OHN CURRY knew what he was getting into when he set forth a couple of years ago to "form a skating company whose aim it would be to present fine skating in the same spirit as a dance event." It was inevitable his "Ice Dancing" production would be looked upon with the skepticism that greets a chorine wanting to play Lady Macbeth.
Just the same, having won the Olympic gold medal for figure skating in 1976, and both the European and World Championships that year, Curry chucked the world of athletics to enter the world of art. He assembled a company of a dozen expert, sympathetic skaters, and began inviting such choreographers as Kenneth MacMillan (of England's Royal Ballet), Twyla Tharp, Donald Saddler and Peter Martins to provide a repertory. After a couple of ventures in London, he put together the current production for New York with the help of designer Tony Straiges and a battery of costumers including Santo Loquasto and Nadine Baylis.
One thing that seems not to be in dispute is the success of "Ice Dancing" as popular entertainment, whether because or in spite of its artistic aspirations. The show ran for two weeks at Madison Square Garden's 3,600-seat Felt Forum, and then moved to Broadway's Minskoff Theatre for the last two weeks of December. The run has since been extended to Jan. 14 on the strength of box-office figures. A further extension is in the talking stage, and tours to other cities, including Washington, are also under discussion.
Curry himself undoubtedly accounts for much of the magnetism. On ice or off, he's a charismatic presence. His face is strikingly handsome, and his lean, dancer's body in motion has been aptly admired for classical elegance of line. Since the opening of the show, Alfred Knopf has come out with a large, coffee-table volume about him with 400 pictures and text by Keith Money.
Curry's goals, however, go beyond the personal. "I hope that by presenting 'Ice Dancing' in a theater rather than in an ice arena," he has said, "the inherent threatrical qualities of skating will emerge. also believe the dance movements will be more visible and more exciting. Ultimately, I hope skating will be not only an exciting sport or a lavish spectacle, but also a performing art."
Curry is scarcely the first to be thinking along such lines. His first appearance in the United States a couple of years ago prompted an article by Robert Larkin cataloguing the involvements of dance notables in ice-skating choreography since the '30s.Among the earliest was Catherine Littlefield, the pioneering Philadelphia ballerina who was the first American to stage a full-length "Sleeping Beauty." Littlefield choreographed ice revues for Sonja Henie, among others. Another Henie choreographer was the Denishawan dancer Harry Losee.
Jose Greco has designed a "Carmen" for the ice; John Butler, a "Brigadoon"; and William Christensen, the founder of the San Francisco Ballet, a "Nutcracker," using 400 dancers and an orchestra of 50 players. Other choreographers attracted to the possibilities of skating have included Gene Kelly, Eugene Loring, Tony Charmoli and Edward Villella.
Curry's effort, however, is bolder and more sweeping than these precedents.Figure skating has perfectly legitimate claims of its own as a decorative, if not necessarily an artistic, genre. Skating and dancing, moreover, have always run on closely parallel tracks -- dance motifs are ubiquitous in skating displays, and as Frederick Ashton's masterly ballet, "Les Patineurs" ("The Skaters") clearly demonstrates, choreography can rest on skating imagery to great artistic advantage.
The question is, can skating be made more "choreographic" without sacrificing too much of its native physical thrill and charm?Can the principles of dance choreography be applied to the ice without losing their esthetic force? Curry's "Ice Dancing" leaves the door open to a tentative "yes."
The fundamental problem is that too often in ice-skating numbers, the medium becomes the message -- the smoothness of the ice and its minimal resistance induces movement that is characteristically bland and lulling. The dancer needs friction -- a resilient but resistant floor -- as an ally in the battle against gravity in which the formal tensions of choreography are rooted.
Thus the unconstricted flow of skating that is its glory, that empowers its speed, its whipping revolutions and its exhilarating spatial reach, can also be an artistic curse. Curry recognizes this: "In a way," he has said, "skating is its own worst enemy, because it's so easy to be lyrical and because it's so easy to travel on endless curves. One gets lost in it all, and it can all become a big mish-mash. The fact is, certain movements have to have limits and boundaries in order for other movements to show up. But in skating, you can execute six movements all at once. You can't really isolate the separate images, because they all meld."
It is fascinating to observe in the "Ice Dancing" program how choreographers have variously approached this dilemma.
Donald Saddler's "Palais de Glace," with its Meyerbeer score and handsome Edwardian decor, cheats a little by depositing a cast of characters -- princes, playboys, poets, dandies -- on a St. Moritz skating pond. It's fine as spectacle, but its skating maneuvers are rather tamely conventional, and the characters are never clearly defined choreographically.
Much greater risks are taken by Peter Martins, in his "Tango-Tango" pas de deux set to Stravinsky and Gade, and Jean-Pierre Bonnefous, in his "Icemovies" for nine dancers to the score of Berlioz' "Roman Carnival" Overture. The results are correspondingly more interesting, but still appreciably short of success. Both choreographers are attempting to make dance forms and dynamics work on ice.
Curry describes the process of working with dance choreographers: "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 trouble in these instances is that the translation is too literal -- what's needed isn't skating equivalents for dance steps, but for the whole expressive content of a dance.
There are, however, at least three numbers on the "Ice Dancing" roster in which the artistic potential of the medium glimmers brightly forth. One is Norman Maen's evocative "Afternoon of a Faun" to the celebrated Debussy score, in which the choreography takes its cue from the natural congruence between the sinuous, languid music and the lyrical sweep of ice legato. Curry's vibrant sensuousness as the Faun, in a costume, poses and movements all suggested by the Nijinsky legacy, and the alluring delicacy of Cathy Foulkes as the girl he encounters, are additional enhancements.
More inventive still is Kenneth MacMillan's "Feux Follets" solos for Curry to the Liszt piano piece of that title. MacMillan chooses music that burbles in ceaseless arcs, and gives Curry its perfect skating analogue -- a study in swoops and circles, spins and turns.
The most brilliant solutions of all are found in Twyla Tharp's "After All," another Curry solo, this one set to a three-movement Albinoni horn concerto. Tharp began to work on the piece by asking Curry to demonstrate for her the whole range of basic figures in skating -- everything that skaters do, she said -- much in the way she started her "Deuce Coupe" by running through the academic vocabulary of ballet steps.
So "After All" begins with a series of these figures, and then proceeds to elaborations based on them. But along the way, Tharp colors the movement with shifts of body weight and sudden directional reversals or stops that are her choreographic thumbprints, at the same time defining the very boundaries and limits of the skating phrases that Curry has recognized as crucial to expressive articulation.
The last movement is the most original and the most revelatory. To a sustained musical adagio, Curry executes one long, slow, winding glide, until his momentum dampens to stillness. The glide here isn't a connective, it doesn't serve to get Curry from one pose or figure to another -- it is the expressive core of the movement, and at the same time, quite purposely, the essence of ice-skating as an ideal metaphor for Albinoni's cantabile.
This is what skating can do, Tharp is saying, that dancing can't, and this is how it can be rendered into pure expression. The ironic thing about it is that it's the precise opposite of Tharp's usual relentless fidgeting in dance choreography.
Maen, MacMillan and Tharp have pointed the way for Curry and for ice dancing. They haven't tried to put dancing on ice, which seems to be a sure way to freeze it; instead, they've attempted to make the necessity of curvaceous flow into an esthetic virtue -- to divine, in other words, the secrets of a genuine choreography of skating.