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  1. #1

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    The Open Kwong Dore Podcast: Toller Cranston

    Pj Kwong's chatted with Toller Cranston at Worlds in London (45 mins.): http://www.openkwongdore.com/2013/03...ller-cranston/
    "Randy [Starkman (1960-April 16, 2012)] lived by the same motto as the rest of us. The Olympics isn’t every four years, it’s every single day. He just got it." --Canadian Olympic kayaker Adam van Koeverden

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    Thanks Sylvia, I love all things Toller. I wonder why she didn't ask him more questions about the programs at Worlds? He seemed in a benign mood.

    It's sad that he and Ellen Burka don't speak. She is in her 90's he doesn't have much time left with her.
    Last edited by aliceanne; 03-28-2013 at 01:07 AM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by aliceanne View Post
    Thanks Sylvia, I love all things Toller. I wonder why she didn't ask him more questions about the programs at Worlds? He seemed in a benign mood.

    It's sad that he and Ellen Burka don't speak. She is in her 90's he doesn't have much time left with her.
    Agreed aliceanne. I would have loved to hear his opinions about ice dance since I haven't heard a peep from him on it since 2006 worlds. I would really have loved to know what his thoughts are about V/M!

    I also agree that it's sad he and Mrs. Burka are still not on speaking terms. I do have a feeling that there's more to why this is than what he's letting on. Ellen herself once said in a documentary (InTOLLerance) that "He could be the most pleasant person, the most intelligent person, and the most cruel person." Of course, that quote was from a while ago so maybe it could be water under the bridge on her side where he isn't able to let it go. There was another interview years later in a skating magazine where Ellen was asked what her best achievement as a skating coach was. I thought she was going to mention coaching her own daughter Petra to the 1965 World Title (she did in that interview but not as an answer to that question). Her answer was what she and Toller did for skating, which I think was a wonderful gesture toward what Toller achieved. That being said, I saw a Kwong interview with her and daughter Petra in 2012 about Petra's first worlds and the first thing I noticed was, shortly after turning 90, how lively Mrs. Burka still was. So it would be great if they did eventually reconcile but that's only my opinion. He himself once called Ellen the Warrior Queen. I think he was accurate! There is a documentary called Skate to Survive from 2008 on youtube about Mrs. Burka's early life that's really worth watching: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2302Tb65Wqo .

    Thanks for the post Sylvia.

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    Yeah, I agree it’s very sad that Ellen Burka and Toller no longer speak. But maybe because they were joined at the hip for so many years, distance became necessary. Toward the end of the interview with PJ Kwong, Toller explains a bit about why he and Ellen no longer speak. If you listen closely, Toller refers to the Worlds event in London directly and indirectly at least twice during the interview.

    I recall a Canadian television interview a few years ago where Toller discussed watching the 2010 Olympics but he didn't know much about the skaters (except for Chan and the Canadian team) because he doesn’t really follow the sport that much. It's quite obvious that Toller likes and respects Patrick Chan and admires his talent. There is a connection as well since Patrick was taught by Ellen Burka and Osborne Colson (who died in 2006). In turn, Colson was trained by Gus Lussi, one of the sport's greatest figure skating coaches.


    I've read several of Toller's books, and he often seems to ramble and to say sometimes conflicting things. But at this point in his life he seems to be a bit more reflective and philosophical. From comments in his books, it seemed to have irked Toller tremendously when John Curry won Olympic gold. Even though Toller has always respected what Curry accomplished, it seemed to have been a bitter pill to Toller for a number of reasons, mostly having to do with the figure skating establishment and something to do with how Carlo Fassi originally wanted to coach Toller, but Toller refused as he preferred to remain with Ellen Burka. After Toller's rejection, Fassi ended up coaching Curry all the way to an Olympic gold medal. Leading up to the Olympics, John Curry was not seen as a very consistent skater, but apparently under Fassi he was honed and focused on being prepared for the 1976 Olympics. Curry was also clearly inspired by Toller's amazing artistic performances in the years preceding those Olympics.

    Here's an example of Toller's inspiration:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y7AZboQ0R08


    To me the most striking things about Toller's interview with PJ Kwong are his comments about being an artist, and about the fact that he feels a similarity to Andre Agassi’s dislike for playing tennis in that Toller reveals he has a similar dislike for competitive figure skating. Toller said he almost wishes that he had never skated. What a remarkable statement coming from someone who helped change the way men skate and who inspired so many people around the world with his artistry on ice.

