Robert Cohan, Founding Artistic Director of The Place, was a prolific choreographer, an utterly brilliant teacher and also a shrewd strategist. Single-handedly he changed the face of contemporary dance in this country. Well, perhaps not quite single-handedly, for it was Robin Howard, Founder of the Contemporary Dance Trust, who had the vision to invite Cohan to lead his as yet only dreamt-of new organisation comprising a Company, a School and a building which was to become known as The Place - Cohan bravely took up this invitation and contemporary dance in Britain was born.
With the raw talent at his disposal early on, Cohan’s first choreographies in Britain were strongly linked to his remarkable gifts as a teacher and these talents rapidly developed the dancers into what became London Contemporary Dance Theatre. In its heyday, LCDT was one of the finest performing ensembles in the world
Cohan’s gifts as a teacher amounted to genius, his analytical eye having all the accuracy and precision of a scientist. His extraordinary knowledge coupled with real charisma and authority led to many of his company dancers staying with him for as long as eighteen years. Such loyalty truly reflects Cohan’s ability to inspire and lead.
Beyond his own Company, Cohan inspired many, many other dancers through widespread teaching. In 1975 the first London Contemporary Dance Theatre educational residencies were set up, a real innovation in this country reaching thousands of students right across the nation. The excitement these residencies engendered transformed the lives of countless young people and left a very important legacy in the world of British Higher Education.
Another major innovation was the way that Cohan more or less reinvented stage lighting for dance. Together with the distinguished lighting designer John B. Read, he designed a new ‘rig’ of lights which radically changed the way dance looked on the stage. Cohan’s inventions in lighting went hand-in-glove with high standards of production, often with striking three dimensional sets designed and constructed by Cohan’s long-standing collaborator Norberto Chiesa. Outstanding examples were Cell (1969) and Nympheas (1976). Cohan’s first full-length piece Stages toured to major theatres across Britain reaching wider audiences. Cohan liked to think big - he was particularly excited by the large-scale and London Contemporary grew and expanded in both size and reach. Cohan retired as Artistic Director in 1983, but without him the Company’s fortunes wavered for a while until the Company was eventually folded in 1994.
All the choreography which Cohan made for his own company was absolutely imbued with the knowledge of his teaching - highly demanding choreography created for outstandingly articulate and meticulously trained dancers. Such specialised training is no longer widely available, which is why, perhaps, Cohan’s choreography is rarely performed today. Some works of art are very much of their own time - Cohan’s creations were very much born of his own knowledge, exacting a very high level of skills from hand-picked performers. It is clearly a matter of great regret that his major works can no longer be seen on the professional stage. Such dances as Cell and Nympheas were matched by the beautiful and quietly stirring Forest. These dances are greatly missed but they are dances, in truth, to which it is not easy nowadays to do justice.
Sad though this may be, it hardly diminishes Robert Cohan’s contribution to the development of a modern dance in the UK. Those Residencies in Yorkshire included the college at Bretton Hall, from whence later emerged the major British choreographer Wayne McGregor. The London Contemporary Dance School very much inspired the forming of the Northern School of Contemporary Dance in Leeds where another major figure of today, Akram Khan, was trained. Cohan for a time was Artistic Advisor to the Batsheva Company in Israel, from where a young Choreographer Hofesh Shechter came to make his home in Britain. These three artists have worked across the board, creating for their own ensembles and also for the major ballet companies in the UK. Since the nineteen sixties many barriers have fallen within the world of British dance and it is Robert Cohan who we must thank for truly setting such changes in motion - sixty years later he has left us with a strikingly different dance sector.
His pioneering vision was recognised in 2019 with a much anticipated and much deserved knighthood for Services to Choreography & Dance, acknowledging the exceptional contribution to contemporary dance that Cohan has made over seven decades.
Most recently, he received the first ever Lifetime Achievement Award in Contemporary Dance at the One Dance UK Awards at the end of 2020. Still deeply involved with mentoring and teaching students, Cohan spoke at the LCDS graduation ceremony last year, comforting and inspiring the class of 2020 when they were deeply affected and unsettled by the pandemic:
“It’s hard to dance six feet apart, and I’m sorry you have to face it. But I know it’s possible! I also know how dedicated you have to be and how hard you have to work, but I recommend it. Dance has been a wonderful way to live my life, and I hope you can enjoy something similar.”
