Finding the Edge Where Sport Ends And Dance Begins
By SUSAN REITER
The New York Times Dance Section
July 19, 1998
A dozen skaters wearing simple black practice clothes are gliding with precision and concentration up and down a suburban Maryland ice rink. For a while they move in groups of four. Then their leader, a boyish, mild-mannered but intensely focused young man, demonstrates an intricate sequence including several shifts of balance and an elegant spiral. The skaters soon follow suit, performing the moves one by one under his watchful eye.
As the July sun blazes outside, members of Next Ice Age are completing their daily class, which precedes a day of rehearsals for their American Dance Festival debut on Thursday in Durham, N.C. The 10-year-old ensemble-skating company, founded by Nathan Birch, 35, who taught the class, and Tim Murphy, 39, will take an important step at Durham. It will be performing in a modern-dance context.
The program will consist of five works. Three are by Mr. Birch — the world premieres of ”Syllabice” and ”Starr-Struck” and a 1991 solo, ”Breezeway”; and two are by Mr. Murphy — “Machines,” his earliest work for the company, and ”Bright Blue Skating,” from last year.
The two men’s goal has been to create an alternative type of repertory dance company with its own discipline and technique, an enterprise closer in spirit to the Durham festival than to the flashy touring productions presented in ice arenas.
Mr. Birch and Mr. Murphy fervently believe in figure skating as a form of dance, a belief that reflects their heritage as original members of the John Curry Skating Company in the 1980’s. That short-lived but highly praised and influential venture staked a claim for skating as a significant artistic endeavor. Training his skaters through the detailed, intricate classes he developed, and commissioning major choreographers to create ice dances, Curry (the 1976 Olympic gold medalist who died of AIDS in 1994) single-handedly altered the perception of skating and enhanced its validity as a performing art suitable for the proscenium stage.
”All of us knew at the very beginning of his company that there was one light shining in the skating world, and he was it, that he could really open doors for us,” says Mr. Murphy, who before working with Curry had been ready to abandon skating, demoralized after nine months of playing a ”big yellow chicken” in the Ice Follies. ”He really made me believe that anything is possible.”
Curry’s intention, even during his successful competitive career, had always been to bring skating into the dance world. And through Curry, skaters like Mr. Birch and Mr. Murphy found a new way to apply and extend their skills after their competitive years were over. ”We were skating at the Metropolitan Opera House and Kennedy Center, working with choreographers like Lar Lubovitch and Laura Dean,” recalls Mr. Birch, who was 20 when he hooked up with Curry. ”Life was pretty great.
An integral element of Curry’s vision was the classes he developed. They functioned as the equivalent of the George Balanchine classes that had helped mold the New York City Ballet’s dancers. ”We trained in a very specific way, very similar to the class we do here,” Mr. Birch says. ”For two hours we wouldn’t spin or jump. We would just do edge work, concentrating intensely on body line and position. John would talk a lot about where the blade and the ice meet, where the weight of your foot is and how your foot sits in the boot. And he taught us through his own example, because he was the most extraordinary skater ever.”
DESPITE its artistic success, Curry’s company encountered legal and managerial problems and disbanded abruptly in 1985. ”At the time, there was no other company on the same wavelength, so all of us were forced to move on with our lives,” Mr. Birch recalls. ”I tried teaching. I did some solo performances and some touring shows that weren’t artistically satisfying.”
In 1988 he moved to Baltimore, where Mr. Murphy was already living and teaching. The two men — childhood friends who had often faced each other in amateur competition — decided to pick up where Curry had left off. ”We started our company out of frustration,” says Mr. Birch, who is the artistic director and shares choreographic responsibilities with Mr. Murphy. ”We wanted to see the art form continue. There was nothing of significance to carry on the legacy of what John did. We wanted to create an environment with the mind-set of an ensemble company, with really good skaters who checked their egos at the door.” Curry helped select the company’s name, made guest appearances and, in 1993, choreographed his final group work for it.
Although it lacks a home base (it moves around between various rinks in the Baltimore area) and has yet to establish a regular season, performing intermittently when and where it can, the Next Ice Age has managed to build a repertory that confirms the choreographic possibilities of skating. It has shared the struggles familiar to other dance companies in the 1990’s; Mr. Birch’s conversation frequently veers from artistic matters to the financial and administrative struggles to which he necessarily devotes much time.
A big break came last year when Next Ice Age was invited to perform for a week on the Kennedy Center Opera House stage, accompanied by a full orchestra. The program included new works by Mr. Birch and Mr. Murphy, a revival of the Curry work and guest appearances by the former Olympic skater Dorothy Hamill, who has moved to Baltimore and frequently takes class and performs with the troupe (and also serves on its board). The musically sophisticated, richly varied program eloquently demonstrated how much more there is to explore in skating beyond four-minute solos and quadruple jumps. There was no shortage of virtuosity on the stage, but the sweeping, fluent patterns of group movement inspired as many ovations as the individual feats. For Mr. Birch and Mr. Murphy, it was not only a chance to demonstrate their choreographic maturity and
versatility; it was also an emotional return to a stage on which they had appeared with the Curry company at the pinnacle of its success.
Charles and Stephanie Reinhart, the Kennedy Center’s artistic advisers for dance, took the bold step of presenting Next Ice Age, installing an ice surface on the vast stage. They were so excited by the performances that they decided the company deserved to be part of the 65th-anniversary season of the Durham festival, of which they are co-directors. ”For us, it’s another way of pushing the envelope for what modern dance has traditionally done, which is break new ground,” Mrs. Reinhart says. ”It’s elegant and imaginative — and great dancing. Historically, A.D.F. has had all kinds of performances in all kinds of venues.”
Mr. Reinhart adds, ”I put this in the category of what Elizabeth Streb and Pilobolus have done; when people first see them they ask, ‘Is that dance?’ ”
The stage of the Reynolds Industries Theater, where Next Ice Age will perform, is significantly smaller than that of the Kennedy Center; to the choreographers, this is a challenge rather than a limitation. ”My hope is that if we can make it work in that size space,” says Mr. Birch, ”then perhaps our touring options will be greater. We hope to be presented in dance venues. Putting ice on a stage is not as scary as it seems.”
Mr. Birch’s ”Starr-Struck,” set to recordings by the celebrated big-band singer Kay Starr, who will be in attendance, was created for the festival through the Doris Duke Awards for New Work. He describes it as ”a departure for me.”
”I’m known for making long, heavy, classical pieces,” he says. ”This one is meant to be fun. Kay Starr’s music always puts me in a great mood, and I wanted to choreograph to it for a long time. It’s our 10th anniversary, and I feel like celebrating a little.”
Susan Reiter is a contributing editor to Dance magazine and writes about the performing arts and figure skating.