    In a separate post I’d like to highlight some of Toller’s interesting comments, especially in relation to the men’s event in London, which Toller spoke about somewhat indirectly from the lens of his own experiences. I don't think that either Toller or PJ wanted the interview to be about Toller's impressions of Worlds specifically, probably partly because Toller doesn't really follow the sport closely at all these days.
    Last edited by aftershocks; 03-28-2013 at 02:09 PM.

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    The artistic side of skating was launched by Jackson Haines (1840-75) many years before Toller was even born. I t would be more accurate in the preface to the interview to say Toller continued to develop the artistic side of skating. Haines was known as the first skater to incorporate ballet and dance movements into his skating, as opposed to focusing on tracing patterns on the ice. He used his ballet background to create graceful programs, and introduced accompanying music, a new concept at the time.


    Isn't it telling that many of the past greats no longer follow the sport?
    Last edited by Iceman; 03-28-2013 at 11:44 AM.

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    ^^ ITA, Iceman. I was going to mention that about Jackson Haines actually being the skater who pioneered artistry in men's skating with the use of music and expressive arm gestures which were not well received in the U.S. during his era. Haines was beloved on the European continent, and Austria adopted him as their own. I don't know whether Toller ever studied much about the history of the sport. But clearly he is not in love with figure skating largely because of his dislike for the establishment, and because of how much he had to battle to uniquely express himself as an artist on the ice.

    Of course, the way that IJS seems to be killing artistry and individuality, it is driving away fans as well as former skaters. What Patrick is able to do when he's on, and what Denis Ten achieved at Worlds, and what Dai has accomplished (especially coming back from a serious injury) is all the more remarkable because they have to work much harder to be expressive artists and still fulfill all the daunting technical requirements and point-gathering necessities.


    As promised here are some highlights from the interview. Toller rambles a bit and he doesn’t speak in complete sentences…

    TOLLER ON DENIS TEN’S PERFORMANCE:

    I actually believe as well, charisma, the ability to entertain, showmanship [pause] much can be taught. Don't think it's just all natural. Some people can't. But many can if they have a muse or a mentor that could help them do it... There was something ... here [at Worlds] which was conspicuous... The two most interesting men's programs as far as lack of inhibition and entertainment, one came from Uzbekistan and one came from Kazakhstan [PJ: Denis Ten].

    But that flies in the face of what we would think because before, we would think those [performances] would have come from America, or maybe France or maybe even Canada, but in fact the dial has changed. Again, someone tapped into the abilities of these two young male skaters and pushed buttons that in a way flew in the face of their culture really, because they were more American, more Hollywood, more kind of television than any of the North Americans that you would think would exhibit that.
    PJ went directly back to asking a question about Toller's life as an artist, rather than asking him to elaborate on his observations about Denis' performance. Toller’s above take is interesting, but IMO, imprecise. Part of the reason for seeing skaters from different countries performing what seems to be more Americanized programs is because the world is much smaller and thus young athletes around the world are more accessibly impacted by different cultures. Plus, I feel that Denis Ten has the soul of an artist, so I don’t believe anyone had to necessarily “fly in the face of his culture” to pull an American-style artistic performance out of him. Denis has had the opportunity to learn from Tarasova, and then he has been training in California (the land of Hollywood) for several years under Frank Carroll, and he’s also being mentored by Switzerland’s Stephane Lambiel. Lots of skaters from other countries train in the U.S. Therefore, it isn’t too much of a surprise that skaters from other cultures interpret so-called North American themes in their skating. And it isn’t a surprise that American skaters are inspired by East Indian and Russian themes either. The world of skating is very eclectic and cross-cultural these days. Look at Johnny Weir’s The Swan in 2006, and Dai Takahashi’s Rockin’ Swan from 2008. I suppose Toller missed those programs.