He also, only a few months ago, engaged in a lively conversation with Director of Dance Studies Dr Lise Uytterhoeven, discussing the future of dance and its role in a world challenged by social unrest, climate change and the threat to democracy. At 95, he was still deeply invested in debating how dance relates to the world we live in today, still visionary about where dance might lead us next.
He was also still active as a choreographer thanks to a fruitful association with Yorke Dance Project. Its director Yolande Yorke-Edgell instigated a series of intensive courses entitled The Cohan Collective, where Cohan was able once again to dispense his extraordinary and supportive wisdom.
As its founding Artistic Director, he has left The Place a still pioneering and creative hub, attracting inspired young people who wish to make their mark in Dance. The vision of two men gave birth to the idea of Contemporary Dance in Britain, but it was Robert Cohan who breathed life into such an idea and gave it form and substance. His achievements have been immeasurable.
Sir Richard Alston
Clare Connor, Chief Executive, The Place
It is with a heavy heart that we received the sad news of the passing of our founding Artistic Director, Sir Robert Cohan. A man with an unstinting vision and belief in our ability to power imagination through dance.
For those who were fortunate enough to know and work him, there will be a great story, an anecdote, an image, a retort, but above all a passion for dance and a gift for communication. As my wonderful and dearest friend and London Contemporary Dance School peer Lucy Moelwyn-Hughes said, “Everyone’s got a Bob story.” He touched us all. Through his work he inspired artists and audiences alike and through a sense of team and belonging he built an enduring artistic vision with Robin Howard, Janet Eager (Mop) which evolved further with the advent of London Contemporary Dance School under Richard Ralph. The artistic lineage has been taken forward by Sir Richard Alston and now resides with Eddie Nixon.
Over recent days I have listened to many of the people who were closest to Bob, especially in his later years. They are coming to terms with the loss of a man whom they have loved most dearly, and my thoughts are with them indefinitely.
Bob’s legacy lives on in the hearts and minds of countless people, but it is the “love” that he bestowed for The Place and London Contemporary Dance School that I am forever indebted to him for.
Together we need support this next generation of artists who need that love, more than ever before.
Eddie Nixon, Artistic Director, The Place
Like so many enthusiastic teenage dancers in the 1980’s, the yearly visit of London Contemporary Dance Theatre, led by Robert Cohan, to our local venue was an annual reignition of our passion. Most of the dance teachers we learned from each week had studied at The Place with Bob or the team of artists he assembled there in the 70’s. The inspiration they gave us was amplified when we saw that company and those dancers on stage. They were extraordinary to watch. The air in the theatre stood still in admiration. In one of those years and in one of those residencies was the first moment when I really understood that being a dancer was, maybe, something I wanted. Just one of thousands of young people inspired by Bob, and all the dance artists his work nurtured.
Decades later, after studying at The Place, after trying (and not succeeding) to master the challenges of Bob’s classes and choreography as a student, and in the midst of a career made possible by all that he initiated 50 years ago, I find myself as Artistic Director of the organisation he built. It’s impossible to really quantify the influence and legacy of one of the world’s great artists. But for those of us trying to honour those giants, like Sir Robert Cohan, we can strive to ensure that many thousands more get the chance to have lives changed by unforgettable moments of watching and dancing.
"Fridays with Bob" by Yolande Yorke-Edgell, Director of Yorke Dance Project and co-foundng director of the Cohan Collective
I am writing this on a Friday. Bob would ask: What day is it? I would say Friday and he would say: Is it Friday again?? And we would laugh.
As director of Yorke Dance Project and co-founding director of the Cohan Collective, I am incredibly grateful to have spent the last eight years working intensely with Robert Cohan. Now my dear friend, mentor and collaborator has moved from the body he inhabited to a new place, one where I hope he will be free from restrictions so that his mind and body can work together again as one.
The last hour I spent with him we did not say much. He lay in his bed, the curtains closed as he wanted to shut out the outside world. With the lamp on above his head, his personal spotlight, we watched some of his works on film. As he watched the dances, his body moved, responding to the movement he’d created, his body memory still strong. When I folded the computer closed there was a silent understanding between us, described, of course, through movement: He looked at me then at the ceiling and then folded his hands on his chest. He knew he could no longer do what he believed he was here to do, to carry out his purpose, his meaning in life, to dance, teach and choreograph. Every step he could no longer take with stability became a step further away from his truth, his life’s work.
