Robert Cohan CBE, founding artistic director and Patron of The Place.  Photo © Robert Taylor.

Robert Cohan CBE, founding artistic director and Patron of The Place.
Photo © Robert Taylor.

The Robin Howard Theatre, The Place, London, UK; March 27, 2015

London’s The Place was recently host to a special gala event to celebrate Robert Cohan’s 90th birthday and the immense contribution legendary choreographer continues to make to dance in the UK. Stuart Sweeney was there…

Robert Cohan is one of the most significant figures in the development of contemporary dance in the UK.  In the 1950’s, dance in schools and colleges in the UK were dominated by the ideas of Rudolph von Laban, the charismatic genius who helped to kick-start an alternative dance art to ballet, first in Germany and later here. But while Laban’s ideas were strong on expression, they were weak on technique and never transferred successfully to British theatre. In the early 60s, American teachers like Dorothy Madden whipped up a whirlwind at summer visits to Dartington with the style of modern dance developed in the USA over the previous three decades with strong physicality and technique. These classes came as a revelation to those attending, even though the unexpected physical demands sometimes left them stiff and sore.

By the late 60’s, Robin Howard, who had been bowled over by visits to London of The Martha Graham Dance Company, sunk his fortune into bringing the US ideas to Britain on a permanent basis. Bob Cohan, a leading dancer and teacher from the Graham Company, was recruited to lead the charge, and a lease was taken on the building which was to be The Place, for teaching and a new company, London Contemporary Dance Theatre. Despite lack of support in its formative years from the Arts Council, over the following decades The Place and Cohan formed a focus for developments all over the country, and so it remains today. As Kenneth Tharp, Chief Executive at The Place told us, the invited audience of 400 for the previous day’s Gala was composed largely of people who owed their careers to the vision of Howard and Cohan

'Wilderness' by Work Place artist Tony Adigun performed by The Place's young dancers aged 5-18 years old. Photo © Camilla Greenwell

Wilderness by Work Place artist Tony Adigun performed by The Place’s young dancers aged 5-18 years old.
Photo © Camilla Greenwell

The celebration consisted of six works: two by Cohan from the 70s, together with two current works hot of the studio floor, and two by other choreographers inspired by key pieces from his back catalogue.

Cohan’s early works seemed as fresh as ever. Forest (1977) is one of his most celebrated pieces and we saw the duet. In a short video interview Cohan explained that he had been impressed by the innovative work of Brian Hodgson at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (of Dr. Who fame), and commissioned him to create a sound-scape using only natural sounds. In piebald Lycra costumes by Norberto Chiesa, Charlotte Landreau and Lloyd Knight from The Martha Graham Company gave a compelling performance of this lyrical work. At a measured pace, they weave around each other with a repeated motif of arms and legs stretched upwards as if in praise for the natural environment which is so close to Cohan’s heart. In a captivating section, Landreau stands behind Knight as they explore the patterns their hand and bodies made. Darshan Singh Bhuller set the work on the superb dancers and it can only be hoped that Rambert or one of the other repertory companies picks up the full work before too long.

Canciones del Alma (1978), made for Canadian, Susan McPherson, had only been danced in the UK once before. It’s set to three exquisite songs by Geoffrey Burgon, inspired by poems of the 16th century mystic, St John of the Cross. Yolande Yorke-Edgell showed great commitment and control in a work expressing powerful emotions, suggesting a religious zealot finding her destiny. After an opening of great fervour, the second song contrasts with a sinister theme reflected in the dance, bringing to mind loss of faith or fear of demonic possession. The third song brings a sense of revelation and ends with Yorke-Edgell’s hands in supplication. Both Forest and Canciones del Alma have great beauty of movement, which is less common in contemporary dance these days and the quality of these works convinced me that Cohan’s work deserves further revival.

In Wilderness (2015), Tony Adigun created a work inspired by Forest with dancers from The Place’s Children and Young Dancers and Centre for Advanced Training programmes. At times, small squares of light combined to make a larger patchwork square with a dancer in each in a strict geometric pattern disrupted by tiny figures flitting between the squares. Using small and large ensembles, Adigon used the space skilfully and his dancers were clearly very well coached. He is a name to watch.

Jemima Brown & Kyan Namazi of London Contemporary Dance School performing 'Sometimes, even now' by James Cousins. Photo © Camilla Greenwell

Jemima Brown & Kyan Namazi of London Contemporary Dance School performing Sometimes, even now by James Cousins.
Photo © Camilla Greenwell

James Cousins choreographed Sometimes, even now (2015), inspired by Robert Cohan’s Cell (1969). In a few clips from an old video of this early work, we saw a striking set creating a claustrophobic space and austere movement of people struggling with their situation. Cousins had no budget for a set, so used student dancers in half shadow to recreate the claustrophobic atmosphere. Although the dance was sometimes less clear against this human background, the student dancers all in white from London Contemporary Dance School created a strong atmosphere of emotional turmoil. These two new works on younger dancers were a fitting tribute to Cohan’s enormous contribution to dance education.

Opening and closing the celebration were two new works by Cohan. Lingua France (2015) by York Dance Project starts with dancers warming up and rehearsing, perhaps for too long, before a quartet with assured composition and individual steps combines into an ensemble conclusion. In Sigh (2015), Liam Riddick of The Richard Alston Dance Company ably performs an energetic solo, opening and closing with the dancer running round the stage.

I’m going to let Cohan himself have the last word: “I have spent most of my 90 years in dance studios. They have always been wonderful places to be, filled with people who want to be there and love what they are doing. I am both happy and lucky to find that even at my age I can still be in the studio and create. Being involved with dance has always been and still is an extraordinary way to live my life.”

Raising a toast to celebrate the founding artistic director of The Place, Robert Cohan's 90th birthday.  Photo © Camilla Greenwell

Raising a toast to celebrate the founding artistic director of The Place, Robert Cohan’s 90th birthday.
Photo © Camilla Greenwell

The Cohan Lectures

The Cohan Lectures is an annual lecture series being launched by The Place to cultivate lively debate around topical issues. Over a period of 10 years each lecture will see different high profile thought leaders from a broad range of industries and backgrounds responding to the same question, “What Matters?”

Opening the series on June 11 will be Sir Ken Robinson and Robert Cohan himself.

The Cohan Scholarship

The Place is also relaunching the Cohan Scholarship, to support driven, talented students at London Contemporary Dance School who are at the brink of their professional careers, to realise their potential. The Scholarship will be awarded annually to students from London Contemporary Dance School’s BA Hons programme who are about to start their final year of study.