Re-viewing the history: Robert Cohan as teacher
by Christopher Bannerman
The thoughts that follow were included as part of a presentation to the Society for Dance Research 30th Anniversary Conference in May 2013, with Anne Donnelly presenting further thoughts about pedagogy and Robert Cohan offering observations which were interjected at any time of his choosing. They focus on the early period of Robert Cohan's work with London Contemporary Dance Theatre, a company to which both Anne Donnelly (whose professional name was Anne Went) and I belonged, but they will be further extended in future to cover the entire period of LCDT's existence. The company closed in 1994.
The writing below is predicated on a consideration of the outward form, whether of the dancer of the institution, and questions its significance in relation to the practice and process milieu of the studio which represents and creates inner knowledge and experiences that are the impetus and compass of artistic practice. It is the internal processes that make dance real – literally bring it into the world – real-ising it in the moment.
Institutions such as London Contemporary Dance Trust, the associated school and theatre and the London Contemporary Dance Theatre (LCDT) were seminal influences on the development of British dance and their impact can still be seen and felt today. However, at the heart of much of this work, and at the heart of LCDT, was the teaching of Robert Cohan, his approach and the training system that he put in place. While the impact of this teaching may be discernible to some today, it is largely hidden from the majority of those involved in dance.
I have drawn on three main sources for this text: the Dance Mapping A window on dance by Suzanne Burns and Sue Harrison commissioned and published by Arts Council England; and news reports from the BBC On this day website at http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/default.stm; and finally I have drawn on personal memories and experiences. The Dance Mapping by definition is focused on institutions and development that is recorded and which is therefore presented as history. It is a kind of history, but it is partial.
This text below focuses on the record of the times as presented in Dance Mapping and a selective account of a personal journey into and through Robert Cohan's teaching and the transmission of somatic sensation that is the key to the movement of the dancer. I argue that it is these internal processes that result in the outward movement and form, without which there is only an empty shape, arguably devoid of internal vitality. This replicates the position of the institution – it is merely an outward form which, without the living knowledge, is meaningless.
And… a single word, a single syllable… a conjunction linking what has come before with what is yet to come. But in this instance it is as much disjunction as conjunction, as much separation as link – defining the border-crossing, the moment of the day, six days a week, when the 'normal', the 'everyday' is left behind… we begin class and become dancers.
It is 1973, and I am beginning my first class with Bob Cohan and the company, London Contemporary Dance Theatre (LCDT) at The Place, downstairs in what was Studio 4, a small and dimly lit studio. I am in the privileged position of doing company class as a friend from Canada, Ross McKim is a company member. I, on my way back from my overland trip and gap year in India, happily took up his invitation to do some classes in London as part of my plan to regain some a level of dance fitness before returning to Canada.
Bob was later to say that the 'and' moment also marks the instant that the body begins to learn again how to dance – that despite being a marvellous body of knowledge it also had the capacity to forget each night what it was to dance – and so we had to re-learn the knowledge each day. Only later I realised that this was a strategy to encourage us to be fully present in the moment – it wasn't routine; despite the evolution over some years of a tightly structured hour-long set of exercises, it was never routine – it was now, unfolding into the present, through the conscious attention to detailed flows of energy, and through the conscious and unconscious presence, through dance.
In 1973, the world was not as it is now – the past is, as L.P. Hartley said, 'a foreign country'[i] and the dance ecology in terms of supported companies was sparse. LCDT had joined five companies, who received Arts Council support only because Robin Howard set out and funded a vision that had become an expansive and irresistible force, not previously seen in Britain.[ii]
Let us zoom out for a moment and see a wider landscape, looking forward in time to 2008 when I was Chair of the Arts Council England Advisory Panel for Dance and three year funding was confirmed for 72 regularly supported dance organisations. We have come a long way – the past is another country and it can be difficult to recall how it was, and who we were in 1973.
1973 was also the year that the Dancers Resettlement Fund was established, which paid the tuition fees for not only me, but also Kenneth Tharp, Charlotte Kirkpatrick, Anca Franhenhauser, Patrick Harding-Irmer amongst others, as we embarked, in the 1980s, on a BA degree that would do so much for us.
In 1974 I joined the Dem Group at The Place, a small unit directed by Jane Dudley that toured the UK presenting a demonstration class and a range of choreographic works in a lecture-demonstration format. We were dance activists, presenting the work in schools, community centres and village halls and answering questions about a dance form still new to so much of Britain, and about life a s dancers in general. I still recall cows staring curiously through the window as I performed an Anna Sokolow duet in rural village hall.
The mission that was formed through Robin and Bob's vision for dance – being 'of service to, and through dance' was an all-encompassing calling, developing a dance language as well as an associated discourse and sense of vitality that changed the way that dance was seen and discussed.
