"When the idea was first brought up,
I said, "You must be kidding!"

 

An Interview with Robert Cohan,
October, 2000

By Stuart Sweeney

 

Robert Cohan has been making significant contributions to the dance world for more than 50 years. After many seasons performing with the Martha Graham Dance Company and running his own company in the USA, he became a key figure in the introduction of contemporary dance to the UK. As the founding Artistic Director of London Contemporary Dance Theatre, he had a pivotal role in the creation of the rich diversity of the art form that we see today in the work of Siobhan Davies, Richard Alston, Darshan Singh Bhuller and others.

I interviewed Cohan at Gatwick Airport, as he travelled from his home in Montpellier to Glasgow to choreograph Scottish Ballet’s new Christmas production, Aladdin.


Stuart Sweeney: Your background is in contemporary dance, so how did the link with Scottish Ballet come about?
Robert Cohan:
Believe it or not, it started here in Gatwick. Galina Samsova (then Artistic Director of Scottish Ballet) and myself were between flights and our conversation then eventually lead to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, my first commission for the Company in 1993. This was a nice experience, particularly as it was my first opportunity to work on pointe. The Company was very positive about the final result and asked me to do a second work, The Four Seasons, in 1996.

How did the Aladdin project get started?
Aladdin has been in gestation for a long time. When the idea was first brought up, I said, “You must be kidding!” But as I thought about it, I realised that this wonderful story is romantic, lyrical and magical, which are all elements that have always appealed to me and I agreed to take it forward.

By 1996 I had a workable scenario and all seemed to be going well. Unfortunately, financial problems arose in the Company and, as Aladdin was never going to be a cheap production, it was postponed. However, when Robert North became Artistic Director, he was keen to revive the plans and now I’ve got 9 weeks with the dancers and the technical team to get the work on-stage.

What are you hoping for in this production?
It’s going to be a Christmas entertainment and it’s a big production. I’m excited by new technology and we’ll have a flying carpet and other special effects, but it’s a touring show and some things I would like are just not possible.

For the choreography, I’m using ballet technique, but Graham contractions as well. I’m hoping that it will have the look of a work that has always been there, but you just haven’t seen it before.

I’m lucky to have such a fine group of people working with me. Carl Davis is writing the score, Lez Brotherston will do the sets, Colin Falconer the costumes and Paul Kieve is creating the special effects, following his great work in Dick Whittington.

Is it good to be working with Robert North again?
Certainly, but apart from the London Contemporary Dance Theatre days we have worked together regularly over the years. When Robert was their Artistic Director, Gothenburg Ballet performed my Midsummer Night’s Dream. We also choreographed together in the Opera House in Rovigo, Italy, where they have an annual major dance performance with a pick-up company.

How do you find working with ballet dancers?
I’m fortunate as I have worked with a number of the Scottish Ballet dancers before, but it’s still demanding. Ballet dancers have a different language, which is the ultimate in stylised articulation. However, some find it difficult to move in any other way. The only solution is to treat them all as individuals and remember what they can and can’t do.

Unlike the situation in contemporary dance, a lot of ballet dancers rarely work with a choreographer to make a piece. So being involved in the creation process can present problems for them. For example, in the middle of developing a phrase they may ask me about the position of the arms and I have to tell them, “I don’t know that yet.” It helps that I’m lucky as a choreographer in that I usually know what comes next. Working with ballet dancers continues to fascinate me.

There is an on-going debate as to whether it is good for ballet dancers to do contemporary work. Gailene Stock of the Royal Ballet School is on record that she believes that this experience can give dancers a greater understanding of their bodies. What’s your view?
It varies greatly, some take to it more easily than others. Remember that there are risks in getting a dancer to move their centre of gravity for one style and then shift back the next day for a different style. Some are really attracted to the idea of doing different work and many can do both. The Russian trained dancers seem to find it easier to adapt, perhaps because that feeling of sensual athleticism is also a feature of contemporary dance.

It’s been a turbulent few years at Scottish Ballet. How is the atmosphere there now?
Morale is good and audiences have loved Robert North’s Romeo and Juliet. A company needs to believe in itself and Robert is good at helping them do that. People need to remember that we’re performing to audiences in Edinburgh, where they see the best in the world each year, but also in Inverness, Aberdeen and Perth, where they see far, far less ballet.

Your early career was with the Martha Graham Dance Company. What are your views about the current crisis there?
I’ve signed the letter supporting the dancers in their conflict with Ron Protas [the inheritor of the Graham legacy]. I have to say that Ron is not doing a good service to the body of work, which is so important it should belong to the Nation. For the time being I hope that they can come to some agreement as quickly as possible.

At this year’s fund-raising gala for The Place (where Cohan is on the Board of Directors) you saw David Hughes and Lauren Potter perform an extract from your Forest. How did that feel?
I loved it! It’s always been one of my favourite works and Lauren and David were great. For Forest I drew on ideas from Indian Mythology and hoped that the sense of the forest and freshness would have a healing effect on audiences. I’d love someone to put the full work on again.

What are your thoughts now about the LCDT legacy?
You know, we had a reunion about two weeks ago in the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and about 120 people turned up. In this profession, you don’t get thanked very often, so it was a special experience to have so many people thank me for the help I had given them.

In the early years with Robin Howard (who had the idea and initially financed the London Contemporary Dance School as well as the Company) we were aware of the importance of what we were doing and we always approached the work conscientiously and with honesty.

The reunion was lovely, but it doesn’t take away the bitter taste left from the unhappy circumstances of the end of the Company. We didn’t get the support we deserved from the Arts Council. Apart from Rambert, there isn’t a major repertory contemporary dance company in the UK now and I think that’s a loss.

How do you rate the current dance scene?
In the South of France where I live, a lot of the dance I see is bad, but I enjoy Preljocaj (in London at the time with Romeo and Juliet). I don’t get the chance to see much in the UK these days. Wayne McGregor impresses me. Have you seen the new London Contemporary Dance School in The Place? It’s beautiful.

What’s next on your agenda?
I’m in no rush. I have this lovely house in the South of France, which was a ruin when I bought it 25 years ago. Having fixed it up, it’s like Paradise for me now and I love to read and think and look after my two big dogs.

I made a promise to myself never to say no to anything. But it’s good to be able to focus on your own life and not always have to keep to a schedule.

 

This interview first appeared in Dance Europe magazine.Their website: http://www.danceeurope.net/

Here is the link to other interviews and reviews in connection with Robert Cohan’s Aladdin.

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