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'He was a man who was often running away from himself': a complex, tragic sports story

A new film documents the life of revolutionary figure skater John Curry.

THE RECENT WINTER Olympics in Pyeongchang were rightly lauded and celebrated as something truly defining.

A number of openly-gay athletes were very visible and very successful. US skier Gus Kenworthy’s good luck kiss with boyfriend Matthew Wilkas was captured by national TV cameras. Figure skaters Eric Radford and Adam Rippon helped win gold and bronze medals for the US and Canada respectively in the team event while Radford would also go on to win bronze in the pairs competition.

It genuinely seemed like a seismic moment. One of acceptance and understanding.

It has been a long time coming.

Source: Dogwoof/YouTube

Director James Erskine could not have timed the release of his new film any better. The Ice King tells the story of British skating revolutionary John Curry, who in 1976, won the European Championships, World Championships and also claimed an Olympic gold medal in Innsbruck.

Immediately following his magnificent performance in Austria, he faced a roomful of journalists who cared little for his triumph on the ice. They wanted to know only one thing: was he really a homosexual?

An interview Curry had given to a reporter with the Associated Press before the Games was published after he won gold. In a frank and open conversation, he discussed being gay. Curry would later say his words were off the record and that he was ‘conned by a journalist’.

A tragic, torturous figure, Curry was also a magical performer. Obsessed with the art of skating, he would spend the next decade choreographing ambitious shows around the world, pushing the boundaries of what could be done on a quarter of an inch of steel.

But Curry always seemed to be searching for something that was always out of reach. His personality ensured clashes with many. The big projects were critical successes but crippled him financially. His ego, arrogance and self-belief when it came to performance belied an incredible fragility regarding everything else.

He died of AIDS in 1994 at the age of just 44.

Inspired by Bill Jones’ superb biography, Erskine’s film – a beautiful tribute to an oft-forgotten genius – concentrates on Curry’s artistry and places his complex personal life a little bit to the side.

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“The big thing for me was that I really wanted the film to be constructed around the dances,” he says.

“When you’re writing a book like Bill did, you can rely on press clippings and other things but I needed to find the actual performances. So, for ‘Moonskate’, his masterpiece, it wasn’t effective if I just talked about it in the film, we needed to show it. So we did a big global trawl and spoke to lots of people who knew John and we were very fortunate to find amateur footage and rehearsal footage to be able to put down the true arc of John’s brilliance that went beyond the Olympics in 1976.”

The fact that there seemed such a lack of easily-accessible footage of allegedly iconic and remarkable moments added to Curry’s myth. It says much that for a radical athlete – a man who always strived for uniqueness whenever he stepped on the ice – so little archive exists of him.

“It’s probably true of great stage actors too and great performance artists,” Erskine says.

Performance art kind of lives and dies with the people who filmed it. Otherwise it’s just a memory that’s great. It’s probably one of the tragedies of performance art in that it exists for a moment and then it’s gone. Now, somebody like the great German artist Joseph Beuys might say that’s the whole point of it and that everything is ephemeral. But when you’re talking about a one-off genius you want to be able to have their achievements there for the enjoyment but also the growth of the art form.”

Erskine and his team painstakingly pieced together various clips they did find of these sacred Curry performances and battled through a litany of issues (like the quality of the original sound recordings) to deliver some astoundingly captivating sequences.

“What was key to me was how we were going to show the brilliance of John Curry as it was and give enough space for him as an artist for the audience to see the work.” he says.

“And to imagine what it was like to watch this stuff. One thing I was very pleased with in the film is that ‘Moonskate’ piece – we hold it for four minutes and you’re watching it as people would’ve done at the time. We just wanted to recreate the magic of watching it. That piece is really telling. If you see it for two minutes and you try and break it up by cutting away, it has a fraction of the effect of just concentrating on watching the entire thing. It’s a man dressed all in white and not moving very much on the stage but even with grainy footage it can hold the audience and make them feel something. And like Curry himself says, that’s important. It’s what art is, isn’t it? Something that makes you feel our humanity.”

