Re-Enter The Dragon

by twinink on November 1, 2013

(This article appeared in the June-July 2014 Hana Hou Magazine)

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On a frigid February morning in Manhattan, with snow threatening citywide gridlock, Hawai‘i-born Cole Horibe arrives through the flurries—on time not just to the minute but to the second. He’s dressed like a futurisitic ninja out of The Matrix: black cross-stitched bullet jacket, black tunic, black pants. He even sports a vicious black eye. “During Saturday night’s performance I took a stray fist across the face,” Horibe cooly shrugs. “The fight choreography is pretty intense. We’re still working out the kinks.”

As the star of the new off-Broadway play Kung Fu, which charts the formative years of celebrated martial arts legend Bruce Lee, Horibe is used to rolling with the punches. “It’s not an easy role,” admits the play’s director, Leigh Silverman. “We’ve created a new dramatic form—the dance-ical—where you have to be able to dance, fight and have the acting chops to carry an audience for two hours, eight performances a week, not to mention convincingly personify Bruce Lee. Yet Cole miraculously embodies all those unique abilities.” In many ways “it’s like he was custom-tailored for this part,” says the play’s illustrious writer, David Henry Hwang, a three-time Pulitzer Prize nominee and the Tony Award-winning dramatist of M. Butterfly, which established Hwang as the most famous Asian-American playwright in American theater. Horibe is hoping the part will propel him closer toward his own boyhood dream of becoming the most famous Asian-American actor since Lee. “Lee was the first to really break through those barriers of the stereotypical Asian male,” says Horibe. “Forty years later you’d think somebody would have further bridged that gap, but it hasn’t happened yet. I want to be that bridge.”

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That lofty goal might not be so far off. In 2012 Horibe exploded into the spotlight on season nine of the competitive reality show So You Think You Can Dance (SYTYCD). His theatrical flair, paired with an electrifying hybrid dance style that Horibe calls “martial arts fusion,” caught the attention of the judges and won the votes of a legion of fans. What set Horibe apart on the show, aside from a chameleon-like versatility, was his intensity. “My wife first saw Cole and was blown way by him,” recalls Hwang, who at the time was struggling to cast Kung Fu’s iconic lead. Watch any performance from the show, whether an emotional contemporary routine about addiction, hard-hitting hip-hop or a predatory paso doble—and it’s easy to understand why millions tuned in week after week to watch Horibe both piroutte and punch his way to become one of the top six finalists. When Horibe takes the stage, it’s not just dance; it’s combat. He moves like a coiled serpent, at once languid and lightning-fast, ready at any moment to strike and stick a pose. “What makes a star is truly an unquantifiable quality,” says Hwang. “Some people just radiate a kind of energy that makes an audience want to look at them. It’s a very specific talent you are either born with or not. Cole has that sparkle.”

As a shy boy growing up in Hawai‘i, far removed from the bright lights of Broadway, Horibe always knew that he wanted to be an actor. “My parents instilled in us that we could pursue our dreams,” says Horibe. “But I was a strange kid. I didn’t have friends.” According to his older brother Cale, “Cole was an early bloomer, always three steps ahead of everyone else. He planned his life from a young age, and every decision has been designed toward that end goal. He’s never veered from that path.” While this singular drive formed the bedrock of his adult success, it painted kid Cole as a precocious outlier. The bullying started early and lasted well into high school. “Kids would spit on him when he’d walk by, constantly try to pick fights,” claims Cale. Throughout elementary, “during recess and lunch I would go hide in the bathroom and cry,” says Horibe.

His father, a rough country boy from Kaua‘i who suffered bullies throughout his own adolescence, put his three kids into intensive martial arts. From the age of four, Horibe studied judo, aikido and taekwondo; later he added wushu. At ten he won silver at the Junior Olympics. At 18 he ranked second in the National Collegiate Championship. The final fights in both competitions were very close: down to the last point of the last kick. And both times Horibe lost because he refused to retreat. “The only time I will stop fighting, that I will ever back off, is if I realize I’m doing something for the wrong reason,” he says. Ironically, for five years between his championship matches, Horibe did just that: He abandoned martial arts when he realized his heart wasn’t invested in competition. “It felt like a distraction from my true passion,” he says. And so in his freshman year he convinced his parents to make the long commute from Honolulu to the Windward side, to a new school renowned for its performing arts program: Castle High. Here Horibe threw himself headfirst into musical theater, performing in numerous school productions and local community plays. Yet he remained the insulated introvert, more cerebral and sensitive than his gregarious fellow gleeks. Forced to the periphery, Horibe felt like the outsider looking in.

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Social redemption, or at least acceptance, finally arrived from an unlikely outlet: Cole’s older sister Cara took him under her wing and introduced him to the world of dance. Accomplished in her own right, Cara is a former University of Hawai‘i Rainbow Dancer who went on to compete in America’s Best Dance Crew and perform on tour with Janet Jackson and Nicki Minaj. Together the siblings enrolled in classes at 247 Danceforce, a Käne‘ohe-based performance studio that emphasizes storytelling and characters. Former SYTYCD finalists Mark Kanemura and Pono Aweau both graduated from this school. “I didn’t know dance could be like that,” Cole recalls. “It was like acting!”

