ALL ARTS Documentary Selects

FULL EPISODE

The Ice King

John Curry was complex - a difficult perfectionist, an athlete navigating queerness, a deeply creative artist. This aesthetic documentary tells the story his life through archival footage and captures the social history of his time.

AIRED: February 16, 2021 | 1:28:48
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TRANSCRIPT

(dog barking)

(electronic music)

(slow mellow music)

- The life of a competitive figure skater is like a monk.

When there's ice, you go and you skate on it.

11 o'clock at night, 12 o'clock at night,

one o'clock at night.

There is no opportunity for friends and family.

If you fall, nobody's going to pick you up.

It's only you.

You live, breathe and die alone.

(mellow music)

- [Narrator] Our core story this week

is the best skater in the world

and his name is John Curry.

(mellow music)

- I wanted to be a dancer.

I was allowed to ice skate.

Because it was a sport, they thought it was okay.

- [Woman] John was the first one to really merge

this deep expressiveness of dance

with the athletic virtuosity of skating.

- [John] I wanted to skate better than anyone

I had ever seen skate before in a different way.

(mellow music)

- [Woman] When he was breaking around as an artist

and as a star athlete.

(mellow music)

- [Man] He said, "Whatever greatness you think I have,

"there are demons of equal value

"that are inside of my soul."

(sirens wailing)

- [Meg] Summer 1971 John appears on our doorstep.

All he had were his skates and his talent.

He needed a place to stay rent free

and my mother often opened our house to skaters.

He was very shy at first.

It took them a long time to open up.

All of a sudden, he just started to click with all of us

and most importantly, he clicked with my mother.

I think the really amazing thing

is that he shared with my mother

that he wanted to not just be a competitive skater

and go for the Olympics,

but that he had a vision beyond that,

which was to create a theater skating and a dance company.

She believed in him in a way

that no one else did at that time.

- [John] Dear Nancy, it seems more like five weeks

and five days since I left you in the enchanted city.

My heart aches for New York.

In strange way, I feel that England has betrayed me.

I can't quite explain it, but as time goes by,

perhaps I'll find the words.

- [Meg] They were like kindred artistic souls.

As soon as the competitive season was over,

back to New York, he would come

to kind of recharge and refuel.

I really think that he felt in our home

a calm that he had not experienced growing up at all.

(mellow music)

- [John] When I was first drawn to dancing and acting

and I asked if I could go to ballet classes.

I remember being taken into the sitting room

and my mother saying, "Can I take John to ballet lessons?"

And my father getting quite cross and saying,

"No, absolutely could not" and that was the end of that

and it was never brought up again.

- [Reporter] Richard Buxton of Philadelphia

who is North American and--

- [John] When I saw ice skating on the television later,

I asked if I could go skating and I was told yes.

Because ice skating is protected by the umbrella of sport.

- [Reporter] For the 1947 world championship,

he will represent us when the Olympic contestants

gather from all parts of the world.

- [John] I remember very clearly

the very first time I put a pair of skates on.

I had a teacher that held my hand.

I said, oh no, you don't need to hold my hand,

I can do this and I just skated off.

- From then on we used to take him twice a week or I had.

Just as a hobby.

He was very interested.

He always wanted to skate a bit more than anybody else.

- Just as a seven-year-old, I started to think of skating

as being a dancing on the ice.

I didn't think of it as anything else.

One Christmas time I was given five pounds

to buy something for myself by my father

and I went and bought, don't ask me why I chose them.

Maybe it had to do with the copies of the records,

but I chose Shaharazad, "The Nut Cracker" and "Swan Lake"

and none of which I'd ever heard before.

I was very, very pleased and excited by what I bought

and I went to my father and showed him what I bought

and he was very disappointed and he said,

"Oh dear, I thought you might buy something you'd keep."

(laughing)

- [Woman] I think John had a very difficult childhood

because of his father and skating became the escape.

- I was always pretty private as a child

and the ice only made that easier for me in a way.

It was my world where I go and be free and alone.

(mellow music)

(audience applauding)

To me, the music said exactly what was it wanted me to do.

(orchestral music)

When I stopped looking like a little boy

and started to look back a young man,

then suddenly all the things that I had done up until then,

absolutely with everyone's blessing

I was told I should stop doing.

I was told I shouldn't use my arms, I shouldn't do spirals,

I shouldn't try and make everything

look so effortless and graceful.

I was actually told not to be so graceful

And I couldn't understand why,

and it was because they couldn't accept it from a young man

what they could from a child.

- [Narrator] Men who choose to love other men

are treated not only with intolerance and contempt,

but prosecuted and jailed.

It's estimated that one man in 20 is a homosexual.

For many of us, this is revolting, men dancing with men.

Homosexuals in this country today break the law.

- [Woman] I can't imagine what John must've felt

to realize that you're different

and that difference is something that is looked down upon

with shame and loathing.

- There may be some in this auditorium,

there may be some here today

that will be homosexual in the future,

there may be some girls who turn lesbian,

but it's serious.

Don't kid yourselves about it.

So if anyone of you have let yourself

become involved with another boy,

you better stop quick, because one out of three of you

will turn queer and the rest of your life

will be a living hell.

(mellow music)

- [Heinz] I saw him in Prague.

I must have been about 16, 17

and John was maybe a year younger.

I just saw him on the ice and I thought,

it was so natural and so wonderful.

(audience applauding)

Beautiful arms, great back on the head up

and it's just perfect.

It was just so different to anyone else.

