Robert Cohan in 2018 (credit: Pari Naderi/The Guardian)
Middlesex University Visiting Professor Robert Cohan has been awarded a knighthood in the Queen’s Birthday Honours, in recognition of his contribution to contemporary dance over seven decades.
Cohan’s impact on the development of dance in the UK is considered second to none. Having been co-director of the Martha Graham Dance Company in New York, he was invited to become the first Artistic Director of the Contemporary Dance Trust in London in 1967. He was a founder of The Place, London Contemporary Dance School and London Contemporary Dance Theatre, became for millions the face of contemporary dance on TV through the 1970s and the 1980s, and has had a freelance career as a choreographer for Scottish Ballet and other companies since 1989. Cohan’s most recent work, Communion for Yorke Dance Project, was performed at the Royal Opera House in May 2019.
“I am delighted to receive such a tremendous honour, not only for myself but also for dance, the art form to which I have devoted the greater part of my life and which I love so much” said Cohan. “I am both happy and lucky to find that even at my age I can still be in the studio and create. Being involved with dance has always been and still is an extraordinary way to live my life.”
Teaching internationally, Cohan has a particular association with Middlesex which goes back more than 20 years. He has worked closely with Professor Chris Bannerman and Associate Professor Anne Donnelly, documenting his approach to dance teaching with the ResCen research centre, given lectures and master classes to final year students and assisted students in mounting performances of several of his classic dances, in the UK and China. In 2014 he was appointed a Visiting Professor and in 2016, co-directed the first Cohan Collective at Middlesex, as a summer course giving emerging choreographers, composers, musicians and dancers the opportunity to collaborate and experiment.
Donnelly describes the passion and rigour of Cohan’s approach to teaching, which is focused on his eight elements of dance. “The directions [when he taught] were fluid and continuous, he'd direct your thought process and where your attention needed to be to connect with every muscle.
"He's fascinated by so many things about how the world works - science, nature, physics, technology. His mind is able to reflect on how he can use that in a creative way."
Dancers perform Robert Cohan's Forest
"Masterclasses with Cohan are always a wonderful treat,” says MDX Associate Lecturer in Dance Technique Sian Hopkins. “He delves into the depths of movement with such insight and clarity. The beauty of form found through this feels rare and special, and offers inspiration I can take into my own teaching”.
MDX Dance alumna and Lecturer in Dance Technique Sarah Sulemanji said: “Robert Cohan has had a profound impact on my growth as a dancer. Studying his work under Anne Donnelly sparked a new kind of understanding into the potential of my moving body. Watching and listening to Cohan direct dancers in the studio is a continuous inspiration: his wealth of knowledge and ability to communicate across generations of dancers is unparalleled and I feel privileged to continue learning and developing my practice in this context.’’
Later this year Anne Donnelly will be restaging Cohan’s Stabat Mater for the Royal Swedish Ballet School and there are plans for Middlesex dance students to perform this classic work at artsdepot next year.
▪ Middlesex is also proud of the award of a knighthood to alumnus Simon Woolley, the race and equalities campaigner who founded Operation Black Vote in 1996.
After leaving school without A Levels, taking a mechanical apprenticeship and becoming a salesman, he came to Middlesex to study Spanish and Politics. He was involved in civil rights group Charter 88 before beginning a research project on how minority voters could have an impact on election outcomes, which led to the formation of Operation Black Vote. With OBV Woolley has been a tenacious campaigner on issues such as race discrimination and police misconduct, and worked with figures including Bernie Grant, Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson.
“To be singled out for this award is truly humbling,” Woolley said. “I hope the title will open more opportunities to allow me to work more effectively. I also hope it inspires other working-class people, black and white, to see what is possible for them if they make a positive contribution.”