Cole Horibe Takes On the Role of Bruce Lee In a Way That’s All His Own

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“Absorb what is useful, discard what is not. Add what is uniquely your own.”

These words, spoken by Bruce Lee, are ones that actor and dancer Cole Horibe thinks about daily. You may recognize Horibe as a former finalist on the popular dance show “So You Think You Can Dance,” where he stood out for his martial arts fusion dance style in 2012.

These days, Horibe is starring in David Henry Hwang’s newest production, “Kung Fu,” as martial arts icon Bruce Lee. At first glance, it’s easy to see why Horibe was cast as Lee—technical skills aside, Horibe has a confident energy similar to the one Lee conveyed throughout his career.

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When comparing himself to Lee, “I have the tendency to be more polite about things and not be as confrontational as he was,” Horibe says. “The aspect that I did connect with was the fighting spirit that he has—I have that inside as well, but it’s not as direct as his.” It’s an interesting perspective for a performer playing an iconic hero. The good news for those who sympathize? Practice helps.

“To an extent, we all put on different masks and personas. I used to go out with my brother when I was younger, and he’s very extroverted, and I guess I sort of picked up on that persona,” Horibe says. “It doesn’t feel like a mask anymore, so if I’m in a social environment or a happy place, then the extroverted side of me comes out.”

It was always Horibe’s dream to be an actor, though martial arts was his first passion. Horibe, who was born and raised in Hawaii, began learning martial arts as a child because his father wanted him and his siblings to be able to defend themselves. As he got older, his practice became more meaningful on a personal level.

Then, dance came into play in his teenage years, after he watched his sister Kara Horibe—who is in dance group Fanny Pak—move to the music. “I love the act of storytelling and performing—that’s a passion of mine, which is why I started dancing,” Horibe says.

But Horibe doesn’t want to be known as the Asian martial arts guy. Bruce Lee paved the way for stronger Asian American roles in the 1970s, when he showed Hollywood that Asian Americans were strong, not strictly subservient. This is Horibe’s goal as an actor in 2014 as well.

“I want to go beyond what Bruce did in a different way and be able to play all different types of roles—the romantic leading man type, or any kind of character out there besides the stereotypical nerd or martial artist,” he says. “Martial arts is cool because it shows that we’re strong, but it bothers me that it is limiting in that we can’t play any type of role yet.”

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“Kung Fu” weaves in martial arts, dance, Chinese opera, and even some cha-cha (who knew Lee was once an accomplished dancer?). However, the play is primarily a drama focused on Lee’s personal journey from a Hong Kong transplant to an American hero, and the story reveals a modern, conflicted, and complex character determined to find success in Hollywood.  From his tumultuous relationship with his father to his mixed feelings about his success as the docile sidekick Kato in “The Green Hornet,” the audience sees a more human side to David Henry Hwang’s Bruce Lee.

Just as Lee utilized his martial arts talent to create a name for himself in the Hollywood of the ’80s , Horibe is determined to take his unique style and create a name for himself on his own terms.

“When I was auditioning for ‘So You Think You Can Dance,’ I was the only person who auditioned as a martial arts fusion dancer,” he says. “I developed my own unique style that was jazz and contemporary with a martial arts flair—taking what works for me, then combining it all. And that’s what ‘Kung Fu’ does.”

Photo credit: Gregory Costanzo