Christie Jenkins

Insightful John Curry Documentary Has NY Premiere

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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.

Credit: Lois Elfman
JoJo Starbuck with filmmaker James Erskine. Credit Lois Elfman

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.

Credit: Lois Elfman
(l-r) Nathan Birch, Cathy Foulkes, William Whitener and Timothy Murphy participated in a Q&A after the film. Credit Lois Elfman

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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MORE: Yevgenia Medvedeva thankful for Brian Orser late-night talk after Skate Canada disaster

Nathan Chen hopes to hip hop his way to Skate America crown

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LAS VEGAS — In Las Vegas on Friday, an elegant Nathan Chen performed a romantic short program to Charles Aznavour’s “La Boheme,” earning 102.71 points and a 6.14-point lead at Skate America.

When the two-time world champion takes the ice for his free skate on Saturday, he’ll pop and lock to music from the Elton John biopic Rocketman — for the last 30 seconds or so of the program, he’ll be a hip hop dancer on skates.

After choreographer Marie-France Dubreuil presented Chen with the idea, it took him a while, or at least a couple of minutes, to get used to it.

“Originally, she just said Rocketman and I said, ‘Oh yeah, that’s fine,’” Chen said. “Then she threw in the hip hop. I said, ‘Wait a minute.’ She didn’t tell me until I got there and she played the music.”

“I figured it would be fine,” he added. “My issue was telling [coach] Raf [Arutunian]. I didn’t tell him until I got back to California, but when I did tell him he was actually totally on board with it.”

Whatever concerns the coach may have had vanished when Chen showed him the steps, created with Dubreuil’s collaborator Samuel Chouinard.

“First of all, it looks like it’s professionally done and he executes it professionally,” Arutunian said. “I was watching ice dance last year and many of couples (were) doing hip hop dancing, and I think he would be one of the best at it. If you do something, you should do well, and he is doing it so professionally, you cannot feel he has blades on. He manipulates his feet like he is in shoes.”

This isn’t exactly Chen’s first try at hip hop. He touched on it last season in his “Land of All” free skate, also created with Dubreuil and Chouinard.

“I was actually pretty cool with it because I worked with Sam last year. We did a tiny bit of hip hop to incorporate (into the program), it wasn’t truly hip hop,” Chen said. “I knew that’s (Sam’s) specialty, that’s what he’s great at, and I figured it would be fine.”

Chouinard, a Montreal-based choreographer and dancer, has created hip hop programs for other skaters, including Canada’s two-time Olympic ice dance champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. Many ice dancers incorporated hip hop into their short dances for the 2016-2017 season. But as Chen notes, trying it in men’s singles competition is a different story.

“I did consider that,” he admitted. “I haven’t seen much of this. I know (U.S. skater) Philip Warren has done something like it this year and other kids have, and of course dancers did it. It wasn’t something that is never done, but rarely do you see it with the top six guys (in the world).”

MORE: Nathan Chen calls 3 quads at Skate America ‘a given’

Chen has to be encouraged by the reaction of spectators at his practices here, who screamed and clapped when the skater busted his moves.

“It’s a judged sport and the way the audience reacts to the program has some influence on how the judges interpret your performance,” he said. “I think we don’t want to stick to one demographic in terms of the fan base, the audience. It’s nice to incorporate everything. It’s cool to see all the guys competing have completely different styles, so each program new, unique and fresh.”

Now a sophomore at Yale University, Chen’s balancing act between studies as a Statistics and Data Science major and elite figure skater competitor, is getting a bit trickier.

“Homework is time consuming, each homework assignment takes six to 12 hours to finish and I have a couple per week, so that’s a lot,” he said. “It’s mostly exam times that are really challenging, right now is a little bit easier time for me at school. Obviously it’s going to pick up. It’s tough, but as much as I’m in the situation, I just have to manage as best I can.”

Fortunately, Skate America takes place during an academic break. Japan Open earlier this month was another story; the trip caused him to miss a midterm exam, which he later made up.

“Competition after competition keeps me motivated, knowing I have to achieve a certain goal at each competition,” Chen said. “That’s what drives me through practices.”

MORE: How to watch Skate America

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Check out a free trial of the Figure Skating Pass during Skate America from Oct. 18-20. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Nathan Chen holds commanding lead over Skate America men’s field

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Nathan Chen is on his way to winning his third Skate America title this weekend in Las Vegas to open the 2019-20 Grand Prix season. The two-time world champion hasn’t lost a Grand Prix event since his silver medal at the Grand Prix Final in 2016, and is about to make that list longer.

(In case you were wondering, Todd Eldredge has the most Skate America wins from the ’90s, with five.)

Chen, a sophomore at Yale University, scored 102.71 points in Friday’s short program and was the only man to break the 100-point barrier. Chen opened his short program, set to “La Boheme,” with a quadruple Lutz, followed by a triple Axel and a quad toe-triple toe combination.

Skate America results are here.

“I’m not entirely happy with how the program went, however, since this is the first outing, I’m pretty okay with how things went,” Chen said through U.S. Figure Skating. “I’m looking forward to competing tomorrow and hopefully cleaning up some of the mistakes I made today and keep moving forward.”

Russia’s Dmitry Aliev is in second place heading into Saturday’s free skate, trailing Chen at 96.57 points. His short program also included a quad Lutz and a quad toe. Canada’s Keegan Messing notched a personal best short program score with 96.34 points and is in third place.

2014 Olympian Jason Brown finds himself in fourth place with 83.45 points. Brown popped his triple Axel attempt into a single, which received zero points.

“It was a lapse of focus in the moment,” Brown said of his Axel attempt. “I should not have missed it; I have not missed one all week. I’m very irritated with myself. In the moment, you have to try not to relive it. Whether I was trying to stay relaxed about it or whether I was trying to attack it, I can’t remember. But I remember a moment of something right before [it happened]. I just said, ‘Don’t show emotion, just keep going.’ I think my experience definitely serves me well when it comes to making mistakes and having to pick back up like nothing happened. But that irritation doesn’t go away.”

The third American man in the field, Alex Krasnozhon, is in 10th place with 72.30 points.

MORE: How to watch Skate America

China’s Peng Cheng and Jin Yang, fourth at worlds last year, took a slim lead in the pairs’ short program earlier Friday. They told a 1.48 point lead over Russia’s Daria Pavliuchenko and Denis Khodykin, who sit in second place.

U.S. reigning national champions Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc are third with 68.20 points. The other two American teams in the field, Haven Denney and Brandon Frasier and Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson, are fourth and fifth, respectively.

“We’re building toward the world championships, and we’ve been very outspoken about our goal to be in the top five at worlds,” LeDuc said through U.S. Figure Skating. “Salt Lake was the first step, this is another. We’re building, and I think we’re really right on track for what we want. To have a big mistake in the program and still have a 68 is really awesome. We’re in a good place and excited to go into the free skate as well.”

Skate America continues Friday with the rhythm dance and ladies’ short programs, followed by the free skates in all disciplines on Saturday from Las Vegas. All of it can be seen live with the NBC Sports Gold “Figure Skating Pass,” which is offering a free trial for Skate America.

MORE: Nathan Chen calls 3 quads at Skate America ‘a given’

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Check out a free trial of the Figure Skating Pass during Skate America from Oct. 18-20. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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