Yorke Dance Project
Past Present: Lamentation, Sea of Troubles, Afternoon Conversations with Dancers, So It Is
Connecting to Cohan: Tribute, Communion, Canciones del Alma, Nympheas duet
London, Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House
12, 15 November 2021
Thanks to Yolande Yorke-Edgell and her company, Robert Cohan was able to continue creating dance works for performance up until his death in January this year at the age of 95. He had returned to Britain from semi-retirement in France when she met him in 2013; they collaborated for the next eight years, reviving some of his works and presenting new ones for Yorke Dance Project.
Cohan had been a major figure in Britain’s modern dance scene from the 1960s, when he formed London Contemporary Dance Theatre (LCDT), supported by Robin Howard. Cohan, who had been a dancer and choreographer with Martha Graham’s company in New York from 1946 to 1969, taught her technique in London at The Place, adapting it for British dancers. Many of his former students and LCDT dancers were in the Linbury Theatre last weekend to celebrate his achievements. (American born, he became a British citizen and was knighted in 2019.)
Eleven years after he’d stepped down as artistic director of LCDT in 1983, the company folded for lack of Arts Council funding. Graham-based technique has been largely supplanted in UK training institutions by newer dance styles; contemporary dance companies favour works by currently fashionable choreographers. Yorke Dance Project is an exception because Yorke-Edgell strongly believes in connecting modern dance with its past. Indeed, her company’s first programme in the Linbury, with four works by Graham, Cohan, Kenneth MacMillan and herself, was entitled Past Present.
It opened with her performance of Graham’s 1930 Lamentation, seated on a bench, encased in a tube of purple stretch fabric. It is an intimidating solo because it’s so powerful in so short a time (under five minutes). I’d preferred seeing Yorke-Edgell perform it in the context of the Noguchi exhibition in the Barbican last month, where she wasn’t starkly isolated under stage lighting. Lamentation worked well, however, as a link to MacMillan’s Sea of Troubles, made for the small group, Dance Advance, in 1988. There is a similar use of heightened emotion in spare, Expressionist movement, and the same symbolic use of props as in Graham’s later work.
Sea of Troubles is like a mosaic of tiles reassembled in puzzling order, although the original context is familiar. Characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet are identified by crowns, robes, a shroud, a book. Roles are exchanged between six dancers in Hamlet’s fevered imagination: Gertrude is linked with two husbands and confused with Ophelia; the body under a shroud could be Hamlet’s father, Polonius or Ophelia. Hamlet is riven with guilt and paranoia; his memories are hallucinations, driven by (recorded) music by Webern and Martinu. Though the dancers know which characters they are embodying, viewers tend to lose track some time before everyone on stage is sprawled dead at the end. MacMillan’s experiment in trying to encapsulate the essence of Shakespeare’s play in dance is worth seeing, though (like earlier Hamlet ballets by Robert Helpmann and Frederick Ashton, whose Hamlet and Ophelia duet was recently revived on the Linbury stage) it is a minor piece.
Sea of Troubles was followed by a series of solos created by Cohan in his last months for dancers with whom he had enjoyed working. He called them Afternoon Conversations with Dancers because he worked best in the afternoons. Although the solos bear the name of whoever dances them, it would be misleading to assume they are portraits of a particular performer. First shown on film in the Barbican cinema last month, they were shared between the two Yorke Dance Project programmes, with some overlap in Monday’s Connecting to Cohan tribute.
Freya Jeffs performed her solo in both programmes, flamboyant in a red dress with a long skirt like those in Graham’s dances. Jeffs resembled a Graham-style pioneer woman, intrepid, questing and vulnerable. She repeatedly flung up a leg so that her skirt flared dramatically, as it did when she cartwheeled in a circle before subsiding in stillness. Graham and Cohan were known to be impressive cartwheelers in their younger days.