Looking back from here, we can only wonder why and how these three people, two men and one woman, Janet (known as Mop) Eager, who formed the core of the project, thought that they could take on the task and carry it forward successfully.
They were clearly concerned with how to achieve their aim – do it with love, Robin once remarked; and they, and all those at The Place were fuelled by passion, determined to change dance in Britain. It may not be surprising therefore that I am proposing here that institutions may be the structural foundation for the dance ecology but that the outward form, whether of the dancer or the institution, is meaningless without the inner knowledge and experience that is the impetus and compass of artistic practice.
It is the internal processes that make dance real – literally bring it into the world – real-ising it in the moment. And the heart of this is the transmission from teacher to student of the body of knowledge. Doing class with Bob Cohan was a formative experience, the more Bob honed the physical motivations and outward manifestations of the movement, removing the expressionistic, almost decorative aspects of the technique, the more expansive the scope of his teaching.
'And….' it is 1975, I am a full company member, brought in from the Dem Group to replace an injured dancer in a work called Troy Game; my first experience of real physical exhaustion, my first glimpse of this other reality, a zone known only to a few in the modern world, and a powerful state of being.
Repeating and becoming familiar with this inner place led eventually to a sense of an inner core, almost completely unmarked by personalised thought, or even sense of personhood – a place beyond the self-conscious presentation of persona – as Bob once remarked in class – the things that people like us for are not the things we consider to be our best features; they are the things that are unconsciously present and manifested. He was encouraging us to remove the layers in order to reveal the unmediated presence of being. I recall Bob telling Darshan Singh-Bhuller and Lauren Potter that they looked like they were dancing very well – a puzzled silence followed, until Bob said gently that the audience comes to see us on the edge, exploring the movement in the moment, each night going beyond the 'dancing very well'.
This for me was a transformative and unifying experience – perhaps I have never mentioned publicly that my gap year in India had ended two months before that first class in 1973, when I had been sitting in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery on the border of Sikkim, in the north-western Indian Himalayas, participating in the monsoon meditation intensive and wondering how I could find some sense of coherence, how I could become a person who danced and who also wondered about how to be here.
In Bob's class I found the answer, or perhaps I found the right context for the questions. His interests and the range of references that he brought to his teaching were astonishing and without speaking often about such things we learned through intermittent fragments about his experiences in World War II, his interest in Gurdjieff, and some of the experiences that resulted from his long association with Martha Graham. It may seem odd, but he only very occasional spoke about Graham and indeed we were not always clear about where her influence ended and Bob's individual interpretation began.
And….also in 1975, Bob is telling us of the plan for LCDT to be resident in a series of colleges throughout England, spending a week or two in each, teaching, doing open classes, rehearsing and creating new work while being observed. He said that this plan had been discussed with the Arts Council who were puzzled, and wondered how a company funded to perform in theatres could spend time (and money) in educational institutions. However, they were ultimately convinced. Interestingly, only a few years later it was almost obligatory to have education programmes, today often called 'creative learning' as a part of a company's activities. I, as the new boy in LCDT, was selected as a participant in all three months of residencies, while other company members had half of the time in London.
They say that we learn most about something by teaching it; they also say that we teach what we need to learn – both were true for me, and in this period the dancers of LCDT wrestled with the articulation of the core principles of the technique; and sought the means to express the concerns of the form and of dance in general. Each day we faced a class of (mostly) enthusiastic students, and attempted to provide them with a glimpse of another world, in which they were both recipient and agent, taking charge of their presence and not merely attending, but attending to, and in the moment.
The movement of dance into education and community was gaining impetus, and the Conference on Dance Education and Training had led to the formation of the Council for Dance Education and Training in 1974. Also in 1974, the Laban Centre launched a three-year full time programme which evolved into a BA (Hons) in Dance. In 1975 Ludus Dance Collective was formed, and one year later in 1976 the first three animateurs were appointed in Swindon, Cardiff and Cheshire.
A clear sense of heightened attention and internal awareness seemed to flow out of Bob during the residencies – as if the circumstances of the dancers and spectators and their expectations allowed and inspired him to a new level of articulation, with images, detailed observations and physical demonstration leading us into new territory. The classwork became more focused, the material was further honed and more stylistic embellishment was stripped away – we felt that we were moving towards new dancing bodies, emergent, athletic, intertwining form and function.
And…it is 1977, and, on the second set of residencies, Bob has created Forest finding a performance form for this vision of the dancing body, articulate, honed, present, as it is.
