This remarkable book recently published by Dance Books, and including commentary by Robert Cohan himself, is far more than a dance biography.  Such has been the cultural and artistic impact of Robert Cohan that the chronological narrative account of his life also charts the introduction, development and establishment of contemporary dance as an art form in England.  It makes fascinating reading as the story of an exceptional life, while on other fronts the book debates problems such as how to balance the desires and expectations of audiences, critics, sponsors, and the various creative artists who are involved in any production.

The book is valuable too for the way in which it strives to convey what many of Cohan’s dances were like in performance, and by drawing on contemporary descriptions it incidentally offers an education in dance writing and criticism.  We need these accounts, because the work is now rarely seen, and the juxtaposition of extracts from descriptions of performances written by different dance critics both brings out different points of view and illustrates different ways of describing performances.

Cohan himself emerges as a courageous and committed visionary, true to himself and his friends, with a strong philosophical and mystical thread running through his life.  A gifted teacher as well as a choreographer, his work touched ordinary people as well as professionals;  I remember students from The Place coming to teach on Wednesday evenings at Oxford College of FE in the 1970s (my own first experience of contemporary dance).  I had no idea at the time of the pioneering struggles that made this possible.

The book includes 37 stunning black and white photographs, lists of Cohan’s choreographies, TV and film work, and an extensive bibliography:  Dance Books has published an important and classic work.  Highly recommended!

Maggie Watson

6 December 2013

The Last Guru:  Robert Cohan’s Life in Dance, from Martha Graham to London Contemporary Dance Theatre Paul R. W. Jackson, with commentary by Robert Cohan.  Dance Books, 2013

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