Let's get to the bottom line right away -- the John Curry Skaters program, opening the troupe's three-week run at the Kennedy Center Opera House Thursday night, was superb in every way. It was, if that's possible, more spectacular, more artistically rewarding and more elegantly performed than the show Curry brought us last summer. And it made an even stronger case for the esthetically daring approach to ice skating Curry has been so resourcefully cultivating.
We may as well get the glitches out of the way at the start, too. Last year, Curry's production was forced to postpone opening nights both at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and later at the Kennedy Center because of ice that refused to freeze properly. No such calamity this time, but toward the end of Curry's "Skating Class" -- a world premiere -- a spray of liquid began spouting from the stage floor. It seems a skater's blade had punctured one of the plastic pipes carrying coolant solution.
For a moment during the performance, a stage technician actually strode out to the spot, repair tools in hand, but seeing skaters coming at him at high velocity, thought better of it and retreated to the wings. The jet subsided, but another, smaller leak occurred during the work's coda, and yet another sprang up at the end of Jean-Pierre Bonnefous' "Remember Me," a second world premiere. The accidents caused some delay in the program, and may have contributed to the several spills and near-spills that dotted the evening thereafter. The show went on, however, undimmed in its glory.
Englishman Curry, now 35 and a triple-crown champion, turned from his competitive career in 1976 to establish a new kind of ice troupe. Among the 13 dancers of the present company, a number have been with Curry since the start of the venture, and all but three were with him for last year's production. The togetherness is paying off. The skaters are not only performing with conspicuously improved finish and rapport, they're also projecting the kind of expressive profile Curry's been aiming at with increasingly greater concentration and effectiveness.
It's obvious from intermission conversation, among other things, that Curry attracts a "crossover" audience -- skating buffs, sports fans and dance enthusiasts, a natural and terrific mix. But it's also clearer now that what Curry is giving us isn't conventional skating, sport or dance, but a genuinely new art form. Like any other art, it has its virtuosic aspects, but the virtuosity is put, first and foremost, to expressive use. This is clearer for two reasons -- they're getting better at doing it, and we're getting better at seeing and understanding it.
Curry is doing his best to make it easy, not only by utilizing choreographers from the worlds of skating and dance, but in his own creative efforts. "Skating Class" is in the tradition of ballet works such as "Etudes" and "The Conservatory," which show -- in a format suitable for performance -- basic technical and artistic elements of escalating intricacy, difficulty and brilliance. In Curry's case, it's his novel training method, largely modeled on the ballet barre, that's displayed, and the resulting piece is as thrilling and gracious as it is illuminating.
In "Skating Class," as elsewhere on the program, Curry showed that he's very much Numero Uno in the company, both for the perfection of his skating and his artistic sensibility. The troupe, though, is strong throughout. Among the outstanding ones are Cathy Foulkes, a skater of exquisite line whose ballet studies show in her movement; Patricia Dodd, Curry's suave partner in Bonnefous' beautifully elegiac "Remember Me," set to Purcell's "Dido's Lament"; and Nathan Birch, who performed the Washington premiere of Curry's lyrical "Sunset" to music by Grofe'.
Other choreographers represented were Laura Dean, with her poetic, mesmerizing study in spins and port de bras for Curry and 11 other skaters, and Eliot Feld, whose moody, striking, original "Moonskate" solo gave Curry his most riveting vehicle of the evening. As a choreographer, Curry too showed how far from the beaten track skating can go in his "Presto Barbaro," a gang rumble with music from Bernstein's "On the Waterfront" score. Even in his most blatantly bravura pieces, such as this program's "Fireworks," "William Tell," and the "Russian Sailor's Dance" so dazzlingly executed by David Santee, Curry exhibits a musicality and formal sense miles removed from "ice show" standards.
The orchestra was led spiritedly by Charles Barker, and the fine lighting designs were by Thomas Skelton and Jennifer Tipton. There are still two more programs, including additional premieres, to come before the end of the run on Aug. 24.