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Interview With Nathan Birch

Photograph of American figure skating choreographer Nathan Chen of The Next Ice Age and Men Skating

Ask just about any skater, choreographer or skating fan who their favourite skaters of all time are and the same names keep coming up again and again... Janet Lynn, Robin Cousins, Dorothy Hamill, Katarina Witt, Michelle Kwan... but the one name that seems to recur more than most is that of 1976 Olympic Gold Medallist John Curry. John revolutionized skating bringing dance to ice and ice to dance, blurring the lines between sport and art and changing the world's perception of what skating could be. Discovered by John, Nathan Birch became a performer with and a member of The Curry Company and went on to choreograph for numerous skaters and create The Next Ice Age in 1988 with fellow company member Tim Murphy. The Next Ice Age has not only presented exquisite ensemble skating pieces for decades but has educated and schooled skaters in the same on ice program John Curry's company employed - classes teaching lean, line, edge quality, speed and carriage. Nathan's career and gift to skating has been nothing short of extraordinary. It was my absolute honor to have the opportunity to talk with Nathan about The Next Ice Age, his experiences working with John Curry, his career in skating and his opinions on choreography, dance and skating.

Q: When did you first start skating and what can you share about your early career in the sport and what led you to show skating?

A: I started skating at the age of nine and took to it like a long lost friend. I enjoyed the feeling of winning but not competing. Reaching a national level in the sport helped my confidence, yet at the age of 18 I thought there must be more than medals. As fate had it I met John Curry in Boston where he was filming his PBS special "Peter and the Wolf" and two years later I was making my professional stage debut with his Company at the Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center.

Q: How would you describe your experience working and skating with John Curry and his company? What made John so special as a skater and a person and why do you think he's still considered one of the most legendary skaters of all time?

A: My experience with John Curry shaped and molded my entire skating career and still influences every aspect of my work. He was a fierce task master who never compromised his ideals. The spirit of artistic skating has entrusted itself to different custodians over time. At the time John was that caretaker he dealt with the never ending challenge of legitimizing skating as art in two ways. He engaged known choreographers from the dance world, and he restaged known dances made on the floor and put them on ice. This was what he had to do in order to advance skating as a dance form at that time. And yet it was his original work which I look back on with the most respect. That moment when his "GLIDES" debuted at the Met instantly changed the course of history in dance and skating which is why he remains legendary. John used his Olympic Gold medal as a stepping stone to advance skating as a dance form. We, the skaters, learned so much from the different perspectives of the dance choreographers who came in to work with the Company. They also learned about the challenges skating presents. John knew innately this process was an important step to earn respect from dancers. The choreographers spent a lot of time (and as John always reminded us, "time is money") figuring out how to negotiate speed with line, curve, and timing. John always said that one day the best skating choreography would be made by skaters once they mastered their technique and gained the discipline and the courage dance choreographers had to learn. It could be argued the best caretakers are not only good custodians, but also possess the ability to show others the way forward. John's "GLIDES" was a true step in that direction. 

Photograph of American figure skating choreographer Nathan Chen of The Next Ice Age and Men Skating

Q: In 1988, you and Tim Murphy founded The Next Ice Age, a skating company that has brought amazing choreography to the ice and theatre stages for decades now. In addition to bringing The Next Ice Age to the Kennedy Center Opera House, you have personally been involved in creating countless choreographic works both for The Next Ice Age and other projects. What are your proudest moments as a choreographer and if you had to tell us about your one favourite piece, what would it be?

A: As I look back over the past 25 years there are a few highlights. I am fortunate to have had my work 'presented' by institutions like the Kennedy Center and the American Dance Festival. I am so appreciative to the National Endowment for the Arts and for the respect of individuals I greatly admire in the dance world who have helped and supported me on my path. They gave skating the opportunity to be seen by sophisticated dance audiences. We were just the drivers of the vehicle. We celebrate our 25th Anniversary this month and will have an event marking the occasion April 11th and 12th in Baltimore called a Class Reunion.

Q: You took a nine year break from choreography and have come back full force in recent years. What did you with your time away from the ice, what brought you back and what has changed the most in that time?