(audience applauding)

- [Narrator] Two more minutes of this hybrid program.

- [Heinz] I just went up to him and I asked him,

would do you think that it's possible

that I come and train at the same rink as he is in England?

And then he said yeah.

I could come for summer vacation.

I've asked John if I could live maybe with him.

Mrs. Curry said yes.

I never knew that he was gay, then.

That came later on when he

(mumbles)

(audience applauding)

- [Reporter] Youth, the slinging youth were given state

in Silverado London, it's recent swinging metaphor.

(jazz music)

- [Heinz] Out of the blue he said, "Oh, I fancy you."

I thought, what does that mean?

I soon found out.

I just hugged him and kissed him

and that was when it started.

Yeah, I started to become in love with him.

John came home, put on music,

he danced and he choreographed in the living room.

I think he was also deeply in love.

Switzerland and London wasn't next door to one another.

We went around to one another.

It was almost a Degas thing to do.

- [John] Dear Heinz, I guess it will be Saturday

or maybe Friday when you receive this letter.

I always feel very lonely on Friday nights.

In the week, through skating and work,

but the weekend, I have time to think.

Thinking is the worst thing a person can do.

I just want to hold you and feel your arms around me,

just to feel you love me.

- [Heinz] I think he was very often depressed.

Very often.

- I got a job in the supermarket.

I was always absolutely sternly broke.

I used to really worry most of the time

about money rather than worrying about skating.

It was very hard.

I trained at Richmond Ice Rink,

which is a good ice rink, but it's open to the public

and there's just no way you can train in a public session

with three or 400 people.

Everything was unpleasant.

Just wasn't nice at all

and I really got quite turned off to it.

Dear Heinz, I'm sorry about my shaky writing,

but I worked so hard this morning.

I haven't stopped shaking yet.

I did some figures from 6:15 to 7:45,

more figures 8:20 to 9:10

then I free skated from 9:15 to 12:30.

I wanted to ask you if I could borrow some money.

I have very little left and I think Mr. Gushfield

may stop teaching me until I repay him.

I've had the most frightening dreams again.

I dream my father comes into the bedroom and wakes me up

and then I do wake up, I think and I see him still there,

but I think I'm still asleep

and then I only dream I wake up.

- [Heinz] I just know that his father was dead.

He died somehow.

He didn't want to talk about it.

He just said he died in not very nice circumstances

and that was the end of it.

- [Woman] His father's death had a big impact on him,

even though the thought that it was a suicide

was something that he had a very difficult time accepting.

There is a relief in a way that might horrify some people,

but he was totally relieved.

(samba music)

- [Heinz] We went out to the sometimes in London,

then he's met other guys also.

- [John] Dear Heinz, I didn't know quite how start,

so my last letter came to you from London.

I had be wondering about all day.

I went into the Colville

and that is where I met Gilles.

I didn't think I'd get entangled

because he's so good-looking.

I thought he must be able to have any boy he wanted,

but it hasn't worked out like that.

I'm living with him at weekends and in August,

I'm moving in completely.

You must be very angry with me and I cannot blame you.

I would like to have you always my friend,

but I have no right even to that.

- [Heinz] I didn't take much notice then.

I just thought, oh, it's another one.

I'd much rather would've had him for myself.

- [John] I'm not probably not the easiest person

to be friend, I'll be honest about that,

but I think real friends are very few and far between

and I am very lucky I have a handful.

- [Heinz] I knew that I was probably

the most important for him,

which has made it easier also for me.

The friendship with John

was the most important thing in my life.

(epic music)

- Dear Heinz, I've never been so miserable

anywhere in my life, nor it's not one thing

I can say I like about the place.

Today, Mr. G. said, "You must not do that again.

"It is too..."

"Too what?" I said.

Then he said, "The music was not strong enough

"and I could do much better."

I'm fed up with everything I do is too soft.

He said, "You will skate like a man."

I said, "I don't want to skate

"like any man I have ever seen."

Very great skaters in the past,

one of whom was Donald Jackson.

He was world champion about 10 years ago.

He was noted for his high jumps

and his extremely athletic style.

What we're going to do is you're going to see

a piece of Donald Jackson's world championship performance

and then I'm going to skate to the same piece of music

doing it the way I would like to do it now,

using the whole body and trying to express the music.

(orchestral music)

I wanted to skate better

than anyone I had ever seen scape before in a different way.

And I wanted to be able to convince people in general

that skating had more to offer than was generally seen.

I knew that the only way I'd ever get to be able to do it

was by winning the Olympics.

(orchestral music)

- [Reporter] John Curry, a whirlwind of talent

is the stuff of which excellence is made.

He's Britain's best skater.

It's only by leaving Britain,

that John Curry has been able to make his talent shine.

- [John] Dear Heinz, how clever of you to guess I'd be here.

- [Reporter] Little old devil as the monitor just shows,

our temperature is going up a couple is now 42

here at the KOA Weather Center.

- [John] The last few months

have been among the best of my life.

I've lived in great style of beautiful places,

skating to my heart's content.

I didn't really fully understand

what brought me to the green pasture.

By rights I should be in very different circumstances.

- [Reporter] The man who made it all lovely

is a friendly American millionaire

who saw in John Curry at talent floundering in frustration.

It was a story out of Cinderella on ice.

- [John] After the world championships in Bratislava,

a man walked up to me and said,

"I have enjoyed your skating for the last three years.

"You've given a great deal of pleasure

"and I'd like to help you."

