Kurt Browning - twenty years a pro and still going strong

August 2, 2014
By Tina Tyan
Photos © Tina Tyan

Twenty years ago, Kurt Browning officially turned pro, retiring from Olympic-eligible competitive skating to focus on professional skating. While his competitive career was successful by almost any measure - first ratified quad, four World titles, a World silver medal, three trips to the Olympics - his professional career has been on a whole other level. He was a dominant skater on the former professional competitive circuit, and is widely acknowledged as a brilliant artist, entertainer, and innovator who has contributed a great deal to the sport as skater, commentator, and choreographer. Twenty years into his professional career, he is still going strong, performing in dozens of shows in Asia, Europe and North America. Kurt took some time out of his busy schedule during the "Canadian Stars on Ice" tour to chat about his own career and his thoughts on skating in general.

Congratulations on 20 years as a professional skater! Did you ever imagine you'd still be going strong 20 years on?

No, I never thought about it. It's not because I can't believe it. It's because I never worried about it. I looked at Scott [Hamilton], and he'd done it forever. Brian Boitano was always older than me and doing it. Josef Sabovcik, Brian Orser were both older than me and doing it. And now there's still two of those guys who do shows. You know, I'm still not the oldest kid on the block.

What were some of the highlights of your pro career?

Being on a plane, after a show, and having a pretty stewardess hand you a drink. And flying with Scott Hamilton and Tara Lipinski and Steven Cousins and Gorsha [Sur] and Renee [Roca] and Tuffy [Hough] and Doug [Ladret] and Kristi Yamaguchi and Katarina Witt... Just really great people. Big huge stars. We were stars. We were actual stars. And to have been privy to that lifestyle? I mean, I'm sorry, these kids will never have anything like that. I mean, they're great, 10,000 people were in Toronto, and we're stars, and people love us and stuff, but back then? There was a rush.

This year is the closest to that rush that I've felt in over a decade. The feeling on the ice this year. Not after Vancouver. This year. Patrick [Chan]'s really special. His skating is special. And Tessa [Virtue] and Scott [Moir] are special. So this year feels a little bit like it did in the old days, though without the private plane. But seriously, to finish your show and to have a private plane waiting for you? It was ridiculous. Ridiculous. And to play Madison Square Garden, and to have real famous people [like Bruce Springsteen] showing up at our shows because we were in town. I don't know if figure skating in my lifetime will ever be remotely close to that famous.

What about Korea?

I felt it in Korea, but it wasn't something I helped create. It was really created in Korea, and I was excited to be a part of that. That was an experience that I'll never forget, and I consider myself lucky to have skated so long that I got to be out at center ice in the Yuna Kim era. It's true, that's a highlight.

[Other highlights...there were] many personal moments. The occasional quad in the show back when quads were still a rare species. I got such a thrill out of landing any triple Axel, ever, that I was walking on air for three days. You know, those were personal moments. But really, it is a layering of lots of moments. Like, if I do "Trust in Me" (one of his "Stars on Ice" programs) well, and I *feel* something happening between me and the audience? That's probably it. If I had to pick one thing, that's it. And always searching for that. If I'm doing that number and I can tell that people are percolating with me? It's a high. And I seek it. I need it. That's it! That's probably the best. When you're buzzing and humming with the audience, and you're in harmony with them, and you know it's real? Not "I think", you just know it. That's what I want. That's my high.

In your 20 years as a professional skater, the landscape of professional skating has changed considerably. You've seen it at its height in North America, and you've seen its decline and shift to other countries. What are your thoughts on this? What does professional skating offer skaters, skating, and fans?

Well, the last line of your questions rings closest to my heart, and the thought that crossed my mind is that there really isn't any professional skating now. At least not in the form it was twenty years ago with exclusive events that only used pro skaters drawing in 16,000 people to watch us compete. It seemed that the beginning of the competitive Grand Prix series was right about when pro skating really took a dive, and I have to wonder if those two events are linked. Also, the glory days skaters of the 90's were packing in their skates at about that time as well, so that also fits into the equation.

