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Vol. 17, no. 3
June/July 2014


Re-enter the Dragon 

Story by Aaron Kandell
Photos by Robert Caplin

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.”

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 chameleonlike versatility, was his intensity. “My wife first saw Cole and was blown away 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. “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.”