Robert Cohan, a New York born dancer and choreographer who changed the course of British dance by helping found a renowned contemporary dance company and school in London in the late 1960s, died there on January 13th. He was 95 years old.
His nephew Roy Vestrich confirmed the death.
Mr. Cohan’s journey to running the London company began in 1954 when, as a key member of the Martha Graham Company, he met Robin Howard in New York, a wealthy grandson of former Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and a great fan of Graham’s work.
Almost a decade later, Mr. Howard sponsored a company trip to the Edinburgh Festival and a subsequent season in London, and was so encouraged by the success of the visit that he suggested Ms. Graham set up a studio there.
Mr. Cohan had taught at the Graham School although he had continued to dance with it, and both Mrs. Graham and Mr. Howard agreed that he should be the director of the London Outpost. In May 1966, in a studio on Berner’s Place near Oxford Street, Mr. Cohan began teaching Graham Technique – with an emphasis on weighted movements emanating from the spine and pelvis.
Over the next year, in a 2019 interview with The Guardian, Mr. Cohan said he and Mr. Howard spoke “every night with good wine” about expanding the company and finding a permanent home for it.
They settled in a former British Army drilling hall near Euston Station in central London and called it The Place to house both a school and a new company they founded, the London Contemporary Dance Group, later London Contemporary Dance Theater to accommodate.
The company debuted in 1969 at the Adeline Genée Theater in East Grinstead, Sussex, south of London, and received good critical reviews. Mr. Cohan, who commuted between New York and London while continuing to perform with the Graham Company, decided to devote himself exclusively to the British company.
The London company initially performed pieces from the works of Graham and other choreographers, but Mr. Cohan soon decided that in future they would only offer works that had been specially created for their dancers. As part of this new policy, The Place became a greenhouse for nurturing local talent and spawned major choreographers such as Richard Alston, Siobhan Davies, Darshan Singh Buller, Robert North and Aletta Collins.
The company toured the UK under Mr. Cohan, exposing audiences to contemporary dance for the first time in many cases.
“He started a school, founded a company, introduced the Graham technique in the UK, choreographed and bred a new generation of modern dance style choreographers, and promoted a contemporary dance boom in the 1970s,” said Debra Craine, chief executive officer Dancer critic of the London Times said in an interview. “Its importance and influence are almost incalculable.”
Handsome and charismatic, with long hair and the platform shoes that were trendy in the late 1960s and 1970s, Mr Cohan made The Place a creative hub not only for dancers and choreographers, but also for musicians, artists and filmmakers with common interests in dance. Composer Peter Maxwell Davies, photographer Anthony Crickmay and filmmaker Bob Lockyer, who recorded a number of Mr. Cohan’s dances for the BBC, were among the artists in Mr. Cohan’s circle.
Mr. Cohan was a prolific choreographer whose work was popular with audiences. Perhaps his most important piece was “Cell” (1969), which was created with two of his frequent collaborators, the designer Norbert Chiesa and the lighting designer John B. Read, and based on Richard Lloyd’s music. He encouraged his dancers to work on both experimental and mainstream creations.
The London Contemporary Dance Theater gave its first American tour in July 1977. “During the two-day debut engagement of this young British company at the American Dance Festival, there was never a dull moment,” wrote Anna Kisselgoff in the New York Times in her review from New London, Connecticut, in which Mr. Cohan as “the highly individual choreographer of unusual scope and depth “.
Allen Robertson and Donald Hutera wrote in their authoritative survey “The Dance Handbook” in 1989 that Mr. Cohan’s “pragmatic commitment to promoting dance and nurturing new talent in Britain was as important as the work of Ninette de Valois and Marie Rambert” , the founders of the Royal Ballet and Ballet Rambert.
Robert Paul Cohan was born in Manhattan on March 26, 1925. (Arrived just before midnight, he had an official birth date of March 27th, shared his family so he could later say he had two birthdays and was happy to celebrate both.) He was the eldest of three children from Walter and Billie (Osheyack) Cohan and grew up in Brooklyn. His mother worked for the US Postal Service and his father was a printer.
Robert took dance classes from a young age and was a fan of Fred Astaire, but he wasn’t seriously interested in dance until he was transferred to the UK to develop technical skills as part of the Army Specialized Training Program during World War II.
In London he saw Sadler’s Wells Ballet (the forerunner of the Royal Ballet) perform Robert Helpmann’s “Miracle in the Gorbals”. Inspired by this experience, he began his education at the Martha Graham School after leaving the army in 1946.
“I had this revelation,” he said in the Guardian interview, “that I would do it for the rest of my life.” His decision to turn down a job with the Veterans Administration and become a dancer sparked a two-year conflict with his family.
Within a few months, Graham had asked him to join their company, and he was soon one of their regular partners. Mr. Cohan’s appearance as Poetic Lover in Graham’s Deaths and Entrances “gave new meaning to the whole work,” wrote John Martin in a Times review. He added, “He dances admirably and acts with an engaging simplicity.”
When the Graham Company was not performing, Mr. Cohan danced on Broadway in the musicals “Shangri-La” and “Can-Can” and in 1957 worked in cabaret in Cuba with Jack Cole’s jazz dance company. (He described the experience as dancing “in a G-string for the mafia. ”)
Mr. Cohan began choreographing in the early 1950s and made his debut at the American Dance Festival with the solo “Perchance to Dream”. He wanted to teach and choreograph independently and left the Graham company in 1957, which infuriated Graham. According to one report, she scratched his back with her nails when they parted; Not a weakling, he should have scratched her back.
In 1962 he returned to the company, although in the same year he founded his own small troupe and from 1961 to 1965 headed the dance department of the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.
In 1966, Mr. Cohan became co-director of the Martha Graham Dance Company, and he continued to dance with it until he officially left in 1969 when he dedicated himself to his role as director of the school and company at The Place.
In the next two decades he created more than 30 works for the London Contemporary Dance Theater, including “Stages” (1971), “Stabat Mater” (1975), Nympheas (1976) and “The Phantasmagoria” (1987) working for the dance companies Batsheva and Bat-Dor in Israel.
However, its success in generating a new contemporary dance audience in the UK, as well as new groups of choreographers, dancers and companies in the genre, meant that the London Contemporary Dance Theater now had to compete for funding in a far more diverse and crowded sector, as well the International Dance Umbrella Festival in London.
Mr. Cohan resigned from the company in 1989, returned to head the company in 1992 and left the company in 1994 in a dispute with the British Arts Council, the company’s main funding agency. The company was later wound up and a new downsized force from Mr. Alston took its place.
Mr. Cohan retired to a farmhouse in the Cevennes region in south-central France and restored it and shared it with his colleague, Mr. Chiesa. He continued to choreograph for the Scottish Ballet and the Yorke Dance Project, for which he created a series of solos via Zoom last year during the pandemic.
He became a British citizen in 1989 and knighted in 2019
In addition to Mr. Vestrich, his nephew, his nieces Lee and Lesley Vestrich and their children and grandchildren, Mr. Cohan, survive.
When asked in 2019 if he wanted to continue choreographing, Mr. Cohan replied: “Absolutely. That’s what I live for. “