The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
Curated by Debra Levine and Dave Kehr
January 20-February 6, 2016
All That Jack: Discovering the Work of Jack Cole at MoMA
American jazz dance is an enduringly iconic style, its isolated movements and cool stylization instantaneously recognizable on stages around the world. But less renowned is the work of Jack Cole, the choreographer who pioneered this seminal form. Thankfully, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City recently gave Cole’s work the spotlight it deserves with the film retrospective “All that Jack (Cole),” a dazzling tour through Cole’s Hollywood choreography curated by MoMA’s Dave Kehr and dance critic and Cole expert Debra Levine.
Born in 1911 in New Brunswick, New Jersey, Jack Cole had a varied career that spanned the worlds of concert and commercial dance. His career began as a modern dancer, working first with Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn in their Denishawn Company, and later with Shawn at Jacob’s Pillow and Doris Humphrey in Humphrey-Weidman. Not content to limit himself to one dance style, Cole also trained in the Cecchetti ballet technique and was a devoted student of global dance forms, learning Indian dance form bharata nātyam, Afro-Caribbean, Spanish, and South American dance, along with Lindy Hop. All helped inform Cole’s own choreography, which was seen on Broadway, in nightclubs, and on film and television. As a Hollywood choreographer, Cole worked on 26 films from 1944 through 1960, working for Columbia Pictures, 20th Century Fox, and MGM. From 1944-48, Cole even maintained a troupe of full-time dancers under contract at Columbia—the only time that’s ever happened in Hollywood.
Featuring a slate of 18 of Cole’s films, along with a lecture on Cole by Levine, MoMA’s awe-inspiring retrospective made it clear how lucky that Cole’s Hollywood work, unlike much of his stage choreography, still survives. Levine introduced each film, giving context to Cole’s work and delving into each number with a “dance tour” through the movie. Special guests often took part in these introductions as well, including dancers who had worked with Cole (Barrie Chase, Carmen de Lavallade and Grover Dale, among others) and choreographers, such as Wayne Cilento and Rob Marshall, who have been influenced by Cole.
These introductions, along with Levine’s talk and overall curation, elevated an already-fantastic series of films. Levine’s passion for Cole’s work is palpable, and the context and insight she provided deeply enhanced our viewings of these incredible numbers and understanding of Cole as a choreographer. And as these films blatantly made clear: what a unique, genius choreographer he was.
Jack Cole: Film Auteur
Watching Cole’s film work, it’s immediately obvious not only what skill he had as a choreographer, but as a film director as well. Cole’s numbers aren’t plain dance pieces. They’re elaborate productions, their cinematography and visuals as daring as his innovative choreography. For each dance number Cole choreographed on film, he also directed the scene, with control over costumes, colors, sets, and cinematography.
Constantly featured in Cole’s numbers are structural set pieces, including stairs, ramps, and high platforms. In her introductions, Levine often remarked how dangerous these conditions could be, and how little concern there was for dancers’ safety. Dancer Barrie Chase recounted telling Cole she was scared of how high a platform she was asked to dance on in the film Les Girls was. Cole’s response: “You should be.”
But the unfortunate price of these structures pays off on film. Through these set pieces, Cole expanded his choreography, creating new shapes and varied images that reached every corner of the cinematic screen. Intricate and immersive, the layered cinematic images he assembled through movement, cinematography, and set pieces are works of art in themselves.
Though Cole began his Hollywood career in black-and-white films of the 1940s, as film transitioned to stunning Technicolor, Cole’s routines were also marked by their bright, vibrant colors. From the rich turquoise and purple hues of Dolores Gray’s number “There’ll Be Some Changes Made” in Designing Woman to the saturated teal and red palette of the dark “Polpo the Puppet” in On the Riviera, Cole’s explosive use of color catapults the audience from the humdrums of the everyday into the fantasy space where musical sequences come alive. His color choices, Levine notes, epitomize the “Technicolor 1950s”, seemingly dictating the vibrant palette associated with the era.
Cole’s talents on film also extended to his work with major stars, whose talents he could harness and highlight whether or not they had prior dance training. Cole understood that stars didn’t have to leap and turn around the screen, but could draw the audience in through smaller movements. In Gilda, Rita Hayworth immediately commands attention in her charismatic number “Put the Blame on Mame” with just a flip of her hair.
