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Why the recent interest in choreographer Jack Cole

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There's been a flurry of interest, and an upcoming tribute on Turner Classic Movies on September 10, 2012, for a choreographer whose name is not widely known in the general public. It's Jack Cole (1911-1974), a great pioneer of American dance whose tremendous career started with the Denishawn group and ended in Hollywood. Why is Cole so important?

In his nearly 30 Hollywood movies, some credited, others not, Cole aggressively advanced the art of choreography on film. A brilliant dance maker, he did this by instinct and not by design. Astaire's great breakthrough had been the medium shot in which the dancer's full body appears -- from foot to top-of-head in every frame. Gene Kelly adhered to this paradigm. But Cole took off the gloves, ripping into his canvas -- cinema's rectangle. A creature of the atomic age, he fissured it like an bomb, a Pollack painting. He splintered the screen, and carved it with set design, costume, and choreography. Into a placid box he dappled dance activity from all sides. No space, or level, inside the frame went unused by Jack Cole.

In the photo, above, from The I Don't Care Girl (20th Century Fox, 1953), Cole inserts a staircase so that the dancer, on steps, floats (as in space) at mid-frame. Cole layers men on the ground, populating the bottom edge of the frame. He regularly dispatched men, scrambling, across the frame bottom. He even extended beyond his frame; poking in and out of it. He had a keen eye for "decorating" this rectangle.

Thus Jack Cole went far beyond Hollywood's centered (and boring) way of presenting dance on film. His inside/out, front stage/back stage camera work in the "Ladies in Waiting" sequence from Les Girls (MGM 1957, dir: George Cukor) remains thrilling and radical. He yanks the viewer's eye away from the initial orientation (watching three women performing on a stage) to the opposite perspective, i.e., the focus flips -- we now regard the audience from the dancers' point-of-view. Stage lights glare in our eyes. The camera then relocates backstage, and we peer upon the dancing women from the vantage point of the wing. Finally, the women, exiting the stage, physically burst into the camera's space (backstage). It's a dazzling, surreal, off-balance tour -- much what it is like to perform.

Cole even goes farther. He includes a mirror; one hangs on the theater wall. So you get to see the performance reflected. When you consider that Les Girls was inspired by Rashomon, well, you begin to suss what a genius Jack Cole was. Has any single film critic ever even noticed this sequence?

Also in "Ladies in Waiting": impeccable, hilarious and dirty choreography; costumes that garnered Orry-Kelly an Academy Award and Cole surely influenced them; performances in which Cole brought non-dancer Kay Kendall to the level of her partners Taina Elg, a ballerina, and Mitzi Gaynor. Every element gets an A+++. No one, and nothing, could touch it. For this critic, "Ladies in Waiting" places Jack Cole right up with the greats.

This number in Les Girls prefigured Bob Fosse's version in Cabaret in which the camera swaps from front to back stage. Jack Cole did his version 15 years prior. Fosse won the Academy Award for film direction of Cabaret in 1973. Jack Cole died in 1974.

Photo: Courtesy Larry Billman, the Academy of Dance on Film.

Author Debra Levine co-hosts "Choreography by Jack Cole," an evening of Jack Cole films on Turner Classic Movies, Monday September 10 (8 Eastern, 5 Pacific). Levine, a Los Angeles Times dance critic, blogs on arts•meme.