- I've had the financial resources

that are more than I myself think I'll need

for the rest of my life and I don't like to see

people with real talent have to stop

just for the want of money.

- [John] Suddenly I could put all my energy

into the skating.

I never ever had to think about money again.

- [Man] He gave Curry the money to buy what he needed most,

freedom, time, ice.

- Circle is good, definitely.

- [Man] And the best coach in the world.

- The second one.

- [Woman] My husband was very hesitant taking him

because he had heard many stories

that he was difficult and so on.

- Don't get upset for nothing.

Like sometime you get it.

- We honestly never had any problems.

As a matter of fact, we were good friends.

There, it's just lazy.

He knew what he wanted, but he had very bad figures

and my husband was very famous for teaching those.

- [Man] Top class skating is divided into two parts.

Figure skating, crisp circles,

sliced into the ice in perfect symmetry.

- [Christa] The figures is demanding,

it was very boring for many people.

For him it wasn't boring,

because it's like you learn the piano.

What do you have to learn first?

The scales or whatever.

- [Man] The second part is the interpretive freestyle,

a strenuous marriage of technique and exuberant artistry.

- [Christa] John was known as a skater

that was very talented,

but he many times blew it the last minute.

- [Woman] He was always quite inconsistent.

- [Meg] John always was nervous about the jumps.

In Munich '74, he fell apart.

He skates around in a catatonic state.

- We've all got problems.

If you don't have any problems, you aren't here.

- [John] I took a course at the Ehot Seminar Training, EST.

- But you were not a success.

In other words, if you weren't filling your need

for love and belonging, you wouldn't be here tonight.

You'd more likely be institutionalized.

- [John] I took it because there was absolutely no point

in working hard for you and going to Olympics

and being nervous about not performing my best.

- [Woman] They have to scream on top of their lungs

and tell all of their insecurities

in front of many, many, many people.

They had a certain thought process

that they had to go through.

- My life has changed, totally.

- That really helped him be able to focus

and to not get nervous anymore

and before every performance,

he had to go into a quiet little room

and I would stay there behind,

watching that nobody would come in

and he would do his thinking through everything

and then come out completely like in the zone.

- [John] I had so geared to winning.

I saw myself doing it all the time.

In my mind's eye, I saw myself doing it.

(orchestral music)

Dear Nancy, here we are in 1975.

'75 sounds like the end of the century to me.

I feel very happy with the progress I've made during 1974.

It's been a terrifically exciting year for me

and the happiest of my life.

We're living in an age of such widespread uncertainty

and darkness that I feel doubly lucky.

I owe so much to you and a few others.

Perhaps one day I'll create something so beautiful,

the debt will be settled.

- You may remember that on Thursday

I said I'd been meeting another John.

Today, he's the new European

men's silver medalist skating champion, John Curry

and many congratulations.

You've got your silver medal with you.

If we can have a quick look.

- Yes, I think it means he who deserves it, gets it.

- And you seem very pleased with the marks that you got.

In fact, we can watch this again now

and see how he reacted.

John, what did you think of your chances over there,

especially with the Russian skaters?

- Well, I knew that I'd have to do very well

in a school figures to have a chance.

But I thought I'd be around in the first three

- [Reporter] When there's unrest,

the reds have only one answer, a show of might.

- When you get international, it isn't Bill versus Joe,

it's Britain versus East Germany.

The Russians skaters.

- [Woman] Yeah, it was very political.

Of course Russians always wanted to be on top.

- If Curry's name of Corinski or Glaukoski or Carlof,

he probably be world champion on the last two years

(laughing)

(speaks foreign language)

- [Interviewer] You don't think the Russians can skate,

for instance, do you?

The males. - I don't know.

- What's wrong with them?

- They are so crude and so unmusical and they don't have,

no quality and it makes me so cross when they say,

oh, the Russian skaters are so balletic,

they're so wonderful, they're so trained.

I know the Russian skaters better than most

and I know how bad they are

and I know that they won't take a ballet class

and I know all that side of it

and it makes me really cross when I hear it.

The most important day in a competition for me

was when they drew the judges.

I would just sit there counting east, west,

and I get one for East Germany, one for Britain

and go through that way.

- [Woman] When you had five eastern bloc judges,

you kiss your chances goodbye.

- [Interviewer] You appreciate

that what you're actually saying

is that skating is corrupt.

- [John] Yes it is.

The whole system is very, very corrupt.

- I have the feeling that he's probably one of the best,

if not the best skater that ever came.

The only doubt was how to convince the other people,

many coach and judge and they thought that skating

was only jump and run, jump and run.

Nobody really liked his way of skating.

- [John] I changed my attitude.

I set the program so that no one could miss

the difficulty of what I was doing.

(upbeat jingle music)

- [Woman] Most people take two to three months

to put together free skating program.

John actually choreographed it on the airplane

between Manhattan and Denver.

He just had a vision.

I think he did 25 perfect programs

before we went to Europeans.

- Don't let this cycle by any rational agent East German.

Just go down and look the best, you are the best.

(audience clapping)

- [Reporter] Now in the finals

of the men's figure skating event.

Here is John Curry.

- [Heinz] He called me the day before the Europeans

and said there are five eastern judges,

to four western judges.

I think I won't have a chance.

- [Woman] John was up against a political situation.

- [Man] John is one point behind the leader

after short program results.

- [Woman] Don Quixote was his way of saying,

I'm trying to do the impossible and I still believe.

(audience applauding)

(speaks foreign language)

- [Man] Did work very well.

