Sunday, 20 April 2014

Interview With Lorna Brown


Growing up near Newcastle, England, Lorna Brown is without question not only a significant figure in the world of figure skating but someone who has left the sport better than she found it. A British and World Professional Champion and internationally renowned choreographer, Brown has choreographed for the best and the rest, and the consistent theme in all of her work is its rich and layered quality and that marriage of music and movement that transforms the ice into a stage. She's choreographed for innovative skaters like three time Canadian Champion Emanuel Sandhu and toured with John Curry's Skating Company, but the real story in Lorna Brown is her passion for skating and refreshingly honest approach to the sport/art. We talked in depth about everything from her own experiences on the ice to her thoughts on the current state of skating, touring with John Curry's Company, losing her student Lars Dresler to HIV/AIDS and much, much more. Grab yourself a coffee or a Genmaicha tea (I swear you'd think I should get royalties for how much I advertise the stuff) and get ready to take a trip inside the mind of one of skating's most fascinating figures:

Q: After your own ten year international "amateur" career ended, you turned professional and became both the British and World Professional Champion and toured with John Curry's Ice Dancing (performing on Broadway) and at the London Palladium's "Theatre Of Skating" show. How difficult was the transition from the "amateur" to professional worlds for you and what did you love most about the creativity afforded in professional skating?

A: I felt freedom at last - and thought to hell with all the judges. I was literally deprived of a place on the British team because of the fact I was way ahead of my time and as the winner of the British Junior Championships I shot up to the number one free skater in the country in the senior Championships, so they knocked me down in the figures so they didn't disturb the top three that had been there for years. I ended up finishing fourth three times and so that was enough. It broke my heart but I then competed in the World Championships in Wembley the first time and came second to a European Champion who was also an Olympic and world bronze medallist by 0.2 and the pro marks were out of ten. I skated to "On the Waterfront" and I remember the ice was liquid blue so I was in my element. The next time I did World Pros in Jaca and won it. I skated to "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" and really became the story in my program. Soon after that, John asked me to join his first company. He said I was the first person he invited. As I had known him for many years, we had stayed quite close even when apart and continued to be close during the following years. I was devastated when he died and attended and spoke at his funeral and again at his memorial the following year. I continued to do other shows in between John's shows and studied dance even more. I actually started ballet when I was three and was on the stage all my life. I also began choreographing in between shows and doing ice ballet classes too.

Q: We've talked at length about the importance of open professional competitions like the U.S. Open, World Professional Championships in Jaca and the American Open. Where do you see professional and artistic skating regaining ground in recent years and how can it continue to develop or should I say redevelop?

A: I don't know where but I see it has to happen. I think there is more in Europe than here. Events like Art On Ice etc. Really, a lot of amateurs are professionals anyway but to remain popular on TV and survive as a sport it has to be more entertaining so more shows and more pro competitions would be amazing. I think it is great now that skaters can use music with lyrics too. It is the start of a new era. I think that pro competitions and galas could be done to aid good causes and charities. I would love to have one to help children in need or to support suffering animals.


Q: Going back to touring with John Curry, I want to ask you about your experiences working with John. What made him so undeniably special and what are your favourite memories from both the show and working with him specifically?