During this period, the revolution that was counter to the revolution represented by LCDT, assumed more discernible form, and New Dance emerged in the shape of the X6 Collective, sometimes credited as the beginning of the Independent Dance Artist, although Richard Alston had formed Strider three years earlier in 1972. X6 however, also offered an addition to the landscape in the form of New Dance magazine, which was launched in 1977 – and then in 1980, some of the X6 members, notably Fergus Early, moved from the docks and established Chisenhale Dance Space.
These developments had many links to The Place – most of the people involved had been at The Place; and it was an exciting time 'infected' with vitality and promise, despite, I should add, a growing sense of a political national confrontation. It was always interesting to me that Bob, Robin and Mop had such clarity about their own mission and yet such openness about other developments – perhaps in Bob's case this was a result of a rich and interwoven dance world of New York, in which Cunningham rebelled against Graham, Yvonne Rainier rebelled against Graham and Cunningham, and the waves of revolution and counter-revolution were unleashed and rolled on. Arguably in Britain this phenomenon was compressed, partly as a result of having access to the American experience. But dance in Britain was growing from a small base and, as audiences grew with it, there was room for more and more, and the beginnings of a diverse ecology began to emerge.
And…it is 1978
Dance Umbrella began in 1978 and my own choreography was part of that first festival – but the excitement centred on the American post-modern contributions, despite, or perhaps because, some audience members walked, rather noisily, out of a Douglas Dunn performance. But overnight, the streams of investigation and development in dance multiplied and the ecology supported even greater diversity.
Also in 1978, Robert Cohan suggested in a private conversation with Robin Howard that LCDT be closed – the dream had been accomplished, the energy was flowing, and the vacuum created by the absence of LCDT would stimulate a creative implosion that would then ripple out in ever-greater manifestations of a rich dance ecology. The news of this conversation reached and unsettled the dancers, but it indicates the unbounded nature of Bob's intellect and imagination: nothing is unconsidered, or unconsciously assumed. Robin declined this suggestion after some consideration, and LCDT went on to greater achievements and the ecology of dance and of dance institutions expanded further in the 1980s.
The Dance Mapping A window on dance cites the growth in dance noting companies such as Extemporary Dance Theatre, Mantis, Janet Smith and Dancers, English Dance Theatre (Northern, Yorkshire and Lincs and Humberside), EMMA (East Midlands), Delado (Merseyside) as part of these developments. Also included is Phoenix Dance Theatre formed out of Harehills Middle School in 1981 who moved into Yorkshire Dance Centre in 1987; Second Stride formed in 1981; Siobhan Davies Dance first formed in 1981 and then reformed in 1988: DV8 formed by Lloyd Newsom in 1986: The Cholmondeley Sisters formed by Lea Anderson in 1984; Michael Clark Company formally formed in 1984 after creating work since 1979; Adventures in Motion Pictures formed by Mathew Bourne in 1987.
The Dance Mapping also notes that a significant number of these companies were regionally based and were funded locally through the Regional Arts Associations (RAAs).
While the above developments, and those of the early 1990s will be explored in greater depth in future postings, the extent of the activities noted above demonstrates the achievements that took place. Robert Cohan's presence in Britain, and the work of The Place was instrumental in much of this – either resulting directly through his teaching, or as a point of reference for other developments, or even as reactions against his influence, which he also predicted and even welcomed.
However, in the rapid and eclectic changes since that time, it is possible that something has been lost – it may be true of all of the arts, but the ephemerality and non-verbal nature of dance, and of dance practices, means that the lineage of transmission from teacher to student can become invisible – it is a semi-private exchange in the working studio, not acknowledged on stage, not often captured in a meaningful form. At times this knowledge is assumed to be in the movement, and so a syllabus is devised and recorded, but like the 19th century butterfly collectors, we are left examining the lifeless outward form – it is not just what is taught, it is how it is taught.
This is the crux of the matter, this is the transmission that matters, the heart inside the institution and the life force of the ecology. As the internal processes of the dancer make the outward manifestation of dance, so the transmission of dance knowledge from teacher to student should shape and animate the outward form of the institution. And it cannot be taken for granted – attending class is not enough – with the right teacher, attending to, and in class, will shape a journey in and through dance – I was lucky – we were lucky that Bob was our teacher, and the teaching resonates still.
ii. While almost all historical data have come from the Arts Council England funded and published Dance mapping A window on dance 2004-2008 by Suzanne Burns and Sue Harrison, some details have been drawn from other sources.
iii. As cited in the 1966 Articles of Association and noted online (accessed 1-11-13) as part of an EU application for funding at: http://eacea.ec.europa.eu/culture/funding/2010/selection/documents/strand_2/description_of_activities_fpa.pdf
iv. This is one of a number of anecdotal citations, emphasising the auto-ethnographic stance of this work. The phrase cited was well-known at The Place, but when and where Robin said this was not noted.