in the London Olympics, which began yesterday: Australian diver Matthew Mitcham*, and equestrians Edward Gal and Carl Hester, who are rivals in the sport of dressage. I published a post on Edward Gal two days ago, so today we'll get to know Carl Hester**, who is the only out gay athlete representing host nation Great Britain.

When Carl Hester (b. 1967 in London) decided to take up the sport of dressage in the early 1980s, he was already a natural. Only 18 months after he began training for the sport, Hester won the National Young Rider Championship (1985). He quickly landed on the British Young Rider team in 1988, and he hasn’t looked back.

This year’s Olympic Games will be Carl’s fourth. Unfortunately, he and his team have never favored well in Olympic competition; a slew of mishaps and all-around bad luck have kept him off of the podium. However, 45-year-old Carl has experienced much success in the international dressage circuit. Britain has never won an Olympic dressage medal, but Team Great Britain will arrive at Greenwich Park as reigning European team champions. Hester hopes to change his past misfortune and bring home Olympic Gold.

At the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens, Carl and Escapado (his horse) placed higher than any other Briton – the same thing at the 2005 European Championships, where the pair ended up in 6th place. On the run up to the 2007 European Championships, Carl was injured and had to back out at the last minute. Bad luck continued into 2008. His two promising horses for Beijing’s Olympic Games, Lecantos and Dolendo, both suffered injuries, so he missed competing.

Hester was soon given an opportunity to ride a new horse, Liebling, and the two formed a quick, strong bond and won an international grand prix. A host of other great results would lead the British team to select Carl for the European Dressage Championships in 2009. Carl’s riding helped Team GB win a silver medal in that event, and he would repeat those results a year later with another silver medal.

As the 2012 Olympic dressage events approach, Hester, partnered with his horse Uthopia, is confident in his abilities and hopes he can help his team take the top prize.

**Among Hester’s former partners was another openly gay equestrian, Spencer Wilton.

*A much earlier post on Australian diving superstar Matthew Mitcham can be accessed by clicking this link:

But I digress. Back to the tan lines, gentlemen.

Friday, July 27, 2012

July 27

Edward Gal
Openly gay Olympic competitor

This is the first Olympics for 42-year-old openly gay equestrian Edward Gal (leading horse, at left), who will ride Undercover on the Dutch Olympic dressage team in London. His mount has competed as “Glock’s Undercover,” but commercial names are not allowed in the Olympics, so a simple “Undercover” must suffice. Gaston Glock, owner of the famed Austrian handgun company, is a brand new sponsor of the Dutch dressage trio of Edward Gal, Hans-Peter Minderhoud (seated, at left) and Nicole Werner.

But there’s a bit of soap opera going on here. You see, Edward Gal and fellow Dutchman Hans-Peter Minderhoud are long-term lovers, sharing a professional and personal life; they are partners, collaborating professionals and competitors in the show ring. Minderhoud and the mare Nadine became members of the Dutch Grand Prix team in 2007 and won historic team gold for Holland at the 2007 European Championships in Turin, Italy. As well, Minderhaud qualified for both team and individual dressage events at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

But I’m just warming up. Sponsor Gaston Glock, who just celebrated his 83rd birthday earlier this week, divorced his wife last year to marry 31-year old Kathrin Tschikof, CEO and manager of the Glock Horse Performance Center in Austria. Those of you quick with math will have already figured out that Gaston is more than 50 years older than Kathrin.

But that’s not the half. For those of you who are not readers of The Chronicle of the Horse or Euro Dressage, let me translate. Dressage (pronounced druh-SAHZH, French for “training”) is an ancient competitive equestrian sport in which a horse and rider perform a predetermined set of movements (in-place trots, halt, half pass, pirouettes, salute, etc.) in an arena – often to music – with minimal assistance from the rider. The dressage tests performed at the Olympics dressage competition are at the Grand Prix level (one of my regular blog readers has performed at the Prix St. Georges international level, so I asked him to proof this post). You may be familiar with the non-competitive dressage of the Lipizzaner stallions of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria. I have twice visited the original stud farm of these magnificent white stallions at the village of Lipica* (spelled "Lipizza" in Italian) in modern-day Slovenia, a few miles inland from the Adriatic. The storied history of this Habsburg supported enterprise a stone’s throw from the Italian border hits you as you enter the grounds and gaze in awe at the sign stating “Since 1580.”