Edd Mitton was poignant as a lonely man in a suit, touching the stage as if remembering home ground. Pierre Tappon hurtled around in perpetuum mobile, panting in silence as his marathon had reluctantly to cease. Yorke-Edgell, in black, was a searching, mournful figure, arms spread wide in loss. Romany Pajdak, a guest from the Royal Ballet, danced on pointe as if testing new ways of expressing herself. Her solo was seen on film in the second programme, since Cohan had envisaged her as a small figure on stage in the Royal Opera House, confronting an empty auditorium: who was she performing for?
Yorke-Edgell contributed her own choreography in memory of Cohan in both programmes. So It Is, performed by eight dancers in Past Present, recalled her awe at meeting him (Edd Mitton on Friday) and her growing confidence in working with him. Their duet at the start and towards the end was one of respectful, intimate friends, his hand on her shoulder. In between, the cast danced in the clear, sculptural style Cohan had developed – and which is rarely seen on stage today.
Her personal tribute to him in Connecting to Cohan was simply called Tribute and accompanied a poem written and spoken by his nephew Roy Vestrich. Bob Downes, who worked with Cohan for many years, composed the music, played on the flute by Rebecca Speller. Yorke-Edgell’s spare choreography captured Cohan’s gestures in rehearsal, the company repeating them in remembrance of his presence.
His last work for the stage, Communion, first seen in the Clore studio in May 2019, was the centrepiece of the second programme. A ritual to Nils Frahm’s music, it starts with a long section of repeated pacing, backwards and forwards to the audience, as if inducing a trance-like state in the performers and spectators. When the dancers seated themselves on either side of the stage, those who entered the centre ground appear possessed. Jonathan Goddard compelled attention as a shaman in an astonishing solo, legs spread wide in deep pliés before springing into unpredictable co-ordinations. He is a performer to be treasured.
Two other solos were shown on film because the dancers, Laurel Dalley Smith and Lloyd Wright, both members of the Graham company, were in the United States. Yorke-Edgell performed Canciones del Alma, first taught to her by Cohan in 2013. Set to rapturous choral music by Geoffrey Burgon, it depicts a woman thinking and recalling her emotions, then searching for resolution in the second part, a response to poems by the 16th century mystic, St John of the Cross. Yorke-Edgell gave a restrained, passionate account of the long solo, in which Cohan referred to Graham’s choreography for strong, troubled women like herself.
Perhaps unfairly, because a duet from Nympheas was danced by guests from the Royal Ballet, it proved the most popular piece in the second programme. Cohan had created the longer work for LCDT in 1976, set to piano music by Debussy, with designs by Norberto Chiesa that evoked Claude Monet’s waterlily paintings. Luscious, Nympheas was much in demand from companies around the world. Cohan had initially resisted Debussy’s Clair de lune because the music was so well known but had to relent. I well remember the duet danced by Linda Gibbs (who coached the revival for Yorke Dance) and Christopher Bannerman. His role was taken by charismatic Matthew Ball, with lovely Pajdak as the high-flying woman, his playmate and partner. The piano was played live by Yshani Perinpanayagam. The alluring duet is so balletic a pas deux that it’s no wonder Cohan was asked to create two works for Scottish Ballet in 1993 and 2000.
Because Cohan died during lockdown, Yorke Dance Project’s tribute to him has been the first major celebration of his work. Extraordinary to think of him continuing to choreograph in his ninety-fifth year through Zoom and film, creating solos for dancers he valued. The compilation of seven of the solos, filmed in different locations, will be screened again in 2022 as Lockdown Portraits. His life and works are recalled in Paul Jackson’s biography of Cohan, The Last Guru, published by Dance Books in 2013.
A long-established dance writer, Jann Parry was dance critic for The Observer from 1983 to 2004 and wrote the award-winning biography of choreographer Kenneth MacMillan: 'Different Drummer', Faber and Faber, 2009. She has written for publications including The Spectator, The Listener, About the House (Royal Opera House magazine), Dance Now, Dance Magazine (USA), Stage Bill (USA) and Dancing Times. As a writer/producer she worked for the BBC World Service from 1970 to 1989, covering current affairs and the arts. As well as producing radio programmes she has contributed to television and radio documentaries about dance and dancers.