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Robert Cohan at 80

by Stuart Sweeney

May 9, 2005 -- Sadler's Wells, London

Half-way through this rich and emotionally charged evening, Robert Cohan was interviewed by Richard Alston. He started by telling us how he came to live and work in London:

“I never thought I would leave New York and the main reason it happened was because of Robin Howard. Robin was on the Board of the Martha Graham Dance Company [where Cohan was dancing and teaching] and had helped to bring the Company to London and Edinburgh. He was keen to develop the Graham technique and style in England and at first he sent dancers on scholarships to New York to study with Graham. He planned that they would return and pass on their knowledge, but they opted to stay in New York.

“So, then he asked Martha to release me to come to England and set up a school and a company. I wasn’t convinced as I had been a pioneer in one country and wasn’t inclined to repeat this experience in another. But we agreed on so many things: the need for training at a high level leading to professional dance and for a company and a centre. I realised that you don’t get offered something like this twice in your life, so I agreed”.

Alston asked whether the reality was daunting:.

“Well it was more daunting for Robin – he lost all his money. It was all very exciting for me, planning what the school should be and so on. Teaching meant so much to me; I learned to be person through my teachers, books and training as a dancer. Your body is like a puppy and needs training – discipline, hard, physical work, learning how to wake up every muscle in your body”.

Robert Cohan went on to talk about the dances we were seeing that evening and you can read his comments in Cassandra’s review [for Cassandra's review, click here -- ed.]. He ended with the disarming statement: “I think we’ve done enough talking, let’s see the dance.”

We saw three works by three companies, and hopefully this is a sign of a revival of interest in his work, which has been neglected since the demise of London Contemporary Dance Theatre. Cohan looked understandably delighted to see a talented array of young dancers performing his work.

I saw an excerpt from “Forest” at a Gala a few years ago and Cohan told me in an interview later that it was one of the works he most wanted to see again. Phoenix Dance Theatre has been dancing “Forest” around the country for several months now as part of their current mixed bill and it showed in the polish and verve of their performance. This meditation, set in a forest has an accompaniment of natural sounds as the dancers spin slowly across the stage with outstretched arms and as the pace gathers bound like gazelles. At its heart is a duet, full of longing and beautiful partnering.

Cohan’s early works were solos, and “Eclipse” was his first for more than one dancer. Dating from the late 50’s, abstract expressionism is a clear influence and there are hints of Cunningham. However, even in his work Cohan is exploring relationships as the two dancers strive for a conjunction that fails. As Alston commented “Eclipse” is filled with gestures that stick in the mind. None more so than when the dancers arch backwards, supporting each other across their bent knees with upwards stretched arms. Jonathan Goddard and Ino Riga from the Richard Alston Dance Company performed with emotional charge.

The climax of the evening was Cohan’s “Stabat Mater” set to Vivaldi's score created after an anguished blocked period in around five days. It is one of the most beautiful of contemporary dance works, full of symmetries as well as asymmetries and with exquisite pas de bras and patterns for the nine women dancers. The theme of loss runs through the work and in these times when hyper-kinetic works dominate the dance scene, this lyrical piece strikes a different chord that is very appealing. Ballet Theatre Munich performed “Stabat Mater” to a high standard and afterwards one dancer told me how much they had enjoyed learning and performing the work. There was a Rambert revival in the 90’s and I hope they will bring it back before too long.

Happy 80th Birthday, Bob.

 

Edited by Staff.

Read related stories in the press and see what others are saying. Click here.

 

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