*Lipizzaner: the name is derived from the Slovenian word lipa (linden tree), which is common in the area. The staff at the Lipica stud farm to this day plant a new linden tree for every foal born there.

But I digress. The Germans have long dominated dressage and warmblood horse breeding. Nevertheless, Dutch rider Edward Gal (at left) and black stallion Moorlands Totilas (nicknamed “Toto”) accomplished an astonishing feat in 2010, winning triple gold at the FEI World Equestrian Games, the first ever to sweep the three available dressage gold medals at a single World Equestrian Games. Then a shocking sale of Totilas to a German owner took place later that year, breaking up the fabulous team of horse and rider, and the international dressage circuit was beside itself. The Germans had for years denigrated and loudly badmouthed the Dutch method of training, but were quick to snap up this Dutch trained miracle stallion, who was only in his second year in dressage despite being 10 years old; Toto’s success illustrated how capable Edward Gal was as a rider. Toto currently holds the world record for the highest dressage score in Grand Prix Freestyle Dressage, and earlier this year the Glocks tried to buy back Toto for Gal to ride in the upcoming Olympics, but the Germans wouldn’t sell. No surprise.

Turns out the Germans got their comeuppance. German dressage superstar Matthias Rath (pronounced RAHT), who had been training Toto for the 2012 Olympics, had to withdraw from the games earlier this month because of a glandular disorder. Let’s use the German term Schadenfreude to describe the likely reaction from Edward Gal.

I can’t finish this post without relating strange facts about the Dutch Dressage Team sponsor Gaston Glock. You see, Austrian-born Glock (below with young wife Kathrin) had never actually designed or manufactured a gun until he was 52 years old, but his Glock safe-action pistol has become known the world over. It has also made him enormously rich. When Glock was 70 (1999) Charles Ewert, one of Glock’s business associates, hired a 67-year-old French ex-mercenary to murder Glock with a mallet in a garage in Luxembourg in an attempt to cover up embezzlement of millions from the Glock company. I’m not making this up. Although Gaston received seven head wounds and lost a liter of blood, he survived the attack. Both hit man Jacques PĂȘcheur and Ewert were convicted and sentenced to long prison terms.

So, if you catch some of the upcoming Olympic dressage events next week (August 2-9) at historic Greenwich Park outside London, this bit of background might enhance your enjoyment. Let’s wish Edward Gal, who "plays for our team," the best success.

But I digress. Back to the tan lines, gentlemen.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

July 25

Jerome Robbins 

Jerome Robbins (1918-1998) was an American theater producer, dancer, director, and choreographer. Known primarily for his work in Broadway theater and ballet, he also directed Hollywood and television films. Of all his contributions over a career that lasted many decades, he is perhaps best known for the stage and film versions of West Side Story, which he choreographed and directed. Robbins was one of four gay male Jewish creators of this landmark show, collaborating with Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim. Robbins won the Academy Award for Best Director with Robert Wise for the film West Side Story.

Born Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz in NYC, one month before the end of WW I, Robbins changed his last name to Robbins to disguise his ethnicity. He accompanied his sister to dance classes, and by the age of 19 had made his professional debut in a Yiddish Art Theater production. Robbins choreographed and performed at Lake Tamiment resort in the Poconos for five seasons, all the while dancing in Broadway musicals. In 1940 he joined Ballet Theatre (later known as American Ballet Theatre) and was soloist with that company from 1941 through 1944.

Robbins choreographed and danced in Fancy Free, a ballet about sailors on liberty that was staged at the Metropolitan Opera as part of the Ballet Theatre season in 1944. Oliver Smith, set designer and collaborator on Fancy Free, knew Leonard Bernstein, and eventually Robbins and Bernstein, both just 25 years old,  met to work on the music, resulting in a work of phenomenal success. Later that year, Robbins conceived and choreographed On the Town, a musical inspired by Fancy Free, thus launching his Broadway career. Again, Bernstein wrote the music. In 1947 he was praised for his comic Keystone Kops ballet in High Button Shoes, earning his first Tony Award for choreography.