And so, along with this huge loss, this deep grief within, comes acceptance that it was time for my incredible, deeply loved friend to depart from this life. He silently shrugged, looked back up at the ceiling and closed his eyes to rest. I imagine him thinking: I have done all I can do now, without the clarity of my mind and body, what’s the point.
Everyone who knows Bob wanted him to live forever. We all wanted more from him because he gave each of us purpose, meaning, the tools and understanding to be the best person, the best dancer, the best artist we could be; he nourished us constantly with his wisdom. He had spent his life, as he said, working on himself to be the best teacher he could be, giving each of us his life’s teachings. What a true blessing this has been and will continue to be for all who have been in a studio with him, talked to him and been in his presence.
It is no coincidence that the last dance he made is a series of solos, given to each dancer for them to inhabit: He called them “afternoon conversations”as they were made, mostly via Zoom, in short afternoon work sessions, he liked to work in the afternoons, he said he was at his best then. The last solo he created showed exactly what he talked of so many times and that was about presence, a dancers presence on stage. Why do we look at one particular dancer on stage and not another? He would ask this of dancers all the time, as that is what he wanted them to understand about themselves. For this last solo he imagined a huge opera house stage with a dancer entering, as she entered the space she would fill it with her presence. This would be shown through her body and her body would describe this presence by how she moved and how she moved would come from deep within. The movement would speak from every muscle and every fiber in her body that would be driven by feeling. This is how he taught, he taught from deep within the body, how it moves, what makes it move and why. He had watched Martha Graham do this when he was in her company and he would often talk about how she would set up vibrations within herself so she could vibrate out to the audience. He also told us that when Martha left the stage she took the stage with her.
My beloved friend said a few weeks ago: When it is time, it is time. And it was time, time for him to leave the stage. Our stage remains empty until we all find his vibration within us so he can fill the stages of the world again through the artists he has touched and who have loved him so completely.
Kenneth Olumuyiwa Tharp CBE, Former Chief Executive, The Place
It was with immense sadness that I learned Sir Robert Cohan had passed peacefully in his sleep, aged 95. I had last spoken to him on Christmas Eve.
I count myself truly blessed to have known this remarkable human being for over 42 years, to have trained in the school he started, to have danced in his pioneering company for 13 years, and later helped lead the organisation that he founded with Robin Howard, The Place.
One of the notable things about great artists and creative thinkers is their ability to constantly surprise you. Bob was always full of surprises; the breadth and depth of his knowledge, that extended way beyond dance, underpinned his ability to spark curiosity and deep learning in others. This richness of thought was one of the things that made it a privilege to be in the studio with him, and as dancers in his company, we were lucky enough to experience that on a daily basis.
Alongside his iconic choreographic works, such as Cell, Stabat Mater, Forest, and Nympheas, Bob was a phenomenal teacher, who inspired his dancers to work with enormous dedication and commitment. I can still hear his deep Brooklyn drawl, urging us to do “more”, to work “harder... deeper... higher”... and we did! Yet in spite of his aura of gravitas, he was not without humour. One day in the middle of company class, having just demonstrated an exercise, he asked us if we understood. I began to say “yes... but I feel...”, Bob swiftly cut me off, and with a twinkle in his eye, said “I don’t care how you feel, it’s how I feel!” It was said with love, wit and the perfect timing of a seasoned comedian.
To his great credit Bob nurtured his company dancers to develop their individual autonomy, evidenced not least by the fact that so many of them went on to develop other own unique creative voices - Dame Siobhan Davies, Robert North, Anthony van Laast CBE, Micha Bergese, Darshan Singh-Bhuller, or to become themselves, inspirational teachers or leaders in dance, such as Celeste Dandeker OBE, Namron OBE or Professor Christopher Bannerman... or choreographer Sir Richard Alston, who was one of the first students at the originally named London School of Contemporary Dance.
The fact that Bob, even in his last months, not far off his 96th Birthday, was still creatively active - teaching, choreographing, and inspiring a new generation of artists, is further testament to his exceptional qualities.
