Why Isn’t Jack Cole Better Known and Seen?

October 13, 2008

He was called the “Nijinsky of Broadway” and the “father of American jazz dance,” but what do we really know about him? Last night Dancers Over 40 paid tribute with a program called “Jack Cole: Alive and Kicking” at Symphony Space, introduced by Dick Cavett. In bits and pieces, we learned that Cole worked with many of Hollywood’s greats including Mitzi Gaynor, Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe, and Betty Grable. He was behind the scenes making them all look great. Someone described how he told Monroe that she was letting her hand drift in a way that looked like a dead fish, and he showed her out to accent her moves so as to retain her sex goddess aura. And the film clip of her singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” showed that she learned a thing or two from him.


He also worked with Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera, Matt Maddox, Buzz Miller, and Julie Newmar. (Verdon said in
Dance Magazine
in 1998, “I was a tap dancer, and when I worked with Jack Cole we learned all kinds of ethnic dancing as well as everything else. Bob Fosse used those abilities.” Which is a good example of how a choreographer’s influence gets carried through a dancer to another choreographer.)


Agnes de Mille was quoted as saying she took ballet and put it on Broadway, but Cole created a whole new vocabulary. He was clearly a precursor to choreographers of Broadway and film like Michael Kidd and Bob Fosse. Like Fosse later, he wasn’t afraid to be raunchy with very specific stylization of arms and head. Alan Johnson showed a clip of a fabulous flamenco-based trio with Matt Maddox in terrifically forceful and sexy gestures. At times Maddox would slap the bottom of his boot, a move he also did in the movie
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,
choreographed by Michael Kidd—another example of influence through a dancer.


Mitzi Gaynor is seen accepting an award, saying, “I danced before, but Jack made me a dancer.” There was even a clip of Alvin Ailey showing a particular arm move he took from Cole and used often. (The arms come in to the chest with splayed hands, curl into fists, and then spread up or out.) And the number from
Sing, Sing, Sing
with four guys jumping up and then sliding on their knees looks an awful lot like “Sinner Man” in Revelations.


The program notes say, “Alan Johnson and Ethel & George Martin flew across many perilous red states to be here tonight.” A highlight was the engaging Ethel Martin, 88, showing us how Jack got the dancers to get down—in deep pliés.


One of the film clips showed Marge Champion as an outrageously diva-like diva in Three for the Show
with music of Swan Lake (Jack was embarrassed to use the Tchaikovsky music but that’s what the producer wanted). And then, suddenly there was Marge, coming out to explain to us the twists of the plot 40 years later.


I wish I could have stayed to see and hear Chita Rivera and Stuart Hodes, and see the Gwen Verdon montage, but I had to leave at intermission.


It’s cheering to note that Annette Macdonald is working on a documentary. I look forward to seeing that.