It was amazing for me at that time to see that this person

is just himself on like a machine

and then go ahead and do exactly what he's supposed to do

without any mistakes.

(orchestral music)

(mumbles)

- [Woman] And now John is the European champion

going into the Olympics and that shifted everything.

(orchestral music)

- [Reporter] The Winter Olympics in 1976 has begun.

The British team, led by Britain's gold medal,

skater, John Curry.

(mumbles)

- No, I know well.

I don't think so.

See, if I'd been beaten in Europeans,

I would have come thinking,

all right, they're gonna beat me again,

but now I think now I can beat them and I know I can.

- [Johnny] There's something different about the Olympics.

It is your one shot.

It's do or die in front of the entire world.

Every decision you've ever made,

every hardship you've ever gone through,

the pressure of your entire life riding on six minutes.

(audience applauding)

- [Reporter] John Curry, champion of Europe.

- [Dick] John knew if he did not win the Olympic gold medal,

that he would not be able to form his own dance company

that nobody would accept him.

- [Woman] He was very determined.

I'm going to skate and I'm going to win.

(orchestral music)

- [Man] Most skaters come along

and they take ballet lessons.

They don't translate it to ice.

(audience applauding)

(mumbles)

- [Reporter] He's done it.

A triple toe loop, a double torso and a triple torso

in the opening 45 seconds of the program.

- [Man] He was different.

His positions and body lines were superb.

(orchestral music)

- [Man] What a beautiful spin.

Absolutely on the spot.

This is great artistic skill.

- [Robin] I remember standing at the Olympics

and just watching this moment of perfection happen.

(audience applauding)

- [Reporter] Two and a half turns.

He hit the spread eagle.

He must've known it and that was,

the performance was life and that was it.

(audience applauding)

- [Reporter] John Curry has won

an Olympic gold medal for figure skating.

- [John] The judges had came to the said,

finally we found a balance

between artistry and athleticism

and I hope that it will influence skating.

- [Interviewer] Mrs. Curry,

you must be very, very proud indeed.

- I am.

I'm so pleased for John.

- [Interviewer] Well, you must be proud tonight.

- I am.

- For once I'd done it right.

- [Nancy] Can you imagine what it would be like

to wake up having one a gold medal,

your dream since you were a child

and then just go to a press conference

where you've already been warned

that the major thing of interest amongst all the press

is to whether he, John was going to tell them

whether or not he was gay.

- [Cathy] Nobody was openly gay,

whether they were gay or not.

It certainly wasn't the accepted thing

to have a gold medalist in an Olympic sport

who was a gay man.

- I had thought if I said to a journalist,

this is off the record, that it meant,

that they wouldn't say anything about it.

A lot of people said that I

"Came out of the Olypmics" but I didn't.

I never intentionally set out to make a statement

but then having done it, I'm not going to turn around

and say that it's not true

or I'm ashamed of it or anything else.

But suddenly I became aware of a great wave of support

when real support that came from England,

which was awfully nice.

I'd never experienced anything like that.

I actually thought people wanted me to do well.

Every lesson I've had has been about my skating.

They're not interested in knowing what I do

in my private life.

- And the winner, the BBC sports personality of the year,

the viewers choice, John Curry.

Ladies and gentleman, John Curry.

(audience applauding)

- [John] Dear Nancy, my week in England

has been extremely exciting.

Yesterday, I was guest of honor

at the Award for Valor in sports.

I was introduced as a man of great social courage.

I've never thought of myself in that light.

Mother has been wonderful about everything.

We talked about my being gay

and she was so kind and understanding.

That has been one of the greatest things

to have come out of the Olympics.

- [Man] In the middle of London's West End theater land,

it's the only playhouse whose boards are made a water

transforming the Cambridge

into the John Curry theater of skating.

- [Interviewer] Describe the show.

Is it like how shows we've always seen

with glitter and ultraviolet underwater seatings?

- Well, I hope not.

I think having trained for 15 years

and then you have to go and dress up as Donald Duck

or Bugs Bunny, I can't see the point of that.

What I've always wanted to do

was to take the finest skaters I could find,

bring them to very fine choreographers, good musicians

and creative designers and put the whole thing together.

- [Lorna] When we were young, we skated together,

we practiced together, and we would talk about

having this wonderful ballet company on ice.

So when John did turn professional,

he came into my dressing room and he said,

"You're the first person I've asked.

"Would you like to become a member of my skating company?"

My eyes lit up.

I thought, this is what we've always wanted.

- It's lovely for me to be on the ice with other people.

I love that because often I used to be skating and thinking,

yeah, it would be so nice to have someone to relate to

and to sort of skate to and with

and now skate with one other person and two other people

and sometimes with six other people and that's lovely.

That's like a whole new feeling for me.

It's not ballet.

On the ice, we can move in a way that no one else can.

- [Interviewer] Would you ever know consider

taking those days off and making a career as a dancer?

- I don't think I would seriously

because I haven't really finished learning to skate yet.

So I'm certainly not going to start thinking

about anything else.

(mellow music)

- [Cathy] Once the doors opened he said,

"I've just got to do something right away

"that will get everyone to shift

"their perspective of skating."

And what a perfect vehicle was "Afternoon of a Faune".

Because of its ballet history.

I mean if he ever wanted to bring ballet to the ice,

this was it.

- [Cathy] It's the piece which is his defining moment.

The story is there was a faune who's alone in a forest

and encounters and nymph,

and captures the nymph fleetingly

and then the nymph scapes again

as if it's almost like too much.