    TOLLER ON BEING DISSED AND BEING A REBEL:

    In the senior men's competition in 1968 at Canadians, I had marks (and there were 20 competitors) from first to last [i.e., marks ranging from 1st place to 20th place]. And that is so controversial really, actually so cruel... It's really hard to digest, but that event and what happened to me was the fuel that pushed me on for the next 50 years... The energy of controversy... I mean a rebel with a cause or a rebel without one (I was both) we are looking and lusting for the pat on the head. We want to be appreciated either by peers or particularly [by] the establishment, but once you get it, you are rendered impotent. You can not go any further...

    I was quite good at losing competitions. And my losses were spectacular. The few little wins I had were completely unimportant and ... not what I was known for. I was really good at losing ... but better at dealing with controversy.

    [PJ: ... There is a part of me that believes that being somebody who loses you have much more freedom in a way, because if you had been the winner all of the time you would have been painted into a box I believe. Or what do you think?]

    Seems as if both PJ and Toller are making indirect references here to Patrick, and to the fact that maybe it’s not all bad that Denis did not get the win at Worlds.


    TOLLER ON WINNING AND LOSING:

    There is a great deal of discussion about what does losing mean and what does winning mean? I really want to say this. Twenty-five years ago with John Curry who was my great adversary, and he did legitimately and wonderfully win the Olympics and then croaked [a few] years after ... and I didn't ... I was two inches below him on the podium. I had lost and he had won. My life was, Now what do I do? And, his was, What can I do? An Olympic champion has opportunities that third doesn't. But in that big picture ... years later who wins and who loses really? So the loss actually marched into a win, and the win marched into a loss. Everything is contingent upon chronology and timing. In the immediate picture, if we win or if we lose competitions, it’s painful because it's so immediate. Only with time and with age and experience do you understand that the loss was the right thing. In my case ... to be perfectly honest, I wasn't really hungry to win. I wasn't really a competitor. I was an artist. I really liked my competitors and I appreciated their performances because the only person I was competitive with was myself.
    Toller's reflections on winning and losing, timing and chronology, and a loss marching into a win, clearly calls to my mind the lessons of Michelle Kwan’s career.


    TOLLER ON MISPERCEPTIONS:

    I once received perfect 6.0s for a performance in London, Ontario, and then Ellen and I returned home to the Cricket Club and not one person even looked at us or complimented us. We became paranoid and wondered why they hated us. Years later when I spoke to someone who was there at the time and asked "Wouldn't you think someone would have congratulated us?” [she responded:] “Well, we were too afraid of you.” [Toller goes on to say:] How would [Ellen and I] have known at the time that we were the skating world's most intimidating couple? ... What is perceived is not necessarily what is.

    And in fact like all people, which could include Patrick Chan (and he's much nicer than I am)... [PJ: Pick anybody] Or Barack Obama, ... one can not be absolutely certain that you know who they are. There's a public perception... When all is said and done, whoever they are… people are just people and are predictably human… [B]ecause of this very difficult position that I had in the skating world … not really consciously flaunting authority but having to survive, I had to be tough. And that toughness would have been interpreted or misinterpreted as intimidation. But in fact, I'm … quite normal as anyone else, and even boring. I did not have a secret life. I had a life that whatever I accomplished would have been the result of work...

    The word eccentric is a word misused in the English language …The great eccentrics of the world, it's unconscious; they don't know they are. I knew exactly what I was and I [consciously] used certain things ... eccentric elements to hone my image, to make it work for me. But as far as really being eccentric, I couldn't be more boring, and in some ways the boy-next-door, because I was grounded. I'm like Patrick Chan, a worker [PJ: And a kind person] … And a kind person, but I used elements and certain situations to work for me... but that's artistic license.
    Last edited by aftershocks; 03-29-2013 at 05:02 AM.

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    Cont'd:

    TOLLER ON HIS LOVE/HATE RELATIONSHIP WITH FIGURE SKATING:

    Something I've only really come to terms with of late ... and I don't compare myself with him, but Andre Agassi in a recent autobiography talked about how he really hated tennis. And I sort of thought to myself, Oh gee I think I'm the same ... I hate figure skating. Part of me deeply and profoundly sorta kinda regrets having been [a skater]… But that said, there were two major positives that were the result [of skating] ... One, the physical creativity of … expressing yourself everyday was one of the huge perks. And, the number one thing that obviates the fact I didn't win and didn't have a lot of medals and I was not the establishment's favorite, (and this is so important, I really wish I could tell other skaters and other athletes) … it was the international cultural education I received as a skater by going to so many different countries, experiencing different cultures, museums, architecture. That really was what I got [from figure skating] and that was so much more important than medals. The thing … that I couldn't stand and to this day can’t stand is that the establishment within this sport, and certainly during my reign (which was so hard to digest) … that my destiny and future was being determined by people [who] knew nothing as compared to what I knew. I really had a hard time with that.

