writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, New York edition

Letter from New York

1 March 2004.
Copyright © 2004 by Mindy Aloff

Anyone interested in the art of directing a dance company would benefit from seeing the Disney movie Miracle, about the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team—a group of young amateurs who, coached by a genius named Herb Brooks, came from apparently nowhere to fight their way to the top, en route beating the “unbeatable” Soviets in the semifinals, ultimately winning the gold medal, and thereby proving themselves heroes and agents of momentary yet profound joy to a country demoralized by economic recession, the hostage crisis in the Middle East, the sky-high cost of fossil fuel, and other assorted woes.

Miracle, which reconstructs several of the team’s historic games played before and during the Olympics (a feat possible because of extensive television coverage of the originals and because the movie’s producers cast real hockey players as the hockey players), shows that Brooks achieved this upset through a strategy that created a tightly bonded ensemble, in which no one was a star yet in which everyone felt responsible to the entire group. As one of the young players puts it in Eric Guggenheim’s script, “We’re a family!” The reason for this strategy was to beat the Soviets at their own game: it was the cohesive team-playing of the Soviet team—not the virtuosity of individual players, encouraged in professional hockey in the West—that accounted for the Soviets’ formidable prowess. What Brooks understood was that this kind of team-playing could be analyzed and separated from the idea of Communist collectivity as a solid-state element of the Cold War: he realized that, in a democracy, too, people could join their hearts and minds, at least for a period of time, to work for a goal larger than personal ambition. Brooks’s tactics began before the first day of what was supposed to be one full week of auditions: several hundred of the best college hockey players in the U.S. turned out to apply for a berth on the Olympic team, yet he didn’t need to see them demonstrate their gifts. He had already studied every applicant’s career, background, and temperament; by the end of the first day of auditions, he had picked the 26 players from which the final Olympic roster of 20 would be shaped. The group did not exclusively represent the best players from those auditioning, but rather comprised the best players who, Brooks surmised, could be persuaded to bond in an all-for-one, one-for-all way.

During the impossibly brief period of training available to him, Brooks ran what seems to have been a hockey boot camp, keeping his emotional distance from the players (he provided them with a couple of “good-cop” counselors to whom they could let out their frustrations) and not sharing any of his strategy with them at first. However, once they were willing to stop thinking of themselves as players from this or that college or university and to start thinking of themselves as members of a new, U.S.-wide organization, he began to let them in on some of the challenges they were going to face in Lake Placid, showing them films of the Soviet team (whose goalie, in full regulation armour, could go from his blades to his knees and back to his blades faster than it would take many ballet dancers to perform a single pas de bourrée) and initiating them into the kind of thinking practiced in football—or chess—which previsualizes potential scenarios of play and recommends options to resolve problems in them. It worked. And it was only able to work because Brooks was given complete authority by the U.S. Olympic hockey association to make decisions, even when they seemed, at the moment, unorthodox or plain crazy. The most amazing thing to me on seeing the movie wasn’t the “miracle” that Brooks effected—George Balanchine, Martha Graham, Ninette de Valois, and other dance directors have pulled off similar miracles—but rather the fact that he was given that authority and then that he was backed in his decisions all the way through to the gold medal. U.S. team sports don’t usually work that way, without kibitzers. On the other hand, U.S. sports teams aren’t typically headed up by gentlemen of Brooks’s caliber. The guy was a mensch, but he also knew what had to be done, and he did it: toughened these young men for their ordeals on the ice without breaking their spirits. Indeed, the movie suggests, he freed the fire within them.

In thinking about the directors of the major ballet and modern dance companies in America today, I have two questions: Is there a company in the world now where the artistic director is given the latitude and authority that Herb Brooks enjoyed in 1980? Is there a dance director now active who has both the mind and the heart of Herb Brooks? (Possibly Paul Taylor?)

The world may not provide the circumstances for such a situation to exist in dance anymore. Even hockey doesn’t provide it. Despite Brooks’s magnificent achievement, the U.S. hockey team was never again organized that way for the Olympics. It now uses professional hockey stars who perform as stars. Whether this correlates to the fact that it has never again won a gold medal is something that only a hockey fan will be able to address. –Mindy Aloff

Gavin O’Connor (Director)
Greg O’Connor (Co-producer)
Justis Green, Ross Greenburg (Executive Producers)
Mark Ciardi, Gordon Gray (Producers)
Dan Stoloff (Director of Photography)
Brian Ross (Music Supervisor)
Mark Isham (Composer)
John Gilroy (Film Editor)
John Willett (Production Design)
Tom Bronson (Costume Design)
Actors (partial listing):
Kurt Russell (Herb Brooks), Patricia Clarkson, Noah Emmerich, Eddie Cahill, Michael Mantenuto, Nathan West,
Eric Peter-Kaiser, Billy Schneider, Patrick O’Brien Demsey

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 9
March 1, 2004

Copyright © 2004 by Mndy Aloff



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last updated on January 11, 2004