(mellow orchestral music)

It is very intimate and I would say

it's a very sensual piece.

(mumbles)

- And then there was the Jerome Robbins ballet,

but the movements and the way they were all presented

were very different.

In skating, you can hold a pose,

not move a muscle and you're still moving.

There's one section where they crisscross

and they're both holding a pose

and the audience holds their breath

and then he pushes backward.

And what you feel is the power

and the purity of just the glide alone.

That's what separates his "Afternoon of the Faune"

from your dance versions.

The "Afternoon of the Faune"

is about intimacy, lust and love.

Here are these two dancers performing something

very intimate but not really connecting.

Feeling like this is too close.

This is too close, it's too much.

I can't do it.

And so then they flee from each other.

When they're done, you wonder, was it real

or was it a dream?

And maybe that was part of the pattern of his life.

What he yearned for so much was maybe more

than what he may have been capable of stepping into

with his full, full being.

- [Woman] That was when Ron came on the scene.

Ron was his downfall.

Ron was big and he wasn't a good skater.

Some of us wondered how on earth he was in the show.

- [Woman] They had a relationship.

Everybody in the company knew

and John seemed happier, less moody.

- [Heinz] I know that he liked someone a bit rough.

He enjoyed that more than anything.

- [Woman] Ron was all into this SNM stuff,

chains and handcuffs.

I think that Ron took him to places

he probably wouldn't have gone to before.

- [Heinz] I never liked Ron.

Ron was at least as tough on John

than John was on all of his friends.

- [Woman] I think John had this hidden shame.

So this punishing thing got more and more.

It was one night we came in.

John was in front of the mirror

and his face was really badly bruised and cut

and he said that he had been attacked.

He'd been mugged.

The show went on for about 10 days without him.

(violin music)

- [Narrator] John Curry now lives in New York

and is rehearsing with noted choreographers

here in Westchester who the first American tour

of his newly formed company.

- You go, one, two, three.

Is it possible to go one? - Yeah.

- One, two three.

(whistling)

We just need the beginning.

(lively piano music)

Okay, one more time.

Just the beginning, you should stay and then

(mumbles)

just a little bit.

(playful piano music)

And then now.

That's right.

Okay, now, here.

Then you can go.

One two.

(mumbles)

One, two, three, four.

One, one, two, three, four.

Two, two, three, four.

- So nice when someone tells me to do less

(mumbles)

(mellow violin music)

- [Woman] The show at the Minskoff, the lights of Broadway.

There was a symphony, there was a stage.

There was great lighting, there was great scenic design.

Tango, tango, Jojo Starbuck.

That was a standout.

(orchestral music)

It shows John in a whole other stylistic kind of

(mumbles)

He's almost like the macho dancer there

and Jojo who's very strong female pulling him in

and manipulating him almost if you look at the movement

and yet he has the last word.

- [William] When someone has made in-roads like John did

into an art form, when someone is an innovator

and has changed the way that we looked at skating

in this instance, New Yorkers built a pedestal for him

and made a great noise about his excellence.

- [Lorna] The had a lot of wonderfully famous people

who came to see the his show.

Ballet dancers, actors, Woody Allen, Diana Ross.

- [Meg] He just loved the energy of the city.

He loved everything about it,

he loved taking his dance classes,

he loved the social scene.

And of course, connecting with a lot of men.

- [John] Dearest Heinz, you really would love New York.

It's such an exciting city.

There are hundreds of beautiful man walking about

and most of them seem to be gay.

There's a gay place in the park

that is very busy in the daytime,

and I guess even busier by night.

- [Woman] The gay community was really

sort of coming into its own,

able to experience the gamut

of their sexual desires without consequence.

There was some arguments between John and Ron

and there was a big change in John.

When things go wrong,

they tend to create their own problems.

There was one tragic night at The Minskoff.

John came out to do this solo and he was off balance.

He went into a sit spin and he spun around on his bottom

and sat there like this,

and obviously there was something very wrong.

And John was breaking down, sobbing like a baby.

Somebody said it was muscle relaxants,

somebody said something else, nobody really knew.

After that, the show stopped.

(upbeat music)

- [Cathy] Fire Island is an island

off the coast of New York.

Gay Nirvana.

There was community there called the pines.

John, I think, felt very much at home.

I mean, he was amongst his people.

He was able to be fully expressive,

to be very open about his sexuality.

♪ Watch the sun go down

- [William] It was a chance to recover

from the pressure that had mounted throughout his life.

- [Woman] He would rent a house there

and invite various friends to come and visit.

- [William] You have to remember,

he had spent much of his time going into very cold ice rinks

early in the morning.

The opposite of that was Fire Island in every way.

It was sunny, it was the beach.

There was really no responsibility.

There was a party crowd.

They were determined to have a good time and we did.

♪ The stars are lining lights

♪ Up in there in the distance

♪ To realistic sight

♪ On echo beach we are only sun ♪

♪ On echo there's no solo run

- [John] Dearest Cath, well, as you can imagine,

life's been rather hectic for me these past weeks.

Still, I guess I can live through it.

The summer is over and I'm getting used

to the idea of living alone.

Still miss Ron.

I do hope we shall skate more.

- [Elva] I was in Fire Island and he was sitting

on one of those wooden walkways things.

I said, "Hello, what are you doing?"

And he said, "I was just wondering

"what it would feel like to drown."

And we had a very long conversation

about how depressed he was.

He was very lonely.

To cut a long story short, we then went to see Steve Lieber

who was a rock promoter.