I know that those days are gone, but I have also noticed that pro skaters who have not won a world or an Olympic title are getting organized and stronger. Skaters with talent and something to share are finding ways to get their performances seen. It is not easy, but something that should be noticed by skating fans, as there are some amazing skaters out there to enjoy.

As far as shifting to other countries, well interest in skating has shifted around in the world, but it is still mainly for the competitive skaters and not the pros. It will be interesting to see what Mao [Asada] and Yuna do with their fame. I have heard that Yuna will not skate anymore, and if that is true, then that would be a blow to the possible growth of skating at the entertainment level.

Do you think there's still a place for professional competition?

Not right now, I really don't. We don't have enough defined professional skaters. I think that people recognize we have great professional skaters, and there's this undergrowth of Internet pushing for young choreographers, a place for them to learn, and a place for them to show and get recognized and get feedback, and I think that's helping our sport. There's so many great skaters out there who are on ships, who you see videos of and you go, wow, that skater's really good! They would look good in Stars on Ice! Just no name. So what's missing is that the amateurs are not getting as much exposure as we used to. When you do over 100 shows a year, you're learning so much. And now the competitors are competing more than we used to. So they kind of come in here already professional, but they're so tweaked towards competition that everything [else] seems to be second thought, a little bit. As [opposed] to when we were pro, it was like whatever you chose for Stars on Ice in the second half, that was your long program for the Olympics every year. I just don't think we have enough professional skaters who sell tickets enough to have our own event.

You've skated to well over 100 programs over the years, but you still come up with new ideas and concepts. How do you stay inspired? Where do you get your ideas from?

My ideas are not deep ideas, I have to admit. It's literally just, I'll hear a piece of music and I'll have an idea. Like the one where I fell all the time and I was looking for the light (Slippery Side Up). I was just lying there, and closed my eyes, and kept seeing falling and trying to get up, falling and trying to get up. I played it again and it just kept happening.

You seem to be working with other choreographers a little less, and choreographing more of your own stuff as well.

Kind of. I think near the end, I'm just trying to get out things that I want to do. It's not actually on purpose. I worked with Linda Garneau, who did Kaitlyn and Andrew's white shirt number. And Geoffrey [Tyler] basically did the hat number. I had to piece it together, but he came up with that whole concept. But "Trust in Me", I don't know, it just seemed so clear. It's like, "trust in me" but I wanted to be somebody you didn't trust. Shouldn't trust. That might deceive you.

You choreographed Javier Fernandez's 80s aerobics exhibition program, which was a hit with the fans. How did that come about?

Brian [Orser] just asked me for a funny one. I asked, fun or funny? They're different. They wanted funny. So I do this, I close my eyes, and started thinking about what's great about Javi. Well, his voice is great, his accent's great. For North America, it's a must. So he's got to have his voice. And then I just had this idea of "what's funny?" Um, you know, I think 80s music is funny. I think somehow it went from Sonia (Rodriguez, his wife) being Spanish, and she's a dancer, could he dance? Could he do the Toreador? And somehow I went, he's so, like...funny...I just thought aerobics. So I don't know, it just sort of happened.

Sandra Bezic hated it. To my face, to Brian Orser's face, she said she hated it. But she didn't like it because it was untrained, and he didn't train it. There were all sorts of segues that were supposed to be detailed. Humor has to be detailed. He didn't work on it. So I saw what she was talking about. But at the same time, mission accomplished. It showed people who he really was. And now people, through that program, I think they really feel like they know who Javi is. And he's *Javi* now, right? Super Javi. And I think the program did a lot of good things for him. And it was fun. Really fun.

Speaking of choreography, for the last several years, you've had a firm policy not to choreograph competitive programs for anybody, but I know you keep getting asked. Could you explain that policy?

