Born in New York in 1925, Robert Cohan trained at the Martha Graham School, and began his professional career in dance when he joined the Martha Graham Dance Company in 1946. He quickly moved to soloist and then performed throughout the world as a partner to Graham herself. He left in 1957 to start his own small group of dancers and launched his long career as a choreographer.
Returning to the Graham Company in 1962 for its European tour, he soon became a co-director of the company with Bertram Ross. In 1967, at the invitation of Robin Howard, he became the first Artistic Director of the Contemporary Dance Trust in London and as such was the Founding Artistic Director of The Place, London Contemporary Dance School and London Contemporary Dance Theatre, which he directed for the next twenty years.
Robert Cohan’s influence on the development of modern dance in Britain is inestimable. Having pioneered the teaching of contemporary dance technique in Britain, he was instrumental in the development of a vast following, not only for the repertory of LCDT in the 70s and 80s but through his pioneering residencies throughout the country, which laid the groundwork for many other British companies that have come up in the last forty years.
As director of LCDT he created many works for the company in collaboration with leading composers and designers. Among them are Stages, No Man’s Land, Stabat Mater, Forest, Testament, the full-length Dances of Love and Death (commissioned for the Edinburgh Festival), Ceremony, Interrogations, Agora, Phantasmagoria and Video Life. BBC TV, who commissioned A Mass for Man broadcast in 1985, has also broadcast his Waterless Method of Swimming Instruction, Cell, Forest, Stabat Mater and Nympheas.
From 1989, Cohan worked as a freelance artist and choreographed several ballets for Scottish Ballet as well as companies in Germany and Italy. He was the Artistic Advisor to the Batsheva Dance Company from 1980 to 1990 and choreographed several works for them and Bat Dor Company.
Robert Cohan was continually in demand as a director of choreographic courses, notably the International Course for Professional Choreographers and Composers which he directed six times. He also directed professional choreographic courses in New Zealand and Canada.
As a teacher of contemporary dance Cohan taught extensively. In addition to being a senior teacher at the Martha Graham School he worked at The Julliard School, Harvard, Radcliffe, and at the University of Rochester in the US, York University in Toronto and at many colleges and universities in the UK.
With LCDT he won the 1975 Evening Standard Award for The Most Outstanding Achievement In Ballet and in 1978 a similar award from the Society of West End Theatre (now the Olivier Awards). He also received several honorary doctorates including from the Universities of Kent, Exeter and Middlesex.
In 1988 Robert Cohan was awarded an honorary CBE in recognition of his outstanding contribution to dance in the United Kingdom after which he took British nationality.
In 2005, Cohan’s 80th birthday was celebrated with a symposium at The Place and a gala performance featuring Richard Alston Dance Company, Phoenix Dance Theatre and Ballet Theater Munich at Sadler’s Wells in London. In 2011, Richard Alston Dance Company revived Cohan’s 1989 LCDT work In Memory. In 2013, he was awarded the De Valois Award for Outstanding Achievement at the 2012 Critics’ Circle National Dance Awards.
In 2013, Cohan began a fruitful partnership with London’s celebrated Yorke Dance Project, under the artistic direction of Yolande Yorke-Edgell. This partnership included Cohan mentoring Yorke-Edgell’s own choreography, re-setting existing dances on her and the company and creating new works for YDP dancers and guest artists.
Together, Cohan and YDP created six individual productions which played to packed houses both in London and on tour. Following a successful pilot in 2015, YDP, Cohan and composer Eleanor Alberga launched the Cohan Collective in August 2016. The Cohan Collective offers artists the rare opportunity to focus on the art and process of collaboration. The Cohan Collective brings together composers, choreographers, musicians, filmmakers and dancers to look deeply into the process of making music, dance and film to develop the depth and quality of their work and working methods.
Previous YDP board member Paul R W Jackson has published a book on Robert Cohan’s life in dance called The Last Guru.
In 2019, Cohan was awarded a knighthood by Her Majesty the Queen for Services to Dance, as announced in the 2019 Birthday Honours List. The award is an acknowledgement of Cohan’s pioneering vision and the exceptional contribution to contemporary dance that he made over seven decades.
Cohan’s knighthood was followed by the first ever Lifetime Achievement Award in Contemporary Dance at the One Dance UK Awards at the end of 2020.
In early 2020, at the age of 95, Cohan began creating his final work, Afternoon Conversations with Dancers, on YDP and guest artists. Created almost entirely over Zoom during the Covid-19 lockdown, these intimate dances tell personal yet universal stories of isolation, loss and survival with Cohan harnessing the power of dance to express the triumph of the human spirit.
In January of 2021, Sir Robert Cohan passed away at his home in North London.
His contribution to dance as an art form remains inestimable.