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Ballet Choreographers for Ice

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On the Steve Reich's "Drumming" thread, I found a review for the John Curry Company at the Metropolitan by Jennifer Dunning, which mentioned ballet and dance choreographers who had done works for his show, including Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux.

Just today, a video of Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux's "Ice Moves", the closer for a 1980 show, was posted to YouTube, to music by Hector Berlioz:

Curry and former Boston Ballet principal dancer Cathy Foulkes perform the opening.

At the end, after the company takes its bows, the stars, who apart from Curry did not appear in this piece, are announced, including "11-year-old Katherine Healy", along with JoJo Starbuck, Peggy Fleming, and Curry himself.

Here's Twyla Tharp's "After All"

Peter Martins' "Tango Tango" (with JoJo Starbuck)

I can't find Dean's "Burn" or Bonnefoux's "Meditation" on YouTube. I don't know whether either were ever filmed.

I'm not sure who choreographed this, but here are Foulkes and Curry in "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux":

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The Curry skating company in its various incarnations was an interesting experiment. Curry was a frustrated dancer and he tried to bring the structure and ethos of a ballet company to the ice. It all ended badly but it was worth attempting. Martins’ “Tango-Tango” was an old Curry standby from his first American show, “IceDancing,” and it’s a witty piece, using Starbuck very well. “After All” is good, too, although it’s not really to my taste. (I didn’t much care for Curry’ s use of David Santee in the piece Dunning mentioned – Santee could be seen to better advantage in the pop music exhibitions he did on his own.)

Cathy Foulkes was a soft, pretty skater – not a lot of power but pleasing to watch and she was in all of Curry’s troupes.

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Thank you, Helene, for those links. I don't know much about ice skating, but I loved Curry and Foulkes in Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux (where I have something from ballet to compare it with) and "Ice Moves." I wish I had the viewing experience -- and the vocabulary -- to understand what it was that I liked so much, especially in the Tchaikovsky. I'd love to hear readers' comments on these videos.

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I'd like to hazard a few guesses.

First, while the ice surface is relatively small compared to an arena where most ice shows and competitions take place -- NHL to Olympic-sized rinks -- and although speed can't always be gauged accurately from film, Curry and Foulkes are skating relatively slowly. They are not powering across the ice. They can cover most of the ice surface off of very little preparation -- in ice skating terms, usually cross-overs -- not only because of the size of the surface, but because of the efficiency that they get from their blades, which allows them to sustain the glide. They skate on the "sweet spot" of the blade.

Often their speed is not that much faster than the speed that was used for school figures, which are pre-set patterns of loops and circles that test the skater's accuracy in creating an even pattern using both feet and both edges of the blade, turning in both directions, and shifting from one edge to another, and then trying to repeat the tracing on the ice. School figures are a sub-specialty now, and were dropped from major international and national championships beginning in the early 90's, but they required unbelievable body and edge control and mastery on both feet, both edges of each blade, and both directions, as well as the ability to maintain flow off of single pushes.

Many top-level skaters today would wobble or tilt over attempting what Curry and Foulkes did; to maintain a very constant speed requires mastery of the blade.

Second, the patterns that they skated were based on the fundamental patterns of school figures. There are a lot of big circles and loops, and neither Curry nor Foulkes cut corners, literally. Like the great classical ballets that were made from academic steps, this piece is based in the simplest movements and patterns, woven together in choreography.

Lastly, within the limitations of skating -- the enforced right angle of the "standing" foot in the leather boot, the maximum amount of toe point possible in a skate boot, the sheer weight of the boot and the blade, and the blade which restricts alignment and posture forwards and backwards -- their lines are exquisite.

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Thank you, Helene, for your wonderful explanation. It makes sense, and helped me to re-watch the Tchaikovsky pas de deux more carefully.

The element of "not powering" was something that struck me, too, though I didn't have the words for it the first time I saw the video and never thought to connect it to size of stage. The frequent need to crank up momentum in figure skating is something I've never been able to get used to. I think of it as analogous to those dancers who stop everything to prepare very visibly (from wide, low fourth position) for dramatic pirouettes.

I also appreciate your points about the difficulty of doing adagio, especially now that it's not rewarded in competition. As I get older, I notice that I tendito value adagio dancing -- with the difficulty rendered invisible -- more highly than allegro.

I've watched the Curry-Foulkes Tchaikovsky several times. Curry seems rather solidly built, but would would not guess it from the way he moves and the lines his body makes. Foulkes's arms are especially worth watching.

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Thank you SO much for posting these links! I adored Curry for so many reasons...

1) Foremost for putting the ballet back into skating, and for trying so hard afterwards to incorporate it in his future endeavors.

2) For the perfection of his artistry (line, epaulement, grace, form, musicality) and technique (yes, those 'school figures', edges, form in the air or not in all his movements: preps, landings, spins, jumps, camels etc.etc.--faultless AND beautiful.)

3) The elegance he brought to everything, even informal moments.

I miss his artistry very much. And if anything reminds me of the devastation caused by an insidious disease it was his passing.

I waited many years to see something similar on ice, and it wasn't until Oksana Baiul (sp?) did "Dying Swan" and "Black Swan" at the Olympics that I did. But once again, the Americans overshadowed a great performance (D.Hamil in '76, and the Tanya/Nancy fracas later on) so once again, athletes overtook artists in the public's mind.

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The uses of school figures are debatable – there were some distinguished coaches who did not assign any great value to them and weren’t especially sorry to see them go – but at one time they were the heart of the sport. Curry wasn’t very fast even by the standards of the day and he was not as innately talented a skater as his British rival and successor, Robin Cousins, but he had great refinement and control – the jumps weren’t big, but once he had mastered the proper technique, unusually late in his career, they were perfectly executed, with beautiful edges. (He remarked that he had been forced by his coach to jump in a very small space so that he did not rely on momentum to get into the air.) He had good taste and it was his own.