Steve ended up giving John the money to fly to Vale

with a group of skaters to put together a rapper tree.

(mellow music)

- [Interviewer] Well, John where are you this moment?

- [John] Well, I spend most of my time in America.

I'm based more or less than Colorado

where I rehearse with my skating company.

Every day we have a walnut pass,

which is very much the same as a ballet class.

In other words, you start with a very simple exercises

and work up to the virtuoso those stuff.

- [Nathan] I got a phone call saying,

John would like to invite you to join his company.

In skating, if you are invited by John Curry to do anything,

it would be like in television turning Oprah down.

You would never do that.

- Do you get lots of infighting

about I should be getting paid more than Joe Blogs

who's not as good as skated as I am?

- No, I what I did was the reason

a lot of I shows don't succeed

is because someone earns a lot of money

and most of the people, virtually none.

So we all have the same wages.

Everyone in the show is paid the same amount of money,

which allows us to continue our work

and we think that's the most important thing.

- [Eliot] He had a dream.

He had a vision of walks of great company

and a great show should be.

Having a live orchestra,

flying in very well known the choreographers,

and we wanted to give him that, no matter what.

- [David] 1982 we did four different events

throughout Canada.

I was always on the road.

I was always the point guy and it was during that period

that I got to know who he was

and understand him a little better.

I felt that every female skater

was either secretly or openly in love with him.

- [Man] He was physically the perfect male specimen.

He was such an intimidating character

and he could change his face quite quickly.

So you never kind of knew which John

you were getting that moment.

- [Woman] He was a perfectionist

and I think that probably contributed to his moodiness.

- [Man] Let's call it arrogance at times,

standoffish at times, difficult at best.

- Here's your thing with the arm one, two.

- If he was in a good mood with a skater,

he would be instructional.

- We use the same arm on the first two

and then inverse arm on the second two.

- [Man] But he could be very mean to female skaters.

- That's right.

- [Man] Specifically, anybody that may have had

a weight issue.

- [Woman] He had very cutting, assertive kind of commentary.

- Here, you didn't do much.

One, two, three, four.

One, two, three, four.

- [Man] Skaters were in fear of him.

No one wanted to come under his microscope,

yet everyone wanted to come under his microscope.

And it was almost as if everyone understood

that demons lived inside of him.

- [Woman] It was like the Great Dali masters.

He demanded a lot, he got a lot,

and he drilled them very rigorously on and off the ice.

- [Man] He took average skaters and made them incredible.

(mellow music)

(speaks foreign language)

- How do you feel your skating with a live orchestra?

- Well it's a lot of fun and it sometimes,

it's rather a challenge because every day,

the orchestra being human is slightly different.

So one has to try and respond

to the differences in the music.

- [Elva] We were brought to Japan and it was gorgeous.

They put ice all over the Yoyogi Stadium.

They have the new Japan for the Monett thing.

(audience applauding)

But John was miserable, absolutely miserable.

- [Man] He walked in, he saw the arena, he saw billboards

and it was like, I haven't worked all this hard

to skate in front of signage.

And he was really upset and he was not gonna perform.

- [Woman] The Japanese producers

had put an applause meter and that was appalling to John.

(mumbles)

- [Woman] David actually had to get

the key of his room from the manager.

- [Man] Quite honestly, I was concerned

that he had taken his life at that time.

He was deeply depressed.

He said to me, "Some consider me to be a genius.

"I want you to know that that other side of the spectrum

"lives inside of me.

"Whatever greatness you think I have,

"there are demons of equal value

"that are inside of my soul."

- [Woman] That was a side of John

that was almost impossible to,

you couldn't label one put that right.

There was this deep melancholy, this despair inside of him

and it had nothing to do with the company he created.

It was to do with something else,

something in his life he wanted that he couldn't have.

- [Heinz] The matter was always the same.

He didn't have a lover.

He wanted a lover all the time.

I'm lonely.

I need someone here.

A cry for help.

(sirens wailing)

- [Man] Bobby Campbell of San Francisco

and Bouey Walker of New York both suffer

from a mysterious, newly discovered disease

which affects mostly homosexual men.

Many victims get a rare form of cancer

called Kaposi Sarcoma.

Others get an infection known as pneumocystis pneumonia.

- [Man] We were in the dark.

We didn't have very much information.

- [Reporter] Investigators have examined

the habits of homosexuals for clues.

- I was in the fast lane at one time

in terms of the way that I live my life and now I'm not.

- [William] It went from very light

and carefree kind of living to fear and caution.

- I have four friends that have died.

I have two friends that are dying.

I listened to them.

Brilliant people.

Brilliant people.

(orchestral music)

- [Woman] John Curry's the man, it's said

who first turned athletics into art.

It is he who first righted the public's appetite

for the ice wizardry that

(mumbles)

have waited in satisfying.

For the last 14 months, he's poured his energies

into training his ice dance company for next week's

Symphony on Ice in the Albert Hall of all places.

- You always fascinate with your shows.

I mean it's called "Symphony Ice."

It's very unusual in that it's at the Royal Albert Hall.

Have they ever had ice there?

- No, they've had just about everything else.

No ice skating.

When I turned professional, it was the place I wanted to go.

It's taken me seven years to get there.

- This might be kind of my naive question,

but how did you build the rink?

I mean, do you put in a little swimming pool and freeze it?

- [David] I believe we had a week to put ice

into the Albert Hall, which under normal conditions

would have been enough.

- [Kevin] We had some stuff that came in a little late,

so we were already behind schedule.

