Dance Dance Revolution: MoMA Celebrates the Films of Jack Cole, Whose Choreography Shaped His Century


Though his name has largely been forgotten, Jack Cole had a profound influence on many of the best-known American stage and/or screen choreographers: Alvin Ailey, Jerome Robbins, Michael Bennett, and especially Bob Fosse. Cole pioneered what would become known as “theatrical jazz dance,” sleek, agile, explosive movement that often incorporates body isolations, like upward-reaching arms or pointing fingers. He also guided those not trained in the terpsichorean arts — most famously Marilyn Monroe, with whom he would make six films — through some of the most enduring sequences in movie-musical history. MoMA’s salute to Cole, featuring eighteen films he choreographed (sometimes uncredited) between 1945 and 1960, provides a rare opportunity to marvel at the talents and vision of the man indelibly described by Sam Wasson in his zippy biography Fosse (2013) as “the slithering id of American exotica.”

Born in New Jersey in 1911, Cole studied at the Denishawn school in New York City, joining that seminal modern-dance company in 1930. According to dance critic Debra Levine, co-curator of the series with MoMA’s Dave Kehr, Cole was first exposed to dance styles from around the globe during his time with Denishawn, later mastering the Indian bharata natyam and immersing himself in Afro-Caribbean and South American varieties — and frequenting Harlem hotspots like the Savoy, where he would learn the Lindy hop. Making his Broadway debut as a performer in 1933 in The School for Husbands, he began moonlighting in clubs around the same time, soon headlining, with the Jack Cole Dancers, at the country’s top nightspots: the Rainbow Room in New York and Slapsy Maxie’s in Los Angeles.

It was at that legendary West Coast cabaret where Cole would meet, around 1947, his most famous assistant: Gwen Verdon, the leggy, flame-haired dynamo (who, a few years later, would become Fosse’s partner onstage and off-). By the time of his initial encounter with Verdon, Cole had begun his career in Hollywood, choreographing Rita Hayworth’s nightclub numbers in Charles Vidor’s archetypal noir Gilda (1946): In “Put the Blame on Mame,” the actress, striding across the stage with exhilarating sexual confidence, stops time with her hip-swaying and hair-tossing; as she slowly peels off and twirls a long black glove, we are utterly helpless before her “shimmy-shake.”

Hayworth, who began taking dance classes at age three and was her father’s partner in the Dancing Cansinos, may have been easy to instruct. A more challenging assignment was Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Howard Hawks’s superb 1953 musical, which brought together hoofing neophytes Jane Russell and Monroe, here in her biggest role to date. In her 1985 autobiography Russell remembers the GPB dance rehearsals, for which Cole was assisted by Verdon, as “hard, sweaty work,” but she also praises the man overseeing them: “Jack worked dancers to death, but with Marilyn and me he was patience itself. He knew we didn’t know our left foot from our right, but he stayed tirelessly with us. I worked until I got fuzzy headed and said, ‘Ol’ Jack, I’m not learning.’ He’d say, ‘Go baby. Tomorrow.’ Marilyn would stay for an hour or two after I left, and he’d stay with her. She was worried and determined. Jack said she wouldn’t really learn any more during that time, but he understood her insecurity.”

Cole pioneered what would become known as ‘theatrical jazz dance.’

Cole also understood how best to highlight the “creamy overflow” (to borrow a phrase from a celebrity columnist writing at the time of GPB‘s release) of the voluptuous bodies of the film’s leading ladies. Russell and Monroe, playing showgirls Dorothy Shaw and Lorelei Lee, ignite the screen in the opening number, “Two Little Girls From Little Rock,” thanks in large part to the 360-degree hip wiggles they execute in the snuggest of red-sequined gowns. The thrilling excess of GPB reaches its height during the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” sequence, featuring a fuchsia-clad Monroe against a backdrop of ruby reds and surrounded by, in what would become a Cole signature, a corps of male dancers (including George Chakiris, later of West Side Story fame). In a number abounding with sexy, supple movement, Monroe’s most seductive gesture may be her smallest: crooking her index fingers in a come-here signal, a motion she also deploys in “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” from George Cukor’s Let’s Make Love (1960), Cole’s final film. (He continued to work onstage and taught modern dance at UCLA from 1972 until 1974, the year he died.)

Even the most sluggish vehicles soar when a Cole sequence takes over. Vincente Minnelli’s otherwise interminable Kismet (1955), a tuner set in ancient Baghdad, springs to life during “Not Since Nineveh,” a glorious hodgepodge of Indian influences — here typified by the “cobra-head movement” — as well as Middle and Far Eastern elements. Two years later Cole would re-team with Minnelli for Designing Woman, in his only credited onscreen acting appearance. Cole plays Randy Owens, a character much like himself: a flamboyant choreographer. Though Cole was gay in real life, Randy is only coded as such, proving not only his heterosexual but also his butch bona fides to Gregory Peck’s disapproving sportswriter in the movie’s final scene, laying waste to a bunch of mobsters not with his hands but his feet. Astonished by his gorgeous leaps and kicks, I remembered Wasson’s high praise: “Cole was stunning, even standing still; he gleamed like a piece of golden technology, and when he moved, he cut the air like a rain of knives…. When he danced, he spared no part of himself, slicing air with the grace and precision of a ballet dancer, a beast in a gentleman’s body.” He was a beast who elicited nothing but beauty from those he instructed in hard, sweaty labor.

‘All That Jack (Cole)’

January 20–February 4, MoMA