Obituary: John Curry

Dennis L. Bird
Saturday 22 October 2011 23:47

John Anthony Curry, ice skater, actor and dancer: born Birmingham 9 September 1949; OBE 1976; died Binton, Warwickshire 15 April 1994.

HE WAS called a Nureyev of the ice. The word 'genius' should be used sparingly, but it is entirely justified in relation to John Curry. To the prescribed disciplines of ice-skating he brought a free-ranging artistry, an innovative imagination and musical sensitivity, which in effect created a new art-form: the re-interpretation of some of the great composers in terms of movement on ice.

He was not the first in this field. Arthur Cumming in 1914, Gillis Grafstrom in the 1920s, the 1952 world champion Jacqueline du Bief, and Curry's own contemporary Toller Cranston had all emphasised the artistic aspects of skating. But Curry developed this to a greater extent than any of them.

He was born in 1949, the third son of a Birmingham precision engineer who ran his own firm. His brothers excelled in sport, but John's inclinations took another direction. As a small child he was overwhelmed by his first visit to a musical. It became his lifelong ambition to be a dancer - only to be met by a firm 'no' from both parents. Dancing, they thought, was unsuitable for a boy. At that crucial period, aged six, he saw a television broadcast of the ice-show Aladdin and an interview with its star, Jacqueline du Bief. 'I want to go skating,' he said, and to his surprise his mother agreed. He never knew why skating was acceptable and dancing was not.

His first steps on Birmingham ice were guided by a fine basic trainer, Ken Vickers, who also taught another future world champion, Bernard Ford. Vickers gave him two vital tips in that initial lesson: 'Bend the knees and keep the back straight' - advice which Curry heeded throughout his career. He joined the National Skating Association (NSA) in 1962 and took its graded proficiency tests, bronze, silver and gold. He won his first competition at the age of eight, and augmented his lessons with Vickers by making occasional visits to the renowned London trainer Gladys Hogg.

In 1965 Curry won the Rank Trophy at Southampton and it was now clear that he possessed unusual talent, especially in the jumps, spins and free-skating performed to music. He was less taken by the compulsory figures - carefully traced elaborations of the basic figure eight - although once or twice they came to his rescue in championships.

These were difficult years at home, for his father was ill with tuberculosis and died when John was 16. He had seen his son skate only twice and was never really reconciled to the idea of skating as a career.

Curry's first contest abroad was the Prague Golden Skate event in 1966; he was ninth. In 1968 and 1969 he was runner-up for the British men's championship and earned selection for the European championship in Leningrad. His first year of real success was 1970: he won the St Gervais International in France and in December he unexpectedly defeated the holder to become British champion. He lost the title the following year but held it again from 1972 to 1975.

The early 1970s brought him mixed fortunes and several changes of trainer. He had a disagreement with the great Swiss coach Arnold Gerschwiler, and then developed his free-skating ideas with Alison Smith, a specialist in musical interpretation on ice. There were also money worries after his father's death. These were almost magically resolved in 1973 when a wealthy American, Ed Mosler, agreed to sponsor him.

However, a lowly seventh place in the 1974 World Championship almost convinced him that his situation was hopeless. He was on the point of giving up when the American trainer Slavka Kohout gave him some valuable advice. Go to Gus Lussi for six weeks only, she said, for tuition in free-skating, and then go to Carlo and Christa Fassi in Colorado Springs 'and do figures until they are coming out of your eyeballs'. The 76-year-old Swiss Gustave Lussi almost destroyed Curry's confidence by making him do his jumps from a standing start, but the technique worked. And the Fassis gave him vital help with his figures. His subsequent record is well known: a near-victory in the 1975 European, a bronze medal in the World Championships, and then his annus mirabilis in 1976 with a clean sweep of European, Olympic and World titles.

That last season was not easy, however. He had carefully timed himself to reach his peak at the Olympics in February. The defence of his British title in December 1975 came uncomfortably early, and he almost lost. His young rival Robin Cousins - his successor as Olympic champion in 1980 - was in top form and won the two free-skating sections of the championship. Curry survived only because of a slight advantage in the despised compulsory figures.

After that, however, he was not to be beaten, and his crowning achievement came in February 1976 at the Olympic Winter Games at Innsbruck. Already in the lead after the first two sections of his event, he skated a programme that was superb in its cool beauty of movement. There were three immaculate triple jumps, and the whole performance was a perfect blend of athletic skating and musical interpretation. Leon Minkus's ballet Don Quixote had surely never inspired such artistry. Curry won the gold medal (and was appointed OBE in that summer's Honours List); his gifted Canadian rival Toller Cranston took the bronze.

Both Curry and Cranston turned professional, and Curry was at last able to put into effect his ideas for a new kind of ice show - not the traditional variety show on skates like 'Ice Capades', but one which would explore the relationship between skating and various kinds of music. First at the Cambridge Theatre in London, then at the Palladium and ultimately the Albert Hall, John Curry's Theatre of Skating showed just what could be done by the star himself with a small group of like-minded skaters such as Jacqueline Harbord and Linda Davis. The music ranged from Schumann, Liszt, Debussy and Gordon Crosse to Sullivan and modern jazz.

Freed from the inexorable demands of practising for championships, Curry was also able to broaden his activities. He divided his time between Britain and the United States, and at last realised his dance ambitions in an American production of Brigadoon on the boards. In 1978 he collaborated with the photographer Keith Money on a book on his life and work illustrated with Money's pictures. As an actor, he played Duke Orsino in Worthing, Lysander in Regent's Park, and Mr Gradgrind in a dramatisation of Hard Times in Kent. In skating, he devised a delightful tongue-in-cheek tango number with the American pairs skater Alicia ('JoJo') Starbuck which combined skating skill with a sense of humour. And he gave most generously of his time, for very little fee, to master-classes for young skaters organised in Britain by the National Skating Association.

Curry's personality was not an easy one. He was quietly spoken, reserved, determined, often defensive. He distrusted journalists, and did not always listen to advice from coaches and judges. He acknowledged his homosexuality just before the 1976 Olympics; he took a risk, for skating is a conservative sport, but Curry never lacked courage.

He once described his attitude to championships. 'I used to feel sick to my stomach,' he said, 'with my knees shaking before every competition.' He then took a course in positive thinking, and by his last amateur season he had found the answer. 'I try to find out how I'm feeling nervous, what part of me is shaking. I run films of my programme through my head, watching it as though I'm someone else.'

His fellow pupil Dorothy Hamill, of the United States, the 1976 women's gold medalist, said: 'When I first met John I did think he was cold. But when you get to know him, he's not like that at all. He really is the nicest person, and he's helped me a lot when I get worried. He's always so calm.'

That calmness, as well as his own technique and unrivalled elegance of style, brought John Curry the most coveted rewards in skating, and enabled him to make his unique contribution to his art. His early death is a tragedy.

(Photograph omitted)

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