Sir Robert Cohan was a pioneer of contemporary dance in Britain. The legendary performer is now being remembered online with a multitude of tributes after it was announced that he recently passed away at the age of 95.
Cohan was originally a New Yorker who got his start as a dancer performing with Martha Graham’s dance company. Cohan often would work directly with Graham herself until 1967 when he decided to move to London where he would become the first artistic director of The Place, a new dance venue, as well as the London Contemporary Dance School and the London Contemporary Dance Theater.
Robin Howard was the founder of all those organizations, and once Cohan partnered with him the two were thought to completely change the face of dance in the UK. Audiences would bear witness to original explorations of contemporary movements that seemed to extend beyond the general understanding of classical ballet.
Famous choreographers Richard Alston and Siobhan Davies both were products of these organizations, and Cohan’s commitment to touring around the UK is what helped him gain so much popularity and momentum in the dance sphere. Alston recently became the artistic director of The Place himself, and spoke with the media about the legacy that Cohan left for him, and modern dance in general.
“Cohan spoke at the London Contemporary Dance School graduation last year, and his comforting words to the class of 2020 showed that his ability to inspire and lead will remain infamous.”
Alston then went on to discuss how specifically Cohan revolutionized his dance productions and the world of dance in general: “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.”
Cohan would go on to choreograph productions for the Scottish Ballet, Batsheva Dance Company, and many other notable European dance companies. He continued to make work into the 90’s and in 2019 he was knighted for his services to choreography and dance.
Composer Daniel Lee Chappell took to Twitter to post a touching tribute for Cohan, remembering him as a “genuinely supportive and generous person who nurtured the talents of so many people throughout his long career. He possessed an incredible vigour, insight and enthusiasm, still choreographing new pieces and sharing his tremendous wealth of knowledge and experience, as though he was still discovering the joy of dance for the first time.”
Rosie Kay Dance Company also released an official statement in which they praised Cohan’s “huge contribution to the development of dance and to the teaching of contemporary dance technique in the UK”. Phoenix Dance Theater said its former patron was “an inspiring figure whose loss will be felt throughout the dance world.”
For those who really knew of Cohan, they’re mainly remembering his iconic 2019 interview in which he claimed that one day in his early 20s he was walking around New York with a friend when they decided to sign up for a Martha Graham class, and it was in that class that Cohan “had the epiphany that this was what I would be doing for the rest of my life,” and that he did.
Eric Mastrota is a Contributing Editor at The National Digest based in New York. A graduate of SUNY New Paltz, he reports on world news, culture, and lifestyle. You can reach him at email@example.com.