Sir Robert Cohan, modern dance legend, dies aged 95 | Dance

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Tributes have been paid to the choreographer Sir Robert Cohan, a pioneer of contemporary dance in Britain, who has died at the age of 95.

A New Yorker who performed with Martha Graham’s dance company, often partnering Graham herself, Cohan moved to London where, in 1967, he became the first artistic director of the venue The Place, as well as the London Contemporary Dance School and the company London Contemporary Dance Theatre. His partnership with the founder of those organisations, Robin Howard, changed the face of dance in the UK and brought growing audiences to bold new explorations of movement that stretched beyond ballet.

The choreographers Richard Alston and Siobhan Davies emerged from the scene that he helped to create, and Cohan’s commitment to touring took experimental work around the UK. A hugely influential teacher and advocate for the industry, he galvanised generations of contemporary dancers. Alston, who became artistic director of The Place, praised Cohan’s ability to inspire and lead. “Still deeply involved with mentoring and teaching students, he spoke at the LCDS graduation ceremony last year,” said Alston, who remembered him “comforting and inspiring the class of 2020 when they were deeply affected and unsettled by the pandemic”.

Robert Cohan in 1957. Photograph: Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

Among Cohan’s revolutions in dance was a new system of side lights, introduced to his productions with the designer John B Read. “He designed a new ‘rig’ of lights which radically changed the way dance looked on the stage,” said Alston. “Cohan’s inventions in lighting went hand-in-glove with high standards of production, often with striking three-dimensional sets designed and constructed by Cohan’s long-standing collaborator Norberto Chiesa.”

Cohan later choreographed productions for acclaimed companies such as Scottish Ballet and Batsheva Dance Company. He was knighted for services to choreography and dance in 2019 and continued to create new work into his 90s. A 90th birthday tribute at The Place featured a new solo, Sigh – made for Liam Riddick – as well as a new version of Cohan’s 1969 classic Cell, reimagined by James Cousins. Two years ago, Cohan made a new piece, Communion, for Yorke Dance Project.

The composer Daniel Lee Chappell was among those paying tribute on Twitter, describing Cohan as a “genuinely supportive and generous person who nurtured the talents of so many people throughout his long career. He possessed an incredible vigour, insight and enthusiasm, still choreographing new pieces and sharing his tremendous wealth of knowledge and experience, as though he was still discovering the joy of dance for the first time.” Rosie Kay Dance Company hailed Cohan’s “huge contribution to the development of dance and to the teaching of contemporary dance technique in the UK”. Phoenix Dance Theatre said its former patron was an inspiring figure whose “loss will be felt throughout the dance world”.

Born in Brooklyn, Cohan was in his early 20s when he went with a friend to a Martha Graham class in New York. “I had this epiphany,” he told the Guardian in 2019. “That this was what I was going to do for the rest of my life.”

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