As a pioneer in the world of dance, Isadora Duncan lived by these words. In a time where dance’s artistic formula was exclusively dictated by ballet, Duncan desired change through progress, inhibition and freedom of movement. In a famous speech presented in 1903, she outlined her vision for a new type of dancer:
“The dancer of the future will be one whose body and soul have grown so harmoniously together that the natural language of that soul will have become the movement of the body,” she said. “This is the mission of the dancer of the future.”
The dancer of the future flowed into the present as Duncan kickstarted the dance revolution by creating the first ever school for modern dance. In Duncan’s school, dance became a place to explore natural movement and free ideas. Dance as a sacred art form began to take shape. Choreographers such as Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, and Katherine Dunham continued the rise of modern dance by continually changing the way dance related with music, movement, and style. By the 1950s, contemporary dance became commonplace in the dance world; now it is a fixture.
Like the dance world, figure skating is in continual anticipation for the “skater of the future.” With every passing generation not only are the physical boundaries of figure skating constantly being pushed, but its essential core as an artistic form of expression is viewed in a new light. Just as Isadora Duncan started a dance revolution almost 100 years ago, pioneers for a skating revolution are bringing artistry back to the forefront once again. The skater of the future is in the midst of its unveiling.
Olympic Champion John Curry epitomizes skating’s own Isadora Duncan. After his Olympic win in 1976, Curry went on to create his own skating company running along the same lines as a dance company. “John Curry’s Ice Dancing” performed in small theaters, proscenium stages, and intimate environments. No frills or glitz for merely the entertainment factor—Curry wanted figure skating to be viewed as a sacred art. Commissioning pieces by famous choreographers such as Twyla Tharp and Kenneth MacMillan, the company made great inroads in its quest to step into the dance world.
Initially Curry’s gateway into the company was accosted with doubts. Critics said his plan would fail without animal and comedy acts throughout the show.
“I thought, ‘Why not?’ I knew skating was a very beautiful art form,” he said in a 1989 Toledo Blade article. “My whole sort of plan was to involve the masters of movement on the floor and see what they could get out of ice skating.”
When Curry’s company abruptly disbanded in 1985 due to financial struggles, Curry’s vision thankfully never faded away in the United States. Within the next few years, two new American ice dance companies formulated.
Canadian Moira North founded Ice Theatre of New York (ITNY) in 1984. Currently under the artistic direction of Doug Webster and the executive direction of Jirina Ribbens, the company has been in partnership with established off-ice choreographers including Tharp, Carlos Orta and Laura Dean. Throughout the year the company involves itself in community outreach, Rockefeller Center shows, and an annual Benefit Gala.
Two John Curry company skaters Nathan Birch and Tim Murphy began The Next Ice Age (NIA) as a branch off of Curry’s company in 1988. Based in the Baltimore and Washington D.C. area, NIA has performed at the Kennedy Center, American Dance Festival and the Columbia Festival of Arts. Curry involved himself with the company up until his death in 1994, commissioning works for performance.
Other skaters within the company also went on to spread Curry’s vision in other formats. World Professional Champion Lorna Brown was one of those skaters who skated extensively with Curry throughout her career. She went on to share her extensive dance and skating background by putting on “Skate of the Art” seminars in the Los Angeles area and continues to work as a coach and choreographer.
From the 1990s and into the present, various ice theaters began to spread all over the country. New formats of incorporating figure skating and dance also began to take root with the turn of the century:
- 1995: Rebecca Safai and Bernard A. Ford founded the Seattle Ice Theatre and performed a show entitled “Myriad” at the Paramount Theater in 1999.
- 1996: Ice Semble in Chicago formed under the leadership of Managing Director Ray Belmante and Aristic Director Liz McShane-Beberdick. With an annual show in the spring, the company also performs at Chicago’s Millennium Park in the winter time.
- 2002: AIT formed under the direction of Jodi Porter, former professional skater and associate director of Ballet San Jose School. Based in San Francisco, AIT is expanding its wings into other parts of the country by forming an artistic partnership with Ice Semble in Chicago. Currently Porter teaches a course for figure skaters called Master Techniques in Choreography which incorporates dance techniques and terminology for skating choreography.
- 2010: The online choreography figure skating competition called the “Young Artists Showcase” was born. Created by Audrey Weisiger, Sheila Thelen and Doug Mattis, the event featured contestants creating original choreographic pieces judged by professional choreographers and skaters such as Kurt Browning and Sarah Kawahara. Soon to be in its fourth season, the competition proved to be a success across the world with contestants from the United States, England, Germany and Canada.
- 2011: U.S. Men’s competitor Parker Pennington produced the first ever “Skate Dance Dream” in Ohio. The show brings dance and figure skating together in one atmosphere to celebrate and spread support for these related art forms. The show has featured So You Think You Can Dance” contestants Jessica King and Gev Manoukian and U.S. medalists Richard Dornbush and Logan Guiletti-Schmitt and Lynn Kriengkrairut. This year they are producing four shows in Ohio and New York.
As skaters receive more education, inspiration and motivation, Curry’s vision for figure skating will continue on. Taking over 50 years for Duncan’s “dancer of the future” to become a recognized tenant of the dance community, it may take longer for the “Skater of the future” to fully arrive. But there is much hope for this generation. In a letter written by Birch during last season’s preparations he wanted to share his excitement about the young apprentices in the company.
“I find their energy inspiring,” he wrote. “I can see the future when I work with them.”
The skater of the future is here.