Technique: Chet Walker
How I teach Jack Cole jazz
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Kismet, The Merry Widow—the list goes on. Jack Cole is responsible for musical numbers in many classic movies, but the scope of his legacy goes much farther. He trained artists including Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth and Gwen Verdon, and his revolutionary style influenced scores of choreographers: Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins, Ron Field, Gower Champion and Alvin Ailey. “Mr. Cole brought jazz to the Broadway stage,” says Chet Walker, who for the last five years has researched and taught the work of Cole. “He created a look—a technique—and transformed dancers into stars, and stars into megastars.”
Cole first made his mark with the Denishawn company and as one of Ted Shawn’s Men Dancers. “One of his early teachers was Ruth St. Denis, who did faux-Oriental dancing. But he couldn’t stand the fact that he was doing faux anything when you could just learn the actual style,” says Walker.
So Cole trained in bharata natyam, and while in New York (working with Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman) also frequently visited the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem to learn the lindy hop. “A friend of his said, ‘Why don’t you take the Indian work and put it to big band music?’ So in an apartment on Madison Avenue is where jazz as we know it today began.”
Once Cole moved to Hollywood, he formed a workshop at Columbia Pictures where he developed his own training method in order to prepare his dancers for the choreography in his numbers. Cole’s style is an amalgamation of Cecchetti (his early dance training), Denishawn, East Indian, lindy hop and Afro-Cuban movement. “Isolations are a big part of his work. It’s low into the floor and totally rhythmic, very musical,” says Walker. “You were trained to be able to do anything. You had to be versatile; that’s what he demanded of his dancers.”
The Cole technique classes that Walker leads (as the director of the jazz and musical theater program at The School at Jacob’s Pillow and at Steps on Broadway) start like many modern and jazz classes, with a slow warm-up that focuses on centering the body and stretching. Great emphasis is placed on the hamstrings and psoas muscle with deep lunges, pliés and downward dogs. “So much of his work is in more than plié. If you don’t do lunges and stretch, you’ll end up tight and hurt.”
Cole’s dancers moved in and out of the floor constantly, and one step that particularly resonates in his work is a hinge. Here, Walker breaks down a spiral into a hinge, a step that allows dancers to (seemingly) drop to the ground seamlessly.
Chet Walker made his Broadway debut in the first revival of On the Town. He’s appeared in musicals including The Pajama Game, Pippin, Dancin’ and Sweet Charity on Broadway, and he has directed or choreographed productions of Chicago, 42nd Street, A Chorus Line and Follies (among others). He co-conceived the 1999 Tony Award–winning musical Fosse, for which he re-created Bob Fosse’s eminent works. Walker has been the director of the jazz and musical theater summer dance program at The School at Jacob’s Pillow for 13 years, and he has taught internationally and as a guest faculty member at Steps on Broadway in NYC. He’s the artistic director of the nonprofit musical theater dance company WALKERDANCE, and in May 2012, he remounted Jack Cole’s work in Heat Wave: The Jack Cole Project at the Queens Theatre in New York.
Rosie Lani Fiedelman is a member of WALKERDANCE, as well as Jennifer Muller/The Works. She made her Broadway debut in the Tony Award–winning In the Heights in 2008.
Emanuel Abruzzo is on faculty at The School of Jacob’s Pillow as assistant to Chet Walker, whom he’s worked with for 11 years. Abruzzo has also worked with Les Ballets Grandiva, Compañía Internacional de Teatro Musica and Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo.
Photo by Matthew Murphy at Steps on Broadway in NYC