#Unearthed: An Ode To John Curry

When you dig through skating history, you never know what you will unearth. In the spirit of cataloguing fascinating tales from skating history, #Unearthed is a once a month 'special occasion' on Skate Guard where fascinating writings by others that are of interest to skating history buffs are excavated, dusted off and shared for your reading pleasure. From forgotten fiction to long lost interviews to tales that have never been shared publicly, each #Unearthed is a fascinating journey through time.

This month's 'buried treasure' diverts a little from the usual format of #Unearthed in that it's actually a recent article. German skating historian Dr. Matthias Hampe's ode to John Curry appeared in the November 2019 issue of "Pirouette" magazine and it's my pleasure to share a translated version with you all today.

"JOHN CURRY: THE SEVENTIETH ANNIVERSARY OF THE AVANT GARDE OF FIGURE SKATING"


John Curry (UK) would have turned seventy this year. In addition, it is the twenty fifth anniversary of the death of this legendary figure skater. These events provide occasion to remember his life's work and to appreciate its innovations.

The beginning of his career

John Curry was born on September 9, 1949 in Acocks Green, a suburb of Birmingham, as the third son of engine factory owner Joseph Curry and his wife Rita. The family lived in a villa at 946 Warwick Road, now home to the Arden Lodge Residential Home.  Already at the age of five years the desire for dance lessons matured in him. Because his father felt this as inappropriate for a boy, Curry chose figure skating as a substitute. He received this inspiration after seeing a television broadcast of the ice show "Aladdin" with ex-World Champion Jacqueline du Bief. His father agreed and financed the training, because on the one hand skating at this time was extremely popular and secondly because skating, with its upright rigid upper body position without interpretive use of arms, was completely 'above suspicion' compared to ballet. His son would be socially recognized as an athlete and not a dancer.

Curry began skating in 1956, often with only one lesson per week. He first trained with Ken Vickers and subsequently with Peri Levitsky at the Summerhill Road Rink. Figure skating offered him a possibility to escape a difficult childhood. After his fathers suicide in 1965 a financial emergency broke out in the family. Curry left school and moved to London, where he worked as a salesman at NCR and trained with Armand Perren. After disagreements, he left to train with Arnold Gerschwiler at the famous Richmond Ice Rink. Gerschwiler taught Curry according to the old school traditions, emphasizing deep edges and a high standard in school figures. In 1967, Curry became British Junior Champion; in 1971 Senior Champion. In 1968, he began taken ballet lessons. In London he also experienced his coming out and met his first love, the Swiss coach Heinz Wirz.



Disappointing international entry

His first major international entry was in 1970 late at the age of 20. He placed twelfth at the European Championships in Leningrad. He had also a disappointing showing at the 1971 World Championships in Lyon, when he fell on his both triple jumps Salchow and Loop. In result he switched coaches to Alison Smith. She referred to him in a television interview as a talented but difficult student, who was hardly capable of criticism and was reluctant to be corrected. Slavka Kohout acted as his choreographer. Coaches were more akin to allies and advisors to Curry. His first appearance at the Olympic Games in 1972 was a tragedy. After 8th place in the compulsory figures competition, he dropped back to 11th place in the overall standings after another falls on his triple jumps in the free program. To end his jump weakness, Curry went new ways. After the World Championships in Bratislava in 1973, he signed a sponsorship deal with Edwin Mosler (USA) and then trained with the internationally successful champion coach Gustave Lussi in Lake Placid and from 1975 Carlo and Christa Fassi in Colorado Springs, where he triggered a debate about his amateurism. Curry's plan was that Lussi improve his jumping and pirouette techniques. The Fassi's should give the presentation the final touches and tie up the necessary overall sports policy package.

Finally , this change to a more professional training environment formed the basis of his positive performance development. From 1972 to 1976, he steadily increased his rank at the European Championships from 1972 to 1976. In 1974 he won with bronze medal at the European Championships, his first, major international medal.


