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 Ballets
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 Nights 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 Ive got 9 weeks with the dancers and
the technical team to get the work on-stage.
What are you hoping for in this production?
Its going to be a Christmas entertainment and its a
big production. Im excited by new technology and well have
a flying carpet and other special effects, but its a touring show
and some things I would like are just not possible.
For the choreography, Im using ballet technique,
but Graham contractions as well. Im hoping that it will have the
look of a work that has always been there, but you just havent
seen it before.
Im 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
Nights 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?
Im fortunate as I have worked with a number of the Scottish
Ballet dancers before, but its 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 cant
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 dont know that yet.
It helps that Im lucky as a choreographer in that I usually know
what comes next. Working with ballet dancers continues to fascinate
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. Whats your
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.
Its been a turbulent few years at Scottish Ballet.
How is the atmosphere there now?
Morale is good and audiences have loved Robert Norths Romeo
and Juliet. A company needs to believe in itself and Robert is good
at helping them do that. People need to remember that were 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?
Ive 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 years 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
I loved it! Its 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. Id 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 dont
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 doesnt take away
the bitter taste left from the unhappy circumstances of the end of the
Company. We didnt get the support we deserved from the Arts Council.
Apart from Rambert, there isnt a major repertory contemporary
dance company in the UK now and I think thats 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 dont 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? Its beautiful.
Whats next on your agenda?
Im 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,
its 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 its 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 Cohans Aladdin.
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