Feature: Robert Cohan & Darshan Singh Bhuller

Friday 7 April 2006

Robert Cohan & Darshan Singh Bhuller with Phoenix dancers rehearsing 'Forest'. Photo: Anthony Crickmay

Next month Phoenix Dance Theatre come to Sadler’s Wells with a mixed bill of work which includes Forest. It was made by Robert Cohan, the Founder of London Contemporary Dance Theatre, in 1977. Darshan Singh Bhuller, now Artistic Director of Phoenix, danced in it himself for over fifteen years with LCDT and has recently made a film about Cohan’s life. They talk to Rachel Bagshaw about the way their paths have crossed in dance – and about Forest – one of Cohan’s greatest legacies….

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?

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?

Forest had a funny start. We were on residencies up in Yorkshire and I had agreed to choreograph with an audience actually sitting in the studio. I did a work, I was doing it for several weeks and I finished the work but we still had several weeks left of this process. So I started to make as if I had an idea. I began to create more material; it all had a certain quality to it and was consistent.

When we got back to London, the dancers said what are we going to do with all that material we made up. And I said, oh forget it, it was just material but they pestered me about it, they said it was really good stuff. So one day we did it all, and then I kept rearranging it and playing with it to try and work out what it was.

Sometimes the idea comes out of the material itself and that’s what happened. Sometimes you have an idea before you create the dance, sometimes you discover the idea halfway through the dance, and sometimes you do the dance and you don’t even know what the idea is. The idea comes because your intuition has been working behind your back, so to speak, and you don’t even know what you’ve created until you see it.

At the time I was listening to Navajo Indian healing chants, and I was reading about one of the Navajo dances, a ceremony for healing people. I thought wouldn’t it be nice to do a dance that the audience would get so absorbed in the dance, that it would go on and on and on and by the end they would have had a wonderful healing experience without knowing they’d had therapy. So that was what the dance was about.

I got Brian Hobson, who was part of the BBC sound studios, to create a forest soundscape, with wind, trees, birds, animals maybe, barking in the distance. Then one day I was in Kensington gardens in the summer and there was a thunderstorm so I took shelter in a little shed from the thunder and lightning and rain. And across the pond I saw these people walking and talking, and the rain came and they didn’t stop, they just kept walking in the rain – I thought how wonderful, just to carry on through the storm. I knew I had to have that happen during the dance, thunder and rain and the dance just goes on. So that was what it was, woodland imagery, and a kind of therapy.

Phoenix Dance Theatre 'Forest' Dancer: Tiia Ourila Photo: Anthony Crickmay

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.

In May a gala evening at Sadler’s Wells will be held to celebrate Robert Cohan’s 80th birthday. In April we’ll bring you a further interview with Cohan about his work at LCDT and The Place.

A shorter version of this interview appeared in the January 05 edition of The Source, Sadler’s Wells magazine.

Links:

www.phoenixdancetheatre.co.uk

www.sadlerswells.com

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