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John Curry.

John Curry, the British-born figure skater, made a rare Manhattan appearance this May, performing at Sky Rink as one of the guest stars on a one-time-only program hosted by the Ice Theatre of New York. (According to The New York Times, Ice Theatre is a nonprofit skating company founded in 1984 with the aim of establ"a new repertory on ice.") Curry presented two solos, which together occupied less than ten minutes of the two hours. They swept by like ten seconds. Although he served up leaps and spins, he never offered them seriatim: Neither solo was an exercise in bravura. Instead, we tracked his austerely dressed, finely proportioned figure, so lean that his profile seemed a blade, variously speeding up or slowing down while a singer on tape scaled or descended a voluptuous operatic melody. Cleverness, competition, dazzle seemed irrelevant. The focus was sure, the style sustained, the tone steady and true, with the ghost of melancholy in it. Watching him, one marveled again at how intimate and immediate, how much of an art, ice skating can be.

"I always knew that I had one thing to say in life, and one thing only," Curry has written. "I believe that skating can be expressive." He's hardly unique in professing the principle, or achieving it - in this country, one thinks of Peggy Fleming, Janet Lynn-- but he may be exceptional in his methods. Curry's recipe for expressiveness is almost a formula: choreography based on the nuances of traditional skating technique, especially the legato precision needed for the tracing of school figures; first-rate music from the concert hall, usually from before World War I; and the turnout and carriage of classic ballet. Other skaters freely use these elements: the Ice Theatre program was built around the relationship between skating and dancing. But Curry seems to believe in the power of music, technique and tradition to illuminate as well as charm, and to charm for their own sakes, without any sort of "dumbing down." His style can skirt a narrow refinement, like the highbrow concert tap of Paul Draper. Curry's own public persona, so understated, borders on the recessive. Yet his effect in performance is direct, clarifying, fundamental, profound. He doesn't skate big or flashy -his range has always been angled to focus on this or that formal aspect. But he presents skating so that we perceive it in an enlarged context, in life and death terms. He presents it as an expression of faith.

Curry's choreography takes off from the question of how long the skater's blade can remain in contact with the ice, rather than how soon it can leave. (A statement in the printed program by Ice Theatre artistic director Rob McBrien about the skater's "edge" and the importance of centrifugal force seems closely allied to Curry's approach.) One of the most elegant ways he dramatizes this continuity is by threatening to interrupt it. In Attila, his first and more magnetic solo with Ice Theatre, the large image was lyrical and uncomplicated, a message of Olympian calm etched in a cursive journey around and across the rink. Within that, however, he distinctly adjusted his speed often, now accelerating effortlessly, now whittling down his attack to the point of stillness, then, just as one expected him to stop cold, catching a new inside edge and sailing off once more. All of this was matched to the movement of a singer's voice (in an excerpt from Verdi's Attila); and the unsettling possibility that the performer might stop, conjoined with his beautiful, cutting line and seamless fidelity to the dynamic of the aria, encouraged an impression of urgency as well as grandeur.

Attila's vocabulary was very spare: a double air turn, spins in sitting and standing positions, an arabesque (a "spiral" in skating), an attitude, a gliding stance on wrned-out legs (a "spreadeagle'), heels apart and arms flying wide, like Leonardo's drawing of man. In the second solo, set to an excerpt from Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier, we saw a magnificent gliding lunge position with a changing port de bras suddenly convened to a taffy-smooth spin; a split jump where the legs parted on one dry accent, like a camera shutter; and a strange, long, dreamlike glide for the entire figure, stretched out face down over the ice. In this solo, as expressionist as Curry's sensibility gets, there were also several decisive full stops followed by a poignant gesture or two in place. Der Rosenkavalier had a dark, mimed quality even in the pure skating passages, and those moments when the skater was stilled so the mime might speak seemed particularly chilling.

A few years ago, it looked as if Curry's vision of a classic skating style would be transferred to a whole company of performers. (Rob McBrien served as ensemble director with the John Curry Skaters throughout its world tour.) Then, without warning, the company fell apart and Curry reportedly abandoned skating for an acting career. The world that had taken pleasure in Curry's enlightened prospects fell back to its old ways, applauding competition and high concept over expressiveness as it had always done. New skaters floated into the public arena; women began to perform triple air turns routinely, and men to practice quads, There has been no general advance in the way most skaters relate to their music (i.e., as purely a generator of tempo). Indeed, one of the reasons that Brian Boitano's short program in the 1988 Winter Olympics was so effective was that it actually referred to the Meyerbeer waltz it used, seating his jumps just off the climax of the oompah phrases so as to build up to the idea of a peak in tension, when the last jump corresponded exactly with a climax of melody--a drama of delayed gratification that happened to read as an allegory of Boitano's own march toward mastery. (The use of this waltz was a dance in-joke, too, since it's one of the numbers that Fredrick Ashton used in his ballet about skaters, Les Patineurs.) Compared with Curry's musicality, this is elementary stuff, but it was a marked improvement compared with the current field.

