February 2021

Dr Ross McKim remembers Sir Robert Cohan CBE (1925 - 2021)

Modern dance legend and pioneer of contemporary dance in Britain is remembered by a friend

Last month, on 13 January 2021, Sir Robert Cohan, pioneer of contemporary dance in Britain, passed away at the age of 95. Cohan transformed the British dance scene in the 1960s, and alongside Robin Howard, helped to form the idea that American modern dance could ‘take off’ here in the UK.

Cohan was an American-born British dancer, artistic director, choreographer and adored teacher. In 1946, he joined ‘Martha Graham Dance Company’, becoming a teacher in Graham’s dance school after a period as one of her regular partners on stage. He became co-director in 1966. In 1967, Cohan launched London Contemporary Dance TheatreLondon’s first contemporary dance school, and consequently changed the course of British dance forever. He inspired generations of dancers and dance teachers through his ability to teach so endearingly.

When remembering Sir Robert, we thought it best to ask a friend and previous student for a personal recollection. We spoke to Dr Ross McKim, Creator of the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing’s Contemporary Dance Syllabus, who was heavily inspired and influenced by him.

Professor Sir Robert Cohan is made a Knight Bachelor of the British Empire by the Prince of Wales for services to choreography and dance.

Dr Ross McKim remembers a friend

Dr Ross McKim is a dancer, choreographer, philosopher, and was the Artistic Director of the Rambert School (from 1985–2015). These are his words:

The facts are easy. Bob grew up in Brooklyn and had a little dance training there. He fought in World War Two. Conscripted into a unit of young men of high intelligence towards special war projects, he was near fatally wounded. He saw colleagues near him die instantly. Cohan studied, and then danced with Martha Graham, sometimes as her partner, for two decades. Later, at the invitation of Robin Howard, he built and sustained the now legendary London Contemporary Dance Theatre for more than twenty years.

He listened in perfectly timed silence using more than intellect. He took you in. A source within him became a reserve within you.

He read deeply but probably not that much. He did not write. He was of a spoken tradition and illuminated words. He invented new thought. His skilful reasoning could make a false case appear true.  He built enlightened sense out of language.

He and his company became disruptively successful. Through him people became gifted. They gained access to expressivity that was not otherwise accessible. From his company, he demanded loyalty towards the discoveries of another to whom he bore witness. It is true he created some dances that few people liked. Perhaps he was blinkered by obsession with the best of his own work. He hated the frivolous. Bob became, arguably, the most important choreographer of his time and one of the few that mattered.

Cohan may not have been so successful a dance-maker as he was as a dance-teacher. His dances did not always fulfill expectations. The teaching did. He was clinically fascinated by, rather than in love with, the artistic evolution of his dancers. He became the best teacher in practice, transmitting not technique, but its source. 

He had a desk in the company office but did not sit at it.There was a pile of his dance clothes on that desk.  

Driven by non-ordinary awareness he struggled in loneliness. Driven by non-ordinary awareness much of his effort was doomed.  He dealt with subject matter beyond the  interest of most people.  Because his understanding flourished beyond the scope of many his treatment of it was, to them, at times, incomprehensible.

He was the closest friend I have had and I hardly knew him.

Ross McKim MA PhD NBS (IDP)

[1] Robert Cohan is the greatest single influence on the Contemporary Dance Syllabus of the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing.

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