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The Place - Robert Cohan Study Day

by Ana Abad-Carles

May 8, 2005 -- The Place, London

On Sunday 8th May, The Place held a Study Day dedicated to the work of Robert Cohan, choreographer and for years artistic director of London Contemporary Dance Theatre. All one can say after having attended the day is thank you and congratulations to the organisers for offering such an enjoyable day in celebration of the work of one of Britain’s finest choreographers in contemporary dance. It was wonderful to see that most of the attendees were students, not only from the London Contemporary Dance School, but also from some of the most important vocational dance schools in London. The presence of students and their engagement with the day’s different procedures gave the act a freshness and depth rarely achieved in this kind of events. There was a feeling of tradition being handed down to the new generations and a remarkable reception of this tradition, as students questioned their predecessors on the future of the art form.

The day started with a short historical introduction by Jane Pritchard (archivist for both Rambert Dance Company and English National Ballet). She gave two dates as landmarks in Cohan’s career: 1946 – the year he took his first class – and 1969 – when he decided to remain in the UK and choreographed one of his most groundbreaking works, "Cell -". She emphasised the importance of Cohan’s influence in developing an audience for contemporary dance in Britain through the work of London Contemporary Dance Theatre. As part of that audience myself, I can only agree.

Then, before the screening of "Nympheas" (1983), Bob Lockyer explained the process of recording the different works for television in the good old years when television did show dance programmes on a continuous basis(!). He explained the importance of the cutting process and how this could be done either by musical phrases or by dance movement phrases. He said he had always preferred the latter.

The screening of "Nympheas" was a revelation. A beautiful piece of work, it reminded one of the lyrical qualities often associated with the work of Paul Taylor. But, also, it was an eye opener in terms of the technical and stylistic qualities of the interpreters themselves. What a beautiful group of dancers! Watching Siobhan Davies at the prime of her career was enlightening.

Cohan himself explained the original idea for the piece and the creative process that followed. He emphasised the importance of using one’s imagination in order to fill in the gaps in the choreographic process and he emphasised this by simply stating that “you’ve got to trust your imagination. If you don’t, it just won’t happen". This was one of the many wonderful quotes Cohan gave us all during the day.

Cohan gave advice on the choreographic process to young students that I would simply value as priceless. No matter how many choreographic classes one takes, a couple of Cohan’s remarks and simple advice were more useful than those many hours spent in the studios trying to work out how to put a piece together. Without doubt, my favourite quote came at the end of a Masterclass rehearsal of his pas de deux "Eclipse", when a student questioned his praise for form. As he simply put it, our simplest actions during the day have got a starting point and an end: we get up, get out of the house and, no matter how much we wander off our original plans, there is always a feeling of closure at the end of the day. He established the parallel between that overarching shape that we unconsciously trace in our lives and the notion of form. When the student explained the problems she had in her choreographic work because of all the ideas she wanted to work on, he simply said: “don’t be a victim to your ideas”. How fascinating to hear a contemporary choreographer using the same idea as Mallarmé: “you don’t make a poem with ideas, you do it with verses”. In a post-modern world where these things are underrated as old fashioned “formalism”, it is most important that students get to hear them from people that they can respect.

There were moments of nostalgia. The panel discussion led by ex-members of the company provided so many wonderful insights into the work of London Contemporary Dance Theatre that I found it difficult not to think of its disappearance as a tragic loss to the dance world. However, this disappearance and loss were never mentioned. At the end of the discussion, another student raised another fascinating question: what can be done in order to get back to the values and commitment these dancers seemed to have and that our world, which seems to prize athleticism and physical power above all else, seems to have lost. It was wonderful to hear students questioning these things -- to see them re-thinking their training and the process of artistic creation in this way. The answer provided by the different dancers, many of whom are important teachers in different vocational schools in the country, was simple: it is up to them. They are the future and therefore it is their responsibility when making their artistic choices.

Finally, I would like to mention the Open Class performed by members of Phoenix Dance Theatre and led by Darshan Singh Bhuller. It was a series of exercises based on Graham technique that Cohan had devised in order to provide dancers with the basic training of their bodies for the day during their careers. The series of exercises ran through without pauses so that concentration and stamina levels were kept up to a maximum. While watching them, I remembered what a beautiful system of training Graham’s is; how well thought out and how organic for the body and mind. For a moment I thought students might find it boring, to see a whole class routine of what – I assumed- was their daily practice. I was shocked to hear the reaction at the end of the class, it just made me realise that, sadly, this system may not be as common anymore as I thought it was.

Robert Cohan’s Study Day was a wonderful opportunity to revive the history of contemporary dance in this country. It worked wonderfully. I just felt sorry that it is not only ballet that has seen its heritage work so badly neglected, but that it is something that has been shared in an even more muted way by contemporary dance. Still, as the dancers told the young students, it is up to them to recover all this and make it relevant in their artistic lives. That is how it should be and let’s hope this is the direction the younger generation chooses to take.


Edited by Staff.

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