Review: Robert Cohan at 90 - The Place

Performance: 26 March 2015
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Friday 27 March 2015

Robert Cohan, presented with a 90th birthday cake, with Kenneth Tharp. Photo: Camilla Greenwell

It was two years’ ago that Bob Cohan stood on the performance space at The Place to receive the De Valois Award for Outstanding Achievement, as part of the National Dance Awards. The place could not have been more appropriate since every dimension and detail of that space had been specified by him, as a rifle range was turned into a theatre for dance. Cohan made a notably humble and witty acceptance speech. At the age of 88, one might have assumed that this was the culmination of a lifetime of achievement….but not a bit of it!

Cohan’s first choreography was Perchance to Dream (in 1952) and his most recent work – Sigh – received its world premiere as the conclusion of a rather special gala (although this word was never mentioned) to celebrate his 90th birthday. Sixty three years on from that first foray into making dance and this American in Europe is still in the studio and creating work.

The organisational skills of the gregarious team at The Place pulled out all the stops (not to mention a fair few corks) to make an occasion worthy of the man. Cohan’s birthday was celebrated with dance, both made by him and inspired by his work; an exhibition of photographs; with performers ranging from tiny tots to some of the best dancers in the world; in front of a full house of friends, colleagues and admirers; a cake, some bubbly and the minimum of fuss. The only sadness came in the news that Mary Clarke – former editor of Dancing Times and co-author of the seminal history of the London Contemporary Dance Theatre, founded by Cohan and Robert Howard – had died, a few days earlier; although not before she had sent (via the eminent dance critic, Clement Crisp) a congratulatory message for the birthday boy.

The dance programme was symmetrical. Three performances in each act, commencing and concluding with Cohan’s own work, the opening numbers performed by dancers from Yorke Dance Project and the closing pieces respectively by dancers from the two sides of a transatlantic alliance – the Martha Graham and Richard Alston Dance Companies. The filling in both these sandwiches was a reflection on Perchance to Dream with a look to the future: firstly with a performance by the pre-vocational groups associated with The Place; and then by undergraduate students at London Contemporary Dance School (LCDS). Both works were derivations from Cohan’s own choreography, created by Work Place Artists, Tony Adigun and James Cousins. Adding further to the symmetrical shape of the programme was the fact that it opened and closed with Cohan’s own choreography from 2015, with the middle pair (either side of the interval) representing his work from the late 1970s. One might also add that the whole evening began with the best male contemporary dancer in the current generation (Jonathan Goddard) alone on stage and ended with a solo from the man most likely to assume that crown (Liam Riddick).

Lingua Franca (2015) was inspired by Agora, a work that Cohan made in 1984, for London Contemporary Dance Theatre. It begins by typifying a natural session in the dance studio, with eight dancers arriving one-by-one, chatting, warming-up individually and then leaving in sequence. All the while, Eleanor Alberga plays a grand piano upstage. Four of the dancers return and the incidental music (composed by Alberga herself) changes to the force of Bach’s Chaconne in D Minor. The dancers develop their own phrasing in turn, beginning with Goddard, but gradually these idiosyncrasies are morphed into a common language, initially for the two men (Goddard and Phil Sanger) and then spreading to include the women (Laurel Daily Smith and Yolande Yorke-Edgell).

The stage was crowded with the exuberance of youth in Wilderness, a work created by Adigun from the inspirations derived from Cohan’s Forest (1977), prefaced with a short film, firstly of Cohan being interviewed by The Place’s Chief Executive, Kenneth Tharp, about the making of Forest; and then Adigun speaking of his own experiences in following these (foot) steps. Young people from The Place’s Children and Young Dancers programme and its Centre for Advanced Training brought the emphasis back from the new nonagenarian to the next generation of dancers to be inspired by him. Using music from several composers, including the ubiquitous (post-Broadchurch, at any rate) Olafur Arnalds, and Mickie Mannion’s structural boxes of light, it was a performance uplifted by the rawness of these young dancers’ honest enthusiasm.

The highlight in term of professional dance was a performance of the duet from Forest by two dancers who had travelled across the Atlantic from the Martha Graham Dance Company. Lloyd Knight and Charlotte Landreau – a graduate of the Béjart School – gave a compelling and beautiful account of this gentle work, which is now a contradiction in terms: vintage contemporary dance! It was a beautiful tribute to a man who has spent one of his nine decades as a dancer with Martha Graham’s company, partnering her in some of her greatest creations. After the interval, Yorke-Edgell returned to perform Cohan’s 1978 composition, Canciones del Alma, made for the Canadian dancer Susan McPherson, and not performed in London since 1979.

LCDS students took centre stage for the penultimate work, inspired by Cohan’s Cell (1969) and introduced by contemporaneous film of the surprisingly-moustachioed choreographer, then aged 44. James Cousins was not allowed to use the set within a set that defined Cell (for obvious financial reasons) but if The Place didn’t have the money it certainly has a lot of students! So, Cousins replaced an inanimate cell with a choreographed design for a crowd to replicate the surround to his six soloists. The effect was mesmeric, a wonderful evocation of Cohan’s work in Sometimes, even now which deserves a life beyond this celebration.

The finale was Cohan’s latest work, a solo to Elgar’s short adagio piece Sospiri, composed in the months leading up to the outbreak of World War I; and perhaps a nod by Cohan to the origins of The Place as being formerly the drill hall of the Artists’ Rifles Regiment, which lost so many lives in that conflict. Liam Riddick was the beneficiary of Cohan’s attention in this brief and moving soliloquy.

And, at the conclusion, two chimes of a Tibetan bell by Tharp invited us all to reflect in silence on our own thoughts of the birthday celebrant or the work we had just seen. This was followed by an announcement of the new Cohan Scholarship Fund, before moving to cake, champagne, candle-blowing and the briefest of speeches from the man who can justifiably lay claim to having been, if not the “founding father”, then certainly the creative director of those who pioneered the structured introduction of contemporary dance culture in the UK. Much of the significant strength of all that has been established over the past half-century is attributable back to Bob Cohan. Happy birthday, sir! We all had a jolly good time celebrating it.

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for, and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is chairman of the dance section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards.

Photos: Camilla Greenwell

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