As the founding artistic director of the Place and the London Contemporary Dance School, Brooklyn-born Robert Cohan revolutionised dance in Britain. As he returns to an early work at the age of 93, he tells Anna Winter about training under Martha Graham, meeting Ginger Rogers, teaching Pina Bausch and performing for the Mafia
Robert Cohan – the Brooklyn-born founding father of British contemporary dance, student of Martha Graham and teacher of Pina Bausch – is sitting in the Sadler’s Wells cafe with a can of coke, recalling his days performing for the mob in the 1950s.
He had left Graham’s company for a short time, and found a job with dancer and choreographer Jack Cole, who did Broadway shows, films such as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and cabaret dancing. Cohan found himself performing at the Havana Riviera in Cuba – a casino and hotel operated by notorious gangster Meyer Lansky.
“People would come over from Florida to gamble,” Cohan says. “One weekend I met my uncle there. I never knew exactly what he did in the Mafia, but there he was. Lansky would give people like him a weekend break at the casino as a bonus.” Did the relatives acknowledge each other at this unusual family reunion? “Absolutely,” the 93-year-old laughs. “He loved it.”
By 1966, Cohan was co-director of the Graham company in New York. Three years later, with the help of an aristocratic English impresario and restaurateur called Robin Howard, he founded the Place  in an old army drill hall off London’s grey and grimy Euston Road. Together, they established a training institution – the London School of Contemporary Dance – and a company, London Contemporary Dance Theatre.
Though the latter disbanded in the 1990s amid rancour over Arts Council funding, the impact that Cohan has had on the development of British dance cannot be overstated. The biggest names in contemporary choreography today – Wayne McGregor , Siobhan Davies, Matthew Bourne , Drew McOnie  among them – have either emerged through the school or the Place’s choreographic platforms.
Still, it’s characteristic of the choreographer’s lively conversation that his anecdote about rubbing shoulders with gangsters circles back to Graham, the doyenne of American modern dance. “Jack Cole invented a kind of jazz dance, but interestingly, he came from Denishawn – the same school as Graham.”
As a custodian of Graham technique – which rerouted ballet’s weightless aspirations down through the spine and pelvis to create an earthbound, expressive style – Cohan is straightforward about the profound effect she had on his own choreography, from early expressionistic works including Cell and Class, through to 2015’s lyrically flowing solo Sigh, created for dancer Liam Riddick.
Graham’s belief in the stage as a sacred space underpins Cohan’s latest work – Communion – made to celebrate Yorke Dance Project’s 20th anniversary. It’s a rare chance to see a Cohan work – and a new one at that – performed live. Despite his influence on the industry, his works are not often staged.
Artistic director Yolande Yorke-Edgell, a collaborator for many years, asked him to re-imagine a piece of his past choreography. “That was an interesting idea because I’d never reworked an old anything before,” he says. “So I chose a dance from way back at the beginning of London Contemporary Dance Theatre called Mass, where I had the dancers walking from the back of the stage to the front, turning around and walking back many, many times and while they did it they were singing ‘Om.’ ”
What has emerged is “very different from the original. I used that idea of the walking forward and back, though it’s gone in different directions and I didn’t want to put the dancers through the singing. I found a recording of a choral chant. I call it Communion because it’s still a mass. When I first did the dance, it was right after the Korean War during which there was a massacre committed by the Americans. They lined up all these villagers and shot them. The first version of Mass was for them – those victims. I like to create a ceremony on the stage.”
For Cohan, dance has a spiritual import, both in performance and training. “People come for different reasons, sit there and look at the space, and you have to treat it as something special. It’s using the human body in wordless gesture and everybody can lay on their own meaning. You give it a specific tone or quality, but people tend to see what you’re doing and understand it without words.
“The very basic movement of ballet or contemporary class – knee bends like plies or stretches of the leg – are also done in the East, although they build a different technique. I treat those movements as something special. I never take them for granted and I make students reawaken the first time they did it. It becomes part of the training that goes on to the stage – a kind of religion. It’s complicated, but very simple, actually,” he chuckles.
