Toller Cranston, ‘the Nureyev’ of Figure Skating, Dies at 65
Toller Cranston fell short of a gold medal in figure skating’s marquee international events, but he played a major role in popularizing his sport with a pioneering artistic flair that delighted fans and influenced champions to come.
“My accomplishment in skating was about being creative in a virgin sport,” Cranston told the Canadian magazine Maclean’s in 2004. “It was never the medals that I won. I was really a thorn in the side of the establishment.”
Cranston did win six consecutive Canadian men’s figure skating championships, along with a world championships bronze medal and an Olympic bronze, in the 1970s.
But when news of his death at 65 at his home in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, came on Saturday, he was remembered most as a thrilling devotee of what he called “theater on ice.”
Cranston’s style was often likened to dancing, and he was sometimes referred to as the Rudolf Nureyev of figure skating. He did not like to be compared to anyone else, but as he put it when he was starring in a 1977 professional ice show at the Palace Theater on Broadway, “Our delicate egos are probably somewhat the same onstage.”
“I’m criticized as flamboyant, arrogant and melodramatic,” he said. “I try to live my life touching extremes.”
In announcing Cranston’s death, the Canadian Olympic Committee said the apparent cause was a heart attack. A longtime friend, Jeanne Beker, told The Toronto Star that Cranston was found dead Saturday morning at the home where he had lived for many years, pursuing another form of artistic expression as a painter.
Upon Cranston’s death, Skate Canada called him “a skater with a painter’s eye.”
Cranston, who retired from competition after the 1976 Olympics, displayed his form for New Yorkers in May 1977 when he headlined “Toller Cranston’s the Ice Show” at the Palace.
“He has the same flamboyance and daring of the Soviet ballet stars at their most entertaining,” the dance critic Anna Kisselgoff wrote in The New York Times. “Mr. Cranston has all the superstar spins and turns in the air and split jumps you want. But there are also the kicks, turns on the knees and a great deal of arm waving with splayed fingers.”
Debbi Wilkes of Canada, a former Olympic silver medalist in pairs who was attending Canada’s national championships in Kingston, Ontario, when Cranston died, told the Canadian sports network TSN that Cranston worked to “break down the barriers of the sport that existed so many years ago.”
Cranston’s stylishness emerged when figure skating competitions still included the compulsory tracing of figure eights, which he called “boring and degrading.”
He won the Canadian men’s singles crown every year from 1971 to 1976. But his lackluster scores in the figure eights cost him a chance at international gold.
Jan Hoffmann of East Germany won the 1974 men’s world singles championship at Munich, but Cranston, who was too far behind after the compulsories to finish better than third, thrilled the 8,000 spectators. He “almost brought down the roof in Munich’s Olympic Hall with his artistic jumping” and received a minute-long ovation, United Press International reported.
He lagged again in the compulsories when he finished third at the 1976 Winter Olympics at Innsbruck, Austria, in which John Curry of Britain, who was also a pioneer in artistic performances but whose technique was considered superior to Cranston’s, took the gold.
Toller Shalitoe Montague Cranston was born in Hamilton, Ontario, on April 20, 1949. His family lived for at time in Kirkland Lake, Ontario, then settled in the Montreal area.
He began skating at age 7 and honed his skills as a teenager.
After his competitive years he was a figure skating commentator for the CBC, headlined ice shows and choreographed championship figure skating routines before concentrating on his paintings, many with themes related to skating, while living in a city in Mexico that he chose for its cosmopolitan atmosphere and its art community. His paintings were shown at museums and galleries.
Cranston had two brothers and a sister. He was a nephew of Alan Cranston, the Democratic senator from California, who died in 2000.
In assessing his career, Cranston drew an analogy to an art form with moving parts.
“I believe temperament and personality are very important to a performer,” he said when he was starring in ice shows. “I try to think of myself as kinetic sculpture while I’m skating.”