While British filmmaker James Erskine is too young to have seen legendary skater John Curry (1949-94) perform live, he had seen performances on television and was certainly aware of the artistic influence of the 1976 Olympic men’s gold medalist from Great Britain. After reading an article about Curry’s complicated life, he felt moved to bring the story to the screen.
“The idea of someone who had to win a gold medal to fulfill his artistic dreams seemed to me remarkable,” said Erskine. “Curry had to overcome these incredible odds to succeed on one level, and having succeeded parlayed that success onto another level.
“When that combined with his personal struggles and what was going on in New York in the early 1980s, it seemed to be a story worth telling,” he continued.
Erskine’s documentary film, The Ice King, debuted in the United Kingdom earlier this year. It had its U.S. premiere on Nov. 9 in New York City and is now available on iTunes. Among those in attendance at the premiere were several people featured in the film: Nathan Birch, Timothy Murphy, Cathy Foulkes, JoJo Starbuck, William Whitener and Meg Streeter Lauck.
Using archival interview footage, current interviews with friends and colleagues and at times Curry’s own words from letters written to friends and family, it depicts his struggles with the sport’s rigid style for male skaters and his desire to elevate skating’s artistry. It also details his extremely unhappy early home life and his search for love and affection throughout his life.
“I’m really interested in genius and how genius interacts with society and the struggle to express yourself and be permitted to be yourself,” said Erskine. “To reach for any artistic ideal is in itself a great challenge. When you add in somebody who grows up in a society and a family that rejects the right to be themselves, I thought there was great symmetry between the personal and the professional in Curry’s life that was moving and also resonates.”
The film shows bits and pieces of Curry’s amateur skating, which culminated with him winning European, Olympic and World titles in 1976. It delves deeply into Curry’s post-Olympic collaborations with dancers and choreographers such as Twyla Tharp, Peter Martins and Laura Dean as well as his own choreography. The Ice King includes some rarely seen footage, such as “Moonskate,” a melancholy masterpiece created for Curry by modern dance choreographer Eliot Feld.
“We wanted to construct the film around specific performances that were emblematic of his journey,” said Erskine. “He was a man who spent his life expressing himself on the ice. It would be correct to try and parallel that in his life story.”
Lauck’s mother, the late Nancy Streeter, welcomed Curry into their New York home in the early 1970s when Curry was floundering as a competitor. She encouraged Curry to not sway from his vision of bringing artistry to his programs.
“My mother encouraged him in some of the darkest times, and I think that’s where he drew strength. It was that deep faith she had in him that I believe was at the core that helped him bring his dreams to fruition,” said Lauck, who worked in TV production for more than two decades. As she directed skating broadcasts in the 90s and early 2000s, she saw Curry’s influence.
Two-time U.S. men’s champion and Olympic bronze medalist Scott Allen attended the premiere. “The film was a stunning example of the fusion of skating and art,” he said. “There was no higher example of that than John Curry.”
Following his golden season, Curry set about forming his own skating company. After debuting in London, he brought the company to the U.S. in 1978, performing for several weeks on Broadway at the Minskoff Theatre until it abruptly closed after Curry’s emotional breakdown during a show.
Several years later, after getting financial backing, Curry organized a company that spent time in Colorado rehearsing, toured internationally and ultimately had a triumphant run at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. An international tour commenced, but the show was plagued with financial issues as well as Curry’s desire to stop skating.
Three-time U.S. pairs champion, two-time Olympian, longtime professional skater Starbuck performed extensively with Curry, including originating the renowned “Tango, Tango” program choreographed by Martins, then a dancer with the New York City Ballet.
“It was a really special, magical time,” said Starbuck, after seeing The Ice King for the first time. “All of us came together and we were in this beautiful bubble. We got to perform in beautiful theaters with people who loved and appreciated what we were doing. We got to be part of John Curry’s vision. It was a magnificent ride.”
The film also focuses on Curry’s complex and often self-destructive romantic life. One former lover interviewed said Curry was always searching for love, but that often had a dark side.
“We wanted to get the truth and persuade the people [interviewed] about the emotional honesty of the film and that we wouldn’t speak of his private life in a prurient way,” said Erskine, who shared details of the film with Curry’s brother. “It was a sincere attempt to understand him and his world.”
Curry, who was outed by a journalist during the 1976 Olympic Winter Games, was diagnosed HIV-positive in 1987 and developed AIDS in 1991. He returned home to England and spent the final years of his life living with his mother.
Although it is nearly a quarter of a century since his death, his impact continues in contemporary men’s competitive skating, where skaters such as Patrick Chan of Canada, Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan and Jason Brown of the U.S. move audiences with musicality, choreography and exquisite line.
Curry’s concept of ensemble skating and dance on ice continues with artistic skating companies such as the Next Ice Age, founded by Birch and Murphy, both of who were members of the cast at the Metropolitan Opera, and Ice Theatre of New York.
Birch and Murphy recently revived the piece that closed the film, “On the Beautiful Blue Danube,” which Curry choreographed for the Next Ice Age in 1990, as well as other Curry programs, “Tango, Tango” and “Skaters’ Waltz.” Curry never wanted anyone to restage his work, which they honored for decades, but The Ice King inspired them to show these programs to the world once again.
“It’s been wonderful,” said Birch. “The best thing of it is actually studying the dances themselves and the way he moved.”
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