The future of partnering in skating as an expressive resource is unclear. International amateur competition, which conditions both technique and audiences, has decreed two sorts of styles since the early 1950s. There is "pairs skating," where one finds the lifts and thrown jumps and death spirals-that is, where the athletic dimension of partnering is exploited-and there is "ice dancing," a style based on competition forms of ballroom dance; this tends to be artful (Torvill and Dean) but, in terms of skating vocabulary, also sedate. In balletic terms, this would be like cutting up a grand pas de deux into partnered adagios and solos/coda: the division highlights stylistic elements but reduces expressive possibilities. Recently, it has seemed that the growing popularity of ice dancing has put pressure on pairs to distinguish themselves through a stepped-up athleticism that has led to some unfortunate practices. The Soviet pairs, especially, have noticed that it's possible to make the woman fly higher and turn more times if there is an exaggerated discrepancy between the heights and builds of the individuals in the couple. And so were seeing match-ups whose only justification is leverage: men the size of basketball players and women tiny enough to stuff through hoops. (At least one Canadian pair of this sort competed internationally last year.)

The Ice Theatre program steered clear of this kind of exaggeration, suggesting different possibilities for pair skating. its most provocative piece was Dusk, by stage choreographer Matthew Nash (translated to ice by McBrien), in which two women (Nina Newby and Moira North) skated several partnered duets together to songs by tango master Astor Piazzola; at the end, McBrien joined them but didn't participate in the partnering, underscoring their self-sufficiency as a couple. Dusk had none of the awkwardness that accompanies this sort of duet on the dance stage because in skating there is no important difference between men's and women's technique, apart from the extra turning jumps men can achieve owing to their build. If shows of muscle -lifts and throws - aren't involved, why not have ice dancing performed by two women? And why not pairs by two men? The smaller, thrown male partner could achieve even more sizzle than a woman of equivalent size. The possibilities of drama in such a match-up have already been plumbed on the dance stage by Remy Charlip in his male duets.

Among the more traditional pairs numbers, the most enthusiastic audience reception went to Gary beacom and Gia Guddat, a partnership who once worked with Torvill and Dean. Beacom and Guddat are a handsome, physically complementary couple who share a blowsy and gregarious sense of fun. But they're indifferent to many stylistic matters and Guddat's basic skating ability is so far inferior to Beacom's that a fireworks vehicle like their Don Quixote pas de deux (choreographed to Minkus by the skaters and Canadian coach Frank Nowosad) seems more grossly mismatched than anything we saw in the Olympics from the flagpole Sergei Grinkov and Ekaterina Gordeyeva, his radiant flag.

Beacom is a talented soloist on his own, his strong point being a love for invention of new skating vocabulary, and his weakness an insensitivity to music so far-reaching that he choreographs entirely in additive series of unusual moves, four this and four that. He can oscillate his legs like the working end of a Roto-Rooter, he can crouch while gliding until his hair drags on ice between his thighs, he can pretzel his ankles and undo himself with a fun twist on one count. In Between Steel and Ice, he performed this way to an electronic swatch of Gebrauchsmusik (by Darcy Guddat), written to support the already completed choreography. In Alberta Biography, a solo set to wild bird songs (arranged by ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson), the effect seems less laborious because the sound of the birds is already so arbitrary that anything visual promises to make sense of it. In both cases, the result is like reading a dictionary when you wanted a story. I wish Beacom had a musical adviser. He ought to be skating to Olivier Messiaen's Catalogue des Oiseaux, the same birdsongs but in composed time. His gifts are really those of a virtuoso skating clown, and he needs the discipline of more precise t"For it is the comics who use most inventively and most dramatically the peculiar resources of motion on the ice," Edwin Denby wrote in 1944. "It is out of the extremes of rhythm that skating alone can have that they build their dramatic effects."

At the moment, our greatest clown, in this sense, is John Curry. I take down my Watteau catalogue and there he is: the frank brows, the full mouth, the oblique gaze, staring out from the painting known as Pierrot or Gilles. Dramatic, infinitely expressive, and quite alone.
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Title Annotation:Ice Theatre of New York
Author:Aloff, Mindy
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Skating Review
Date:Jul 16, 1988
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