    It’s now different but shall we not mince words... Within a certain era, judges who determined whether you would go to the Olympics or not, be Canadian champion or not, all came from Rosedale. Now, that [situation] is quite different… I wasn’t around in the days of Barbara Ann Scott and maybe the Petra Burka days, but your social pedigree at that time was rather important. It was really awful. But that said, times they are a changing sort of, kind of. I don’t think the results change, but the times are changing.

    And perhaps, like slavery in America … one has to go through something in order to get somewhere else. Maybe l was just one of those people that today can be used as a kind of stepping stone. That I went through something and it wasn’t good for me but today it’s good for [skaters] because they don’t have to [go through] that… I don’t know if I changed it, but maybe I was part of a narrative that was necessary to get to where we are today.
    Kinda sorta not exactly sure what Toller means precisely re that last part … there are different ways of interpreting his comments. He is seemingly referring to the Canadian figure skating establishment of the past vs the present, in particular.


    TOLLER ON ELLEN BURKA AND THOUGHTS OF HIS AND CANADA’S SKATING LEGACIES:

    [Ellen was the type to say] Without me you’d be nothing. I could return it and say [to Ellen] Without me you’d be nothing.

    Together as pupil/teacher, teacher/pupil, physically, intellectually and artistically as a team, Ellen and I did change the course of figure skating … It was something bigger than both of us. It was [our] influence that spawned people like Sarah Kawahara, Sandra Bezic, and Lori Nichol who [all] went on to change the course of skating choreographically and they left their mark on the world … It’s because of those people under the influence of Ellen, and in part me, certainly Osborne Colson that literally in a draconian way, grasped the talent of the world: Brian Boitano, Kristi Yamaguchi, Kurt Browning, Patrick Chan … And that, in the final analysis on a broad horizon, is part of the Canadian legacy and my own and the Cricket Club’s, which is where I come from … The people who were inspired helped redefine skating post our participation in it.
    Additional accomplished skaters Toller could have mentioned in relation to being influenced by either Canadian coaches and/or choreographers: Brian Orser, Michelle Kwan, Sale/Pelletier.


    TOLLER’S SELF-DESCRIPTION:

    I was an artist who happened to skate. The art came way before the skating.

    Art defines who and what I am.
    Toller is nothing if not a fascinating artist and curmudgeon. His feeling that he’s a boy-next-door type to me seems far off the mark. To me Toller doesn’t seem to share much in common with Patrick either aside from the Burka/ Colson connection and their Canadian roots and the fact of how hard they both have worked in the world of figure skating.

    I think Toller is definitely one-of-a-kind unique, if not eccentric (since he feels “eccentric” is a misused term).
    Last edited by aftershocks; 03-28-2013 at 01:01 PM.

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    I really liked this interview, though it ended with me wanting more. But It sounded like that he only gave her XX amount of time, and he also does tend to ramble off-topic, whether it's in a book or an interview. He;s always so interesting!
    In my spare time, I like to interview figure skating legends.

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    I really liked this interview, though it ended with me wanting more.
    In a few months; might you try to contact him, manleywoman, using that premise as a beginning?
    Last edited by skatesindreams; 03-28-2013 at 03:02 PM.

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    Sometimes he shuts the interviewer down when it comes to talking about the current skaters, but I got the impression that he did watch the competition (he mentioned a program from a male skater from Uzbekestan as well as Ten's, and he brought up Patrick Chan's name several times) but PJ seemed to keep steering him back to the subject of being an artist. I got the impression that he liked her (which isn't always the case with his interviewers) but as you say maybe she had a time limit and her main mission was to promote his art show.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Iceman View Post
    The artistic side of skating was launched by Jackson Haines (1840-75) many years before Toller was even born. I t would be more accurate in the preface to the interview to say Toller continued to develop the artistic side of skating. Haines was known as the first skater to incorporate ballet and dance movements into his skating, as opposed to focusing on tracing patterns on the ice. He used his ballet background to create graceful programs, and introduced accompanying music, a new concept at the time.