Nowhere is Cole’s strength in working with stars more evident, however, than in his work with Marilyn Monroe. Cole worked with Monroe on six films, from 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes to Cole’s last film, Let’s Make Love, in 1960. Despite both being characterized as individuals who were often difficult to work with, the two had an excellent working relationship. Monroe’s iconic sultry persona is even likely due to her work with Cole, who was able to use his own slinky style to bring out the sensuality for which Monroe was so renowned.
Jack Cole’s strengths in working on film are clearly demonstrated in Monroe’s signature number, “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.” The piece is a feat of cinematic choreography, despite containing very little actual dancing (apart from its beginning waltz sequence). Cole’s dazzling visuals are on full display here, from the arresting red/hot pink hues to the red staircase he uses to create levels and structure. The dancers themselves also give structure to the piece, with Monroe’s male admirers creating formations that fill the screen and dictate the shape of each cinematic image.
Of course, the star of the number is Monroe herself. In contrast to the spectacle of the piece’s design, Cole shrewdly keeps Monroe’s movements fairly understated, as she struts and gestures—but never really outright dances—around the massive soundstage. Her movements and sensual charm that Cole elicits, however, is what drives the piece—Monroe never gets swallowed up by the spectacle around her; rather, that spectacle is clearly all in service of her.
By using bold visuals in conjunction with Monroe’s stunning persona, Cole is able to choreograph a sequence that feels at once lavishly spectacular and personally focused: the perfect vehicle to make Monroe a star.
Jack Cole Choreography: Fusing Forms
But the true highlight of the retrospective was Cole’s dance choreography itself. In contrast to other, more lackluster Hollywood choreographers of the day—Chase recalled one choreographer telling dancers to “plié across the floor”—Cole brought the artistry of the concert dance world to the commercial realm.
Though Cole is primarily remembered for codifying American jazz dance, his film choreography drew on many of the styles he studied. Cole’s modern roots can be seen in several ‘Greek ballet’ numbers he choreographed for Down to Earth and Eadie was a Lady, while other numbers, including athletic choreography for Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo dancer Marc Platt in Tars and Spars, highlight his ballet training. Most influentially, Cole constantly integrated world dance styles into his routines, displaying cultural art forms rarely seen in their authentic forms on film in the 1940s and 50s.
Cole’s training in the Indian dance style of bharata nātyam clearly influenced much of his work. Even before his work on the screen, Cole was known for his ‘Hindu jazz’ routines in his nightclub performances. On screen, his Indian dance choreography was seen Kismet and On the Riviera. Though set to brassy “showtune” music and imbued with Cole’s theatrical style, the numbers feel distinctly tied to authentic Indian dance, creating spectacle through intricate movements unlike any other commercial dance on screen in the 1950s.
Cole also incorporated his Afro-Caribbean training into his choreography. During her talk on Jack Cole, Levine showed a Haitian dance number Cole choreographed for the film Lydia Bailey, which he traveled to Haiti specifically to research. The ceremonial number feels complex and authentic, removed from the flashy spectacle of commercial dance.
South American dance, meanwhile, is most brilliantly on display in the finale production number of the 1945 film The Thrill of Brazil. The elaborate sequence, which Levine screened as the grand finale of her talk on Jack Cole, is a stunning example of Brazilian dance on a Hollywood scale. Multiple groups perform separately and together, interweaving themselves around the stage in elaborate formations that result in multiple layers of movement. The Brazilian choreography is fluid and hypnotic, based in undulating isolations and grounded movements. The swirling movements, enhanced by women in flowing skirts and ribbon dancers and coupled with Cole’s genius staging, results in a mesmerizing, complex number that truly uses South American dance to spectacular effect.
Cole’s signature style, though, is clearly jazz. His choreography is mature, cool, and distinctly modern for its time, with angular shapes, turned-in feet, and the isolated movements that became the hallmark of jazz dance. Themes in his choreography include “power blocks” (to use Levine’s term) of dancers surrounding a star performer, over-the-head claps (which, Levine notes, were precisely performed, often to the detriment of dancers’ hands), turned-in or parallel movements in plié that stay low to the ground, and controlled, smooth movements filled with resistance.
