Act 1 was about taking the audience on a journey. We aimed to increase their confidence in understanding ice skating, to give them an awareness of the ‘sport versus art’ struggle of John Curry and familiarise them with examples of his creativity. The second Act is more of a celebration of his work, with a complex narrative unfolding in the first half. I wanted to open Act 2 with something to settle the audience and get their attention nicely focussed back on the work.
We took Curry’s Fred Astaire sequence, which he did partly on land and partly on ice, and recreated it with dancers. Gary Beacom was resplendent in top hat and cane. Once again, this was about connecting and unifying the worlds of land and ice. We had Gary join the dancers on stage for part of the material. Mark Hanretty’s choreography then took over, in a Curry/ Astaire -inspired sequence.
I had emailed Peter Heubi and explained we were doing the show, asking if he could share any insights to inform the production. I was delighted when he responded. Peter explained the process behind the work. It was a duet with each performer filmed separately. Both men performed the same material, one on dry ground and one on ice, and the two sequences were put together as a film to show how they related so precisely.
As a sequence, this was very exact, with technically challenging movement and skating. Skater and dancer were given clear instructions not to deviate from the original. The performers were encouraged to find the theatrical quality and connect with each other. This kind of shared awareness and eye contact was not possible in the original, but it worked particularly well as a live experience. The audience could witness the same movement transferred equally between land and ice, in real-time.
This was the second of the longer sequences in the show. It was the first day we spent collaborating with the tango dancers and Mark and Yebin in the studio, and everyone was taken out of their comfort zones, exploring the potential in the ideas. I created a framework for the artists to make sense of the material, inviting them to find a theatrical quality and connection with each other and a narrative engagement with the audience. It was important to me that the tango dancers had a strong presence within the work and were involved in co-creating the new material.
I suggested we begin with a kind of tango gone wrong. We see John trying to make a tango work on ice, but it’s not happening. Jenny and Ricardo begin with a sequence where they disconnect, eventually finding the right starting point. Then we see Ricardo teaching material to Mark/John. The movement then flows into John, who we see watching and drawing inspiration from three couples doing different types of tango. John draws upon each of these as he makes his piece, from playful to romantic, to aggressive. We see the skaters drawing upon the incredible chemistry of the original John Curry version.
This powerful work made reference to John Curry as the ‘Nijinsky of the ice.’ It was based on the French poem that inspired the ballet famously danced by Nijinsky. To the Debussy musical score, the performers create a forest environment as the setting for the Faun’s adventures. The duet on ice is created mostly in silhouette.
In the original work, John was skating around an orchestra seated on the ice. Logistics didn’t quite allow us to do the same. Instead, we decided the skaters would present this piece, with a solo dancer joining them.
Polovtsian Dances is a famous piece from Borodin’s Opera, Prince Igor. BBC originally commissioned it as a collaboration between John Curry and the Bratislava National Orchestra.
Here we looked ahead to John’s legacy. The community skaters worked almost like a flock of birds performing synchronised material on the ice.
The term ‘flocking on ice’ was, in fact, invented by John Curry. It was a style of ensemble skating which he used to teach ballet class on ice, with deep skating edges.
Rosenkavalier (Knight of the rose)
I watched footage of a version John skated, and to me, this felt like a farewell to the ice . He slides down to the floor, almost kissing the frozen ground, and at the end, walks off the ice. A quiet, poignant moment of goodbye.
An Audience with Gary Beacom
One of my goals with this project was to give the audience a richer reading and appreciation of what they were seeing. I wanted to help the audience understand the world of skating from different perspectives.
Gary is a very articulate speaker and a deep thinker. I suggested he pick up on themes and talk around them, keeping in the style of the performance. Speaking while skating was not something he had done before.
Obviously, the challenge in itself was enough to convince him to give it a go. He came on four times during the show at strategic moments, always bringing another layer to the performance. In Sheffield, we were able to make a more extended pre-show section, which worked really well.
John’s final work was The Firebird, drawing upon the original ballet and Stravinsky’s music. There is no footage of the choreography for this creation, but it was felt to be his most potent work as an artist at the supreme height of his power. Together with insight provided by Curry company member Nathan Birch, who was involved in the creation of the original work, we came up with an invisible narrative running through the piece. John is gradually creating a story, but with time running out, there’s a sense of both urgency and impending tragedy.
We created a bird of fire with a dancer emerging resplendent in costume. Gary Beacom then took to the ice stage to execute an intense two-minute-long sequence of material to the Firebird music. For me, this section and its invisible growth through the work captures the spirit of John Curry: his artistry, imagination, risk-taking, collaboration, and creative ability.
Dancers, skater, music, and ice all weave into a climactic mix. The audience shares in a melancholy fragment of an imagined world where the bird of fire melts the ice, and it is down to the skill of the skater to keep going, even as challenge after challenge confronts him.
A lifetime’s worth of creative endeavour and learning are distilled into the making of this unseen final work.
Finale – William Tell
To send the audience on their way home the skaters presented this work that was done as a final piece as part of John’s programme, which was originally performed by John Curry’s skating ensemble at the Royal Albert Hall. An uplifting, celebratory ensemble