The Jack Cole Project

The director’s note opens:

Julie Newmar was once asked “Why is it that most people don’t know of Jack Cole?”  Ms. Newmar paused, considered it for a moment, and replied, “Well, all the important people do.”

While this quote probably excited most other audience members about the upcoming performance of “Heat Wave: The Jack Cole Project,” I felt disillusioned.  I had never heard of Jack Cole, the supposed founder of jazz dance who influenced Bob Fosse, Michael Bennett, Alvin Ailey, and Jerome Robbins and taught the likes of Ann Miller, Betty Grable, and Marilyn Monroe.  I’ve taken my share of jazz classes, musical theater classes, modern classes, and dance history courses in college.  I love the history of dance just as much as I love to dance.  I was almost angry with myself – why wasn’t I familiar with Jack Cole?!

Now, I don’t mean to make excuses, but it’s not my fault!  I flipped through my collection of dance history books – the history dance in Western culture, a Bob Fosse biography, a Marilyn Monroe biography, and a Jerome Robbins biography…no mention of Jack Cole.  Confused and frustrated, I turned to my dear friend, Google.

Search: jack cole biography book.

Results: 1 – “Unsung Genius: the passion of dancer and choreographer Jack Cole” by Glenn Loney

…Price? $82.00.  Not happening.

I will keep you posted on my “search for Jack Cole,” but for now, let’s talk about “Heat Wave.”

The project was conceived and created by Chet Walker, who also developed the Tony-winning musical, “Fosse” back in 1999.  In addition to this new dance musical, Walker began teaching “Jack Cole jazz” classes and hosting film nights/discussions at Steps on Broadway to raise awareness of the unknown choreographer.  I attended the first film night back in the fall of 2011 and, sitting in the tiny studio with dance royalty like Chet Walker, Ray Hesselink, and Dana Moore, I realized this ‘Jack Cole’ guy was kind of a big deal.

So I eagerly bought my ticket to “Heatwave” and made the trek out to Flushing for the performance at Queens Theatre last night.  I perused my Playbill, reading all the bios of the Broadway veterans in the show.  Only the center section of the theater was filled, with maybe 120 people in the audience total.  But as the “Prologue” began, the magnetic energy of the cast illuminated the dark theater.  My eyes watered as I tried not to blink and miss a second of the magic that was happening on the stage.

The two hour and twenty minute production of non-stop song and dance weaves restagings of Cole’s choreography into almost a biographical montage tied together with quotes and anecdotes told by Cole’s peers such as Gwen Verdon and Gene Kelly.

In words, Cole’s choreography sounds a bit confusing: a blend of swing, tap (restaged by BDC’s own Ray Hesselink), can-can, and Eastern influences – but it all works.

Choreographically, Cole’s influence on the future of jazz dance is unmistakable: the strong masculine leaps and battements of Jerome Robbins’ “West Side Story,” the sensual prowess of Bob Fosse’s “Snake in the Grass,” the geometric yet fluid shapes of Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations,” etc.

“Cole’s style — what’s recognized as jazz today — is actually a compendium of several influences: the strong poses of bharata natyam (Indian classical dance), the feline sensuality of Afro-Cuban dance, the lilt of the lindy and the elegance of classical ballet. His numbers are eye-catching because of how much they ask of the performers — who scale staircases; quickly transition between dancing very low to the floor and twirling above it; execute lifts; and cover a great deal of space, often within a single song.” – Rebecca Milzoff (NY Times)

“There are people who have that look about them,” Chet Walker told Milzoff. “You know they’re important. And there is this thing about Jack Cole dancers: They have ‘it.’”  “Heat Wave” has ‘it,’ and surely has the potential to head to the “Great White Way” after its May run at the Queens Theatre.  Though the definite future of the “Jack Cole Project” is unknown, one thing remains certain: that that legacy of Jack Cole will live – or rather, dance – on.

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