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Ice-Savvy Audiences Warm Up to Skaters

Source: Tribune Chronicle
Date: 1997
Author: Andy Gray

There's no fooling skating audiences anymore.

That's one of the lessons Kurt Browning has learned as a professional figure skater.

Browning, a four-time world champion skater from Canada, is in the middle of a 60-city tour with Discover Card Stars on Ice, which features Olympic champions Kristi Yamaguchi, Scott Hamilton, and Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean.

In a telephone interview from Davenport, Iowa, Browning said audiences know all of the skaters' programs so well because of the massive television exposure the sport has received since the 1994 Winter Olympics.

If you make a mistake, you can't hide it," Browning said, "If you decide to do a double loop instead of a triple, they know. There's no fooling them."

Those knowledgeable audiences -- and the prodding and support of the fellow skaters -- keep the skaters striving to do their best on a hectic schedule that has performers doing as many as five shows in a row in five different cities.

"The word 'professional' really comes into play here," he said. "We're kind of like this roaming family. We all grew up together or at least saw each other grow up, so we support one another. If you're not in the mood in the tunnel to go on, and everyone else is, then they get you ready fast."

While competitive figure skating features only solo and pair performances, exhibitions like Stars on Ice give skaters a chance to perform with their peers. Browning said that's one of the things he was looking forward to when he turned professional in 1994.

Group numbers in Stars on Ice include "Four Women" -- which features Kristi Yamaguchi, Jill Trenary, Ekaterina Gordeeva and Rosalynn Sumners skating to recordings by Alanis Morissette, Bernadette Peters and Amanda Marshall -- and an adaption of a pairs number by Torvill & Dean.

"Christopher Dean did a group number for us," Browning said. "He took 'Red Hat' and turned it into a group number for Stars on Ice. I play this devilish character who steals the hat from everyone."

"I've never worked with a prop this much before. Sometimes it works and sometimes gravity takes over."

For his solo number, Browning skates to a medley of songs by Nat King Cole in a program that he called "a gift for my wife."

In searching through Cole's recordings for the right songs, he came across a tune called "Madrid," which is the hometown of his wife, Sonia.

"That gave me the idea to turn it into something for my wife," he said.

Browning has drawn on the classic pop of the '40s and '50s for several of his performances, using such standards as "You Must Remember This" from the movie "Casablanca" and "Singin' in the Rain," in which he recreated on ice Gene Kelly's classic dance number.

The Kelly number is his personal favorite, in part because of the incredible job the production staff did in recreating the look of the film for this television special.

"I was totally inspired by this situation," Browning said. "It was one of the most incredible skating days of my life."

He said those classic pop numbers are a coincidence rather than a personal preference, citing his program to The Commodores' "Brick House" as an example of something different.

The need for something different never has been greater. With professional competitions, exhibitions like Stars on Ice and made-for-television events like "The U.S. vs. the World," skaters are seen more than ever before, and fresh programs always are in demand.

"I'm still trying to get used to a professional career," Browning said. "One year Kristi added six new numbers. I'm starting in June this year to work on numbers for next year. I'm going to be trying some new stuff."

Browning also expects skaters to start picking and choosing more between the many performing options that are available.

"Two years ago, I assumed there was going to be a bit of a peak in interest, so I started satying yes to everything because I thought it was never going to happen again," Browning said. "To be honest, I didn't expect the requests to keep coming in, but they are."

"Now, I think, we can be more selective. We don't have to say yes to something because we think it's not going to happen again."