During the 1950s barely a year went by without both a new Robbins ballet and a Broadway musical, and in this dual career he reached stratospheric heights in both fields. He directed and choreographed Irving Berlin's Call Me Madam, starring Ethel Merman. Robbins created celebrated dance sequences for Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I (1951), including the March of the Siamese Children, the ballet The Small House of Uncle Thomas and the Shall We Dance? polka between the two leads. He became associated with the New York City Ballet and was called in to perform uncredited assistance on troubled stage musicals, including Wonderful Town (1953). He worked on The Pajama Game (1954), which launched the career of Shirley MacLaine, and the Mary Martin vehicle Peter Pan (1955). As well, Robbins directed and co-choreographed Bells Are Ringing (1956), starring Judy Holliday. Other famed Broadway productions involving Mr. Robbins were Gypsy (1959) and Fiddler on the Roof (1964). But the magic year was 1957, when he conceived, choreographed, and directed a show that most feel is his crowning achievement, West Side Story. He won the Academy Award for Best Director with Robert Wise for the film version of that show, and the movie still holds the record as the film musical with the most Academy Award wins (10).

Robbins dominated the production of West Side Story, coming up with the original idea of a modern, urban Romeo and Juliet. Bernstein and Laurents added the idea of warring street gangs in place of Shakespeare's feuding families. The street warfare was between Puerto Ricans and U.S. born Americans, and at its most basic level the story is about how love can survive in a violent world of prejudice. The creators, all four of them homosexual and Jewish, knew a thing or two about prejudice. Other homosexuals involved in the project were set designer Oliver Smith, lighting designer Jean Rosenthal, costume designer Irene Sharaff as well as the first actor to play Tony, Larry Kert.

The West Side Story Broadway production team (1957), left to right: lyricist Stephen Sondheim, scriptwriter Arthur Laurents, producers Hal Prince and Robert Griffith (seated), composer Leonard Bernstein and choreographer Jerome Robbins (on ladder).

Complicating their bond, however, was the fact that Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents, both of them blacklisted, were working with Jerome Robbins, who only a few years earlier, during the McCarthy era, had cooperated with those responsible for the blacklist by naming names. This was a stain on the record of Jerome Robbins and alienated him from many people. Robbins, a closeted homosexual, cooperated with the House Un-American Activities Committee under threat of exposure as a homosexual. Nevertheless, Broadway dancer Buzz Miller and Robbins carried on a five year live-in relationship (1950-1955), and Robbins later had affairs with actor Montgomery Clift, photographer Jesse Gerstein and film maker Warren Sonbert.

Bernstein recalled that the give and take and flexibility among the four young West Side Story creators was extraordinary. Each inspired the other to greater heights of creativity and genius. Robbins insisted that the entire ensemble of actors also sing and dance, which was an innovation and challenge in casting the landmark musical.

Laurents said, "I think the difficulty was having death, attempted rape and murder in a musical.  The subject matter – bigotry, violence and prejudice – might have precluded people from paying money to see that sort of thing – with dancing and an orchestra."

Carol Lawrence, who created the role of Maria, said, "The opening night in 1957 in Washington, DC, when the curtain went up for our curtain calls (after Tony's lifeless body had been taken away and the strains of 'Somewhere' played under the tolling of a single bell – it still breaks me up) we ran to our places and faced the audience holding hands. As the curtain went up, and we looked at the audience, they just looked at us, and we at them, and I thought, 'Oh, dear Lord, it's a bomb!' "

"We thought the thing was going down the drain," Laurents added. "Oh, it was awful."

"And then, as if Robbins had choreographed it," Carol Lawrence said, "they all jumped to their feet. I never saw people stamping and yelling, and by that time, Bernstein had worked his way backstage, and he came at the final curtain and walked to me, put his arms around me, and we wept."

Walter Kerr of the Herald Tribune opened his review with the classic and much-repeated line, "The radioactive fallout from West Side Story must still be descending on Broadway this morning."

The rest is American musical theater history.

Here’s a video of the 9-minute prologue from the movie version of West Side Story (1961). In spite of the Broadway production's critical success, the show seldom sold out, and it didn't make money until the movie version came along, introducing the show to millions. The choreography of Jerome Robbins is beyond brilliant, from the opening finger snaps to classical ballet moves incorporated into the movements of street gangs, to a choreographed rumble with rock throwing.