A: John and I would talk about our dream of having an ice ballet company when we were very young. We were both winning competitions together but then I turned pro and John went out to the USA and eventually won Europeans, Olympics and Worlds on the trot and that enabled him to do what he really wanted to do and that was to dance on the ice in theatres and do things his way: the way he always dreamed of from being a child. He was hugely inspired by Vaslav Nijinsky as I was with Isadora Duncan. He was a perfectionist and was very dedicated in everything he did for his work. he shows were incredible. We had people like Diana Ross, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova attending... all of these amazing people were in the audiences and THEY were amazed that John was bringing ballets to the ice. We used to laugh a lot. We would sit on the bed and I would sing "Life" by Shirley Bassey to him. We would go into the park pretending we were Romeo and Juliet. We were going to do Midsummer Night's Dream someday and he wanted me to play Puck on the ice. We were like brother and sister: very close. We had our moments. One memory from John's shows that will always stand out is skating "Tango Tango" with him. Jojo wasn't there at that show. I wore a different costume than her and I was very different to Jojo. We were each other's understudies. The beginning was amazing and then he took me down into the death spiral and he let go and I lost the death spiral. I remember leaving the ice and I was so upset with him. I asked him "why? Why would you do that?" and he looked at me and said "I thought you could do it by yourself". There I was with these black tears and bright red lips. It never happened again. Once, we were all so tired after a twelve hour rehearsal and he was being very picky so I felt I had had enough of his nit picking and stormed off and told him to take me out of the pas de trois. I was the only soloist in it. Then I stormed off and told him he could take me out of the whole show. I dreaded what would really happen as I did not want that to happen but he was a slave driver at times. Next day, I went back in (we were at the Twickenham film studios in London) and he came into my dressing room and said good morning to me so I think he was a little worried too. That day, I dressed up in a fabulous outfit with a big white floppy hat and he said I looked like I just stepped off of the cover of Vogue magazine. We were all happy again. There are many stories but really he was also very loving and deeply involved with the work we were doing and tried to live out his dreams as much as possible in reality until the dreaded end to his life began. I could write a book about it all. There is a wonderful book coming out in August of this year called "Alone: The Triumphs and Tragedy of John Curry". I will be featured in the book and can't wait to read it. I will meet with the author Bill Jones when I visit England in the summer time this year.


Q: You not only lost John to HIV/AIDS but also your very talented student Lars Dresler, who you coached to the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. How devastating was that era in skating when we lost so many great skaters to a virus that so few people then had any true understanding of?

A: It was a terrible time. Two or three years after John died I lost Lars Dresler. I went through a lot with him after he found out as he didn't want anyone to know, as his family didn't even know he was gay. I had to tell his sister for him to get her used to that idea before she found out he had AIDS. We only competed for one more year and then it was too hard to cope with. He would be on a warm up at an international competition and would come over to me and say "what's the point?" It was so devastating. The last I saw of him was when he was very ill and a friend who was a former Danish Champion (Anette Nygaard) and I took him to Spain for a vacation as he had never been and wished to go there. It was so very hard to see him so thin and ill and every day he thought he was dying. I helped him as much as I could and we called each other between England and Denmark until almost the end of his life but I didn't make it on time as I had promised him I would. He died suddenly in the hospital. The whole male cast of John's Company I was in are all gone. Paul McGrath, Paul Toomey, Brian Grant, Ron Alexander and John himself.

Q: You are most known and loved for your work as a brilliant choreographer and coach. What strategies or principles to you bring to the table every time you work with a skater or develop a new piece?

A: I put a great deal of effort and communication into my work. With choreography, it is first about the music and the idea for the type of movement and mood of the program. I always think the beginning, the middle and the end have to be the strongest. I love body movement and expression. I have to be deeply involved and not rushed as that kills it or just doesn't allow me to bring the best of me out. I like to help the skater be open, uninhibited and free to be with me as one and to feel total awareness of the movements they are learning with their whole body. The blend of the whole piece from beginning to end is important. I never really plan the choreography, just the music and the vision of it. I structure it when we begin the actual creation. With technique, I am very different and analytical so I have two sides to me... both extremely detailed. Often people say if you are an artist then you cannot be a technician but I don't agree as I am both. Leonardo de Vinci was like that!

Q: I read a wonderful quote by you in an interview with the American Ice Theatre, whose work I am just so impressed by. You said "It is easy to be average. You really have to work hard to achieve originality and to be unique. Creative people use who they are and what they have learned and experienced to inspire themselves to create new ideas. These people are individuals who are comfortable with themselves but who also realize their imperfections and thrive on achieving excellence. They continually search for new ideas by attending the ballet, shows, art galleries and anything that will inspire them in life to develop themselves. It is those who dare to be different who are remembered and who leave an everlasting impression." I have a hypothetical question for you. If a top level skater wanted to skate an artistically brilliant performance in the current IJS competition knowing full well that in order to skate that masterpiece they'd have to throw the requirements ("levels", etc.) out the window to do it, would you be supportive? Do you feel there is value and merit to artistic protest?

A: Yes I do, but they would slaughter them for it. I don't know how it would go down? It would be great though! I have often wondered the same thing. Maybe Stephane Lambiel could to that!

