Indian Dances in Western Films About India" post series, I came across the article "The Thousand Ways There Are to Move: Camp and Oriental Dance in the Hollywood Musicals of Jack Cole." Clearly an interesting article just from the title, but as I read it my fascination was piqued when I read that Cole fused ethnic movements (most notably East Indian) into his choreography, started out as a Denishawn dancer, and studied with Uday Shankar! A Hollywood choreographer that studied with Uday Shankar? Tell me more! Tell me more!
The article discussed in detail the number “Not Since Nineveh” that Cole choreographed for the Arabian-themed Hollywood film Kismet (1955) and it emphasized his use of clear signifiers of Indian dance. OK, I figured there would maybe be some Indian-inspired hand gestures, some pretty arm movements, some namaste hands….
...but nothing prepared me for THIS:
“Not Since Nineveh” - Kismet (1955) - Note: If you are unable to see the video due to your country location, please view it here.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a dance in Hollywood so brilliantly inspired by the geometry and precision of Bharatanatyam! I’m simply in awe. The Indian inspiration coupled with the syncopated jazz music makes for a completely new visual experience. "Hindu Swing" indeed, though the coinage of the religious term "Hindu" instead of "East Indian" is curious and likely a product of the time period. The dancers Cole used were clearly up to the challenge of his rigorous choreography; Reiko Sato, the princess in the middle, steals the show with her forceful, perfectly controlled, and expertly embellished movements. McLean, in an interesting take on the number, describes it and all other oriental Cole numbers as "unmarked transvestism" that Cole used as a "hidden" way to express his homosexuality (he was a closeted gay man); she notes how the princesses have fully-covered bodies and are masculine powerhouses with swords and gestures while the men are shirtless and dress rather femininely. I think the number is simply perfect, but apparently Cole felt the editing left out "some of his best choreography." You mean there's even more on the "cutting room floor"?! (TCM).
Cole's Indian-Inspired Film Dances
The spectacular number "Not Since Nineveh" above was not Cole's only film musical choreography inspired from classical Indian dance (and some folk dance). Here are four more numbers I located:
“Diwan Dances Part 1 (Rahadlakam)” - Kismet (1955) - While the number starts off on a humorous note with Zubediya of Damascus’ entertaining but frenzied orgy of movement in circle-boned pants, she is soon followed by two stunning dances by Samaris of Bangalore and the Princesses of Ababu. Nearly all of the movements of Samaris of Bangalore are exceptionally close to Bharatnatyam adavus; just look at how rigidly she holds her torso and arms in a quirky and uber-stylized manner. However, her costume is most certainly not inspired by Bharatanatyam and looks more like something from Burmese or Cambodian classical dance (but fits right in as South and Southeast Asian anachronisms are common in the film). Her performance is sadly way too short and quickly overshadowed once the Princesses of Ababu begin. Ahhhh... the Ababus! Look at how their arms are strictly held straight on a horizontal plane, how the hands gesture in a very stylized way, the use of Kathak-inspired hand-spins, the quirkiness, the precision! Brilliant. Not brilliant enough, apparently, for the caliph who “has made no decision!”
“Bazaar of the Caravans” - Kismet (1955) - Cole takes some inspiration from Indian folk dance and has the men performing the very neat movement where the items they are holding in their hands are swung up and down in an S shape without ever being turned upside down. Note: If you are unable to see the video due to your country location, please view it here.
“Fate (Reprise)” - Kismet (1955) - A bizarre number with only slight inspiration from Indian dance in the raised arms with limp hands and the spins that remind one of Kathak chakkar spins or sufi rounds (Cole does also include proper sufi dancers in the beginning of the film).
“Rhythm of a New Romance” - On the Riviera (1951) - While this dance number is completely silly (I love Danny Kaye's "INDIA!" exclamation!), it’s delightful to see the Bharatanatyam and South Indian folk dance-inspired costumes and movement. I can see a lot of similarities to Not Since Ninevah in the upward arm waves and the head movements. Loney notes that this number was choreographed and staged by Cole and "used a score of Cole-trained dancers, many showgirls, lavish sets, an obligatory staircase, and Kaye and Verdon dancing [...] with Rosario Imperio featured as a Spanish dancer" and Cole filling in for a sick background dancer (though I have trouble recognizing him.... could he be the male dancer in the India segment?!). Another song from the film, "Popo the Puppet," is worth watching for Cole's creativity.
