Robert Cohan CBE. In affectionate memory

Robert Cohan CBE. In affectionate memory

Back in 2015 when B+A was just three people (Ben, Tamika and me), we wrote our first book: Ben & Andrew’s Bumper Book of Fun and Games. It took five days (positively luxurious in comparison to the half an hour we do it in now), and it consisted of interviews with the most creative people we knew, uncovering their secrets.

One of my favourites was with the 89 year old dancer and choreographer Robert Cohan (who I worked with when I was a trustee of The Place). This weekend I found out that he had died earlier this month, at the proud age of 95. In affectionate memory, we’re reprinting his interview from the book here in full.

Born in New York in 1925, Robert Cohan trained at the Martha Graham School, where he quickly moved to soloist and then performed throughout the world as a partner to Graham herself. He left in 1957 to start his own small group of dancers and started his long career as a choreographer.

Robert Cohan’s influence on the development of modern dance in Britain has been enormous. Having pioneered the teaching of contemporary dance in Britain, he was instrumental in the development of a vast following, which laid the groundwork for the many other British companies that have grown up in the last twenty years. Robert Cohan, now in his 90th year, has been continually in demand as a director of choreographic courses, notably the International Course for Professional Choreographers and Composers which he directed six times.

B&A: You are now in your 10th decade, which was the most fun ?

RC: Aha! Probably when I became a professional dancer. So, decades two and three. I was discovering the world of dancing as a professional. It was like the movies. There used to be these great movies about musical shows going on the road. It was like that. 

B&A: What do you consider as your greatest achievement ?

RC: Living! I thought I would die very young because I burned the candle at both ends for years and so I can’t believe it. People said congratulations you are 90. I said ‘I think it’s an accident!’

B&A: What is different now compared to the past ?

RC: Many thanks have changed but one thing is the same – my choreography – and it still works.  That is fascinating.  Why does that still work when I can’t walk?! Matisse just went on working no matter what happened to him but with dance that it is harder.  I find the process of ageing fascinating. I’d love write about it but I don’t think anybody young would read about it.

B&A: You’d be surprised!  Although ageing is a bit of a taboo and a mystery.

RC: Well I was always interested in the growth of my body as a dancer. In the same way as i’m interested in the decline of the body. What goes first ? Why does it go at all?! 

B&A: Is there anything that the physical restriction of ageing opens up ? 

RC: Well the obvious thing that is gained is that you get irritated! Everything takes longer. Everything is harder. George Sanders the actor supposedly committed suicide saying too many buttons to button and un-button and when you are my age and you want to button up a shirt you know what he is talking about. I recently lost my clear glasses. I think they are under the bed but there is no way I can look for them. So it’s something as simple as that. I worry that if I go down under the bed then will I be able to come back up?!  All of those things change your ability to function in the world – which is something you have worked hard at. I used to be very strong. Now I’m very weak.  At the same time what you do learn is what is essential and what isn’t.

B&A: Do you think that creativity is hardwired in us from day 1 or do you have to develop and nuture it over time?

RC: You have to work at creativity. You have to work hard at it. First you must recognise the concept that you are going to create and then you have to go through the question of what it means to be creative. For me, it’s all about focus. Focus and work. You have to have an idea and a date. In dance what I did was I would have dates in the calendar. The date would be when a new work would have to be finished because the company is booked for then. So, that’s my creative worry – I’ve got to work myself to finish on that day. It’s no good just letting it happen. You have to worry about it creatively. I have to question it constantly. Is it the right approach? Is it the right idea? Am I doing it right?  I just have to keep worrying about it all the time by having it at the back of my mind constantly.  If you want a style, you have to work at it to find out what it is. You don’t have it before you start. You can’t just make it up. If you do then you are going to copy somebody else, or it’s not valuable because you are not producing it from yourself. 

Many people try and eliminate this difficult process. They ask people like me, ‘Is this my style ?’ and they want me to say yes or no.  But I don’t know the answer. A person’s style will emerge without them knowing it and that will be their real style. The moment they try to copy it they will be stuck. 

B&A : Let’s talk a bit more about the ‘worry point’ and the performance moment. This is something we think is transferable to other worlds. Is that deadline a restriction ?

RC: The deadline is not the end of it but you have to be ready. You get ready by solving the many problems you face in making the dance. But you need the deadline to get it done. 

B&A: So in creating dance work, there are many things you have to attend to. What are the things that you concentrate on and what do you normally neglect or leave until the last minute ?

RC: I come from a stage background. Therefore I know where I am going to put the work. I know it’s a stage. I know where the wings are, I know where the back is, I know where the front is. I give dancers direction on where to come from because I think that spatial concept is part of the creation. I don’t think about the costumes but I do think a lot about the lighting.

B&A : You’ve lit a lot of your own work. Tell me about the relationship between dance and lighting and why that is significant to you.

RC: Because you create in a lit space but the stage is just black. So the lighting designer is the person who shows the audience what you have created.  You have to collaborate with the lighting. Sometimes when people light my work they will show me my work in a new way  –  which is even more creative because you are not always conscious of what you have actually done. 

B&A : I’m interested in whether you learning to light has fed into your choreographic process?

RC: Sure! There is a point in Sue Davis’s dance where a man, an important figure, suddenly lifted his leg and stamped it on the stage and the dance changed from there. I suggested to her that the moment he stamps the entire floor should change colour radically. It was a stunning visual moment. It amplified his stamp. That was a tool I then put back into my own creativity so lighting for other people has enhanced my own work.

B&A: Technology must have changed considerably through your career. Has it really affected your processes or just enhanced the audience experience ?

RC: If you can use technology to tell somebody something that affects them and they remember it better as a result then that’s great but you start to ask the question of what is creativity. To me, creativity should enrich the daily life of yourself or other people. You are creative because it opens new ways of looking at things. It gives you more sense of yourself as a person and it enriches your intelligence, it enriches your emotional compassion and all those things that we think make a better person. 

B&A: So there is a kind of instrumental or utilitarian aspect to creativity which is about it needing to relate to real life as opposed to just being for artists?

RC: Absolutely. More than anything else everybody wants to leave their mark. Even people who don’t aspire to much. They still want to leave their mark.  In the process of leaving your mark you create something and you feel like you are leaving something in the world. A gardner feels he created the vegetables he grew, a sculptor feels the beauty of the last image he created. All artists can’t help but do it.  There was a woman in the village in France who decided she wanted to be a potter. She loved pottery. She found she had an amazing talent for it and she made the most stunning pots very quickly. She bloomed. She felt like a new person because she had discovered a hidden talent in herself. That is the satisfaction that creativity can give. She has found a place where she can leave her mark for the future.