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Seeing Stars: Kurt Browning puts a new spin on ice show

Source: Seattle Times
Date: January 4, 2002
Author: Misha Berson

Copyright 2002 The Seattle Times Company

Stars on Ice, with Kurt Browning, Tara Lipinski, Kristi Yamaguchi, Katarina Witt and Ilia Kulik, along with Steven Cousins, Denis Petrov, Lucinda Ruh, and pairs skaters Anjelika Krylova and Oleg Ovsiannikov, and Jenni Meno and Todd Sand. 7:30 p.m. tomorrow, KeyArena, Seattle Center. $38-$55. 206-628-0888.

It seems like every week or so, you can flick on your television and catch another ice-skating competition or glossy variety special on the tube.

But for fans of figure skating (and there are a lot of us out here), there is nothing like the thrill of watching a superbly trained and gifted skater perform that triple toe loop or flying camel spin in the flesh.

Few of us will get the chance to catch the hotly contested 2002 Winter Olympics figure-skating competitions close-up and personal in Salt Lake City.

But the chance to take in the twirling, soaring and fancy footwork of some of the world's best, most-honored professional skaters arrives here annually, with the Stars on Ice show.

The nationally touring event, which comes to the KeyArena tomorrow night, features Olympic gold medallists Tara Lipinski, Kristi Yamaguchi, Katarina Witt and Ilia Kulik tripping the ice fantastic.

And in the absence of beloved Olympic champ Scott Hamilton, who co-founded Stars on Ice in 1986 and retired from it last year, Canadian skater Kurt Browning serves as the unofficial master of ceremonies for the 61-city tour.

It is an apt succession: A few years after scoring four World Figure Skating Championship victories and numerous top Canadian skating prizes, Browning, 35, remains a gregarious, limber performer with a loyal following and a passion for trying out new routines and styles.

"I'm one of the veterans in the Stars on Ice cast, so I feel like a bit of a baton is being passed," says Browning, an Alberta native who lives in Toronto with his ballerina wife, Sonia Rodriguez. "It's nice people are giving me this leadership role, but I think the best way to lead is by example, by giving yourself on the ice 100 percent every night."

"Of course," he adds, "I've been very inspired by Scott's example, and by (Olympic gold medallist) Brian Boitano, because they didn't let up when they turned pro. And by Brian Orser, who is 40 now and skating better than ever."

Browning knows he is fortunate to have entered pro figure skating during a huge spike in its popularity. Skaters who "go pro" after competing in the top athletic contests can sustain careers longer than ever -- if they remain healthy and keep the creative fires burning.

The latter seems to be no problem for Browning. In his recent TV ice specials "Kurt Browning's Gotta Dance" and "You Must Remember This," he has paid skating homage to Gene Kelly and performed with musical-theater stars Tommy Tune and Ben Vereen.

And his solo numbers have ranged memorably from a tribute to Humphrey Bogart in "Casablanca," to mock rock-star turns, to a new flamenco routine.

With such leading ice choreographers as Sandra Bezic, Michael Seibert and Christopher Dean (of the matchless champion ice-dance team Torvill and Dean) concocting the moves, Stars on Ice is still the Rolls Royce of live skating extravaganzas.

"There are always a lot of great skaters who want to do this tour, because the standard is so high," declares Browning. "This year Kristi (Yamaguchi) and Denis Petrov are doing a beautiful duet. Stephen Cousins is doing a really funny thing to the song 'What's New Pussycat?'

"And Chris Dean has come up with this terrific number where we're all whirling these lit-up vanity tables around in an affectionate, tango-esque display of love."

Among Browning's favorite bits is one he devised with the help of his friend Ed Robertson, from the rock band Barenaked Ladies. "We made up a song on the spot in my house, and the next day Ed recorded it. It sort of displays my technical abilities."

Browning's technical prowess, coupled with his intrinsic showmanship, is what catapulted him to success. He was, in fact, the first skater to land a quadruple jump in world competition.

Age has made those quads and triples tougher now, he admits amiably. "In competition I was doing, like, nine big jumps. It's a bit frustrating because I love jumping so much, and it's definitely harder. But I try to do at least a triple axel in every show, maybe a triple-triple combination. People are paying $50 to see us, and I want to give them my all."

As for the screams of young female fans, Browning stills elicits some but doesn't mind that the boyish 24-year old Russian blader Ilia Kulik is the real heartthrob of the current show.

"It's evolutionary," Browning laughs. "They used to scream for me, then for Elvis (Stojko), now for Ilia. We each get our turn."