It's two-fold. It's a little weird. It's good, commentating your own work, because you have an inside track to tell people about. But it's bad too, 'cause you're supposed to seem like you're impartial, even though of course we're not. We're Canadian. We have friendships. But that's only part of it. Mostly, I just don't know the rules well enough to do it. It's not fair to the skater. I would have to be supervised quite a bit. And it takes a lot of time. A lot of time. I don't have a lot of time. I'm really stressed. I'm pulled in so many directions in my life right now. I didn't have the time, and I didn't enjoy it. It was just strike three. I skate because it's fun. I want people to enjoy it. And this isn't fun. It didn't seem fair to the skaters, so I just stopped doing it.

You've been commentating skating for years, but this was your first time commentating live at the Olympics. How was that?

What a big responsibility to lend your voice and opinion to an Olympic Games. I took the task to heart and tried my best. What was hard is that it was not a smooth Olympics for figure skating - when is it, really - and so I had to do quite a few interviews on topics that I wish did not exist. But, I loved Sochi and the experience was great, and if I am lucky enough to be asked again, I would jump at the chance.

I tried really hard, which is sometimes hard for me, not to make it about me. To really make the Olympics about what's happening out there. On Twitter, some people were saying "why do you keep referencing your own career?". And I was like, well I will try not to do it *too* much, but that's why I got this job, right? I know what it's like to stand there and wait for your life to change. And your skate is in the balance either way. So you have to reference your own career, but I'm like, you know what, I'll make sure that I won't do that too much. Point taken. So even though I may not like what they say, sometimes to people on Twitter, I go "yeah, yeah, I hear you." Even if it's mean, good advice is good advice.

You seem to be constantly busy these days, and not just with performing, commentating, and choreographing. What else do you have on your plate, any side projects?

I guess my two kids are my side projects, and I am working on staying home more. This past year was busy, and it was meant to be as I was taking on extra shows to take my "Singing in the Rain" out to a bigger audience, and to simply give me more chances to enjoy performing it as well. My latest run of "Singing in the Rain" was not fun due to injuries that kept me from performing very well in the Art on Ice tour in Europe in March. I have already turned down quite a few projects coming up, and it is easier than I thought. I have had a career that was blessed, and it is time to spend more time at home.

A few questions about some recent changes in competitive skating. Next season, singles and pairs will be able to use music with lyrics. How do you feel about that?

Lyrics will give us more to talk about, that is for sure, but while talking over skating we now have more to worry about. It is always a juggling act to commentate over a skater because it does not matter what we say or how important it is, we are very simply interrupting the performance. Now, as if that was not enough, now we will be interrupting the lyrics as well. I doubt that we will see the kind of attention to the lyrics that you see in shows, but still it is one more hurdle to deal with as a commentator.

How do I feel, well I am excited. For some programs it will be wonderful, but I do worry that for others it will be the kiss of death. I must admit that while watching the dance event, I was hardly ever bothered by any lyrics and so I am optimistic for this.

Ottavia Cinquanta recently proposed a number of radical changes to figure skating. What are your thoughts on these proposed changes?

This question deserves a thesis, not an answer. If I knew enough about the sport to really answer this question, then I would try to be president myself. But, as a general rule, I simply feel that figure skating should be run by a figure skater, and leave it at that.

Skaters are always asked who inspired them when growing up. Who inspires you today?

Today? Tessa and Scott, especially Scott, 'cause he's a guy. And I just think that when I look at him, I really feel like I see somebody who can act on the ice. Whose skating skills are through the freaking roof. And he can also create moments. He's an amazing pair man. A leading man. He inspires me a lot. Jo[annie Rochette] inspires me because she keeps getting better. And better and better. And I love that in skaters. Who else inspires me? Jumping wise, there's just so many people. I'm a big Yuzu[ru Hanyu] fan. Yuzu, Patrick, and Javi. I think those three boys are just, wow. Artistically, who really inspires me? I'm a big fan of Shae-Lynn [Bourne]'s skating. She's always on my list. I think [Jeff] Buttle's done really cool things, choreographically. I think he's going to be a strong part of the world of figure skating. He's going to be a player. He's going to have a long choreographic career. He's going to have many successes.

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