Robert Cohan CBE is 90 today. Although, technically, he has two birthdays. He was born late at night on March 26th, 1925, but his birth was not recorded until the 27th. This was just one of the charming and remarkable jewels this inspiring gentleman offered us in an interview this week with his biographer, Paul Jackson.
Cohan may not be a household name - he may not even be a familiar name to students of dance - but after watching the interview on Monday at the University of Winchester, you would leave the room certain of his legacy and embarrassed to be so unfamiliar.
When the floor was opened to questions, Jackson was asked how he and Cohan met (Jackson used to play piano in Cohan's dance classes). Jackson - now Senior Lecturer in Choreography and Dance at the University - added that he suggested celebrating Cohan's legacy at a dance conference around a decade ago, and was stunned to have been met by blank faces.
Born into a Jewish family in Brooklyn, Cohan abandoned his faith at 13 (although he promised his mother he wouldn't tell his grandmother, for this would upset her... so every Saturday, he told us, 'I went to the synagogue, kissed my grandmother, and bicycled home!'). His mother took him to dance classes at an early age, which he described as enjoyable, even though he claimed he can barely remember them.
During his time serving in the army during World War II, he found light relief in the form of trips to the ballet, where he discovered his true calling in life. 'I suddenly realised that this was where I could be,' he explained. 'It opened a door for me which was... priceless.'
Shortly after a near-death experience - an encounter with a huge piece of shrapnel, from which he was saved by the contents of his pockets (canned ham and eggs, his wallet, and a book) - he was introduced to contemporary dance pioneer Martha Graham. He spent 23 years dancing in her company, before founding London Contemporary Dance Theatre in the late 1960's with businessman Robin Howard CBE.
Cohan steered contemporary dance in Britain to become the hugely popular art it is today. Hearing his pearls of wisdom on dance, teaching, passion and life was an immense privilege. It is my honour to share a few - some surprising, some funny, all valuable - with you.
- On his life in ice-cold trenches, with no food for weeks: 'When you think you're tired, you're not. When your life depends on it, you can do amazing things...'
- On having a British passport: 'I've met the Queen, and I liked her.'
- On discovering contemporary dance: 'I took one class, and that was it. I had the experience that you're supposed to have... and you know, that's what I'm supposed to do for the rest of my life.'
- On teaching working class students (and coming from a working class background himself): '... like Billy Elliot... they don't feel that they're meant to be there... You just make your own life... and it's very hard to convince people of that.'
- On his time dancing in Martha Graham's company: 'We worked from ten in the morning 'til ten at night, every day for years... there was no money... we all believed that this was right... we lived for the stage...'
- On receiving an invite to work with Jack Cole, largely credited as founder of jazz dance, in Cuba for six months: 'I decided... to say yes to everything... and I'm still doing it.'
- On being an educator: 'You should teach what you know. And if you don't know, don't pretend you know. And the other thing... teach everything you know... if you empty yourself, you will get filled up by the action of teaching...'
- On being a back-up dancer for Ginger Rogers: 'My life was funny.'
- On changing with age: 'I know better how to explain what I want.'
- On the future: 'I never think about the past... I'm only trying to think about what comes next.'
Originally posted here on tremr.com