Q&A: Robert Cohan
What was your first non-theatre job?
What was your first professional theatre job?
Dancer in Martha Graham Company.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Martha Graham, for sure. But I have a very eclectic taste – Busby Berkeley, Fred Astaire, the Nicholas brothers. I love ballet and the dancers I’ve known. I was good friends with Margot Fonteyn (she had a wild streak). Good choreographers make dance that is interesting to other choreographers even if the audience doesn’t always get it. I like a lot of dance, but not when it’s trying to sell itself with tricks – even though I’m the first one to use tricks.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Don’t be scared. Be yourself, focus and give whatever it is that you’re doing a quality. It’s the quality that most choreographers are looking for – a projection, not just the steps – although you have to do the steps!
If you hadn’t been a dancer/choreographer, what would you have been?
A biologist. I knew the name of every tree growing in Brooklyn and was part of the Audubon society for birds. You’d have a yearly chart and I identified about 140 different birds passing through Brooklyn on their way north and south.
Cohan was born in 1925 to a Jewish family that was “not Orthodox but close to it.” After his bar mitzvah celebration at 13, Cohan told his mother he wasn’t going to synagogue any more. “She looked at me and said, ‘Well, you’re now considered a man, so you can choose what you want. I will accept that, except you will go to your grandmother, who’s sitting in the synagogue every Saturday, and say happy holiday.’ So that was our bargain. Since then, if I have any religion at all it would be some version of Zen Buddhism.”
Nevertheless, does his Jewish identity inform the dance he makes? “I don’t think of myself that way. Of course, it could be coming out as an artist. You can’t deny the fact of your culture. I grew up in a very Catholic neighbourhood. All my friends were Irish or Italian but at that time we knew exactly what was going on in Germany. I remember an Italian friend telling me she’d hide me in the basement if the Nazis came over. I’m sure that affected me deeply.”
Cohan took dance classes with his sister as a child, learning “a combination of tap, acrobatics and a kind of ballet that we called adagio. In Brooklyn nobody would know the word ‘ballet’ but ‘adagio’ you knew”. Every Saturday, the children would go to the cinema and they loved the films featuring Busby Berkeley, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. “My sister and I used to come home, roll up the living-room rug and try to imitate what we saw.” He later met Rogers during his nightclub engagement. “We talked by the pool about mundane things. She was guarded, but nice enough. She was normal.”
Returning to New York in 1946 after military service overseas, Cohan took one of Graham’s classes. At once, his vocation became apparent. The experience was “indefinable”. Graham’s pioneering ‘contraction and release’ technique reshaped modern dance and is still taught today.
But what was this titan of the art form like as a person? “I don’t think that we have anybody like that now. The only one who might have been similar was Pina Bausch. Not as a dancer, but as an artist. In other words, having some strange tangential idea of what dance should be.
“She was very… profound is not the right word. She was profound, not necessarily in an intellectual way, but in a dance way. She knew instinctively what was right, where she was going and what she was doing. It’s hard to talk about her in ordinary words because she was an extraordinary performer – the kind of performer, like [Maria] Callas, who you hardly ever see, but who absorbs you totally. People were always shocked at how small she was because on stage she was a giant.”
She was demanding by being herself, Cohan continues. “She didn’t have to make any demands. It was extraordinary working with her. Every day was special. Those of us who loved her and understood her stayed there for years. If you couldn’t take it, you left immediately. On the deepest level it was personal. You never marked anything in a Graham rehearsal, you did it flat out. There was no saving it for the stage. She said: ‘When you leave the stage, you take it with you.’ ” He laughs. “God help you if you were left on stage after she took it away.”
CV: Robert Cohan
Born: 1925, New York
Training: Martha Graham School
• Cell (1969)
• Stages (1971)
• Class (1975)
• Forest (1977)
Communion is part of Yorke Dance Project’s 20th-anniversary tour, running until May 17. Details at yorkedance.com