We set up the rink and turn it on

and we had a generator and that broke down.

- [Man] When it became clear that we were jeopardizing

our opening night, we began to bring in ice trucks

so that we could just somehow get that floor frozen.

- [John] When it came time to skate on the ice,

it really wasn't thick enough to be skated on.

- [Cathy] There were patches of sand

which were extremely treacherous.

If you hit sand with a blade, then basically you're history.

- [Man] Everyone knew there was a problem

and so it was as difficulties were sort of skated through,

the audience got more involved.

It had part of its own momentum.

(audience applauding)

- [Reporter] The royal harmonic orchestra

has accompanied the skaters up to now.

This is "Burn", a modern synthesized composition

by Joe Michelle Jon.

- [Elva] One piece that showed

John's potential was "Burn."

That was John in a very different light.

It was extraordinary.

He's like a magnet.

He's like the nucleus of this atomic group.

And keep being drawn into this magnet

and escaping again.

Coming in and escaping.

- [Nathan] It was really, really demanding.

It involved all of the skaters rotating

in both directions the entire time.

And there was this one section

where John was kind of weaving through us.

That part terrified him and it terrified us

because if one of us was too fast or too slow,

it screwed up his timing.

He would slam right into us.

- [Man] The audience is ruptured, completely engrossed.

Elva and I looking at each other sort of saying,

this is our time.

This is our time.

We justified everything we had gone through,

so there was reason to be concerned about being in debt.

(audience applauding)

Because by then, the skaters are looking at the opportunity

of performing the metropolitan opera.

(mellow music)

- Joining us this morning to talk about skating

on the stage of the met, 276 Olympic champions,

John Curry and Dorothy Hamill.

Good seeing you both.

Thanks for being with us. - Thank you.

- The Met is pretty much everybody's dream,

whether you're an opera singer, whether you're a dancer,

it's like, oh my God to perform at the Met

is the highlight of one's career.

- [William] In New York, you can't have

more illustrious exposure than that.

- [Woman] The show is on sale and it sold out immediately.

- For the last 72 hours, engineers have been busy

laying an ice rink on the Met's 8,000 square foot stage.

Straighten out something first of all.

You were supposed to open last night.

- Yes, we had a problem with the ice

which has now been solved.

- You've been on the ice this morning.

- I went this morning, I've skated, it's fine.

We're going to open tonight at eight o'clock.

- [Nathan] I didn't sleep the whole night before the opening

because this was it.

This was going to make or break

John Curry's company and his career

and we all were very aware of that.

- [Woman] Thousands of people in the Opera House

who were used to operas and ballets

weren't quite sure what it was they were going to see.

- The company's musical director, Charles Barker

conducts the overture to Rossini's William Tell.

(orchestral music)

- [Man] It's unbelievable.

We'd never seen anything like this.

And it was sensational.

A constant sensation.

- [Woman] I think it was that Kisselgoff

who wrote the Metropolitan Opera Hustler

without ice skating will never be the same again.

That told him he had to choose what he set out.

(orchestral music)

(audience applauding)

They were so awe struck by what they saw.

They stood and cheered for about 20 minutes

at the end of the performance.

(audience applauding)

And I remember going backstage and John was crying.

He was shaking from head to foot and he said, "We did it."

I said, "Yes you did."

And he said, "Can I stop now?

"Can the company go ahead without me?"

and I said, "No, you're the star of this company

"and everyone wants to see you."

He'd always obviously got it in his head

that once he skated in the Met, he'd done his job.

But of course that isn't true

because the company was in debt.

Keeping a group of skaters together

for the best part of the year,

we kept a permanent conductor,

so that the tempo was always perfect.

Everything was very expensive.

So I explained to him that he had to keep doing this

for two or three years until there were other stars

who had merged and then he could step back.

But the truth was he didn't want to perform.

He was in pain.

His legs were hurting as many skaters do.

He wanted the company,

but he did not want to be its star performer.

Everything after that was less.

Not because the skaters skated any less wonderfully,

but because the spirit had gone,

because without John's spirit there, it wasn't the same.

(mellow piano music)

- [David] The Scandinavian tour was not fun.

We started in Copenhagen and we walked into that arena,

signage all over the arena and John just said,

"I'm not gonna skate."

- [Elva] He came up with a number of different reasons

why he couldn't do it, but of course

all the tickets had been sold.

The next thing we knew was that he had not warmed up

before he performed and he had injured himself.

- [David] I went in the ambulance with him and I said,

"So is it bad?"

And there was just a look in his face

that made me feel he was taking a dive.

- [Elva] The middle part of the tour had to be canceled.

This was financially a disaster.

He came back to New York for treatment

and then he went to perform at the last engagement,

which was at the Bergen Opera House

which he did beautifully.

Oh, it felt like he created Moonskate

took John in a direction to having you reflect on the ice

the melancholy that was in him.

- [Cathy] It's a very reflective piece.

The movement, it's all about regression and progression

without any visible effort.

It's almost transcendent.

It was almost like you were voyeur looking in at the stage

in a very intimate moment that he was experiencing.

- [Nathan] Every single time he performed it, he cried.

At this particular juncture, his tears would start flowing.

I really genuinely sensed the journey he had taken

into dance to that point had led that to happen.

- [Elva] That piece is full of searching,

searching for something that he doesn't get.

- [Meg] He was always searching for the constancy of love,

for love that would endure.

- [Cathy] It was so moving, so beautiful.

