Sir Robert Cohan CBE (1925 – 2021)
26th January 2021
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 fulfil 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.
Tribute by Ross McKim MA PhD NBS (IDP) Principal and Artistic Director of Rambert School (1985-2015).
Robert Cohan was a Patron of Rambert School from 1989 to 2021.
Image of Sir Robert Cohan’s Stabat Mater, performed by Rambert School in 2015 at the Linbury Theatre.
Photo credit: John Pridmore.