His legacy is beyond measure. He was an inspiration, a true giant. He was much loved and respected by many, and will be missed deeply. Wishing you a sweet sleep Bob…perchance to dream. *
* Robert Cohan’s first choreographed work was called Perchance To Dream
Dame Siobhan Davies, orginial member of London Contemporary Dance Theatre, founder fo Siobhan Davies Dance
Within minutes of Bob’s death being known many of his old company reached out to each other to share sadness and remember an extraordinary man.
He mattered very much to us. When the company was first formed Bob had to begin a new story for Contemporary Dance in the U.K and we felt very much part of that adventure.
The first members, including some of the time myself as an apprentice, were a truly diverse group of individuals, trained in different disciplines, from a wide range of countries and with some very pronounced personalities.
As the company evolved, Bob always searched out dancers with individual characteristics . He asked us to notice each other and learn from some of the qualities and a few eccentricities that were natural to us and then for us to work at becoming a cohesive supportive company.
My strongest memories of him are in the studio at work with us and sensing the commitment we had for him and he to us.
He was, and remained, gloriously handsome, he had a strong presence whenever he entered a room and he had a memorable dark chocolate voice.
Quiet, authoritative and knowledgeable about many subjects he also needed to form and sustain a company of dancers to tour theatres in the U.K. Our early and very small audiences had never come across movement such as we performed and before long we were touring to full houses for many weeks of the year. It was exhausting but Bob’s constant request to us to be true to ourselves as well as bond as a company allowed us to develop real strengths within us. Overtime these strengths let us develop our own trajectories. We were all encouraged to choreograph so that we had an all round perspective of what was needed to create works for the stage. When ready we were all asked to teach because he knew how much more we would need to learn in order to communicate a class well.
There was hardly a day in which we were not involved in some new initiative, a new work, a different place or culture to perform in, an unusual skill to master.
In all of these activities he was nearby, smiling and supportive, firm and clear.
Inevitably some of us needed to stretch out and begin our own stories and while he recognised and encouraged us I felt some of his sadness as we journeyed out.
Yesterday so much of the communication between us was how incredibly fortunate we were to work with him but also how strengthened we were to have each other. I believe Bob would love that as part of his legacy, amongst many of the other things that will and should be written about him. He would love to know that his advice to us about developing our human qualities as much as our dancing ones have kept us both tender and strong for each other now.
Anita Griffin, LCDT company dancer 1977 - 1986
I had to hitch-hike to get to the first class I ever took with Bob. The buses went on strike but I was determined not to miss it!
As a student I would watch his classes through studio windows and sneak into the back of the theatre to watch the company rehearsing. There was always a buzz when the company was back in town and Bob cut a glamorous figure when walking through the building with his Afghan hound ‘Ace.’
Three years after that first class I was incredibly proud when Bob invited me to join LCDT which became a second family.
Thank you Bob for your generosity, wisdom and all the opportunities you gave me, I owe you so much and I will miss you more than I can say. Rest well XXXXXXX
Paul Douglas, LCDS alumnus and LCDT company dancer 1979-87, founding company member of Siobhan Davies Dance Company
It is no exaggeration to say that meeting and working with Bob transformed my life - I'm sure that most people who spent any time with him would say the same. Bob was charismatic, authentic, knowledgeable, sensitive, warm and charming - incredibly charming!
He held firm to expectations of the highest standards in the performers and all aspects of LCDT productions and this was motivated by his commitment to the quality of experience for members of the the audience, because he believed in the transformational potential of dance for all of those who became immersed in it.
He believed in the intrinsic value of arts and culture and of dance in particular and instilled in the members of his company a sense of pride in what we had to offer as performing artists and a sense of purpose in what we set out to achieve with every class or workshop we led and with every performance we gave. Each act, each interaction deserved focus and intention and would, thereby, transmit an experience of positive value.
With the company and the school Bob created a model of multi-culturalism, inclusion and tolerance, way ahead of most arts organisations in the UK at that time. Although he did this with ease, I also believe he did this with purpose. He and Robin had fought in WWII and both were severely wounded but survived - they desired and envisioned a better world and they set about building it with heroic ambition and without tiring.
I learned so much about dance and culture through Bob but beyond that I learned much about humanity. It was a privilege and an immense pleasure to have know Bob for which I will always be grateful. I will remember him always with love.