Robert Cohan, 95, Dies; Exported Contemporary Dance to Britain


Robert Cohan, a New York-born dancer and choreographer who changed the course of British dance by helping to establish an acclaimed contemporary dance company and school in London in the late 1960s, died there on Jan. 13. He was 95.

His nephew, Roy Vestrich, confirmed the death.

Mr. Cohan’s path to running the London enterprise began in 1954, when, as an important member of the Martha Graham company in New York, he met Robin Howard, a wealthy grandson of former Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and a big fan of Graham’s work.

Almost a decade later, Mr. Howard sponsored a trip by the company to the Edinburgh Festival and a subsequent season in London and was so encouraged by the visit’s success that he suggested to Ms. Graham that she set up a studio there.

Mr. Cohan had been teaching at the Graham School even while continuing to dance with it, and both Ms. Graham and Mr. Howard agreed that he should be the London outpost’s director. In May 1966, Mr. Cohan began teaching classes in Graham technique — with its emphasis on weighted movement emanating from the spine and pelvis — in a studio on Berner’s Place, off Oxford Street.

Under Mr. Cohan the company toured throughout the United Kingdom, in many cases exposing audiences to contemporary dance for the first time.

“He established a school, he started a company, he introduced Graham technique to Britain, he choreographed and bred a new generation of choreographers in the modern dance style and he fostered a contemporary dance boom in the 1970s,” Debra Craine, the chief dance critic of The London Times, said in an interview. “His importance and influence is almost incalculable.”

Handsome and charismatic, sporting long hair and the platform shoes in vogue in the late 1960s and ’70s, Mr. Cohan turned The Place into a creative hub not just for dancers and choreographers but also for musicians, artists and filmmakers with collaborative interests in dance. The composer Peter Maxwell Davies, the photographer Anthony Crickmay and the filmmaker Bob Lockyer — who recorded a number of Mr. Cohan’s dances for the BBC — were among the artists in Mr. Cohan’s circle.

Mr. Cohan was a prolific choreographer whose work was popular with audiences. Perhaps his most important piece was “Cell” (1969), created with two of his frequent collaborators, the designer Norbert Chiesa and the lighting designer John B. Read, and set to Richard Lloyd’s music concrète. He encouraged his dancers to work on both experimental and mainstream creations.

The London Contemporary Dance Theater made its first American tour in July 1977. “There hasn’t been one dull moment during this young British company’s two‐day debut engagement at the American Dance Festival,” Anna Kisselgoff wrote in The New York Times in her review from New London, Conn., singling out Mr. Cohan as “a highly individual choreographer of unusual scope and depth.”

Robert Paul Cohan was born in Manhattan on March 26, 1925. (Arriving not long before midnight, he wound up with an official birth date of March 27, his family said, allowing him later to say that he had two birthdays and to enjoy celebrating both.) He was the eldest of three children of Walter and Billie (Osheyack) Cohan and grew up in Brooklyn. His mother worked for the U.S. Postal Service and his father was a printer.

Robert took dance classes from an early age and was a fan of Fred Astaire, but he did not become seriously interested in dance until he was posted to Britain to develop technical skills as part of the Army Specialized Training Program during World War II.

In London he saw Sadler’s Wells Ballet (the forerunner of the Royal Ballet) perform Robert Helpmann’s “Miracle in the Gorbals.” Inspired by the experience, he began training at the Martha Graham School after leaving the Army in 1946.

“I had this epiphany,” he said in the Guardian interview, “that this was what I was going to do for the rest of my life.” His decision to reject a job with the Veterans Administration and become a dancer caused a two-year rift with his family.

Within a few months, Graham had asked him to join her company, and he was soon one of her regular partners. Mr. Cohan’s performance as the Poetic Beloved in Graham’s “Deaths and Entrances” “gave new meaning to the entire work,” John Martin wrote in a Times review. He added, “He dances admirably and acts with a winning simplicity.”


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