'The Last Guru - Sir Robert Cohan'

The Last Guru - Sir Robert Cohen
'The Last Guru' : Robert Cohan's Life in Dance, from Martha Graham to London Contemporary Dance Theatre

Date published:
 April 2013
ISBN: 978-1-85273-162-5
Author: Paul R.W. Jackson
Published by and available for order via the Dance Books website
'Robert Cohan is part of the pantheon of American contemporary choreographers which includes Alvin Ailey and Paul Taylor. Like them he follows in the tradition of their teacher Martha Graham whose works were grounded in finding through dance a way to express the human condition in all its forms. This he has done in over fifty works, from early solos and duets to large group works which have been performed by contemporary and ballet companies around the world. A distinguished teacher, choreographer and advocate for dance, he has shaped the lives of generations of dance artists. This book is based on extensive interviews with Cohan, his family, friends and colleagues. Drawing together his life in dance around the world, it provides the first in depth study of this seminal figure in the dance world. '


' This book had its inception in 2004 at the run-up to Cohan’s eightieth birthday in 2005. I was then chair of the Standing Conference of Dance in Higher Education, the umbrella organisation for UK university dance departments and I suggested that our 2005 conference should celebrate the legacy of Robert Cohan. The silence was deafening; no one was interested. In the end, I arranged a small panel consisting of myself, Christopher Bannerman, and Henrietta Bannerman, and we held an open discussion of Cohan’s work and showed Darshan Singh Bhuller’s then recently completed documentary on Cohan called Another Place.It was a dispiriting experience. It was just over ten years since the closure of the company he founded, London Contemporary Dance Theatre (from now on LCDT), and two years since his most recent piece of choreography, Aladdin, for Scottish Ballet, and yet the British dance world seemed to have totally forgotten Robert Cohan, the man without whom, it is entirely correct to say, dance in these small islands would not be the same. As former LCDT dancer and now internationally successful commercial choreographer Anthony van Laast observes, “It is incredible that what Bob had has so quickly been erased from the dance world and that is a huge loss to the world of dance.” I therefore decided to approach Cohan and ask if he had had any thoughts as to anyone writing his biography, he did not, and so began a fascinating journey.The problem with Cohan is that his life has been spread around many countries – this is exacerbated by the fact that he is not a self-publicist and seldom talked of his achievements in one country to peers in another. Paul Taylor, Cohan’s younger friend and former Graham dancer, is now described as “the last living member of the pantheon that created America’s indigenous art of modern dance ”. Well of course he is not, Cohan is as much a part of that pantheon as Taylor but he does not have a publicity machine perpetuating his legacy. Perhaps it is all down to promotion and here Cohan seems to have fallen between the cracks both geographically and historically and what little there is written about him is often not correct. In Dance Studies: The Basics, the most recent work to mention Cohan at all, Jo Butterworth writes, “It was as if he saw his primary role as transmitting the Graham legacy to the UK rather than allowing himself the freedom to develop his own artistry .” Nothing could be further from the truth. His primary purpose, the mission he was charged with by Robin Howard, was to develop a contemporary dance company and school in the UK. At the time, it was Graham’s work which had completely bowled over the entire artistic establishment and Howard felt it was a suitable starting point for the venture. There was never any question that Cohan and Howard were going to transplant Graham to England. It was merely the seed for both his work and the work his students developed. It proved to be a very fertile soil as the multiplicity of dance now seen in England demonstrates. I have therefore tried in this book to bring together Cohan’s own memories, memories of colleagues from around the world and reviews of Cohan’s work as dancer, teacher, or choreographer over the last sixty years. It is not the intention of this book to sum up his life and draw conclusions – that will be for future generations who can do so with the benefit of the lens of time.The title for this book, The Last Guru, appeared some way into the research and after many conversations with Cohan and his colleagues. Having a ‘guru’ may seem unfashionable these days but, certainly in the arts, dancers, musicians, and painters are always asked, “Who did you study with?” Where you have come from seeming to be as important as where you are going. A guru in classical Indian culture (including the Hindu, Sikh, Jain, and Buddhist religions) is a revered teacher who passes their knowledge onto a shishya or disciple. The Sanskrit word literally means “an uninterrupted row or series, order, succession, continuation, mediation, tradition ”. This knowledge – which may be political, philosophical, religious, or artistic – is transmitted over a period of many years through the developing relationship between the guru and the disciple. In this 4,000-year old tradition it is considered that this relationship, almost a contract, based on the integrity of the guru and the respect, commitment, devotion, and obedience of the student, is the best way for subtle or advanced knowledge to be conveyed. In the end, it is hoped that the student will eventually master the knowledge embodied by the guru. As distinguished Bharata Natyam dancer and guru V. P. Dhananjayan told Rama Natrajan in 2010:A real guru is a person who makes one think. Anyone cannot be called a ‘guru’ and it is unfortunate