    Isn't it telling that many of the past greats no longer follow the sport?

    In a book released in 1975 titled "Toller", it was Toller himself that stated that he wasn't a "pioneer of skating", and that was Jackson Haines who was truly deserving that title. He even suggested that he himself could he Haines reincarnated! Ha. I suppose that it's Toller that people remember who was one of the skaters that really pushed the sport within the last century.

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    Haines had such a short life that the romantic notion Toller is Haines reincarnated is appealing.

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    Very interesting interview. Certainly an articulate man of experience and sensitivity. He speaks slowly ... seems to think about what he says rather than jabber all the way. Of interest is why and how he uses astrology, and his concept winning and losing.
    Prosperity makes friends, adversity tries them. – Publilius Syrus

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    In regards to Toller's relationships with others, he has a long history of remembering things differently than others do. This has long been a comment about his books. Toller's versions of events and old battles are frequently quite different than others remembers them, so you would be wise to take those stories with several teaspoons of salt.

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    ^^ Advisedly so ... Toller even often conflicts with his own current and past perceptions/ remembrances, characterizations, as probably do we all. At this point, even if difficult to decipher, I think I'll take Toller at his word(s), or better yet at his art (both skating and painting).


    Quote Originally Posted by aliceanne View Post
    Sometimes he shuts the interviewer down when it comes to talking about the current skaters, but I got the impression that he did watch the competition ...
    Toller was at Worlds in London, since that is where PJ Kwong met up with him as indicated in the podcast. Toller obviously at least watched some of the events, if not all. I didn't sense that Toller "shut down" the interviewer at any point, although PJ laughed with Dore at the very end of the podcast about the fact that Toller as a strong personality had to get comfortable with the idea that he was actually there to answer her questions. ITA that Toller seemed to like and respect PJ, which can not be said for everyone he deigns to be interviewed by.

    PJ and Toller only spoke tangentially about Worlds, but clearly the results of the men's event was on both their minds. I don't think the purpose of the interview was to discuss Worlds probably largely because Toller is not so much interested in figure skating these days, aside from some interest and identification with Canadian skater, Patrick Chan. Possibly Toller attended Worlds in London for sentimental reasons, since during the interview, he recalled taking part in past competitions there.


    Quote Originally Posted by Iceman View Post
    Haines had such a short life that the romantic notion Toller is Haines reincarnated is appealing.
    ^^ Aha! Actually that's very appealing. Interestingly, I recently rediscovered the fact that a true life figure skating descendant of Jackson Haines is Donald Adair who was a champion ice dancer with Renee Roca. Adair was quite elegant and talented, but his career was cut short by injury. I’m sure that when I used to watch Adair skate with Roca and the commentators mentioned that Adair is a descendant of Jackson Haines, at that time I didn’t understand or even grasp the significance. That’s the thing about figure skating, so much of importance is so little understood. Here are some youtube clips:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hqkcdul7nOg Jackson Haines photos

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gLxyCxOU-Aw Roca/ Adair

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    Too bad no one has been interested in writing a proper and well researched biography of Haines.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Iceman View Post
    Too bad no one has been interested in writing a proper and well researched biography of Haines.

    Here is a link to a documentary in production about the traveling ice shows "The Fabulous Ice Age". It features Charlotte Oelschlagel, but it starts in 1915 too late for Haines.

    http://fabulousiceage.com/
    Last edited by aliceanne; 03-29-2013 at 09:16 PM.

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    ^^ Thanks for posting the link!

    Quote Originally Posted by Iceman View Post
    Too bad no one has been interested in writing a proper and well researched biography of Haines.
    Excellent idea! Yes, there is simply so much untapped and unwritten re the history of fs, indeed the past, present and future of this sport/ art. That's part of what I meant about the fact that so much of importance in figure skating is so little understood, especially by the current power structure.

    The traditionally cliquish, elitist nature of figure skating for so many years, as well as the rampant political power-mongering corruption has resulted in the current state of affairs. The only things that have kept the sport going, aside from the habitual status quo, is the joy of flight, the love, the magic moments and memories, and the life-blood of young bodies, minds and imaginations, with the potential to ... or actually rising to soar on wings as eagles.

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