At the end of the piece, you see the despair,

the resignation, the acceptance

of the fact that he can't, can't find it.

(mellow music)

- [Woman] He's again alone on the ice.

All the people that he has loved

or had relationships with had fallen by the way side,

one way or another.

Maybe it's an acknowledgement how far he came

and how close he got and yet not quite there.

Both in terms of his personal life

and in terms of his professional ambitions.

- [Woman] That was the last time that company performed.

- [Man] That was the end.

- When it comes to preventing AIDS,

both medicine and morality teach the same message.

- We wanna identify every person who's a carrier,

we wanna identify every possible way

to stop them from spreading the disease.

- [Woman] AIDS at the time was terrifying

since they didn't know what was causing it.

There becomes a fear of contagion.

That sort of fed into this homophobic narrow mindedness.

See, we told you it was wrong.

Now you're being punished.

(mumbles)

- [William] In the arts, circles of friends,

people you knew were suddenly ill

and the circle started to get closer and closer.

They were shrinking towards your inner circle.

- [Interviewer] You were in America for 10 years.

You came back in November of last year

with a pocket full of money?

- [John] No, no, with a pocket empty actually.

- [Interviewer] Why, what happened?

- [John] Well, I put a lot of my own money into the shows

and I had some difficulties along the way

with the people who are producing.

Well, I lost everything I made actually.

- [Heinz] I went to Liverpool, I sold the show.

We walked to the Atlantic Hotel where I stayed

and then he told me, "I'm HIV positive."

I just said, "No, it can't be."

Then I hugged him.

We went then straight up to my room.

Sometimes I cried, sometimes he cried.

It was just a fact.

You sort of knew that he knows also

that it's death fairly soon.

- [John] Dear Heinz, it was so nice to see you

over the weekend.

When you left on Sunday,

I smoked the cigarette you left behind and felt very tired.

I called mother on the telephone.

Well, we had the best talk we've ever had

and I think it will be a great help

for the rest of my life and hers.

While we spoke, I cried very deeply.

I told her so many things

that had been causing me great distress.

Mother spoke very calmly and with great compassion.

I spoke about my fear of AIDS,

so you can tell it was a much more personal conversation

than we've ever had before.

- [Interviewer] You held up your skating boots,

what, 18 months ago?

- [John] Yes, 18 months ago.

- [Interviewer] Never skated since.

- No. - And never will?

- [John] I don't think so, no.

(mellow music)

- [Nathan] In 1990, John had stopped

choreographing and skating,

but we had asked if he would be interested

in doing a dance for the next ice age.

(mellow music)

- He came for three weeks and we rehearsed every morning

and he was so different then, than he was during the stress

of when he was running his own company

and having to deal with the finances

and just everything that goes with it.

These are the original costumes that John designed himself.

There are different colors of what I think

he must've thought that Danube would be lit by the moon.

This is the kind of detail that John was designing.

(orchestral music)

It was right from the start going to be a quartet four men.

(orchestral music)

I think he was thinking, what will be my final work?

He wanted the dance to be about friendship.

That's what he told us.

A sense of joy and a sense of beauty and happiness.

He thought, that's what I want people to remember me as.

And so here, 30 years later, we'll be restaging it

with a brand new cast.

- [Meg] For me to see the three companies

that he'd been involved, Ice Theater of New York,

Ice Dance International, and then the next Ice Age

is so powerful because these skaters

are practicing and performing his legacy.

(orchestral music)

- [Elva] The legacy is there,

but whether there will ever be another company

that John had, probably not.

- [Cathy] Most of people that were in theater skating,

and in fact, most of the company owners

throughout John's company,

almost all the men are dead from AIDS.

(orchestral music)

- Even now in sports, we have a lot of homophobia

at or if it's figure skating or football.

At that time in the late 70s,

it was a completely different world.

He was an artist and somebody who broke boundaries,

he had the guts to be his true self on the ice

and I think that's the greatest achievement

that he was able to leave in this world,

was that he made this,

who only started skating 20 years later,

be comfortable to really be themselves on the ice.

(orchestral music)

- We met in the Coventry Railway Station,

I think Andrew and I and he came home

and he just said he was ill and that was it.

But a lot of the time, he was quite well

but most of the time when he could, he was in the garden,

either gardening or needle working.

- [John] Dear Cathy, how lovely to hear from you.

I've not been to Prague for what, 20 years?

It looks as if a strong wind would demolish it then,

so whatever must it look like now?

Well, I have something to tell you,

which you've probably heard already.

I have AIDS.

I'm not traumatized, I think and inside I'm peaceful.

I love being at home again, not having to teach and skate.

A welcome relief for this old body.

This is not a very uplifting letter,

but dear Cathy, do not worrying or be sad.

I had an extraordinary life by any standards.

I've met with great success and happiness

and at times, the reverse.

So keep your packer up.

Lots of love, John.

(orchestral music)

- [Interviewer] I mean the way it's been done.

I mean you haven't invented penicillin,

you haven't cured cancer,

you haven't built an old people's home.

You zoomed around the ice.

Is what you to do really of any importance at all?

- Is it important?

It's only important because things like skating

or any kind of performance that brings people pleasure,

really some of the things that like make life worth living.

I know that sounds terribly corny, but it does.

If everything in life was entirely practical,

we would all have an amount of bread

and amount of water and so on.

But some things have to move you,

make you feel very happy or even very sad or something.

They may have to make you feel something.

And I'm very glad that I've been able

to make some people feel something with my skating.

I think that's great and I think that's important.

(orchestral music)

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