Though jazz as a dance form really exploded in the 1950s, Cole introduced the form on film far earlier. What Levine believes to be the first instance of jazz on film is in the 1945 Columbia film Eadie was a Lady. Watching the film, Cole’s jazz style is clearly evident, with dancers displaying hyperextended arms and isolated movements in plié. In 1946, Cole’s jazz style was once again readily apparent in the film Tars and Spars. The number “Kiss me Hello,” performed by Janet Blair, is filled with pulsing movements that stay low-to-the-ground, imbued with jazz’s distinct “cool” stylization and set to a swinging beat. As his career progressed into the 1950s, this style became even more elaborate and technical as Cole continued to codify and develop his signature form.
Watching these jazz numbers alongside Cole’s more varied choreography, it becomes clear how Cole’s dance roots influenced his own style, and, by extension, American jazz dance as a form. Social dance, most particularly Lindy Hop, is a clear influence in Cole’s work, with its swinging rhythm and borrowing of specific social dance steps, like the sugar foot.
Cole’s ‘Hindu jazz’ style also betrays Indian dance’s influence on jazz. While the style is distinctly East Asian, Cole’s jazzier twists and the jazz scores for his Indian dance numbers in Kismet and On the Riviera perfectly blend with the classical steps, as jazz borrows Indian dance’s emphasis on deep pliés and isolating movement in one part of the body.
Looking at Cole’s jazz in relation to South American and Latin dance, it’s obvious that both have the same emphasis on the pelvis and hips. Cole—and later, other jazz choreographers—also often use mambo-style “Latin walks,” performed by putting weight onto a bent leg while the other remains straight, tilting the hips. In The Thrill of Brazil, they’re weaved into the nightclub number “Man is a Brother to a Mule,” a jazzy number by Ann Miller and a troupe of male dancers. The Rio-set number shows the similarities of the two forms, as the Latin movements keep the dance inline with its setting while perfectly melding with Cole’s American jazz style.
As choreographer Wayne Cilento noted at the retrospective, Cole has also had his own influence on every theatre and jazz choreographer that has come after him. Bob Fosse’s work was more introverted and drawn into itself (reflecting his own personality, Cilento observed), but looking at Cole’s choreography, its clear the influence that Cole had in forming the foundation of Fosse’s style, from the stylization to the turned-in statures, angular shapes, isolations, and grounded movements. Fosse muse Gwen Verdon was even Cole’s assistant prior to her work on Broadway, appearing in several films, and she likely brought her teachings from Cole to her work with Fosse.
Jerome Robbins’ more jazz-based work on such shows like West Side Story also seems to draw from the stylization and basic foundation that Cole set forth—the best example of this being, fittingly, the song “Cool.” Robbins’ iconic moves in WSS, from low-to-the-ground movements charged with intention to the disaffected snapping of the fingers, can be clearly traced back to Cole. Cole’s recurring troupe of jazz-based male dancers, with their low movements and flawless technique, even call to mind Michael Kidd’s heavily stylized choreography for “The Crapshooter’s Ballet” in Guys and Dolls.
In looking at jazz and theatre dance from the 1950s through today, it’s hard to find choreography that doesn’t reference Cole in some way. Though individual choreographers developed the form further and put their own spin on his movements, the basic jazz foundation that Cole set forth still feels as distinctly relevant as ever.
Cole on Film Epitomized: The I Don’t Care Girl
Perhaps no single film better exemplifies Cole’s work on screen than The I Don’t Care Girl. Telling the story of performer Eva Tanguay’s (Mitzi Gaynor) career in vaudeville, the 1951 film features three dance numbers that brilliantly epitomize Cole as a choreographer and film director. This was the last film screened in the series, and even after watching so many previous examples of Cole’s work, his work was jaw dropping to discover.
Cole’s first number, “The Johnson Rag”, is dance on film at its finest and most pure. The Italian Renaissance-themed number, which transitions from classical music into a jazzy rag, doesn’t have Cole’s typical spectacular cinematography. Rather, most of the number consists of just a sustained shot of Gaynor and her two male dancers, placing the emphasis squarely on the dancing and choreography.
