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A Conversation with Robert Cohan and Darshan Singh Bhuller

by Rachel Bagshaw

Last November [2004], the premiere of Darshan Singh Bhuller’s film about Robert Cohan, founder of The Place and London Contemporary Dance Theatre, was shown at Sadler’s Wells. It was made by Darshan’s Singh Productions to celebrate the 80th birthday of this extraordinary man.

The film follows his life from being born in Brooklyn right through his career - dancing with Martha Graham in New York for many years before being invited to become Artistic Director at The Place by Robin Howard in 1967.

At The Place, Robin and Robert nurtured British contemporary dance, producing dancers and choreographers including Robert North, Richard Alston, Siobhan Davies, as well as Darshan himself, now Artistic Director of Phoenix Dance Theatre. Robert’s legacy to the dance world is enormous and includes such works as "Forest", which Phoenix have been granted the rare privilege of performing at Sadler’s Wells in March [and later at the Robert Cohan 80th Birthday tribute in May 2005]. Here, Robert and Darshan talk to Rachel Bagshaw.

How did you first meet?

RC: I have a vague memory of meeting Darshan in Yorkshire, whilst we were doing a performance at his school; I don’t know if it’s true or not. But I do remember him from LCDS; I could see he had the potential to be a great dancer – and he became one of the best soloists I had.

DSB: The first time I saw Bob, I was 13 years old. He came to watch an LCDT residency at my school in Leeds; my first contact with the world of professional dance. He seemed aloof. Since then he has been a part of everything that I have done in my professional career.

Darshan, what impact has Robert had on your career?

DSB: Bob has the capacity to look at the bigger picture, able to engage young dancers and attract a wider audience. He has an extensive knowledge and imparts this enthusiasm on his students. In the eastern way he is like a sensei – holistic in his approach to teaching.

He knows the time it takes to develop as a dancer, and so trained and moulded his dancers over several years. In return, dancers give him their trust and loyalty. The high standard that Bob set at LCDT is an inspiration.

Robert, what are your feelings about what Darshan is doing now?

DSB: Robin Howard planned for The Place to produce not only new dancers but also future choreographers. Darshan was always interested in choreography, and took part in workshops I ran at LCDT. I encouraged him to take the job at Phoenix because I believe a choreographer should be responsible for a company’s artistic ethos and development, as well as making new work. That’s what Darshan is doing and I think it’s wonderful.

Robert, how did "Forest" come about?

RC: "Forest" had a funny start. We were on residency in Yorkshire, and I ran out of material so began just to make ideas up. Sometimes that’s how it happens - the idea comes because intuition has been working behind your back, so to speak, and you don’t even know what you’ve created until you see it.
I had been reading about a Navajo Indian dance, a ceremony for healing people. With "Forest" I wanted the audience to have a wonderful healing experience without even knowing it, and that was what it became about.

Darshan, why did you choose to revive "Forest" with Phoenix?

DSB: I danced in "Forest" over a period of about 15 years. For a performer, it is a very exposing piece – you have to be exact in your movement, there is no hiding! Because there is no music, you have to be in tune with the other performers and dance together. It’s so rewarding; I wanted the Phoenix dancers to experience that kind of physicality.

And finally, Robert, what do you think Phoenix will bring to the work?

RC: "Forest" is well suited to Phoenix because they are similar to LCDT – they are individual dancers, not just a group, and that’s the way we were. But also, the abstract movement of "Forest" means the dancers are able to fill it up with themselves; they will be able to make it come alive together.

This article first appeared in "The Source", Sadler's Wells newsletter. To find out more about Sadler's wells click here.


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