Past Present/Connecting to Cohan – an inspirational journey into dance history

When I first started watching dance there were two worlds – ballet and contemporary dance – and the two were on separate paths. The contemporary course was set by Martha Graham and her disciples, one of the most distinguished of whom was the choreographer Robert Cohan. When this charismatic American became the founding artistic director of London Contemporary Dance Theatre in 1969, it appeared as if the future was charted.

But things didn’t quite turn out like that. Other techniques challenged Graham’s deep-breathing, fiercely grounded vision of contemporary dance; other influences affected its development. LCDT closed in 1994 and has never been replaced as an umbrella company for contemporary choreographers. And now we have reached the point where Cohan’s work is presented at the Royal Opera House, performed by a mixture of contemporary and ballet dancers, as his legacy is curated by the admirable Yorke Dance Project.

Cohan, who died at the age of 95 in January this year, worked closely with YDP and its admirable founder, Yolande Yorke-Edgell, for the last eight years of his life, and their love and affection for him imbues these two programmes of tribute. So does an extraordinary sense of vitality. The final work he created (in the studio and then on Zoom), Afternoon Conversation With Dancers, a series of eight solos, is a breathtakingly beautiful reminder of just how fertile his imagination was right until the end.

The solos are presented in the two programmes, on stage and on film. All astound, from Edd Mitton’s breezy sequence of walks and jumps, arms at straight angles as if carving the air, to Freya Jeffs’s sumptuously controlled unfolding where half cartwheels fall into a pose in which she looks backwards over her shoulder, as if studying something lost. Then there are Pierre Tappon’s frenetic leaps and dives as he dashes across the stage as if his life depended on it, or (on film) Lloyd Knight (of Martha Graham Dance Company) shuddering and shaking, as if his body might dissolve. The concluding solo, on stage in one programme and on film amid the gilt of the empty opera house on the other, was performed by Royal Ballet soloist Romany Pajdak, in pointe shoes, stretching and reaching in expressive, pensive tension.

Pierre Tappon and Freya Jeffs in Cohan’s Afternoon Conversations With Dancers.
Pierre Tappon and Freya Jeffs in Cohan’s Afternoon Conversations With Dancers. Photograph: Hugo Glendinning

Set to music by Nils Frahm and Ólafur Arnalds, these solos are a reminder of Cohan’s remarkable ability to make you look hard at movement and through very small inflections to let the personalities of the dancers emerge. The same thing happens in Communion, a company work for YDP, full of slow walks, frozen poses and deep pliés in second. The overarching sense of dance as sacred and inspirational is leavened by individual moments of effort and grace, as if the dancers’ essence is being released from within. The dancers are, as in every piece, superb.

Revivals of Canciones del Alma (another mystical solo performed by Yorke-Edgell) and Nymphéas (a speedy duet full of dramatic lifts and off-balance embraces beautifully performed by Pajdak and Matthew Ball, and set to Debussy’s Clair de Lune), revealed Cohan’s deep musicality and ongoing belief in movement as revelatory. Certainly he made it so.

Both programmes opened with Yorke-Edgell’s recreation of Martha Graham’s Lamentation, a mainly seated solo, where the extension of an arm or a leg inside a stretchy tube of costume turns into a gesture of universal mourning. There was also a revival of Kenneth MacMillan’s abstract, expressionistic Sea of Troubles, an inventive and emotional exploration of Hamlet, full of tangled limbs and striking images.

The whole endeavour was rich and fascinating, a journey into dance’s history that felt fresh minted and contemporary.

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