Saying Goodbye To Toller
"There was a very rich, creative cultural period in skating in the seventies, a very thoroughbred, Arabian stallion approach. John Curry would have aspired to the same level. It was all deliberate in retrospect, a facade that was affected and cultivated, but there was something rather imperious about us. 'Don't even look at us the wrong way, we're intelligent, we're untouchable, we're gods, we're artists.' Janet Lynn, a great skater, the kind that comes along once in a century, but completely forgotten now, certainly in America, had exquisite programs. Her coach told me she wanted Janet's opening to reflect the attitudes she discovered on ancient Greek vases in the Metropolitan Museum. If you were going to tell a skater today, 'Now, for your opening, take this motif from a Greek vase...' they'd think you were out of your fucking mind. They're not into it. It doesn't exist. They don't want to be artistic, interesting, bizarre or be whoever the top ballet stars are." - Toller Cranston
I never met Toller Cranston yet the news of his death of an apparent heart attack today in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico hit me like a ton of bricks... so much so it took me reading a good twenty to thirty sources before I finally accepted that this wasn't some sort of sick social media death hoax. This just couldn't have happened.
Toller inspired me deeply, beyond words in fact, and I never got to tell him. I started skating when I was twelve or thirteen at the very bottom in a Canskate class with kids half my age. It was humiliating. I was a flamboyant and gay young teenager in a small village (not even a town!) who knew how to interpret music with my arms long before I learned the basics of good skating skills let alone footwork but I stuck with it and achieved my goals, winning the Nova Scotia provincial artistic title in 2000. What motivated me? I wanted to skate like the professional skaters in the nineties that were all over television. I wanted to skate like Toller and honestly, I didn't give two flying fucks about jumping. I still don't.
The first time I saw Toller skate I was stopped in my tracks. You couldn't define the way he moved with words; he was an enigma and a visionary and he understood music on such a deep level that comparing him with others was simply an impossible task. Like John Curry, he used his impressive amateur career that included six Canadian titles and World and Olympic medals as an intelligent means to an end. The work he did as a professional not only in touring with Stars On Ice but in professional competitions, shows and his incredible TV specials Strawberry Ice and The True Gift Of Christmas were light years ahead of their time. They still are TODAY! Joni Mitchell once said of Toller's special quality "like 'Both Sides Now' did to the man who was inspired to do the movie Love Actually, Toller Cranston did that to me in his Olympic skate. It's inexplicable how a gesture can do it or how a painting can do it. It's not a sad painting. There's nothing to make you cry. Why does it make you cry?"
He dared to be different and HIMSELF and influenced generations of skaters after him, including myself, to use the ice like a canvas to express your individuality and sense of self with such pride in your art. They way he skated, painted, wrote and spoke was the epitome of the old "dance like nobody's watching" and in that sense I think every one of us could learn a lot from his life. He was never afraid to speak his mind or be himself.
Toller gave Shawn Sawyer his television debut as a young skater from right here in the Maritimes in the nineties. When I interviewed him in 2013, I asked him about their special connection and he said "As Toller said, he discovered me but as a young skater I had no clue who he was so in a way we discovered each other! We did not spend much time together prior, during and after the show but we connected on such a level that whether we spend time together or not it would not change our strange relationship. I say strange because after the show everyone pointed out our resemblance and decided he was my real father. I was OK with that! I have learned a lot from the few words that he carefully mentioned to me... but those are secret!"
I spoke to several other wonderful skating people about Toller's impact to artistic skating in a piece I wrote called The Firebird: Deconstructing A Toller Cranston Magnum Opus and several others... and the impact he made just resonated. Choreographer Douglas Webster said "Toller's exhuberant personality and grandiose flair was (and is still) so full of life and joy for the moment....the ability to say in one fabulous position... here I am; my heart, my soul, my being is filled right now and I'm going to share it with you. That is always relevant to being who you are and saying it without abandon. There is true joy in that." CBC Commentator and author P.J. Kwong told me "when I was a young skater, I remember watching Toller Cranston with a high degree of fascination. Like some kind of rare and colourful bird it was impossible to not watch and be completely enthralled. Toller’s Firebird was the perfect expression of this iconic music and beautifully costumed to boot. He definitely put the ‘Fire’ in Firebird." The Next Ice Age's Nathan Birch said "what makes Toller such an incredible improviser is that he knows his music intimately down to every note, beat, and intonation. This fact allows his freedom to reign unabashed and perfectly imperfect, in a way we all wish we could experience abandon. He remains a great inspiration to every artist of the ice or any medium."
From the appreciation of his art to the hilarious, Toller stories poured in in interview after interview. On working with Toller on Strawberry Ice, choreographer Sarah Kawahara told me "he created with brush strokes heavy with color and texture as are his paintings. He was very driven by music, although the story always came first. Toller has a wonderful sense of humor and loves the absurd. I'll never forget when he wanted to have synchronized swimmers as shrimp in the tomato soup at the Christmas banquet in "A True Gift Of Christmas". It was an out of body experience for Jojo Starbuck and I to be poinsettia flowers with our heads as portions of the stamen and our arms, the petals." Perhaps my favourite is Angelo D'Agostino's remembrance of Toller: "I saw him skate in Chicago when I was a young boy. He was so outrageous. I knew I was seeing something unique. No male skater had ever skated like that before. Completely theatrical and over the top. The crowd went wild. Years later, when I was actually performing in a show with him I knew I had finally made my way in skating. I'll never forget he said to me as we made our way down the dark corridor to back stage 'Is there anything blacker than black velvet?' So dark... just like Toller at times and I love it!" I could go on and on and maybe someday I will... but I think with his art, APPROACH to art and personality, this man was special - like visionary special - and I don't know if he ever knew just how fabulous he was.
I do know one thing. If I ever would have had the meet or chance to interview him - and that was one of my dreams - I would have asked him what he thought the meaning of life was... and I would have followed his advice to the letter. Goodbye Toller and thank you for bringing artistry, creativity and beauty to figure skating. In my eyes, frankincense, gold and myrrh pale in comparison to that true gift.
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