A: Mainly I moved home to care for my Mom, a choice I'll never regret, ever. At that time I was choreographing for international skaters and traveling a lot. I also taught both in New England and Maryland. During the 9 years my teaching started to become more specific and my eye more discerning. After my Mom passed away I made the choice to stop traveling and focus on working with young skaters. This remains enormously rewarding as it is most efficient to identify and disallow unwise habits to form. It's much better to teach new dogs old tricks if one is shooting for longevity. This is why The Next Ice Edge is so exciting to me. Our mission is to create, present, and preserve skating as a dance form through performance and education. It was an important incubation period for what was to come next. I started making group dances again because I finally had a core group of skaters that could move the way I wanted them to. Also, the manager at the Gardens Ice House in Maryland studied modern dance in college so he got it. The skating coach we work most closely with, Denise Cahill, also whole heartedly supports the work. Denise is a founding board member. She, along with good management and the talent, make it all possible.

Photograph of American figure skating choreographer Nathan Chen of The Next Ice Age and Men Skating

Q: What, in your opinion, are the most important things that ANYONE choreographing skating for stage should consider or keep in mind?

A: Even the largest stage is minuscule in comparison to most ice rinks. Group skating can turn into a big amorphous mess very quickly on stage. My advice to a choreographer making skating for a proscenium setting would be to keep the groupings smaller so that speed can be utilized and not compromised. Save the larger groupings for the affect of fullness.

Q: This season you will be presenting the premiere of two new works - a piece set to "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" and a new piece called "Triune" set to the music of Maurice Ravel. The Next Ice Age will be performing at Michael Weiss' show this month and at An Evening With Champions at Harvard University next month. What can you tell us about these new works? 

A: "Triune" is premiering October 5th at Harvard University. It is a trio set to music by Ravel. It is short and was built for our satellite professional company in Boston. In rehearsal, there were moments I was moved to tears as I witnessed the skaters embody the difficult simplicity of the movement. Their talent allowed my to go to a high level of detail and I can't wait to see it at An Evening with Champions. "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" is a work in progress which will premiere at our reunion in April. This Sunday, September 15th, we will perform a section of it at the Michael Weiss Foundation event featuring skaters from our resident company.

Q: In what ways do you think artistic skating has earned more respect in recent years and how do you think it can reach a wider audience in the future?

A: I can't really judge what is considered artistic skating I guess because the word artistic has such a broad scope. I have my own point of view I will go into later. Having said that, there seems to be a wider spectrum in skating , considered by many as artistic, which has surely contributed to greater popularity and therefore respect. Right now for my tiny contribution it is most important to practice the process of what it is I envision so I can get really good at it. Doing it a long time doesn't mean one has mastered anything yet, so I just keep plugging along and fortunately for me skaters remain interested. I admit this feels like what I should be doing and it's up to others to market it to a wider audience. I have been caught up in that aspect before and it can really distract one away from what is truly at hand. I started this whole venture to do something other than compete, only to discover that competition IS everywhere. For instance, when we were on dance presenters season rosters alongside of major companies like Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Alvin Ailey, Mark Morris, and others, it was clear to me that in order to stay in that milieu I was going to have to compete for the dollars that put them there. I admit when that light bulb turned on I was a bit deflated. For better or worse I am an idealist, but we don't live in an ideal society. I would prefer a cooperative society to that of a competitive one, but that's not reality. My internal struggle is this very fact. The way I have been able to make a living in the sport is by focusing on the technique and choreography, rather than points and placements. Fortunately I have wonderful coaches that hire and support me to do just that. So my choice is to "DO," it and right now our little machine is functioning with all cylinders on "go." Our objective is longevity. Before we started, Tim Murphy, John Curry, and I sat down and had extensive discussions about ways to form a new company. Tim and I didn't want our names in the title, so we were playing around with the word,"new…" It was John that said it should be the NEXT Ice Age as we wanted to always move forward. We wanted to distinguish ourselves from what was already out there. Together we coined the phrase, "artistic ensemble skating," to describe ourselves. It eventually got shortened to ensemble skating. Today, I am flattered when people use that term not knowing it's origin. I suppose it could be said we are the tortoise, not the hare.

Q: What would be your absolute dream meal?

A: I love this question! I am an avid amateur chef and in my head have already written 3 books… I have countless recipes and for me it's a fun escape. Let's just say I love to cook. My husband and I have designed and built the most beautiful kitchen at our Stone Barn in New England. Lots of people can make food together as it is essentially the entire first floor of the structure. So my dream meal is to make food with friends and family all day long and slowly graze throughout.

