Art on ice

John Curry and his company have just finished dazzling yet another crowd with their sizzling skating, twirling bodies, and graceful dancing. The crowds here at the Wang Center for the Performing Arts - like those elsewhere in the country and the world - have stood and cheered this new art form, which merges the worlds of dance and skating into one spectacular whole.

But here we have Curry backstage, saying that the company is ''just making it'' financially and that many top ice skaters aren't interested in his blossoming company.

How can this be?

''Most skaters who turn professional are motivated by money,'' says Curry, clad in blue rugby-top and sweats and looking well spent after his third performance here. So, he says, they join the big-time ice shows, which guarantee steady income, or form their own shows, as Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean - the popular ice-dance gold medal winners from the 1984 Winter Olympics - are expected to do.

Adds Curry: ''The people that have the power in professional ice skating - the ice shows - are dedicated to a certain style of performance'' - showy spectacles aimed mostly at a family audience. ''Sonia Henie produced a type of professional skating, which has been reproduced with very little change in 40 years.''

Curry has spent his life trying to change this. He has always felt it possible to put skating on the artistic stage, and have it prosper.

Through courage, hard work, and plenty of talent, Curry and his band of 16 skaters are making this goal a reality.

During a recent tour of the United States his troupe won heaps of critical acclaim.''The John Curry Skating Company glided into the Metropolitan Opera House on Wednesday, taking about four minutes to win the audience's hearts,'' the New York Times said. ''An exhilarating and winning spectacle,'' said the Washington Post after a show in the capital.

The public, too, has been applauding, to the point of frequently interrupting numbers. Tickets have been hard to get: During their shows at the Metropolitan in New York, according to the company's executive director, Elva Clairmont, ''There wasn't even space for another person in standing room.'' And in Washington, she says, the Kennedy Center management asked if it could pay Boston's Wang Center to cancel a few shows so the company could stay longer.

Why such response? Because to watch the John Curry Skating Company perform is to see a whole new vista of aesthetic possibilities. On a broad sheet of glistening ice, the skaters whirl, twirl, and glide to everything from Handel's ''Royal Fireworks'' music to Gershwin's ''An American in Paris'' to a new composition by Philip Glass. They leap, they soar, they spin three or four times and come down with a ''swish.

The choreography has been developed by some of the world's top dance creators , including Peter Martins, Twyla Tharp, Eliot Feld, and Lar Lubovitch. And the lighting - a flourish of apricot, turquoise, and crimson that plays off the ice and the skaters - is by award-winnning designer Jennifer Tipton.

These are the fruits of hard labor - whose seeds were planted by Curry some seven years ago. It began in 1977 - the year after he won the Olympic gold medal in men's figure skating. Curry organized that first company under the title of ''Theater of Skating,'' which toured Britain to enthusiastic response. He then came to New York in 1979 with ''Ice Dancing.'' Finally, early last year Curry got the backing to form what he hopes is a permanent ensemble, the John Curry Skating Company.

Curry took a unique approach in choosing his skaters. ''I didn't just go to the (big amateur) competitions and say, 'I want the medal winners.' I look for skaters who love skating and the art of skating,'' he explains. ''Not always the most gifted people can make it through the competitive world,'' with its tensions, practice demands, and politics: ''It deadens the artistic soul.'' But just because someone isn't an amateur star, he says, ''that doesn't mean they aren't good skaters.''

In early 1983, Curry put 12 skaters to work in Vail, Colo., at the John A. Dobson Arena, and for several months they practiced nonstop. A typical schedule, says Curry, includes a dance class - often ballet - then a skating class, followed by hours of work developing repertory pieces. ''It's arduous, to put it mildly,'' says Curry. But this commitment to training won the company respect from other skaters, including Dorothy Hamill, who often appears with them as a guest star.

The hard work paid off: After appearances in Japan, London, and the Middle East, the company came to America for its triumphant big-city tour this summer and fall. (Currently, the company is in Scandanavia and will return to the US this winter.) Of the huge critical and public response, Curry says, ''It's very nice that people are enthused....''

But Curry's mind is in building his new art form, not garnering more applause. In a year and a half, the company's repertory has grown to 24 pieces - including solos, duets, and ensemble numbers - and Curry is adding to it all the time.

He isn't the only one interested in developing dance on skates: ''I have a stack this high of letters from dance choreographers,'' says Curry, pointing to a sizable pile on the floor.

''It's a dancer's dream,'' he explains, saying that even the most novice of skaters can achieve a fluidity and grace that are nearly unattainable in dance. Writes critic Alan Kriegsman of the Washington Post, ''...the emphatic appeal of so much freedom from constraint, so much blithe victory over space, calls out to our most elemental instincts. One cannot help but exult in such seemingly effortless conquest of mortal limitations.''

Skating has two other elements that give it a unique artistic appeal. ''There's always the presence of danger,'' says Curry. The fact that performers are balancing on a narrow blade above the ice, he explains, gives the performance an edge of tension.

Also, skating has a tremendous potential for simplicity: For example, in the ensemble number ''William Tell,'' company members crisscross - in groups of threes with their sides to the audience - creating an optical illusion that draws gasps from the crowd. The movement is as simple as skating back and forth in an assigned position.

Unfortunately, keeping the company afloat financially is not as easy as creating optical illusions on ice. Along with the cost of lighting and making the ice (see accompanying article), Curry has employed a 56-piece symphony orchestra to travel the world with his troupe. While they're not exactly prospering, however, ''We're making it,'' says Curry. The recent granting of not-for-profit status has been a plus, he says; most of the company's fund raising comes from corporations and individuals.

In fact, it has been individuals who have recognized the great potential of this new art form and have stepped forward to help build it. Jennifer Tipton is one. After seeing a Curry performance in 1979, the Tony Award-winning lighting designer ''sent me a letter, telling me how much she loved what I was doing,'' Curry says. When the current company was formed, he asked for Ms. Tipton's help, and got it.

''I always felt one of the reasons skating hasn't progressed,'' says Curry, ''was because it hasn't looked promising to other fields.'' Now that Curry has choreographers, designers, and a growing number of fans looking his way, he may carve a new niche in the world of performing arts.

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