American Robert Cohan redrew the map of British dance. In an unlikely partnership, a Jewish boy from Brooklyn teamed up with an aristocratic Englishman to establish a new modern dance scene in the country, and even though his company is long-defunct, its school continues and its effects are still felt.
Born in Brooklyn, in 1925, Robert Cohan enjoyed dance classes as a child, but was first struck by dance while doing military service in the second world war, when he saw the Sadler’s Wells Ballet (later the Royal Ballet) while on leave in England. Back in New York in 1946, a single modern dance class at the Martha Graham studio in New York convinced him of his vocation. Just four months later he was taken into Graham’s company, where he became one of her regular dance partners, and later a teacher in her school. He supplemented this with work in commercial theatre (he once spent six months in Cuba dancing, as he puts it, “in a g-string for the mafia”). He left the Graham company in 1957 to teach and choreograph independently, but returned in 1962, becoming co-director in 1966 and remaining with the company until 1969.
On tour to the UK in 1954, he met a wealthy young dancegoer calledRobin Howard, who was smitten with Graham’s work. Howard nurtured a vision of importing Graham-style modern dance to Britain, and in 1967 asked Cohan to help realise it. They set up a training school, found premises (which they called “the Place”) at a former army drill hall near Euston station, London, and in 1969 launched the new London Contemporary Dance Group – at the Adeline Genée theatre in East Grinstead.
It was a success. The Place quickly became the epicentre of a burgeoning British modern dance movement, simultaneously building both its mainstream (the school and the performing company) and a form of counterculture (it was a wellspring of experimental dance and performance). Dancers trained at the school began to swell the ranks of the company, renamed London Contemporary Dance Theatre (LCDT), which began touring very widely through the country, and later internationally. Cohan’s work formed the backbone of the repertory, but he encouraged others to choreograph too, notably Richard Alston and Siobhan Davies, who both went on to become defining figures in British contemporary dance.
But the dream turned sour. In the late 1980s, LCDT faced increasing financial difficulties in a now much more diverse modern dance sector. In 1989, Cohan resigned as artistic director and retired to France, but agreed to return as artistic adviser in 1992, after two new directors came and went in quick succession. In 1994, following a bitter dispute with the Arts Council, LCDT was disbanded (a scaled-down version was reborn as the Richard Alston Dance Company). Cohan, disillusioned, turned his hand to painting, though he has since choreographed occasional commissions, notably for Scottish Ballet in the 1990s. And while the technique and style of his work are no longer current, British dance remains marked by his legacy. He still lives in France.
Watching Robert Cohan
If you see a Robert Cohan piece – well, you’re lucky. Once the mainstay of Britain’s premier modern dance company, his works are now rarely seen. His model was Martha Graham, and both his choreography and his teaching were founded on her dance technique: weighted, expressive, driven by the spine and pelvis. But they are less expressionistic, and often based around a social situation rather than a psychodrama; Cohan’s style, too, became more “British” – lighter, and more flowing. His best-known pieces include Cell (1969), Stages (1971), Class (1975) and Forest (1977).
Cohan’s stagings were often visually very striking. He worked regularly with designer Norberto Chiesa and lighting designer John B Read (Cohan also lit many works himself, under the pseudonym “Charter”). Mostly, he worked with modern commissioned scores – composer Bob Downes was a frequent collaborator. Costume-wise, expect patterned unitards (in the 70s, it was the modern dance look).
Regular collaborators included Norberto Chiesa (design), John B Read (lighting), Bob Downes (music), and of course Robin Howard, his co-founder. Janet “Mop” Eager was pivotal as all-round organiser and manager.
At an early LCDT performance, Cohan took his bow proudly wearing a striking new pair of silver platform shoes. They were such a hit that he took to taking curtain calls in them regularly, and eventually they became a tradition. When 70s styles faded, he began wearing patent leathers – but, he tells me, it just wasn’t the same.
In his own words
“Fashions change, but there’s still only good dance and bad dance. You know when you’ve seen something good.” – Conversation with Sanjoy Roy, 2010
“I have worked in the world hard. That part of my life is done. I’m in another place now.” – In conversation with Darshan Singh Bhuller, 2005
In other words
“Cohan’s pragmatic dedication to furthering the cause of dance and nurturing new talent in Britain has been as important as the work of Ninette de Valois and Marie Rambert.” – Allen Robertson and Donald Hutera, The Dance Handbook (1989, p.200)
“Thanks to his influence, we’ve learnt how wonderfully varied dance can be.” – Jann Parry, Observer 2005
“As head of the London School of Contemporary Dance, Cohan went on to nurture a generation of performers, while as director of London Contemporary Dance Theatre he turned modern dance into the fastest growing art form in the country. But if Cohan’s legacy as educator and inspirer is evident all over the country, his own choreography is rarely seen.” – Judith Mackrell, Guardian 2005
“A founding father of British modern dance.”
“The Imelda Marcos of British modern dance.”
A number of dancers and choreographers closely associated with Cohan and LCDT went on to become important figures in their own right, including Richard Alston, Siobhan Davies, Darshan Singh Bhuller (director of Phoenix Dance Theatre, 2002–06), Robert North (director of Scottish Ballet, 1999–2001) and Anthony van Laast (a former LCDT dancer, now a major West End choreographer).
Now watch this
Documentary on the life and work of Robert Cohan made by Darshan Singh Bhuller. First of a series of 6 videos. Later clips in the series show excerpts of Cohan choreography such as Cell (1969), Waterless Method of Swimming Instruction (1974) and Nympheas (1976).
Archive footage from the Place, 1971
Robert Cohan talks to Margot Fonteyn about Martha Graham, followed by an excerpt of Robert North’s Troy Game, originally made for LCDT in 1974. Scroll through to 4 min for the interview.
Brief clip from Phoenix Dance Theatre’s 2005 revival of Cohan’s Forest (1977)
Interview with Robert Cohan and Janet “Mop” Eager, recorded in March 2010