Q: Who are your three favourite skaters of all time and why? 

A: I have so many favourite skaters... all for different reasons. When I was little I was obsessed with Toller. As I grew up I learned to admire him more as a complete artist on many levels. If I had to choose only 3 skaters, they would have to be individuals who not only had a major impact and influence but sought to present skating as dance. To me, they would be Belita, Dorothy Hamill, and John Curry. It all gets down to the foot and boot. With them the boot IS the foot and the foot is the boot. Through virtue of her extraordinary film work that will last forever, Belita was balletic, theatrical, and entertaining. Any young skater should study her work. One of, if not the most beautiful dances we produced was a solo Tim Murphy made in 1997 for Dorothy's appearance with us at The Kennedy Center Opera House, entitled "April." Just thinking about those eleven minutes of perfection makes me literally well up inside. What Dorothy has done aside from performing is invest long term in Skating Class. In addition, she is a skating celebrity who values improving her craft with fervent diligence. Her iconic longevity has changed skating forever. John showed me the way by example. I would be surprised if the world ever saw an artist with greater influence in skating. He taught me to forge my own path and because of him I had the opportunity to make original work, without having to rely on known dances or dance makers names to legitimize skating as dance. He did that for a future skating world he wasn't able to live long enough to witness entirely. I used to watch him from the wings in performance. In his "Lyric Suite" each night he cried at the same place in the dance… literally tears down his face at one particular musical passage. Truly remarkable. A new book about him is coming out soon and I am anticipating its release greatly.

Q: You offer an on ice class called The Next Ice Edge that brings skaters through an exercise that teaches them edge control, carriage and formation. This was a mandatory part of John Curry's daily routine and was a mandatory class when Dorothy Hamill hired The Next Ice Age as well. Why are classes like this so important and why don't more skating coaches and choreographers put more emphasis on such important lessons?  

A: Class is important only if the instructor has something specific to teach from a technical and execution aspect. The 'how to do something' is most efficiently taught in Class. If it's just about skating down the rink in a semi-organized fashion then I fail to see the value other than aerobic. What is being taught and why it's being taught that way ought to be considered and explained. The concept of Class has grown a lot. I hope different methods emerge from teachers who take the "how and why" seriously. This phenomenon occurred in dance and today there are many different classes a dancer can take at studios all over the world. My method is not right or wrong, good or bad, but I can explain it, I know why it works, and I have learned to allow it to evolve. I suspect my Class will be different down the road from what I emphasize now. Perhaps my greatest privilege was to teach Class for Dorothy's Ice Capades. I am humbled to know that many of those skaters teach their own classes now. The Class I taught then is different from what I teach now. It is simply a point of reference from which a skater can move freely in any direction. I promote the idea of technique before artistry because I believe one facilitates the other. Only by having a clear technique does one earn the right to abandon it entirely and improvise. Class also provides a unique opportunity to develop a non-critical discernment by observing fellow classmates.

Q: You have said that "skating is a legitimate form of dance and that it deserves the respect of the world as an art". Could you elaborate on this statement? 

A: Skating only deserves the respect as a legitimate art if real work has gone into it that is sustainable, comes from a clear vision, and has a history. Artistic ensemble skating can't just be produced from nothing. One can't hire a bunch of skaters, throw a lot of money at it, turn on the lights and music and say, "look everyone, it's art!" That CAN however be skating as entertainment... which is completely legitimate and viable in it's own right. One isn't better than the other, they are just different. Art is closer to philosophy and entertainment is closer to commercialism.

Q: How can more people see your work or make a donation to support your performance and education programs?

A: Preserving live performance for viewership when it comes to skating is not an easy task. We have bits and pieces on our website, There, people can see when and where we will be performing and appearing. People can also donate there if they want. We are a 501c3 not for profit company.

Q: What's one thing about you most people don't know?

A: The hardest question for last…I'm really pretty much an open book and I think people who get to know me really get to know the real me. I'm sometimes too honest. We all make choices and I suppose it could appear as though I have made some nonsensical ones along the way. I don't make choices in haste. I think about them a lot before changing course or holding anchor. I weigh all the possible repercussions and ramifications before acting. I trust my navigational guidance and don't regret anything. Sacrifice doesn't truly exist because when you let something go, you make room to receive. When one gives something up they also get something. It's all a learning and growing experience, and mistakes are correct decisions yet to be discovered.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating":