Yorke Dance Project’s Figure Ground: A Tribute to Robert Cohan

Posted: March 22nd, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Yorke Dance Project’s Figure Ground: A Tribute to Robert Cohan

Yorke Dance Project, Figure Ground, Lilian Baylis Studio Theatre, March 10

Robert Cohan and Yolande Yorke-Edgell in rehearsal (photo: © Pari Naderi)

Robert Cohan and Yolande Yorke-Edgell in rehearsal (photo: © Pari Naderi)

A lot of attention is being paid to choreographer Robert Cohan as he approaches his ninetieth birthday: there’s a biography by Paul Jackson, The Last Guru – Robert Cohan’s Life in Dance; a birthday celebration at The Place at the end of March and these performances of new and old work by Cohan performed by Yolande Yorke-Edgell and her company Yorke Dance Project. Cohan studied dance at the Martha Graham School and joined the Graham company in 1946, becoming a soloist and partnering Graham herself. You can’t get much closer to the sources of modern dance than that. At the invitation of Robin Howard in 1967 Cohan came to London to pass on his experience and knowledge as the founding artistic director of The Place, London Contemporary Dance School and London Contemporary Dance Theatre (LCDT) for which he created works for 20 years. On The Place website there is a wonderful photograph of him in the rehearsal studio, with an intense, intelligent expression that somehow captures the excitement of those early years of contemporary dance in England.

The first of Cohan’s works on the program is Canciones del Alma, set to a poem of the 16th century mystic St John of the Cross by composer Geoffrey Burgon. It cannot be anything but a spiritual work with the poem’s vocabulary of the ‘living flame of love’, ‘tender wounds of the soul’, ‘deep caverns of feeling’, and the ‘tender swelling of the heart’. Cohan clearly feels this text profoundly and his choreography is the vessel for that feeling. Like Graham’s work, the shapes come from and are inhabited by the deeply felt emotion of the performer and the cohesion of the choreography depends on the sequence and flow of emotions. Yorke-Edgell performed Canciones del Alma last year in the same theatre and she evoked movingly a battle between divine love and the wounds it imposed. At the very end she resolved it in a final gesture of cupped hands to her womb that seemed to free both her and the work. On Tuesday the emotional coherence wasn’t as apparent and the work remained unresolved. There was indeed a heaviness in the evening’s performance that capped the level of emotional intensity.

Even Charlotte Edmonds’ intelligent work, No Strings Attached, lacked the spring in its step that I remember last year. In creating the work, Edmonds was inspired by the spatial relationships between the dancers (the term ‘figure ground’ applies to the spatial relationship between figures on a canvas). The dancers have changed which may have upset the balance; the steps are there, the mature musicality is there but the life of the work is subdued. Set to Michael Gordon’s Weather One, which has both a rhythmic structure and an atmospheric feel, No Strings Attached weaves three men and three women in a series of rich groupings and patterns connected by grounded steps that give a sense of energy rising from the ground, with frequent yoga positions that add a layer of calm spirituality. Lucy Hansom’s lighting enhances the forms, gently bathing the bare arms and legs left exposed by Peter Todd’s costumes. Edmonds derives the dynamics of her steps directly from the music (Weather One employs plenty of canon form that Edmonds seems to enjoy) which in turn informs the nature of her shapes; they are abstract but inherently musical; she doesn’t require her dancers to inhabit them, as Cohan does, with emotional meaning. Her partnering is less interesting, but as a first professional commission No Strings Attached is impressive in its unpredictable play of form, dynamics, musical phrasing.

Cohan’s Lingua Franca is a new work, albeit inspired by an earlier one, Agora, from 1984. It is set on four dancers — Yorke-Edgell, Jonathan Goddard, Phil Sanger and Laurel Dalley-Smith — and responds to their ‘unique physical language’ but the visual package looks back to an earlier era when making the stage resemble a studio was a way of including the audience in the choreography. Lingua Franca opens with all the dancers entering ‘the rehearsal studio’ in their practice clothes, with their own accessories, warm-up routine and greeting, and with Yorke-Edgell preparing for rehearsals from a video on her laptop. By contrast a stagehand wheels in a video screen (that looks as if it was brand new in 1984) on which we see a small film of Cohan in rehearsal. What few studios have, however, is a grand piano, and tonight’s pianist, Eleanor Alberga, was for many years the musical backbone of LCDT. Before she sits to play, she runs (literally) through her own warm up of punching the air and touching her toes. While the dancers prepare Alberga plays her own composition over which we hear the voice of Cohan instructing the dancers. The stage clears except for Goddard who stands at the open piano. He signals to Alberga who starts Busoni’s transcription of Bach’s Chaconne in D minor as Goddard starts to move, except that he is frowning at Alberga as if she is playing the wrong piece. His solo reaches as high as it sinks low into the ground, like the music itself; Sanger enters with a twisted cabriole step, Yorke-Edgell begins her solo with both men lying on the floor and when Dalley-Smith enters she looks at all three wondering what she can do. It’s an artificial setting in which the dancers’ lingua franca — their styles of movement — are too diverse to give coherence to Cohan’s choreography, giving a sense that Alberga’s powerful interpretation of the Chaconne covers the entire piece like a heaven and earth in which the four figures are searching for paths in unfamiliar territory.

Yorke-Edgell’s own Unfold to Centre is clearly influenced by Cohan; even its title is redolent of the days of LCDT. It is perhaps the choreographer’s acknowledgement of her mentor’s generosity in supporting the project and of the investment of his creative time in its fruition. Unfold to Centre takes as its starting point a 1978 computer animated film by Larry Cuba, 3/78, in which ‘sixteen objects, each consisting of one hundred points of light, perform a series of precisely choreographed, rhythmic transformations.’ An edited version of Cuba’s film is projected on the backdrop and floor, providing a kind of blueprint for the choreography. Goddard is the centre figure who initially suggests movement that the others transform, a mixed image of a king and his deferential courtiers or of a planetary system. There are arm gestures that are pure Cohan and port de bras that are based on the classical fifth position. With all the movement of Cuba’s 3/78 projections, the bodies of the dancers appear monolithic as if participating in a science fiction ritual and only regain their humanity as they come together at the end.

There is so much to admire in what Yorke-Edgell has accomplished here: the place of honour given to Cohan as creator and mentor, the support of Edmonds as an aspiring choreographer and the reminder of the foundations of contemporary dance in England. The figure ground changes between these elements but it is Cohan who comes most clearly into focus.