Q: I want to talk to you about the ladies competition at the Olympics and the current judging system. There's a can of worms, right? Do you think the right skater won Olympic gold and what suggestions would you offer to improve the judging of "amateur" skating to ensure it is fair, transparent and rewarding the 'right' qualities? 

A: This is a debatable question. I love Yuna Kim and respect her a great deal as a person and as an ambassador to her country and all she does for charities. She is a very highly skilled and beautiful performer with maturity and beauty. Adelina Sotnikova did as much as she could to get the scores, as Scott Hamilton put it "she ticked every box" and every jump and spin had difficult entries etc. so it was like the two of them should both have the gold medal. I think the rules have improved the spins, the footwork and the creativity of the whole programs. When you look back, there were much simpler programs and lot more crossovers but at the same time the programs can be crammed up with transitions and can be overloaded then you can't see wood for trees. I don't think the point system matters as in the end it all boils down to one number: first, second or third, if you know what I mean. The rules could have changed without the judging system itself.

Q: What is the most beautiful piece of music you've ever heard, the book you cherish most and the
place you go when you need to think?

A: The book is Isadora Duncan's "My Life". There are too many pieces of music which I love but one very beautiful piece that I love always is Mahler's 5th Symphony - track four. Where I go when I need to think is right in front of the ocean with no one around.

Q: Tell me about your work with Emanuel Sandhu. What makes him such a star?

A: He is an individual who is very well trained as a ballet dancer and other forms of dance. He is an emotional person with deep feelings and at times very eccentric. I was privileged to work with him even though he never did make his comeback happen for the Sochi Olympics. He had many problems including finances, personal support and also knee problems. It's sad he never made it to be an Olympic Champion as he is one of the most beautifully artistic and technically perfect skaters ever. A talent that should have made it to the very top.

Q: What are the three most brilliant programs of all time developed by other choreographers you have ever seen skated? Programs that just made you stop and go "wow"?

A: John Curry in" L'apres Midi D'une Faun" choreographed by Norman Maen. Kurt Browning in "Singin' In The Rain" choreographed by Sandra Bezic and Viktor Petrenko skating to "When I'm Back On My Feet Again"... but then there is Stephane Lambiel in practice, improvising and choreographing for himself. So many that I actually don't know how to answer this! It is endless and would take a lot of research to give really precise answers. I also love Jeffrey Buttle and Gary Beacom as well as Yuna Kim. I think she has such a lovely expression which is so deep and subtle. I feel sometimes the girls need to be more totally physical and open so they can really show their feelings with mind, body and spirit. A lot of skaters aren't open enough physically. It's like they're afraid of their bodies. It's not just about positions, it's about being with the music.


Q: What's one thing about you most people don't know?

A: There are many things. I write poetry and paint and am a very deep thinker. I love to be alone as well as with others. I love animals and nature. I love to help the suffering and would have loved to have married and had a child. It didn't happen and a lot of it was because of my strange life as an ice skater. I'm not sure what people don't know. Sometimes we can give people the wrong impression. I am not sure really what others see in me.

Q: What is next for you?

A: I will be at the Alexandra Palace in London, England first on the 25th of May, then Oxford on the 27th and 28th of May then Plymouth on the 31st of May and 1st of June. I will be seeing friends and family for a few days before I return. I will focus on the many ways to be creative together with skating skills and expression with music. The Ice Class will incorporate as much body movement and as much freedom of expression as I can generate in the atmosphere. Skating needs that. Look at the Nederlands Dance Theatre. I know skating is a different scene but I wish it was more open to being open.

Q: What is the best piece of advice you've ever been given and what is the best piece of advice you could ever give?

A: It is another hard one to answer. The best advice I have been given is to "be myself" so I would say the same: "Be who you truly are". No false fronts!

I hope you all enjoyed my interview with the fabulous Lorna Brown! In order for this blog to reach a wider audience and for more people to have chance to read interviews like these, I could sure use a little help. All you have to do is "LIKE" the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard for instant access to all of the new blog articles, features and interviews as they are made available. I also share daily updates and headlines from the skating world, videos and much more that's not here on the blog, so if you love figure skating as much I do, it would really be rude not to get on that inside edge! You can also follow all of the fun along on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SkateGuardBlog. If you know someone who loves skating, tell them! It's all about getting a dialogue going on! Fabulous skating is too fabulous to keep secret. Am I right or am I right? I think I'm right.

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