So...Who Was Jack Cole?
Check out this trailer for "Jack Cole: Jazz," an in-production documentary by Annette Macdonald and Timeline Films that is unfortunately delayed due to a lack of funding:
Jack Cole is often called the “Father of Jazz Dance” since his “Cole technique” and the way he evolved jazz dancing originating with Black Americans was highly influential in theater and film dance. He was known for his extremely precise and isolated movements and for his innovation of combining ethnic (notably East Indian, but also Afro-Cuban, Harlem, Spanish, and some Irish) and modern/jazz movements with jazz music. Nightclubs, Broadway shows, and Hollywood films (and some TV shows) were the three commercial arenas he focused on and where his creativity flourished. There are some differences of opinion in how exactly Cole should be placed in dance history; even Cole himself thought his style was perhaps better termed "Broadway Commercial" (Loney). I like Constance Valis Hill's explanation best:
"I am not sure that Cole should be hailed the “Father of Modern Jazz Dance”—what a dubious distinction to father the mongrel hybrid of a dance that was postwar jazz. But Cole’s extraordinary, although highly idiosyncratic, contribution to the jazz continuum is how he played the movement rhythms of Indian Bharata Natyam, Cuban rumba, and American jitterbug over and against jazz swing. Strutting in slow motion, sliding over the measure, pulsing in double and triple time, flick-kicking off the beat, and snapping out precision-timed isolations to the beat, Cole drummed the body. Dancing the jitterbug in a Brooks Brothers suit, his hair crewcut, Cole’s updated and cooled-down movement aesthetic distinguished “modern” jazz dance from anything that had come before it."
Jack Cole's East Indian Sources
|Jack Cole, 1930s|
|Ruth St. Denis - Source|
The book “The Drama of Denishawn Dance” breaks down the movements of many of Denishawn’s pieces as remembered by 1920s Denishawn dancer Jane Sherman. As Sherman describes Indian-inspired pieces such as “Nautch Dance,” “Dance of the Apsarases,” and “In the Bunnia Bazaar,” there are only descriptions of foot stamps with ankle bells, chassee and ballet steps, spinning while holding the edges of skirts, and some teasing movements of the hands and arms; none of it sounds particularly authentically Indian and was likely inspired by whatever St. Denis saw of the touring "Nautch Dancers" performing at American fairs of her time (for a fascinating discussion of this, see Priya Srinivasan's excellent article). Three rare videos of St. Denis performing her “Nautch Dance”/Indian-themed pieces sum this up visually. The first two I will link since I can't embed them (Incense, Radha), but the third I've embedded below:
Ted Shawn’s humorous “Cosmic Dance of Shiva” piece was said to be created after he studied hundreds of Indian sculptures and paintings featuring the dancing Shiva, learned of the creation/destruction myths in Hinduism, and learned "Indian dance" in India for five months during the Far East tour. Shawn claimed he “asked Siva before every presentation of his solo to take possession of his human body to express the beauty, rhythm, and power of the god’s being” (Sherman). Sounds like it would be quite the dance attempt, right? This, ladies and gentleman, was the result:
So while I'm not an expert on Denis and Shawn's works, I think I've made a good case for their choreography not being particularly authentic and thus not a source for Cole's classically-derived movements.