that when young teachers use this profound word liberally thus losing its sanctity and significance. A guru should be able to expel all of your ignorance and should be fully qualified to clear all of your doubts in your mind regarding what you are learning. Adhyapakas (teachers) can teach the basics, but it takes years of experience for a teacher to develop into a true guru .He went on to note that “as a student it is important for you to choose the right guru”. For many of Cohan’s students, he was the right person at the right time. Many stayed with him for long periods and took from him far more than just a physical training, as Christopher Bannerman and Ross McKim note in the book. Anthony van Laast puts “Bob Cohan at the centre of my world; not only for what he taught you about dancing but for how he developed you as a human being.” Darshan Singh Bhuller is happy to acknowledge that “Cohan has probably had the biggest impact on my life as anyone I have known”. Jonathan Lunn even uses the word guru, saying, “Bob seemed to be able to see right inside your very being. His work had a purity about it like a religious cult, he was something like a guru.”So why the last guru? Simply because no one has emerged to take on the role. As Pandit Chitresh Das notes, even in India in the modern world the role of the guru is changing and certainly in Britain, where the transmission of dance has become a far more egalitarian experience, few are prepared to accept the responsibility or indeed have the experience to take on the role. As Ross McKim notes in his study of LCDT, since the closure of that company “a state of mind and an attitude towards dance making” has been lost. Cohan has a distinctly metaphysical side to his character, a deep interest in other states of being and, from his intense studies of the work of the philosopher, teacher, and mystic Gurdjieff, a belief that dance can change the self and in changing the self can change the world.Cohan is not a documenter of his work, nor a collector of reviews or a diarist, and many people have helped make this book possible. His work dancing with Martha Graham is documented in reviews of her work, though it is odd that even with Graham, one of the giants of twentieth-century art, there is no substantial authoritative biography of her, twenty years after her death. For chronological details concerning the Graham Company in the late 1940s and 1950s, I am particularly indebted to Stuart Hodes for permission to quote from his autobiography, which was in manuscript while I was writing most of this book but is now available online as an e-book , and which prompted Bob to remember stories and events from long ago. Dora Sanders and her husband Jim, who appeared late in the research could not have been more generous with their time and memories of the earliest days of Bob’s choreographic career. They allowed me to have so many of the wonderful photographs that appear in this book. The British years are better documented in the papers of The Place now held at the Victoria and Albert Museum Theatre collection and in Mary Clarke and Clement Crisp’s 1989 celebration of the first twenty-one years of London Contemporary Dance Theatre. This was supplemented by Janet ‘Mop’ Eager, one of the triumvirate who ran LCDT, and who allowed me access to many otherwise unavailable papers. She also read through and tweaked the manuscript on precise details of the LCDT years. For many years, Cohan worked in Israel with both the Batsheva and Bat-Dor companies, and from 1980–90 he was artistic adviser to the Batsheva Dance Company. All the material concerning Cohan’s work there seems to have disappeared, and I am grateful to Mira Edels, formerly general manager for that company, for sharing her memories of those times. The Bat-Dor Dance Company closed in 2006 and none of its archive has been available.Thanks are also due to Miriam Adams, Richard Alston, Yehudit Arnon, the late Clive Barnes, the late David Bedford, Chris Benstead, Paul Bloom, Primavera Boman, Karen Burgin, the late Geoffrey Burgon, Dolly Cohan, Elliot Cohan, Norberto Chiesa, Kate Coyne, Anthony Crickmay, Carl Davis, Susan Dinan-Young, the late Jane Dudley, Clare Duncan, David Earle, Janet Eilber, Sallie Estep Bhuller, the late Nina Fonaroff, Anca Frankenhauser, Pat Fraser, Fred Gehrig, Elida Gera, Linda Gibbs, Rena Gluck, Patrick Harding-Irmer, Jan Hartmann, David Henshaw, Mary Hinkson, Kazuko Hirabayashi, Linda Hodes, Stuart Hodes, Anne Jackson, the late Norman dello Joio, Daphna Jones-Jaglom, Danni Karavan, John Kehlior, Judyth Knight, Anthony van Laast, the late Pearl Lang, Noemi Lapzeson, Cathy Lewis, Bob Lockyer, Jonathan Lunn, Susan MacPherson, David McInnes-Hughes, Ross McKim, Micheline McKnight, the late Dorothy Madden, the late Francis Mason, Andy Miller, Barry Moreland, Namron, Robert North, the late May O’Donnell, Virginia Olney, Jann Parry, Valerie Preston-Dunlop, John B. Read, Moshe Romano, Clover Roope, Ned Rorem, the late Bertram Ross, Lizzie Saunderson, Rina Schenfeld, Darshan Singh Bhuller, Michael Small, Janet Smith, Gus Solomons Jr, Grant Strate, Philip Taylor, Kenneth Tharp, the late Dame Ninette de Valois, Yair Vardi, Carl Vine, Eli Wallach, the late John Wallowitch, Elizabeth Walton, Jane Ward, Anne Went, the late Joan White, Maggie White, the late Ethel Winter, Ben Wright.Further thanks are due to the Lisa Ullmann Travelling Fund who provided financial assistance to travel to Israel and to the University of Winchester for research time and funds to complete the book. Ron Hillel translated Hebrew which was quite beyond me. Likewise, thanks to Barbara Loester for translations from German. My editor Isabelle Dambricourt Carvalho did a remarkable job in questioning me about dates and facts and did much to rein in my eccentric punctuation. David Leonard of Dance Books was more than patient in waiting for the manuscript. To both of them I give much gratitude.

