90th Birthday Celebration for Contemporary Dance Pioneer

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Various Composers, Robert Cohan at 90, Yorke Dance Project/Martha Graham Dance Company/Richard Alston Dance Company/The Place, The Place, London, 26.3.2015 (J.O’D)

Yorke Dance Project performing Lingua Franca at The Place   as part of Cohan at 90 gala. Photo Camilla_Greenwell
Yorke Dance Project performing Lingua Franca at The Place as part of Cohan at 90 gala. Photo Camilla_Greenwell

Lingua Franca
Dancers: Jonathan Goddard, Phil Sanger, Laurel Dalley Smith, Yolande Yorke-Edgell
Additional dancers:    Amy Thake, Hannah Windows, Ben Warbis, Edd Mittion
Pianist: Eleonor Alberga
Choreography: Robert Cohan
Music: Bach,  Chaconne in D Minor, transcribed for piano by F. Busoni. Opening music composed and played by Eleanor Alberga
Lighting design: Adrian Plaut
Costume design: Robert Cohan
Film:   David McCormick



Dancers: Amelie Clemente-Ridge, Avi Joshi, Cecily Chitty, Esme Stone, Gabriela Demetriou, Mak Korda, Maya Demetriou, Telio Leblanc, Zoe Joshi, Max Craig, Blue Makwana, Jason Tucker, Jessica Yeo, Malachy Thylmann Foster, Maya Carroll, Montgomery Irving, Salome Pressac Hewitt, Stella Rousham, William Bridgland, Zakarius Harry
Choreography: Tony Adigun
Music: Edited and arranged by Tony Adigun. Sanctuary: Jesper Kyd; Endalaus: Olafur Arnalds; Cerro Largo: Apparat Alto Gryeedit
Lighting design: Mickie Mannion
Costume design: Bettina John


The duet from Forest
Dancers: Charlotte Landreau, Lloyd Knight
Choreography: Robert Cohan
Sound: Brian Hodgson
Costume design: Norberto Chiesa
Original lighting: Robert Cohan
Lighting re-design:    Mickie Mannion
Staging: Darshan Singh Bhuller


Canciones del Alma
Dancer: Yolande Yorke-Edgell
Choreography: Robert Cohan
Music: Geoffrey Burgon
Lighting design: Adrian Plaut
Costume design: Peter Todd


Sometimes, even now
Dancers: Jemima Brown, Jordan Harapiak, Katrina Madrilejo, Ellis Saul, Jordan Ajadi, Kyan Namazi
Ensemble: Students from London Contemporary Dance School

Viola player on recording:    Rebecca Hopkin
Choreography: James Cousins
Composer: Seymour Milton
Lighting design: Mickie Mannion
Costume design: Sharon Coleman


Dancer: Liam Riddick
Choreography: Robert Cohan
Music: Bournemouth Sinfonietta recording of Sospiri by Elgar
Original Lighting design:       Robert Cohan
Lighting re-design:    Mickie Mannion
Costume design: Robert Cohan


At the first of the Sunday Cohan Sessions, three panel discussions hosted by The Place prior to this celebration of his ninetieth birthday, dancer and choreographer Robert Cohan made one thing clear: ‘I had a great teacher. Her name was Martha Graham.’

The man who has been described as ‘the forefather of British contemporary dance’ was a member of Martha Graham’s company for more than ten years, and taught at the Martha Graham School in New York. When, in 1967, he became the Artistic Director of London Contemporary Dance Theatre (based, from 1969 until its demise in 1994, at The Place), he used a ‘subtly’ altered version of the Graham technique as a format for the training of its dancers. ‘Unless you have a mechanically organised instrument,’ Cohan went on to say at the first of the panel discussions, ‘you are not free…You have to know where your skin is.’

The four works by the choreographer included in the Cohan at 90 programme focus as much on the articulation of the body as on its movement. In Lingua Franca (2015), eight dancers make this articulation explicit through on-stage, pre-performance warm-up exercises, some of them at a portable barre. This is followed by a warm up, still in practice clothes, which is part of the performance. The dancers are accompanied at the start by recordings of Robert Cohan’s instructions (‘Listen to the movement!’), then by music composed and played at an onstage grand piano by Eleonor Alberga. The final section of the piece is a quartet danced to Bach’s Chaconne in D Minor, which Alberga plays passionately.

Looking at the dancers Jonathan Goddard and Phil Sanger at the start of this section, I was reminded for the first time of performances by the London Contemporary Dance Theatre in the late 1970s. It was partly the clothes that they were now wearing: tight-fitting singlets and high-cut shorts. (‘I wanted to see the muscles…the bone structure,’ Cohan declared at another of the panel discussions). It was also the space that separated the parallel lines along which each of the men moved.

Two dancers from the Martha Graham Dance Company performed The duet from ‘Forest’ (1977). The recorded soundtrack is of wind, first, then thunder and rain. The costumes, this time, were painted Lycra: bodysuit for the woman; leggings for the man. The movement – pliés, extensions of the arms and legs, balances – was measured. Apart from one spin, by the man, the pace was slow. As they listened to the wind, just as the twelve-year old Cohan listened to it in the forests of New York State, these dancers showed you their dance.

If Yolande Yorke-Edgell had appeared slightly uncertain as one of the dancers in the Lingua Franca quartet, her solo performance in Cohan’s Canciones del Alma (1978) helped make it the strongest work of the evening. Dressed in a long, full skirt like those Martha Graham used to wear, the dancer turned negative space positive by encircling it with her arms, or by taking quick, short, sideways steps through it. In the third section of the piece, the movement becomes more sweeping. The dancer extends both legs to slide herself to the floor. In her backward run on the diagonal from the front of the stage, with arms stretching out to the place just left, she resembles Isadora Duncan as described by Frederick Ashton and Edwin Denby.

After this potent evocation of Graham and of Duncan, the other solo of the evening had less impact. Sigh (2015), which begins and ends with the Richard Alston Company’s Liam Riddick running in a wide circle around the stage, was notable mainly for its faster pace, its athleticism, and the moment at which the dancer stands still to stroke the floor with an articulated foot.

In addition to these pieces by Robert Cohan were two by young choreographers (Work Place artists) which respond to his work. As if in reflection of the difference between then and now, both take Cohan’s clear, pioneer stage, on which the dancers do have ‘world enough and time’, and fill it with people.

Similar in many ways to Boris Charmatz’s enfant (2014), Tony Adigun’s Wilderness (2015), a response to Cohan’s Forest, is performed by well-directed dancers, some of them as young as three or four, from The Place’s Children and Young Dancers programme. James Cousins’ Sometimes, even now (2015), inspired by Cell (1969), places grey-clad students from London Contemporary Dance School about the stage (as did Crystal Pite in Polaris at Sadler’s Wells last autumn). In shadow, and facing in different directions, they remain admirably immobile as six dancers in white perform agitated duets in the cramped, harshly-lit gaps in between.

Nothing is left, in these two works at least, of what Jane Pritchard, Curator of Dance at the Victoria and Albert Museum, defined in the last of the Sunday Cohan Sessions as London Contemporary Dance Theatre’s ‘liberation of space’.

John O’Dwyer


Leave a Comment