When Jack Cole moved to New York City and began his nightclub circuit and later film work, he put himself in an area rich with opportunities to learn authentic ethnic dances. It appears the biggest known contenders for influencing his Bharatanatyam inspirations were La Meri, Uday Shankar, and Bhaskar Roy Chowdhury.
|La Meri - Mohan Khokar Archives|
|La Meri, 1937 - Source|
Loney). I've read that Uday toured the US with ballerina Anna Pavlova in 1923 and again in the 30s with his own troupe, but my impression has always been that his visits were brief and centered on tour performances. Is it possible that he stayed in New York City for extended amounts of time to have enough time to teach Cole and Cole's dancers as extensively as they claim? Even if Uday did, it is unlikely that Cole learned his crisp Bharatanatyam moves from him as Uday's style, while distinctively Indian, didn't seem to come from any specific classical tradition and was more of a mix of various folk and classical movement fusion. It's possible, however, that the North Indian Kathak hand spins (such as those seen by the Princesses of Ababu in "Diwan Dances") may have been an Uday inspiration given Uday's early exposure to Rajasthani folk dances when "his father became prime minister of a princely state in Rajasthan" (Hall).
Sukanya Rahman, granddaughter of Ragini Devi (an American who studied at Kerala Kalamandalam and toured with Guru Gopinath) and former dancer/current artist who recently published a memoir about herself, mother, and grandmother. One of Sukanya's blog entries mentions the dancer Bhaskar Roy Chowdhury who apparently told her “everything Jack Cole choreographed he stole from me.” One wonders if that statement is borne from truth or rather coming from a place of jealousy. Narthaki wrote of Bhaskar after his death in 2003, “Bhaskar Roy Chowdhury, celebrated choreographer and dancer who took the beauty, power and grace of Bharatanatyam in the 1950s to the USA.” After more research, I've learned that he formed a dance company in New York City (“Bhaskar Dances of India Company”) in the 1950s with Indian and American dancers. I think it is a legitimate possibility that Jack Cole may have studied extensively with Bhaskar in the 50s given that they were both based in the same city.
But were Bhaskar's movements just like Uday Shankar's and not quite classically accurate? Luckily, I was able to track down a video of Bhaskar and two dancers from his company performing in the Merchant-Ivory short dance film, The Creation of Woman (1961). While his dancing is mostly just exotic waving-around-of-the-arms/hands and posturing, the male and female dancers do dance some Bharatanatyam that he choreographed (see 7:00, 8:50, 10:18, and 11:40). While I find the dancers' style lacking in crispness, the choreography certainly looks like the kind that would have informed and inspired Cole.
The Creation of Woman (1961)
But what differentiates Cole from all the other Indian-inspired western dancers of his day was that he never, to my knowledge, portrayed his Indian dances as authentic. If his setting them to jazz and swing music wasn't enough of a dead giveaway, it's informative to read his approach to his choreography:
“I was interested in the Oriental theater, Japanese and Indian particularly. I was always interested in the culture of people and how they expressed themselves. I never wanted to be—people are always confusing why you are teaching them; they think you want to teach them to be an Indian dancer—but I was trying to expose them to a different attitude, to give them the excitement and the discovery of the thousand ways there are to move that are peculiar and different, totally different, that would never enter your head here. It opens up a new vocabulary of movement" (McLean).I love this quote because he reminds me a lot of how I felt when I first watched authentic Indian classical dances from South India. The "discovery of the thousand ways there are to move" that I had never seen before or could have even imagined was exhilarating. Beyond that I simply liked the aesthetics of the movements, and this appreciation deepened as I learned the meaning behind the gestures and storytelling and the interplay between the dancer and the complex rhythms of classical Carnatic music.
|Cole, dancers performing on TV|
But let's not forget that he was primarily concerned with clubs, broadway, and film productions for which his works needed to be commercially viable. He knew the public would find these ethnic forms fascinating, just as they had done in his Denishawn days. As he said in a magazine interview and during the time he was known as "the King of Exotica," "I'm crazy about this Oriental stuff. I've studied with a lot of Indian teachers." (Gottfried). So while he certainly appropriated Indian dance forms like Bharatanatyam, it seems less egregious to me than dancers like Ruth St. Denis who never sought out explicit authenticity and whose whole method of production and presentation would invite the audience to read the performances as 100% authentic.