Figure skating as an artistic form of expression

Men's skating was in crisis at the beginning of the 70's. There was an overemphasis on upright posture, long prepared jump entrances, lacking transitions, simple spins and flaws   in the triple jumps. As a result of the uniformity of the program design and the numerous technical errors, the number of spectators declined rapidly. Men's figure skating became the least attended discipline at ISU Championships. Into this vacuum came Toller Cranston (Canada) and John Curry. At that time they seemed like a revelation. While Cranston broke the doctrines of the traditionally masculine style with eccentric expressive dance, Curry sought a synthesis of figure skating and classical ballet. He began in 1973 with a short program to an interpretation of Ferdinand Hérold's "La Fille mal gardée" and in 1974 in the freestyle skated to parts of Petr Ilrich Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 1 and No. 6. Characteristic was his classically trained posture, elegance, absolute body control, precise lines, musicality and cool restraint. Every movement and all transitions were controlled and classically styled. In 1975, Curry went one step further with his short program based on Igor Stravinsky's "Le Sacre du Printemps" and his free program to Claude Debussy's "Daphnis et Chloe" and Maurice Ravel's "Bolero". Since "Le Sacre de Printemps" is structured in a polyrhythmic way, Curry tried to reproduce the mystical, the threatening, of the musically described ritual - a mood - through head circles and wing-flapping movements. He dived in the slow part into a picture-world of spreadeagles, spirals, Euler sequences, footwork and slowly twisting spins. This music selection, his means of expression and transitions were completely avant-garde for amateur figure skating during this period. He thus provided for an enormous compositional compaction in the men's free programs. Also new in men`s figure skating was the variety of spins, whereby his spin combination with three changes of positions and one cange of foot change is to be particularly emphasized. Due to technical shortcomings in the landings of his triple jumps, he finished in 3rd at the 1975 World Championships. Although not quite fair, this was his first medal at the World Championships.

The media's dirt campaign

On the one hand, this development was accompanied by an ovation from the audience. On the other hand, some officials and journalists expressed disapproving and derogatory opinions about the alleged feminization of men's skating, probably based on fears of image or business-damaging stigma of figure skating as a 'gay subculture', and concern for young men taking up the sport. Kurt Neufert, the editor of "Pirouette" magazine, quoted from German judge Eugen Romminger in his report on the 1974 European Championships: "I do not like the style of John Curry. In the men's competition, I do not want to see a woman skate." All over the world, tabloids started a real dirt campaign. The "Bild-Zeitung" outed the athlete shortly before the Olympic Winter Games in 1976 as a homosexual. Curry had to fight this barrier of prejudice but the attacks hardly harmed him with the public. At the opening of the 1976 Winter Olympics, he was given the honour of being the British flag bearer. He was also voted "BBC Sports Personality of the Year". Ultimately, even the greatest opponents recognized Curry's ice-skating and artistic abilities.


Carlo Fassi's genius

The experienced Word-Champion maker Carlo Fassi was aware of Curry's main problems: lack of technical perfection and lack of interaction with the audience. He believed that the lack of consistency in triple jumps was based of his nervousness and technical overload of choreography. Fassi proposed psychological training to increase self-confidence and the development of positive thinking, sending Curry to Erhard Seminars Training. Secondly, Fassi recommended a withdrawal of artistic innovation, an more outwardly look and gestures into the audience and a simplification of transitions.  Because Curry knew that only the win of an Olympic Gold MedaI could secure his future as a professional, he agreed with Fassi's concept. At the 1976 European Championships in Gothenburg, he laid the foundation for a successful Olympic season with a flawless free program. In his first European Championship victory, he profited from the fact that the Czechoslovak judge Jozef Lojkovič broke out of the classic bloc rating and completely unexpectedly tipped the 5-4 majority of the 'Eastern bloc'. His new short program to the music "Variations on a Theme of Paganini" but especially the freestyle to "Don Quixote" by Ludwig Minkus formed the implementation of Fassi's concept. Fassi focused on effects, precise musical pointing and popular choreographic solutions. With Toe-loop, Salchow and Loop, Curry offered for the first time three different, flawlessly executed triple jumps, which formed the basis of his success. Long holds of landing position gave a impression of security and confidence. His jumps were a compositional component of a rhythmically precise performance. Curry also had four different spins - including a change sit spin with an additional change of direction – and various step sequences in his programs. This free program was a milestone in the development of the unity of theme, music and presentation. Curry thus became an Olympic Champion, World and European champion, significantly increasing his international reputation and thus his market value.

