On the And: Honouring the Legacy of Sir Robert Cohan CBE

Choreography Robert Cohan, staging Richard Alston, Darshan Singh Bhuller, Yolande Yorke-Edgell, Paul Liburd
The Place Theatre

Royal Swedish Ballet School in Stabat Mater Credit: Tilo Stengel
Royal Swedish Ballet School in Stabat Mater Credit: Tilo Stengel
Robert Cohan with Patrick Harding-Irmer Credit: Anthony Crickmay
Robert Cohan rehearsing Tom Jobe and Linda Gibbs 1978 Credit: Anthony Crickmay
Robert Cohan in 1988 Credit: Anthony Crickmay
Sir Robert Cohan September 2020 Credit: Darryl Vides-Kennedy

Wonderful, wonderful, most wonderful, Robert Cohan’s choreographic and artistic legacy lives on, passed from generation to generation. And preserved on film. London Contemporary Dance Theatre and School were both founded by Cohan in the late sixties at the instigation of Martha Graham fan Robin Howard. Cohan (1925–2021) had danced with the Graham Company since 1946/7.

Astonishingly one reads: “due to shortages in Arts Council funding, LCDT was disbanded and held its final performance in June 1994.” As was the Richard Alston Dance Company, in 2020 I believe, to great shame. Counterproductive, too. But performers always pick themselves up, dust themselves down and get on with it. Tonight is evidence of that.

I was briefly trained in the fierce Martha Graham technique, as were many of today’s contributors, alumni of the school and today’s students from The Royal Swedish Ballet School and Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance. As were many in the audience. This is a nostalgic evening.

But also an uplifting one as befits a memorial. There are film clips of interviews with Cohan over the decades, film excerpts from Forest (1977) performed by the Martha Graham Company and LCDT. The wind blows, the leaves swirl, and hands make an offering.

A solo from Communion (2019), which was meant to be live but performer Dane Hurst was unable to make the evening—he is promised the following night, assuming all is well, his wife having given birth to a baby boy the night before. Beautifully filmed, beautifully lit in an airy studio, close-ups and long shots of Hurst are magical. It sends shivers down my spine.

This does feel very much a family affair, the LCDT and LCDS families, with Cohan’s nephew Roy M Vestrich, now Producer, Director and Chair of Sir Robert Cohan Dance Legacy CIC and Director of Sir Robert Cohan Arts Legacy, L3C (USA), who gives a short speech, holding up the dance.

The evening opens with Stabat Mater (1975), danced by students from The Royal Swedish Ballet School. Vivaldi’s music, liturgical, baroque, stately, is solemnly inhabited by Eileen Jönsson as Mary with eight attendants, or versions of herself, in long dresses in shades of blue, plum, purple, pink and lilac. John B Read’s lighting is sublime.

Supplicant hands reaching out, cruciform grouping framing Mary, I can almost see Graham. The stage geometry is precise, and the balances solid. I am sitting only two rows away—there is nowhere to hide for the students. Serious, concentrated, in pairs, trios and cohort, they don't put a foot, or arm or head, wrong. Tilts, Renaissance friezes, prostrate on the floor, they rise, as does Cohan tonight.

Sigh (2015), staged by Alston, brings former RADC dancer Liam Riddick back to The Place and he is a welcome sight. This was created for Cohan’s 90th birthday celebrations. A short solo to Elgar’s Sospiri op 70, it is exactly what it says on the box, an introspective sigh with unexpected forward rolls, headstands and cartwheels. A colt circling the stage, and again, arms reaching out in supplication, feels like uncontained grief to me.

Lingua Franca (2014), to Bach’s Chaconne in D Minor, is exquisitely performed. Abigail Attard-Montalato, Jonathan Goddard, Edd Mitton, and Amy Louise Thake respond solemnly to the sonorous piano chords. A drama takes place in an international language, the language of gesture. Contract and de-contract, tense and release, Martha Graham’s language. It’s an intense vocabulary, tension and torsion, speak body speak.

And finally, the famous Class (1975): Rambert School’s focussed student dancers, all twenty of them, ten male, ten female, in rows of five, lifted by Nils Frahm’s funky percussive beat, under Read’s fluid lighting, work hard at perfection. Balances—gazelle legs—speed. The dance rises to a crescendo and they don't falter. It ends on a contraction. What a workout…

For Cohan, dance was a mystical experience, a religion to which he had no option but to dedicate himself. Dance as communion, in abstract and figurative form. Sadly, the Arts Council thought otherwise, but here he is being resurrected (in this launch of the Sir Robert Cohan Dance Legacy), the man the late Clement Crisp, no less, called a “national treasure”.

Irony of ironies, the year of the company’s disbandment saw it win its third Laurence Oliver Award. You can’t keep a good man down.

Reviewer: Vera Liber

Are you sure?