|Cole, Gwen Verdon in Alive and Kicking|
Many admirers of Jack Cole's work and members of dance circles express frustration that Cole seems almost forgotten today especially outside of the theater and dance world. He was and still is "little known outside the circles of concerned dance historians, fans of cult [movie] musicals, and a smattering of dance students fortunate enough to know his work and technique through the classes of his proteges" (Steihl). Much better known are choreographers who have definite influence from Cole such as Agnes de Mille, Bob Fosse, and Jerome Robbins. While some of them apparently deny any Cole influence, Agnes de Mille said in All His Jazz that many choreographers, including herself, Fosse, and Robbins, "all stole from Jack Cole." Just take a look at this video from a 1951 TV program of a Bob Fosse choreographed jazz dance. The Jack Cole influence is immediately and unmistakably obvious.
Some sources I’ve read have suggested that the "Cole amnesia" seen today is due to Cole's having worked in commercial ventures and never dabbling in serious modern dance like Martha Graham; others have suggested it was because he was a closeted gay man, while others have noted Cole’s volatile temper and difficult, sometimes abusive, personality may have discouraged others from paying kind acknowledgment to him. Bob Boross theorizes four additional contributing factors: Cole "never had a big hit show" unlike Robbins or Fosse; he was never employed in a "director/choreographer" role; the "status quo" and film production style of the time period Cole worked in were barriers; and jazz dance fashions evolved and changed after Cole's time. "Former pupils of Jack Cole can become very defensive about him and the respect that is due his memory," says Ries, who believes "it is Cole's teaching and the development of his technique and classes. Here Cole was master [and] the dancers he trained are now passing his training on and though much else has changed, his concepts and technique remain the basis for the modern musical theatre dancer."
There appears to be an effort in recent years to revive his memory and celebrate his works. Chet Walker will present a musical tribute to Cole next year with recreations of his works (video), Jacob's Pillow hosted moderated discussions about his work, and Dancers Over 40 often remembers Jack Cole and has some excellent video uploads of his rare works (check out Sing, Sing Sing).
Spirit Fingers" have been popularized by inspirations from classical Indian dance? A girl can dream! ;)
To close, there is much more that could be said about Jack Cole and his public and personal life, but here I've focused only on the information relevant to assessing his Indian-inspired dance style and where it originated. For more reading I would recommend many of the sources below. I'll end with a link to the Dance Heritage Collection website's page on Jack Cole which features a rare video of him in a speaking and dancing role in Designing Woman (1957): 100 Dance Treasures: Jack Cole.
Book and Article Sources:
Boross, Bob - Jack Cole as researched by Bob Boross (FULL TEXT)
Gottfried, Martin - All His Jazz: The Life and Death of Bob Fosse (SELECTED TEXT)
Hall, Fernau - Honoring Uday Shankar
Hill, Constance Vallis - From Bharata Natyam to Bop: Jack Cole's "Modern" Jazz Dance
Loney, Glenn Meredith - Unsung Genius The Passion of Dancer Choreographer Jack Cole
McLean, Adrienne L. - The Thousand Ways There Are to Move: Camp and Oriental Dance in the Hollywood Musicals of Jack Cole (SELECTED TEXT)
Renouf, Renee - La Meri: A Life in Ethnic Dance
Ries, Frank W. D. - Scholarship and Musical Theatre (Review of Unsung Genius above and Marilyn)
Ruyter, Nancy Lee - La Meri and the World of Dance (FULL TEXT)
Sherman, Jane - The Drama of Denishawn Dance
Steihl, Pamyla Alayne - The "Dansical": American Musical Theatre Reconfigured as a Choregrapher's Expression and Domain (FULL TEXT)
Edit: Additional Sources:
I was recently introduced to some excellent writings on Jack Cole by Debra Levine of the artsmeme blog. She seems to be one of the few people consistently writing about Cole today! Here are some links to her articles and blog posts on Jack Cole:
American Master Choreographer Jack Cole Feted at Jacob's Pillow (Huffington Post)
Jack Cole Made Marilyn Monroe Move (Los Angeles Times)
Jack Cole-tagged posts at artsmeme.com (check out these vintage costumed Cole pics)