The History of Skating
In this first section, we gradually become aware that the voice of the female performer is actually the Voice of the Ice, which will feature throughout. She refers to how John understands and caresses her like no one before. And so we reveal to the audience that the overall framework for the piece is about John and his relationship with the ice.
“Ballet is not meant for you; the ice is your calling.” – Voice of the Ice
John’s desire to be a ballet dancer was thwarted when his parents refused to let him take lessons. His father did, however, permit him to learn to ice skate, considered more manly activity. Of course, this turned out to be a blessing. John embraced the challenge of finding a way of taking ballet onto the ice. At John Curry’s company, they would always start the day with a ballet class on ice, and the ballet barres we placed on the frozen surface signal the start of joining the worlds of dance and ice into one landscape. This was the ongoing challenge for me: I always sought new ways of joining those two worlds into one to create a holistic theatre experience. I asked the audience to stop seeing ‘ice skaters’ and ‘dancers’ but experience artists who are on land and ice and can cross over into each other’s worlds.
John is gradually finding his way further and further away from the ballet barre to the point where he is no longer bound by the conventions of ballet in a dance studio.
An Introduction of Sorts
I wanted to convey to the audience a sense of what would be in the show, without directly naming the Curry works. How could we trail the repertoire through movement? To warm up the audience’s imagination and whet their appetite, I decided to send skaters past them with a brief hint of the choreography to come.
I was conscious that many audience members might be new to the world of ice-skating, and I was keen to make the work accessible and understandable, ultimately providing a more vibrant audience experience for everyone. I needed to set the context for the work, offer explanations and vocabulary, and articulate what it was that made John so distinct and unique among skaters.
This section of the production served the purpose of doing that.
The narration introduced skating vocabulary, teaching, posture, John’s anatomy, and skating style and the positions that were unique to John. We also draw upon John’s experience of a coach telling him to skate ‘like a man’ to which he responded he did not want to skate like any man he had seen skate! We begin to introduce his struggle to break away from the conventions and barriers of the skating status quo. We hear how his attempt to try something new was received like ‘a poem read to deaf people.’
It was an honour to have a cameo appearance from the original John Curry Company member Lorna Brown. She appears as a coach to the young John. ‘What’s this? A glimpse of red’. This veiled narrative keeps appearing, eventually revealing itself to the audience.
Art versus sport. In the section, we show Carmen skated in two ways at the same time: one very sporty and technical, the other aesthetic and theatrical.
All good work is about tension and resolve. For this section, I wanted the skaters to create a sense of rivalry and competition, building up to a gladiator-type scenario.
I invited the skaters to work with the idea of someone cutting in front of you when you’re driving a car. They pass each other, becoming faster, more aggressive, and competitive with material almost coming into a physical clash. This sets the scene for the ‘match,’ with the Carmen skaters taking up position to begin. Cue music.
There is no winner, just an appreciation of forms, movement, shared voices, and space. The audience gets a sense of the interplay between the worlds of art and sport. We want to highlight John’s pioneering creative approach to bringing these two worlds together.
In this early artistic work, John had the courage, imagination and daring to approach established American choreographer Twyla Tharp and ask her to create a work on him. Her following brought an arts audience to the ice rink to see her creation. John would go on to work with many established choreographers, driven by his willingness to push himself and bring together the worlds of dance and ice.
The result of this partnership was beautifully simple yet complex work. It was created as a solo on John, opening his eyes to what could be achieved on the ice. We recreate it, in this production, as a duet.
So far, we have been developing the audience’s confidence in engaging with the ideas, themes, and the specialness of John.
From this point on, the narrative becomes more chronological, building up to the pivotal point of the 1976 Olympics and winning gold. Two years prior to this, John had despaired as he watched his rival Toller Cranston skate with flamboyant elegance. It was a massive blow to John – he lost his self-confidence and felt unable to skate. In this section, we see John watching Toller and how distraught the performance leaves him. Toller finishes with a contemptuous glance back at John.
The Sound of the Blades
Here we see a totally broken John in mental anguish, showing his feelings through the harsh, abrasive and violent sounds of the blades on the ice.
Gradually, the blades calm down to a more natural sound. Then begins John’s quest to find harmony, musicality and oneness with the ice, as his training prepares him for the Olympic competition.
Trying to recreate a gold medal-winning Olympic routine is no easy feat for anyone. In the end, we decided to split this section into five parts, with four skaters each taking a section of material. We allocated work according to each skater’s strengths, from the lyrical quality to the jumping and other technically daring elements.
Each section had a crossover of material, as one skater took on the next section from the previous performer like a baton passed on in a relay race. The young John was brought into the mix as well. We showed how winning gold would bring him much freedom and opportunity.
I decided Spartacus might work well symbolically, here. Just as the slave breaks free of his chains, John escapes all the barriers and restrictions that had held him back for so long. With the gold medal behind him, he’s finally free to do what he wants with all the acknowledgement, recognition, and financial support he needs.
Focussing again on bringing the worlds of land and ice together. And how we go into and come out of each piece. I brought some ribbon into the studio for the performers to experiment with the idea of binding. How might it work when it is not entirely clear if the ribbon is leading or the dancer is in charge? The ribbon is intended to connect the worlds of land and ice with strong imagery. The ‘Ice Spartacus’ reflects and connects with the dancer, before returning to the original choreography.
This is a beautiful duet across land and ice. The dancers learned the material perfectly and reproduced it in exact synchrony with the skaters undertaking the same material on ice. This piece is calm and meditative.
For a moment the world has stopped, and we can take time to reflect on the challenges that John has battled and overcome and where he is now.
Three sections of the material are almost 10 minutes long in the overall programme. This was the first one. I saw it as my opportunity to bring Indian dance elements to the ice and provide the audience with an insight into who Scheherazade was.
We sent two Scheherazades onto the ice, holding fans. The audience learns she can only avoid beheading by telling the King a different story every night – but always stopping before the end so he would have to bring her back the next night to find out what happened. This concept of staying alive through the telling of 1001 stories seemed to be the perfect analogy for John’s prolific imagination, and the wealth of work he created on and off the ice.
It was also a wonderful opportunity to explore the storytelling potential of Kathak. I realised I could tell a story about who Scheherazade was, involving the Indian God Krishna as a child with the story of the Butter Thief. The audience witnesses an Indian dancer on ice, a young girl skater, and Gary – who is being closely observed by the King.
I was keen to take the audience into the interval with something to leave them feeling uplifted, satisfied, yet hungry for more. John made so much work and we couldn’t show all of it, so I made use of our strong ensemble cast and developed a medley of a few pieces to indicate the scale of his output.