John Curry, Bored with Skating as Spectacle and Sport, Turns It into An Art He Dubs 'Ice Dancing'
"Traditional ice shows camouflage the quality of skating," sniffs Curry. "Just when the artistic part of one's career should begin, a skater ruins it by joining revues like Capades or Follies. Skating is not the primary concern of those shows—they are wrapped up in the razzmatazz and glitter."
In contrast, Curry's company of 12, which includes Ice Capades star Jo Jo Starbuck, has nary a sequin. The skaters, choreographed by ballet masters from Twyla Tharp to Peter Martins, perform dance steps rather than the axels, salchows and sitspins of figure skating. The music is by Berlioz, Debussy and Stravinsky. The atmosphere is intimate: The troupe usually performs in small theaters rather than the arenas that host the ice extravaganzas. "We are like a dance company," says Starbuck, Curry's co-star and the wife of Pittsburgh Steeler quarterback Terry Bradshaw.
The youngest of three sons of a middle-class English family (his father, now dead, owned a small precision instrument factory in Birmingham), John knew where he was going before he was 7. "I saw a skating pantomime on TV," he recalls. "I asked my mother to let me skate, and when I did six months later I loved everything about it—the smell of the ice rink and the cold." His parents were less enthralled, he admits. "They viewed my skating with a sense of impending doom, believing there was no money in it. They whisked me in and out of lessons so fast I never had the chance to rough-house with kids and pick up bad habits." He did pick up enough conventional dancing that eight years ago Alvin Ailey offered him a scholarship to train with his company in New York. "But I could probably be only a mediocre dancer, not a great one," Curry calculated. "And I have something to contribute to skating."
Just after the 76 Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, London's Daily Express reported John had been fretting that the judges might find his style effeminate, and he was quoted as saying: "My big worry was that some fool would say, 'John Curry skates like a gay, and therefore he has no right to hold a gold medal.' " John denies the quote and the concern; in any case, he won not only that but also the subsequent world title. Curry then turned down a $1 million-plus contract to skate with a European show and began to work out his dance ideas in a small way—in intimate revues. Later he played London's Palladium. Then, with $350,000 backing, he brought Ice Dancing to Broadway. "At times I felt people were waiting to see me fail," Curry says. "Yet what we are doing is just the beginning of something important."
At 29, he still looks a lot like John-Boy Walton and lives alone in a three-room, three-fireplace flat in New York's Greenwich Village. "I've had a lover," he once admitted, "and it was okay. But now I have friends." The apartment is a study in beige. "The color neutralizes everything," he says, except possibly the master. He constantly fights insomnia, particularly after intense day-long practice. Before the Olympics he tried est, "when I was looking for a way to control my nerves." Curry now calms himself at night by writing in his diary. It could become a book, he says, and he also expresses himself by painting watercolors and cooking expertly (including, yes, curry).
Some two years ago he launched a school to teach competitive skaters ice-dancing techniques. "One of the things I really dislike about championship skating," he says, "is the endless backward running." That, of course, is the direction John Curry has devoted his life to avoiding.