Robert Cohan
“Wilderness” at the Robert Cohan Gala. Photograph by Camilla Greenwell

In the Moment

Robert Cohan at 90

Performance
Robert Cohan at 90
Place
The Place, London, UK, March 27, 2015
Words
Sara Veale

“Dance is a fragile thing—it only exists in the moment you do it, and then it’s gone.” So Robert Cohan reminded us when he took to the stage at the end of this gala, organised to celebrate his 90th birthday and honour his many achievements on stage and in the studio. The American choreographer—who trained with Martha Graham and famously went on to partner her in some of her biggest works—has a devoted following the world over, but he’s especially beloved in the UK, where the dance scene would look distinctly different had he not teamed up with Robin Howard five decades ago to, in his words, “bring an injection of American contemporary dance to Britain.” The pair launched London Contemporary Dance Theatre in 1967, which nurtured the UK’s first generation of modern dancers, churning out some of the country’s top talent (including Siobhan Davies) during its 25-year run and laying the groundwork for another seminal contemporary troupe: Richard Alston Dance Company. The site of all this creativity? The Place, where an enthusiastic audience greeted Cohan last week, eager to witness this mini-retrospective on his artistic legacy.

Along with two pieces of new choreography from Cohan, the gala featured two restaged works of his, plus two ensemble pieces from Work Place artists, each inspired by a seminal Cohan work. My personal favourite was an extract from “Forest,” choreographed in 1977 and expertly performed here by Charlotte Landreau and Lloyd Knight from Martha Graham Dance Company. Cohan created the piece as an ode to the unremitting chorus of the natural world, setting the dance against a gentle score of woodland sounds: birdsong, rainfall, whistling wind. As you would expect, he was heavily influenced by Martha Graham, and a distance trace of her famed technique is visible here in all its weighted, pelvic-led glory: the dancers splay their legs, then draw them together quickly like mantises snapping up their prey; they sculpt their spines into scooped half-moons and serenely exhale into gymnastic extensions. The extract ends with the pair puckishly sprinting off stages, sprites dashing into the night. It’s both calming and invigorating—a testament to Landreau and Knight’s incredible composure as well as the quiet strength of Cohan’s choreography.

Tony Adigun’s “Wilderness” was a huge hit with the audience. Taking their cue from “Forest,” the pieces’ 24 dancers—all from the Place’s youth dance programme, ranging in age from four to 16 or so—move through the woods, responding to nature’s mysteries and marvels. The tinier dancers attacked their segments with a joyful sense of abandon, darting across the stage gleefully, while the older dancers handled their sophisticated choreography—full of sharp slices and dives—with an impressive amount of gravity and control.

James Cousins’ “Sometimes, even now” also features young dancers, this time undergrads from London Contemporary Dance School. The piece is a take on Cohan’s 1969 work “Cell,” which explores intimate spaces and shifting realities. Whereas the original played out in a minimalist, claustrophobic set within a set, Cousins’ ‘cells’ take the form of pools of light, each belonging to an individual whose emotional state falters when they leave their circle. The dancing veers between violent bursts of force and milder, more vulnerable displays, the characters’ trauma playing out amid an oppressive crowd. The six main dancers did an excellent job navigating the volatile choreography, and hats off to the corps, who were tasked with stillness for the majority of the piece but remained alert and engaged nonetheless.

“Canciones del Alma,” from 1978, was the other legacy Cohan piece restaged for this programme. Here Yolande Yorke-Edgell, artistic director of Yorke Dance Project, reprised the role originally created for Susan McPherson, the only previous dancer to have performed this piece in the UK. Yorke-Edgell approached the dramatic choreography—which traces striking, muscular shapes against an eerie soundtrack inspired by sixteenth-century religious poetry—with great delicacy, tempering its sharpness with velvety transitions and a wonderful wide-eyed expression. She also appeared in “Lingua Franca,” a 2015 piece Cohan choreographed on her and a handful of other members of her company. As its title suggests, the work centres on dancers with different movement styles finding a common vocabulary. Some move crisply and neatly, while others are more rounded and lyrical—dispositions they get to show off in a drawn-out intro of casual, improvised stretching at the barre. The piece eases into its choreography slowly: the dancers start to experiment individually with similar phrases, then try them out in various pairings before coming together as a group. When they finally unite in a swooping sequence of deep pliés, arched backs and sudden changes of direction, it’s like coming up for air after a long stretch underwater: satisfying and revitalising.

The evening ended with a superb new solo Cohan choreographed on Liam Riddick of Richard Alston Dance Company. In keeping with its title, “Sigh” very much resembles a big exhalation at the close of a long day: the choreography is full of swings and releases; the amber lights and elegiac music call to mind a setting sun. Like a lot of Cohan’s work itself, if sounds simple yet communicates so much. As Clement Crisp notes in the programme, “He speaks without fuss to the world. And the world has good reason to listen and be thankful.”

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