Successful performer and choreographer of ice ballets

After completing his amateur career, Curry didn't make the usual transition to an ice revue, instead establishing his own production company which made a significant contribution to the perfecting of ice ballet as an independent genre and the further development of artistic expression in figure skating. His venture began in 1976 with the television production "The John Curry Ice Spectacular". To further his knowledge and skill for implementing dance to skating movement, he sought collaboration with world-renowned ballet choreographers. He provided Norman Maen choreography to Debussy's "Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune" (with Peggy Fleming and Catherine Foulkes) and Alexandr Borodin's "Polovitsian Dances". Curry choreographed "I got it bad and that ain't good” and "Send in the Clowns".


Subsequently, Curry founded the ice-ballet ensemble "John Curry's Theater of Skating". The company included David Barker, Lorna Brown, Linda Davis, Catherine Foulkes, Jaquie Harbord, Paul McGrath, Robert Metcalf, Paul Toomey and Bill Woehrle. Kenneth MacMillian choreographed the "Feux Follets" (Franz Liszt); Norman Maen the "Jazz Suite"; Peter Darrell "Scenes of Childhood". From Twyla Tharp came "After All". Curry choreographed "Suite for a guitar". The performance venue was the Cambridge Theater in London. Curry was given ballet lessons by Joyce Graeme.

In 1977, the "Theater of Skating II" was performed in the London Palladium with five premieres - John Butler's "Icarus", Ronald Hynd's "La Valse Glacée" and "Winter 1895".  Curry supplied the choereographies of the dances "Folk Song Fayre" and "Petite Suite for Harpe". The company consisted of Ron Alexander, David Barker, Marc Battersby, Lorna Brown, Yvonne Cameron, Linda Davis, Catherine Foulkes, Angela Greenhow, Jaquie Harbord, Robert Metcalf and Paul Toomey. On March 12, 1977, Curry had to close his production company for financial reasons, which must have had a tremendous effect on his mental state. He then moved to New York and conquered in November 1978 with the production "Ice Dancing" in the Felt Forum on Broadway. Here he collaborated with choreographers Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux ("Icemoves"), Peter Martins ("Tango, Tango"), Donald Saddler ("Palais de Glace") and Robert Cohan ("Night and Day Pas de Deux from Myth"). From Curry came the choreographies of "Anything Goes" and "Moon Dances". The new company included Ron Alexander, Yvonne Brink, Lorna Brown, Jack Courtney, Deborah Page, Jojo Starbuck, Patricia Dodd, Catherine Foulkes, Muki Held and Brian Grant. After twenty three celebrated performances Curry had to stop the show due to massive weight loss.


After a break for medical treatment Curry appeared as Harry Beaton in the musical "Brigadoon" at the Majestic Theater on Broadway from October 9, 1980 to February 8, 1981. With the television company WGBH Boston in 1981, he realized the production: "John Curry Skates Peter and The Wolf and Other Dances" and in 1982 "Snow Queen". In 1981 he took also part in the World Professional Championships in Landover (USA). These World Championships were held in a new format starting in 1980 as a team competition. The participants showed a technical and an artistic program. Curry won with the team 'All Stars'. He impressed in the technical program with the dance "Sheherazade". The highlight of his artistic program "Nocturne No. 5" from the "Lyric Suite" by Edvard Grieg were two perfectly executed compulsory figures set to music.


In December 1982 he returned to the ice ballet scene under the name "Pro Skate". Performance venue was the Madison Square Garden in New York. He skated with Dorothy Hamill, Jim Bowser, Patricia Dodd and Mark Hominuke. The program included "La Valse", "Pennies from Heaven", "Trio", and "Blessed Spirit" all choreographed by Curry self. In 1983 followed the production "Symphony on Ice" in Vancouver with the dances "Burn" (by Laura Dean), "Nightmare" and "Vortex" (by Curry). The company included Lori Nichol, Jim Bowser, Nathan Birch, Keith Davis, Patricia Dodd, Jojo Starbuck, Editha Dotson, Valerie Levine, Timothy J. Murphy, Shelley Winters, Adam Leib and David Santee. In 1983, Curry realized "Wilhelm Tell” in the Dobson Arena of Vail. It was his first complete ice ballet piece.


