“I am a skater”, John Curry told Time magazine in December 1978. “I believe that the word ‘skater’ has the same value as the word ‘dancer’”. “In fact”, Time explained, “Curry is both an ice skater who dances and a ballet dancer who ice skates.” Indeed, Curry, who in 1976 won the Olympic Gold medal for figure skating, would, if parental opposition had not prevented him, have rather been a ballet dancer. After his Olympic success, he channelled his ambitions into extending the grammar of skating and to creating a style far removed from the conventions of competition and of commercial ice shows. He had distinct affinity for purity of classical line and the virtuosity of his technique was altogether exceptional among skaters of the day.

“One of the happiest experiences I ever had”, Curry told the UPI press agency, “was when I met Sir Kenneth and he said to me, 'I want to do a ballet for you. Will you let me?' Well, you can imagine what my answer was!'' So it was that MacMillan choreographed a piece for Curry’s Theatre of Skating, as too did Twyla Tharp. Peter Martins and Norman Maen.

The stage of London’s Cambridge Theatre was enlarged and a specially designed ice-rink laid. According to John Percival in The Times, MacMillan’s Feux Follets (‘Will-o’-the-wisps’) revealed “the seamless flow which is a speciality of the Curry style. Capricious changes of direction and multitudinous spins match the will-o’-the-wisp connotations of Liszt’s piano solo. In her review, Anna Kisselgoff of The New York Times singled out MacMillan’s as one of the works which best came to terms with the medium of ice. “Mr MacMillan’s Feux Follets” she wrote, “looked as if it could only be performed on ice – a series of whirlwind turns with Mr Curry shooting out like the firefly of the title.” Arlene Croce of The New Yorker, was impressed with “a manége of turns that, except for the extraordinary stamina it would take to get through it on dry land, might well have been choreographed for Anthony Dowell.” And Newsweek’s Hubert Saal wrote that in “in MacMillan's Feux Follets Curry comes close to equalling the dazzle of his great Olympic routine-this time with real involvement in the music.”

James Kennedy in The Guardian, while impressed with the choreography and with Curry’s own technique, were doubtful about the ultimate worth of the enterprise: “Much though Curry’s own skating has benefited from the balletic influence, their line cannot after all rid itself of the encumbrance of those heavy line destroying skates. As an art form skating has something to offer, but it is all a bit like ballet in big boots.”

  • First performance: Cambridge Theatre London, 2 December 1976

  • Company: Theatre of Skating

  • Cast: John Curry

  • Music: Liszt, Transcendental Study No 5.

  • Design: Nadine Bayliss