This choreography, however, ensures the number is just as spectacular as any elaborate production. Cole’s blending of forms is clearly evident here, as he starts with rigid court dancing and a ballet sequence before transitioning into his classic jazz (with a brief interlude of flamenco-esque folk dance). While Cole’s jazz movements often felt very deliberate, his jazz choreography here feels stylized and cool, but much more casual. The dancers throw out each step with a nonchalant and playful air as if it’s second nature to them. The routine itself, though, is an intricately constructed sequence of technical steps, complete with tambourines, cartwheels, and fast weight and direction changes. It’s a deceptively genius routine, an athletic piece that switches feet, style, and tempo at a moment’s notice, but is offhandedly performed. There’s nowhere for the dancers to hide in this piece, and the dancers—particularly Gaynor—rise to the occasion flawlessly.
Next comes the title number “I Don’t Care,” a true Jack Cole cinematic extravaganza. This number has everything: black cats, fake tigers, a pool of water, fire, split-second costume changes, and protesting suffragettes. All are set against a stunning Modernist backdrop, as the expansive soundstage is painted a bright golden yellow and is accented by thin black ramps and staircases.
Naturally, this spectacle is all in service of the star. Gaynor, remaining defiant and declaring “I Don’t Care!” when faced with oncoming trains, hit men, fire, and a myriad of other threats, is the magnetic force that brings the piece together. Even with all the disparate elements of the piece, this is Gaynor’s number, and Cole’s staging, along with Gaynor’s charisma, never lets the audience forget that fact.
This spectacle also doesn’t come at the price of the dancing. The male dancers are prototypical Jack Cole jazz dancers, clad in black suits and intensely stylized. Even as they make attempts at “attacking” Gaynor, their runs toward her are slow, angular, and controlled. Gaynor, clad in a showgirl outfit complete with a towering feather headpiece, combines both jazz and burlesque movements, calling to mind Cole’s nightclub background. Gaynor enters by strutting down a narrow ramp while knocking down all the men in her way, her swirling hip isolations bringing in Cole’s world dance knowledge as they call to mind Brazilian samba dancing.
The film closes with “Beale Street Blues,” which, set in a seedy club to a brassy jazz soundtrack, exudes the exact sultry, cool feeling that Cole’s jazz style embodies. Cole’s signature dazzling visuals are on display here, with a split-level set and bright pink and blue costumes that pop against the black background. Perhaps the most interesting visual moment comes when Cole has dancers performing behind a wall of empty glass bottles, their steps refracted through the curved glass panes.
But as always, the jazziest element is Cole’s choreography itself. Gaynor is, again, the central star here, grabbing attention through slow isolations and twirls of her voluptuous skirt. It’s impossible, though, not to be enraptured by the other dancers. Cole’s assured style gives the male dancers a commanding presence, as they deftly maneuver themselves through a highly stylized crap game. The female chorus is also strongly assured, clad in attention-grabbing, long, hot pink skirts and led by Gwen Verdon. Verdon commands the screen in her breakout solo moments, which feel both explosive and highly controlled.
“Beale Street Blues” also clearly seems to connect to Cole’s own idea of what jazz dance is, as Chita Rivera and Cole himself performed a different version of the song on The Sid Caesar Show. The number begins with Caesar introducing the piece, asking “What is jazz?” before declaring the answer will be explained through the dance itself. The number, which is unbridled by extravagant spectacle (other than the dancing), is an excellent and concentrated encapsulation of Cole’s jazz style.
Spectacular, genius, and ultimately largely unknown, The I Don’t Care Girl feels sadly metaphoric of Cole’s work overall. Though he pioneered one of the most visible dance forms today, influencing well-known choreographers and creating dazzling numbers for some of his era’s biggest stars, he remains a comparatively unknown figure, known better for his influence than his own work. Perhaps the best part of MoMA’s Cole retrospective, was its pure existence and insistence on taking time to notice and reflect on Cole’s genius. Cole may have made a career by putting the attention on the stars he worked with, but MoMA and Levine did a great service by giving Cole himself the spotlight he so deserves.