In 1984, he created the "John Curry Skating Company" with appearances at the Metropolitan in New York. Among the company were Dorothy Hamill, Jim Bowser, Patricia Dodd, Bill Fauver, Mark Hominuke, Shaun McGill, Lea Ann Miller, Timothy J. Murphy, Jojo Starbuck, Nathan Birch, Editha Dotson, J. Scott Driscoll, Catherine Foulkes, Gabriella Galambos, Joan Vienneau, Adam Leib, Lori Nichol and David Santee. Of seven new choreographies, five came from Curry and one each from Lar Lubovitch ("Court of Ice") and Eliot Feld ("Moon Skate"). In a drive to implement better ideas, Curry increasingly choreographed pieces himself: "Butterfly", "Chopin’s Waltz No.7", "Presto Barbero", "Fireworks", "Winter Storms".

He was, despite setbacks and ongoing financial problems, in constant search for artistic perfection and public appreciation. For the twelve new dance creations of the subsequent tour "Symphony on Ice" Curry was responsible: "Sunset", "Gershwin-Pieces", "Lyric Suite", "Rodeo", Tarantella", "To the Stars", "Holberg Suite", "Blue Bird", "Chopin’s Waltz No. 7", "Glides", "Russian Sailor’s Dance", Sleeping Beauty", "Victory at Sea".  The show was performed in London, Bergen and Tokyo. New included in the company was Janet Lynn.


In 1985, came the last production "The John Curry Skaters" at the Kennedy Center in Washington with the dances "Remember Me" (by J. P. Bounefous), "Skating Class", "The Skaters" and "Six Debussy pieces" (by Curry). Members of "The John Curry Skaters" were Nathan Birch, Jim Bowser, Ingrid Blomström, Patricia Dodd, Editha Dotson, Catherine Foulkes, Gabriella Galambos, Mark Hominuke, Adam Leib, Valerie Levine, Shaun McGill and David Santee.

Retreat to private

Afterwards, Curry tried being a stage actor, with moderate success. He appeared, among other things, as Buttons in "Cinderella" at the "Liverpool Playhouse Theater", the role of Mr. Gradgrind in "Hard Times" in Belfast, the Duke Orsino in Shakespeare's drama "Twelfth Night" at the open-air theater in Worthing and Marlow in the comedy "She Stoops to Conquer" by Oliver Goldsmith at "Kings Head Theater" Islington. After becoming aware of his HIV infection at the end of 1986, public appearances became rare.


In 1988, he surprised many by appearing in Gudrun Zeller's New Year's Eve show in Garmisch-Partenkirchen with the numbers "Attila" and "Le Rosenkavalier". His last performance to "You'll Never Get To Heaven If You Break My Heart" took place in 1990 with Judy Blumberg (USA) for the Ice Theater Of New York. When his illness became worse in 1991, he moved in with his mother. In 1992, he gave "The London Mail" an exclusive interview in which he made his disease public. John Curry died on April 15, 1994 in Binton of a heart attack as a result of AIDS. The funeral took place in the Warwickshire Crematorium "Oakley Wood". But there is no tomb reminiscent of the figure skating genius, for his ashes were scattered, according to information from Curry's longtime colleague Lorna Brown. For anyone who wants to penetrate more deeply into the private and intimate life of the individualist Curry, I recommend the 2015 Bloomsbury Sport published the Bill Jones biography "Alone: The Triumph and Tragedy of John Curry ", published by Bloomsbury Sport.

His effect on amateur figure skating

John Curry proved the fundamental importance of avant garde style, originality, individuality and body line in figure skating. His contact with the amateur skating world after turning professional was rare, but in 1979 he choreographed the free skating program of Susanna Driano (Italy) to Carl Czerny's ballet music "Etudes". As a choreographer, however, members of his company such as Lori Nichol, Lea Ann Miller and Bill Fauver continue to shape the artistic development of figure skating until today. So the vocabulary developed by John Curry lives on in skating.

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