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There are many distinguished coaches, too, who did not want school figures to be part of the competition because they felt the schools weren't judged, just used to pre-determine the winners. In 1956, for example, school figures counted for 60% of the mark, while the Long Program 40%, and the actual scores were used, as opposed to the ordinals that were used later, and dropping high and low score and trimming used under the New Judging Systems. It was nearly impossible to dig out of the hole of a school figures shortfall.

In the Olympic cycle 1973-6 in which they competed against each other, Cousins did not come close to matching Curry's record in head-to-head international competition. (RC: 15, 11, 11, 6 at Europeans, 10, 9 at Worlds, 10 at Olympics vs. JC: 4, 3, 2, 1 at Europeans, 2, 1 at Worlds, 1 at Olympics). The usual reason Cousins is cited as a rival to Curry at all is that at one British Championship, Curry had a horrible competition, and many observers felt that Cousins should have beat him with what was considered an excellent program, but not excellent enough to dump a European and World medalist. (Cousins would have needed a quad in combination for that, probably.)

Curry slowed his skating in his professional programs, partly because of size of the ice surfaces, but mostly because of his interest in the type of blade control needed for school figures and his insistence that skaters in his company be able to work in both directions, including in spins, and he choreographed for both sides to be performed at the same speed, which limited the speed to the weaker side. Although his flow, like many other skaters who don't use a lot of cross-overs, is often obscured by the camera, he is flying in the straight-line footwork in his 1976 Olympic Short Program:

Curry, SP & LP

Compare that to Cousins in his Olympic Short Program, where he does a number of small, quick steps, but the speed across the ice isn't that fast:

Cousins, SP

(I love the double-triple combination.)

Cousins' footwork in his long program (see 1'30") wasn't that fast or particularly musical; Curry had one fast pass and a couple of slower ones, although right on the music.

There are a number of arguments for why men in the six triples/quad era, who need a lot of speed into the tougher triples, triple triple combinations, and quads have to give up the complexity of steps and increase the number of cross-overs, but Curry and Cousins had similar jump content in their long programs, both landing 3 triples in their Olympic Long Programs four years apart. (Cousins attempted four and failed on the most difficult, the triple loop, which Curry landed. He had a gorgeous delayed axel to double axel combination to open, though.) While Cousins had a lot of great qualities, including very high jumps, and he became a much more expressive skater as a professional, I don't think that at their amateur peaks, he was close to Curry in transitional steps, consistent run-out from jumps (although he often had fantastic flow out of the axels), consistent finish, posture, musical interpretation, variety of steps and spin positions, or body control, particularly in his upper body. Any top skater can trade these qualities for more speed. Their Olympic Long Programs (starting around 3'28" in the Curry file) show this contrast quite markedly.

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Thanks for that, Helene. I shouldn't have given the impression that they were head to head rivals when of course Cousins was almost a decade younger. I still think Cousins was the more talented skater. (The late Carlo Fassi got into a spot of trouble when he inadvertently let slip that he thought so, too. :))

Regarding the school figures, I was commenting from the perspective of aesthetics and technique, as opposed to the judging issues, which were a different ball of wax. My impression is that some think the sport lost a great deal technically with the decline of figures and others hold the opposite view.

The usual reason Cousins is cited as a rival to Curry at all is that at one British Championship, Curry had a horrible competition, and many observers felt that Cousins should have beat him with what was considered an excellent program, but not excellent enough to dump a European and World medalist.

Curry had a couple of bad falls but his scores in the figures held him up.

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I would say that Cousins was the better competitor, and from all accounts, much easier to get along with, but for me, Curry was the greatest skater I've ever see. But like with greatest dancers, I don't expect this opinion to be universal, since Curry was best at the things I value, and the things I value and the relative weight between them that I assign are hardly universal. Also, Fassi "finished" Curry in the last couple of years of his skating, much like Tarasova did Yagudin and Kulik, who were formed by Mishin and Kudriatsev, respectively, whereas he was much more influential in "making" Cousins. I've seen this distinction influence the comments of a number of coaches. Fassi might have been dead on, but that reflects his values. Luckily for me, Curry followed his own drummer.

Regarding the value of school figures from a coaching standpoint, there are many points of view among coaches, and the things that have been rewarded in the triple/quad era are not the things that school figures teach. Why waste time on them, when many parents, who are forking over big bucks to coaches, want to see jump progress, and jump progress soon? The money in coaching is tied to producing successful skaters. Although figures teach blade control, there is a maximum speed that doesn't translate into the things that are rewarded, including, directly speed and power. The Soviet Pairs skaters, who were trained to an extent in figures, learned their beautiful, efficient stroking through practicing stroking for a minimum of 30 minutes a day.

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I really only said in passing that Cousins was the more naturally gifted skater, which remark I didn't think would be especially controversial and don't think reflects on Curry as an artist (or competitor, or person) in any way. I am sorry for having unintentionally derailed the thread by mentioning the subject and will let it drop here.

I don't know if it's on YouTube or not, but Curry and Foulkes looked especially good together in the Norman Maen version of Afternoon of a Faun, although I thought the piece itself was somewhat too literal in its translation to ice. Curry was a Faun of genuine distinction.

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The Maen "Afternoon of a Faun" from Curry's 1980 Ice Dancing special is on You Tube

Unfortunately, it's not well lit and the camera is distant. The excerpts that were in a BBC multi-part special on Curry are not on YouTube, which is unfortunate, because they are well lit, and it's an intimate segment, albeit broken up by short interview clips with Clement Crisp and Cathy Foulkes, whose speaking voice is not nearly as poetic as her skating.

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