Curry’s family life is discussed, though Erskine admits he was reluctant to overplay it as a storyline. His father, who was captured at Dunkirk during the second World War and spent three years in a German POW camp before escaping, killed himself in the mid-1960s. And there seemed eerie similarities between the heaviness carried around by both parent and child. Added to this was Curry’s struggle with his sexuality and having to put up with various coaches – unnerved by his ‘flamboyance’ – trying to change him.

“He was repressed in his own family and repressed within society and had to battle but he did triumph,” Erskine says.

I think his great trauma was self-acceptance, not acceptance by society. John was depressive. What causes depression I’m not sure. He had a great longing for satisfaction he couldn’t fulfil. How much of that was to do with his father and how much was to do with his own temperament? Not everyone finds a satisfying love but not everyone dies of a broken heart either.”

Curry’s performances – not that anyone probably knew it at the time – were diary entries of sorts. They were extensions of himself, his way of expressing how he was feeling or what he was going through. As Bill Jones has stated previously, he would skate a routine based on the Myth of Icarus, the boy who flew too close to the sun. But for Curry, the sun was really the Olympics. Something you chase so hard that it ends up destroying you.

“It’s all very subtle,” Erskine says.

“He knew music really well and he knew the ballet really well and the stories. And if he could draw on the story and inhabit the characters of the great ballets or operas, then he was just an actor on a glacial stage. He was transferring – like all great actors and performers do – himself and his concerns into a clear character.”

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Curry didn’t spend much time in the UK until he returned there in his final years to live with his mother. In fact, he seemed to revel in life in the United States where there were more opportunities and where he could extend himself professionally and personally. But  he always seemed suspicious of settling down and taking a breath. There was always another city to go to or another show to put together.

“He was a man who was often running away from himself,” Erskine says.

We try to show that in the film, that sense of journey and a restless character. He was always skipping from one place to the next. There were various periods all over America and in other parts of the world. And it’s one of the truest mirrors: he was running away from himself.”

With Pyeongchang having been such a positive experience for gay athletes, Curry’s name has been referenced frequently in recent weeks by those who see him as the original trailblazer.

“He wasn’t going to deny who he was.” Erskine says.

“He felt sad that that was the story but why should he be ashamed? Too much of his life people tried to make him feel ashamed of who he was. It was brave to take that platform but in a way, he didn’t have a choice. His choice was to deny it – which would’ve meant the story going on – or embrace it and tell the truth. In his book, Bill talks about the impact on Curry and how the press seemed to constantly be circling. But what we found was that, like for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year, which Curry won, the general public was much more accepting and sophisticated than the press were at the time.

In terms of what happened at the recent Olympics, I think Curry would be delighted if he was still around. I think it’s taken a long time to get to this point. When I talked to (former US skater) Johnny Weir for this film, he had lots of problems with homophobia in the early-2000s. And lots of people around the world still have. So, finally seeing people for how they are…Curry would be delighted with that. I always saw him as quite political in a way. Some are political in terms of what they say – the great speakers or great thinkers – but people have a right to be political in what they do and showing the world, ‘This is who I am’. There’s no doubt that John Curry was saying, ‘This is who I am – love me for who I am’. Whatever else he was doing, he was definitely doing that. He wasn’t trying to conform to anyone else’s ideal of what he should be or what a skater should be or a performer should be – it was merely his own imagination.”

Despite his name cropping up more frequently in the last number of years, is Curry still under-appreciated?

“I think that’s absolutely true,” Erskine says.

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“So much of his footage was lost and also that generation…Like, all of the skaters in John’s company, with the exception of maybe two of them, all died of AIDS. Just as there was with the dancing scene in New York in the 1980s, so many people died that the art form wasn’t able to be passed on. For an art form to work, you need excellent performers. And if there was no inheritance, it just fades away. It’s great in film that you can bring it back, at least in people’s imaginations for 90 odd minutes.

The Ice King screens in Dublin’s IFI from Friday 2nd March.   

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Ice, artistry and AIDS: the tragic story of Olympic champion John Curry

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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