Friday, April 27, 2018

Born Today in 1911, 'The Father of Theatrical Jazz Dance' Jack Cole

Jack Cole was born today, April 27, in 1911. He was a dancer, choreographer, and theatre director known as "the Father of Theatrical Jazz Dance."

Cole was born John Ewing Richter in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Early on he was sent away to boarding school by his parents who divorced and discontinued contact with him. He decided to pursue dance with the Denishawn Dance Company led by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn who was particularly fond of Cole. 

Cole and Rita Hayworth in Tonight and Every Night (1945)
He made his first professional appearance in August 1930, and although he had previously studied ballet, Cole was entranced by the Asian influences Denishawn used in its choreography and costuming. Cole also performed with another pair of pioneering modernists, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman, but eventually left the modern dance world for commercial dance career in nightclubs, performing with Alice Dudley, Anna Austin, and Florence Lessing.

No other American dance artist had a similar career trajectory, starting at the roots of modern dance, becoming a commercial dancer in nightclubs across the nation starting at The Embassy Club, and headlining at the Rainbow Room by May 1938. He ended his career as a desired coach to Hollywood stars and a highly innovative choreographer for the camera.

Cole was a performer in Broadway musicals, starting with The Dream of Sganarelle in 1933. His first Broadway credit as a choreographer was Something for the Boys in 1943. Cole is credited with choreographing and/or directing the stage musicals Alive and Kicking, Magdalena, Carnival in Flanders, Zenda, Foxy, Kismet, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Kean, Donnybrook!, Jamaica, and Man of La Mancha.

He studied the Indian dance form Bharata Natyam and used other ethnic material in his dances. The Jack Cole Dancers performed in nightclubs in the late 1930s, including the Rainbow Room.

His film work includes Gilda, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, There's No Business Like Show Business, Kismet, Les Girls, Let's Make Love, Some Like it Hot, and many others. He was famous in Hollywood for his work with Rita Hayworth, Betty Grable, Jane Russell, Mitzi Gaynor and Marilyn Monroe (right). Cole worked closely with Monroe in particular, influencing her iconic performance in "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and in five other films.

Cole virtually invented the idiom of American show dancing known as "theatrical jazz dance." He developed a mode of jazz-ethnic-ballet that prevails as the dominant dancing style in today's musicals, films, nightclub revues, television commercials and music videos. According to Martin Gottfried, Cole "won a place in choreographic history for developing the basic vocabulary of jazz dancing—the kind of dancing done in nightclubs and Broadway musicals."

Cole-style dancing is acrobatic and angular, using small groups of dancers rather than a large company; it is closer to the glittering nightclub floor show than to the ballet stage.

Cole is remembered as the prime innovator of the theatrical jazz dance heritage.

Cole's unmistakable style endures in the work of Gwen Verdon, Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins, Gower Champion, Peter Gennaro, Michael Bennett, Tommy Tune, Patsy Swayze, Alvin Ailey (who was a dancer in the musical Jamaica), and countless other dancers and choreographers including Wayne Lamb.

Verdon said that "Jack influenced all the choreographers in the theater from Jerome Robbins, Michael Kidd, Bob Fosse down to Michael Bennett and Ron Field today. When you see dancing on television, that's Jack Cole." Verdon was Cole's assistant for 7 years.


Cole, an openly gay man, also inserted some rather racy paeans to beefcake into his work, including Jane Russell’s “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love” number in Gentlemen [Prefer Blonds] and Meet Me After the Show’s “No Talent Joe,” in which Grable freely fondles barrel-chested hunks in ancient Roman togs. An iron-willed hardass who spurned sissy stereotypes, Cole plays a significant role in Minelli’s Designing Woman (1957) as Randy Owen, an effeminate choreographer who saves the day when he uses his repertoire of moves to wipe up the floor with a gaggle of mob toughs.

Cole died in Los Angeles, California on February 17, 1974, after a brief illness, at age 60.

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