Figure skating has always contained essential elements of dance. And there are examples in ballet, such as "Les Patineurs," choreographed by Britain's Frederick Ashton, where dancers try to simulate the effortless glide and extended movement readily available to the skater.
But, except for occassional past experiments, there have been no efforts to seriously integrate skating and ballet into a separate artistic category.
Now John Curry, the 1976 men's world figure skating champion and Olympic gold medal winner, is hoping to do just that.
Working with well-known choreographers like Twyla Tharp, Britain's Norman Maen and Peter Martins, the premier male dancer in the New York Ballet, Curry in the last two years has developed a fledgling repertoire of ice ballets that he hopes will establish a valid new form in no-man's land he believes exists between competitive figure skating and the Ziegfeld Follies-like extravaganzas of the touring ice shows.
Already established in his native England, where he is a well-known celebrity - his shows at the London Palladium last year were sell-outs for 12 weeks - Curry, 28, plans this fall to launch Ice Theater, a ballet troupe on ice that he hopes will prove both the artistic and commercial validity of his concept.
It is scheduled to tour a half dozen cities, including Washington.
A carefully orchestrated preview of coming attractions was launched recently in New York City at "A Gala Summer Evening on Ice," a benefit for Curry's New York School of Skating, which he hopes will provide the training ground for figure skaters who would like a career alternative to the rigidities of competitive skating.
In attendance for the 40-minute show and dinner at the Sky Rink on New York's West Side were, among others, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Edward Villella, Twyla Tharp, Diana Vreeland, Edward Gorey, Gilda Radner and Pittsburgh Steeler's quarterback Terry Bradshaw, who happens to be married to one of the leading members of Curry's troupe, Jo-Jo Starbuck.
The audience was treated to a half-dozen varied pieces, including a sublime example of legato skating by Curry to Debussy's "Afternoon of a Faun," choreographed by Maen. Maintaining an amazing fluidity of line throughout, Curry seemed to prove that dance on ice could uphold the highest values of ballet movement while exploring a new territory that transcends the possibilities of ballet because of the freedom of movement ice offers.
"After All," the piece choreographed by Tharp to music by Tomaso Albinoni, represented a progression from the rigorous school figures that skaters must master as the essential basis of competition skating, through a series of freer leaps and turns, finishing with a denouement that is equivalent to the "warm down" that skaters use to relax after a rigorous routine.
"Twyla came to the ice rink and said, "Show me everything you do in skating," said Curry. "What Twyla did was to tear down the conventions. It's not exactly school figures that she uses. The way the skate moves is not the way you're used to the skate moving, but it's wonderful."
Curry said most of his choreographers don't know how to skate, and don't really need to in order to work with him, although he takes most out on the ice with him at least once. "I ask them what they would do in dance terms to whatever music we're using, and then we translate it into skating terms."
The soft-spoken but intense Curry, who has experimented with dance for many years, says he has had little difficulty attracting choreographers.
"Dance choreographers have tended to watch me, and a lot have asked to meet me," said Curry. "When I met Kenneth MacMillan (of London's Royal Ballet), before he said anything he said, 'I want to do a piece for you,' which is just what I wanted to hear."
What attracts the dance choreographers, said Curry, is "the magical quality of skating that they can't get in dance - the extension of movement, the sustained quality - just what every dancer strives for."
Curry says some other skaters find what he is doing a little threatening.
"It doesn't only depend on triple jumps. It depends on artistry, on the quality of the movement. Skating got to the point where the jump was the most important thing, the most difficult thing and the most valuable thing," he said. "What I do emphasizes the real artistic quality of skating, glide, form, style, musicality and carriage."
Curry says he is not trying to eliminate competitive skating or ice shows. And he acknowledges that his training in competition and his Olympic gold medal have proven valuable.
"It's the credential - like my diploma," he said.
However, the young English skater did not hide his contempt for ice shows, which he passed off with the comment that, "When you've seen one, you've seen them all."
But skaters in the past, he said, have found no alternative ways to earn a living when they become professionals other than to do ice shows or teach, and he hopes to provide that alternative with his Ice Theater.
As to what choreographers he would like to work with, he says he "would love Jerome Robbins to do something, and Bob Fosse would be fun."