My partner Roger Peaple has lived through the long years of researching and writing this book and proofread many versions, to him thanks as always. He has as a result become a dedicated Cohan fan.

The book would not have appeared without Bob Cohan himself. He subjected himself to many hours of questioning in London, at his house in France, and to endless phone calls and emails. I am grateful to him for his patience, generosity, hospitality, and incredible cooking.

When I was writing the book, I had a conversation with the critic and writer Marcia B. Siegel and when I told her I was letting Cohan see the chapters as I wrote them, her look was more than incredulous. She went on to tell me that when she wrote her biography of Twyla Tharp she had said to Tharp, “I will need your memories but you will not see the book until it is published”, which is what happened. With this book, Cohan has seen the chapters as they were written – though not this prelude or the postlude, which contain my more personal observations – and suggested finessing of detail, though at no stage did he ask me to change anything. What we have done is adding a commentary by him at the end of each chapter in which he offers some personal observations in his own inimitable way.

Near the completion of this book, the film director Ken Russell died; after years of neglect the news was full of lavish tributes and the word genius was used. In the Guardian, Jonathan Jones wrote an article entitled “The Mourning After: Why We Should Celebrate Artists While They Are Alive”:

Art is for the living. If someone has lived creatively and you are grateful, for goodness sake, write them a letter, or create a website about them; get an article about them published if you have the opportunity, or if you are an editor, commission tributes while she or he can read them. What is the point of making a fuss when they are gone? It is morbid and to me it seems inauthentic. Art should not go gentle into that good night. The fire of it should illuminate the living, not sanctify the dead. Grand funerals are for soldiers, not for artists.… Instead of lamenting the lost, we should be celebrating their achievements, and saying thank you, while they are still among us .

This book attempts to celebrate the achievements of Robert Cohan. '

Book Reviews

Maggie Watson
Maggie Watson 6 Deecmber 2013

This remarkable book recently published by Dance Books, and including commentary by Robert Cohan himself, is far more than a dance biography.  Such has been the cultural and artistic impact of Robert Cohan that the chronological narrative account of his life also charts the introduction, development and establishment of contemporary dance as an art form in England.  It makes fascinating reading as the story of an exceptional life, while on other fronts the book debates problems such as how to balance the desires and expectations of audiences, critics, sponsors, and the various creative artists who are involved in any production.

The book is valuable too for the way in which it strives to convey what many of Cohan’s dances were like in performance, and by drawing on contemporary descriptions it incidentally offers an education in dance writing and criticism.  We need these accounts, because the work is now rarely seen, and the juxtaposition of extracts from descriptions of performances written by different dance critics both brings out different points of view and illustrates different ways of describing performances.

Cohan himself emerges as a courageous and committed visionary, true to himself and his friends, with a strong philosophical and mystical thread running through his life.  A gifted teacher as well as a choreographer, his work touched ordinary people as well as professionals;  I remember students from The Place coming to teach on Wednesday evenings at Oxford College of FE in the 1970s (my own first experience of contemporary dance).  I had no idea at the time of the pioneering struggles that made this possible.

The book includes 37 stunning black and white photographs, lists of Cohan’s choreographies, TV and film work, and an extensive bibliography:  Dance Books has published an important and classic work. 

Highly recommended! 

James A. Sanders
James A. Sanders Amazon reviewer, 2013

The Last Guru is an amazing book, packed with supportable data and well written enough to make them all interesting. This book will do as much for modern contemporary dance as books about Martha Graham herself, Cohan's mentor through the years even after her death. Cohan comes off as warm, thoughtful and brilliant as he finds his own voice in dance and will be remembered as such.