John Curry was called a ‘Nureyev of the ice’, noted for bringing innovative ballet and modern dance influences to the rink. Through his grace and ingenuity, he effectively created a new art form. He had a unique talent for reinterpreting the works of great composers, transforming great music into exquisite movement on ice. While he wasn’t the first to attempt work in this area, he certainly took the ideas further than anyone had before.
John Curry was born in 1949, the third son of a precision engineer who ran his own firm in Birmingham. His brothers excelled in sport, but John’s talents led him in another direction. As a child, Curry wanted to become a dancer, but his parents were unsupportive. Instead, he began to take figure skating lessons under the guidance of respected coach Ken Vickers at the Summerhill Road rink in Birmingham, who had taught another future world champion, Bernard Ford.
In 1965, at the age of 16, Curry won the Rank trophy at Southampton. He displayed free- skating flair and musicality, and while he was less inspired by compulsory figures – carefully traced elaborations of the basic figure eight – he often still excelled at these championships.
Despite the victory, this was a tough time: his father died of tuberculosis the same year, having never fully embraced his son’s skating career. The following year, Curry placed ninth in the Prague Golden Skate event. After several runner-up placings, he hit his stride in 1970, winning the St Gervais International in France, and in December he became the surprise British champion.
After falling out with his coach in the early 1970s, things took a more positive turn. Curry began working on free-skating ideas with Alison Smith, who specialised in interpreting music on the ice. Sponsorship from the American Ed Mosler, in 1973, resolved many of Curry’s financial woes.
When he came seventh in the 1974 World Championship, Curry was almost ready to give up. It was advice from the American trainer Slavka Kohout that kept him going. ‘Go to Gus Lussi for six weeks only,’ she said, ‘for tuition in free-skating, and then go to Carlo and Christa Fassi in Colorado Springs and do figures until they are coming out of your eyeballs’.
Gustave Lussi’s training technique proved brutal, and as he attempted yet another jump from a standing start, he found himself ready to give up. In the end though, it worked. Between Lussi and the Fassis help with his figures, Curry enjoyed a near-victory in the 1975 European, a bronze in the World Championships, and then an extraordinary clean sweep in 1976, taking the European, Olympic and World titles.
Curry’s final season was a struggle. He had planned to peak at the Olympics in February, and defending his British title in December 1975 proved an unexpected challenge. Robin Cousins (who would succeed him as Olympic champion in 1980) was in top form, and only the compulsory figures saw Curry through.
Renewed determination followed, and the height of his glory came the following February at the Olympic Winter Games at Innsbruck. He skated immaculately, showcasing the famous triple jumps, athleticism and glorious musicality. Curry won the gold.
Then he turned professional, and really began to explore skating’s affinities with music. John Curry’s Theatre of Skating made it to the Albert Hall, demonstrating the potential of a small group of inspirational skaters, including Jacqueline Harbord and Linda Davis.
Free to perform as an artist rather than a competitor, Curry worked between Britain and the United States, finally achieving his dance ambitions in a US production of Brigadoon. His performance skills were truly interdisciplinary: he worked as a theatre actor in the UK, and brought his humour and style to skating to a delightful humorous tango with US-based skater Alicia (‘JoJo’) Starbuck.
Curry was reserved, strong-willed and known to be defensive. He could be mistrustful
of journalists, and was not always good at taking advice. He was famously courageous, however, and took a number of risks in his career, including acknowledging his homosexuality just before the 1976 Olympics.
The 1976 women’s gold medalist Dorothy Hammill described him as apparently cold at first but in fact, ‘not like that at all. He’s really the nicest person, and he’s helped me a lot when I get worried. He’s always so calm.’ This calmness, along with his originality and dedication, is at the heart of his incredible achievements. Curry died of an AIDs-related heart attack in 1994, aged just 44.