For three years Horibe danced obsessively. “I stopped everything else,” he says. “Dance took over my life completely.” He found a niche, friends and a sense of confidence and depth that had been missing. But for a martial arts disciple, performance didn’t come as easily. “I never saw myself an an innately talented dancer,” Cole admits. “What I lack in ability I counterattack through discipline.” Everyone who talks about Cole mentions his grit. “He’s an ultra-perfectionist,” states Cara. “Everything he does is meticulous, practiced, precise.” Kung Fu director Silverman backs up this claim: “Cole is the most disciplined actor I’ve ever met,” she says. “A total machine,” agrees Sonya Tayeh, the play’s Emmy-nominated choreographer, who worked intensively with Horibe on SYTYCD. “We often feel like his two moms,” says Silverman. “We have to force him to go home and rest. Otherwise he’ll never stop training.”

When Bruce Lee famously stated that “the succesful warrior is the average man with laser-like focus” he could well have been describing Cole.Success never came easily for either man; the strength to endure a difficult path was forged, for both Horibe and Lee, as much through tribulation as triumph. By 22, Horibe admits, “I was still living at home. I had nothing going for me except this huge dream and zero momentum toward achieving it.” Five years before, he’d quit dancing to pursue acting nonstop. And while he’d starred in a couple of student films, his career was going nowhere. A black hole of depression set in that nearly ended late one night when Horibe took a knife from the kitchen and pressed it to his heart. “It wasn’t a cry for help,” Cole reflects. “I’m the type of person, when I say I’m going to do something, I do it.”

What brought Cole back from the brink was a timely phone call from his brother Cale, who that night posed a simple question that has become Cole’s mantra: “What would you do if you knew you wouldn’t fail?” Horibe had a moment of realization that snapped him back on track. “I woke up the next morning and it was like a phoenix … whoosh,” he says, swooping his arms overhead. “I went straight to the studio to train.”

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Where most dancers peak in their twenties, Horibe started all over from scratch. He finished his degree at UH; worked long hours as a bookkeeper at Hairscapes, his dad’s salon; then spent all night practicing like a prizefighter. “I gave myself a finite amount of time,” says Horibe, “three years to get good.” His sweat equity paid off. Six months after recommiting himself to dance, Horibe entered Destination Groove: Dance Hawaii, a local version of SYTYCD. “I wasn’t even going to audition,” Cole laughs. He ended up winning the show.

Straight away, people began pressuring him to apply for the national competition. In 2011 he went as far as accompanying his cousin through the grueling season eight audition process, only for nerves to get the better of both. To excel on the show requires technical skill across diverse styles, so to prepare Horibe threw himself into every dance class he could, from contemporary to ballroom to ballet. “Other dancers would come out of a three-hour choreography and be at 90 percent. I would come out at 40 percent,” he says. Even when he won a top spot in season nine and headed to Los Angeles to compete, Horibe never stopped training. While the other contestants relaxed by the pool, he would rent a studio out of his own pocket and rehearse until late in the night, sleeping only two hours every day. “I was killing myself on that show.”

Horibe’s intense focus isolated him from the other dancers. Much as he had in elementary school, he found himself the odd man out. But by now he’d learned to embrace his individuality. Or as Bruce Lee famously taught: “Absorb what is useful. Discard what is not. Add uniquely what is your own.” In Kung Fu, Horibe portrays a young Lee struggling, and perpetually failing, to carve a name in spite of his abundant talents. And while Horibe is hesitant to acknowledge any comparisons between himself and Lee, the parallels are undeniable. In a vicious street brawl scene—the one that earned him his black eye—Horibe lunges across the stage like an uncaged tiger, mauling a gang of teenage bullies. As the son of a famous Chinese-opera star and a young child actor himself, Lee was also a constant target of violence. To defend himself, at 13 Lee trained under legendary Wing Chun master Yip Man, becoming in a short time one of his top pupils. Lesser known is how Lee, at 18, won the Hong Kong cha-cha championships. “What you see in Bruce Lee is the ability to be flexible, even in the face of incredible adversity, to follow his dreams,” says David Henry Hwang. “The same is true in Cole.” Where Lee integrated the agility and grace of dance into a revolutionary style of fighting, Horibe incorporated the power and fluidity of kung fu into a unique form of dance. This mastery and cross-pollination of diverse passions has served to define and set both men apart.

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On the third night of previews for Kung Fu, Horibe dance-fights his way through an intense martial arts number. He pirouettes to avoid a rushing attacker, then roundhouse-kicks three more thugs in a breathtaking ballet. But it’s the next scene, devoid of dance spectacle, in which Horibe really shines, humanizing, through the subtlety of his acting, Bruce Lee the man.Horibe even perfectly captures the broken-English sing-song of Lee’s personal martial arts philosophy: “Only thing important: heart. You have the right heart, you arrive at the proper destination.”

The next day, outside the glare of the spotlight, Cole puts that same theme, which has guided his own journey, in his own words. “A lot of people experience a lot worse than I did, and that, more than anything, is why I feel it’s important to share my story,” he says. “Because you have a choice. We have the ability to create reality with our minds, for better or worse.”

All over New York this week, nearly everywhere you turn, Horibe is there. Billboards plaster the subway showing him shirtless in mid-aerial kick. His chiseled profile appears on the cover of Playbill and in the pages of The New York Times. Entertainment Weekly voted Horibe one of “fourteen rising stars to watch in 2014.” There is a buzz in the air, a rising tide of awareness that—not two years prior—Horibe dreamed of but never thought possible. “You grow the most when you’re given opportunities you don’t feel ready for,” he humbly confesses. “And I’m still very much growing.”