Jonathan Gray sees On the And, a performance celebrating Robert Cohan's life
|Title||On the And: Honouring the Legacy of Sir Robert Cohan|
|Company||Sir Robert Cohan Dance Legacy CIC|
|Venue||The Place, London|
|Date||24 March 2023|
There is a lively, diverse contemporary dance scene based here in the UK, but one of its saddest aspects is the complete absence of performances of what we might think of as the modern dance “heritage” repertoire. Countless extraordinary pieces, created by outstanding choreographers, have been allowed, especially over the past twenty years, simply to fall by the wayside, remembered only by the people lucky enough to have seen or danced in the works. Despite being the country's oldest dance company, Rambert, under its current artistic direction, seems interested only in performing dances that date back no more than a few years. Elsewhere, Richard Alston Dance Company closed shortly before the start of the Coronavirus pandemic in 2020, and that trailblazer ensemble, London Contemporary Dance Theatre (LCDT), folded as long ago as the 1990s when it scandalously lost its Arts Council funding.
The man who perhaps did more than anyone to establish a solid contemporary dance scene in Britain was Robert Cohan. A member of the Martha Graham Dance Company in New York, Cohan – at the invitation of Robin Howard – came to London in 1968 to take up the role of founding artistic director of The Place and LCDT. In doing so, he introduced an excellent system of contemporary training for young dancers at the London Contemporary Dance School, as well as leading a superlative company that performed a repertoire of marvellous works, including many created by Cohan himself. Productions such as Cell, Nympheas, Waterless Method of Swimming Instruction and Stabat Mater remain vividly in my memory.
Cohan's career in dance spanned seven decades, until his death in 2021, and now, in an attempt to remedy this situation, a Sir Robert Cohan Dance Legacy CIC (RCDL) has been formed as a not-for-profit Community Interest Company with the intention to support production of Cohan's choreographic creations, and research into his works, teaching and professional life. The opening event of RCDL was the presentation of On the And, a performance celebrating the choreographer's life through a small selection of his works, both on film and on stage, and it was wonderful to see so many of Cohan's former colleagues in attendance at The Place Theatre on 24th March. With a career as long and as varied as his, a 120-minute long evening of short works could never do the choreographer full justice, but it was wonderful to be able see some of his dances again, many of which have not been performed in London for years.
Dancers from the Royal Swedish Ballet School appeared in a beautiful revival of Stabat Mater, to sacred music by Vivaldi, that Cohan created in 1975. The gorgeous dance imagery, drawing on religious paintings of the Baroque period, displayed in simple, clear gestures the grief of the Virgin Mary after the death of Jesus. Supported by a group of women, the choreography shows the dancers with arms held aloft, their faces often turned upwards to the heavens, their bodies weighted with a powerful sense of loss. Outstanding amongst the talented cast was Malvina Kolb, whose intensity of feeling brought real gravitas to her dancing. Marvellous. Stabat Mater was staged on the dancers by Andrea Helander Kramesova and Anne Donnelly.
Next were some filmed extracts from another Cohan work created in 1975, Forest, first with Lloyd Knight and Charlotte Landreau of the Martha Graham Dance Company, and then – thrillingly – LCDT's Namron, Linda Gibbs, Sallie Estep, Anca Frankenhaeuser, Anita Griffin and Kate Harrison in a BBC film directed by Bob Lockyer. To close the first half, Liam Riddick, one of the finest contemporary male dancers working today in the UK, performed Cohan's Sigh, made to celebrate the choreographer's 90th birthday in 2015.
The evening should have included two more of the UK's finest male dancers, Jonathan Goddard and Dane Hurst, but the day before the performance Hurst became a father for the first time and was therefore not able to appear. There was, however, an opportunity to see instead Hurst in a filmed performance of his solo from Communion, created by Cohan in 2019 for Yolande Yorke-Edgell's Yorke Dance Project. In another piece by Cohan for Yorke Dance Project, Goddard was joined by Abigail Attard Montalto, Amy Louise Thake and Edd Mitton in Lingua Franca, its taut concentration of movement highlighting the severity of J S Bach's music.
Throughout the performance, Cohan himself was seen in filmed conversation about his life and work, and in archive photographs that revealed how darkly handsome he was as a younger man. The evening came to a close with another film of LCDT dancers, this time in Class, a marvellous selection of sequences that demonstrated how exciting the performers were, and then a short section of the same work danced by students from the Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance, staged by Paul Liburd.
This performance left everyone in the audience wanting to see more, as all good dance performances should, and there is no doubt in my mind that there should be a more concerted effort to save these marvellous dance works for the future. Cohan – as well as many, many other choreographers, for that matter – deserves better.
Jonathan Gray was editor of Dancing Times from 2008 to 2022.
He studied at The Royal Ballet School, Leicester Polytechnic, and Wimbledon School of Art where he graduated with a BA Hons in Theatre Design. He was on the Curatorial Staff of the Theatre Museum, London, from 1989 to 2005, assisting on a number of dance-related exhibitions, and helping with the recreation of original designs for a number of The Royal Ballet's productions including Danses concertantes, Daphnis and Chloë, and The Sleeping Beauty. He has also contributed to the Financial Times and The Guardian, written programme articles for The Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet, and is co-author of the book Unleashing Britain: Theatre gets real 1955-64, published in 2005.