“On my first day, Bob was in black leather and silver platform shoes, and I was terrified,” Kate Harrison Brill said. “He’s brilliant. His choreography pushed us till we dropped. London Contemporary Dance Theatre became first rate because of him. For him to travel from the UK to here seemed impossible, but he is here. No other man has caused me so much pain.” Seated a few feet away, Robert Cohan smiled back at her and gripped his cane. Now 90, he and Brill were working together again.
In Modern Master: Robert Cohan, Brill directed a superb tribute with four dances, one on film, for Live Arts Fest 2015. The series charts the development of modern dance in America over 10 nights. The Cohan evening was beautifully danced and made extraordinary because Cohan was there to share his process. It was an unforgettable night of living history.
Brill danced many of Cohan’s works in London, before she crossed the pond and made her way to San Diego to dance and teach. We instantly recognized her dancing in a film of “Stabat Mater,” from 1972. Cohan recounted his difficulty with the work.
“I listened to Vivaldi’s music for six months, and I couldn’t imagine a piece,” said Cohan,” but finally at sunset I knew I could choreograph it. The mother stands at the cross weeping…it took me months and I worked with Kate. It’s formed mathematically, and we have to make it meaningful. Dance is an extreme form of movement language.”
Nine women dressed in long gowns contract and swivel. Brill stands out in blue as her sisters console her. They spin with their heads back. The beauty is its simplicity and a sense of something deeply private and feminine.
Born in Brooklyn in 1925, Cohan danced throughout the world with Martha Graham for 23 years. He directed the company and in the mid-1960s ended up in London. Today he is lauded as the father of contemporary dance in Britain and laying the foundation for many later British companies.
Brill staged the duet from “Forest” for San Diego dancers Stephanie Maiorano, principal with San Diego Ballet, and Trystan Loucado, a favorite with many local companies. He also toured with Les Ballet de Monte Carlo. They are wonderful partners and consumed the stormy score. Costumes by Norberto Chiesa were body-hugging painted splashes of green to evoke trees and moss. A tall and limber Loucado pulled his diminutive partner close, and she contracted up to his chest, her legs stretched into a split. Fingers splayed before they spiraled down to the floor. They hid from raindrops as forest spirits and skittered as tiny deer. As they looked down, we could imagine flood waters rising over their little hooves.
Dancers from the UK and LA-based Yorke Dance Project performed two works. “Canciones del Alma” has been seen only once before, in the UK in 1979. The music of three poems drives the shape. “The lover is a synonym for God,” said Cohan, “so the work is not erotic, but spiritual.” As he predicted, the dance became a meditation the instant a woman stepped out from behind a curtain. Yolande Yorke-Edgell formed waves with her hands, and we were awed by her intense focus. Her legs rising out of richly pleated gray fabric caught the light and our attention.
Cohan created Lingua Franca this year and designed the costumes that suggested old-style swim trunks. Set to Bach’s “Chaconne in D minor,” men and women ran and turned their heads with a snap. Hands crossed over hearts preceded exhales and slides into deep second with bodies tipped. Repeated gestures such as tenderly cupped hands drew us in. It seemed they were holding a firefly.
Along with Cohan, the festival has made tributes to dance pioneers Isadora Duncan, presented by IsadoraNOW, and Jose Limon, by Celest Lanuza Dance Group. Khamla Somphanh and Michael Mizerany taught Horton and Lewitzky technique and phrases. (Sandiegostory.com’s Janice Steinberg signed up for that). Local dance gem and festival presenter Jean Isaacs offered a restaging of Atlantic Man and the lighthearted Pillow Cases. Pat Sandback celebrated a 35-year span with both poignant and humorous works.
Sandback recreated her solo Toward Stillness, a work that memorialized her father, into an ensemble work to remember dancers who have passed. Solitaire, a solo for Terri Shipman, was also melancholy and almost too dramatic. I kept waiting for Shipman to break into a wild and humorous episode.
All the silly energy was saved for The Toast with dancers worming around in colorful blanket tubes. With faces and hands covered, they struggled to drink champagne and eat chips and find their way back and forth. For viewers it was “who’s in that blanket” game, or nightmares about being smothered. For the dancers, it was a party where they had to trust each and try not slip or trip over a chair.
Emerging dancers from Sandback’s San Diego State Dance Department shined especially bright in Living Room Dances. Quick rhythms and Russian rap sent attractive men and women into rolls and lifts, and wonderful butt wiggles that are Sandback’s signature rhythmic accent.
There’s more to come. Jess Humphrey, also from SDSU, investigates contact improvisation and asks if it should be performed. Jane Blount presents an evening inspired by the practice of Authentic Movement. Saturday, April 25, Blythe Barton and Zaquia Mahler Salinas present Muliebrity: Womanhood.
Yolande Snaith and Katie Duck close the festival on Sunday, May 2, with Here We Are, a “collaborative work that promises the live body within a sonic, imaginal, and meaningful theatre space.”
All performances are at 7:30 p.m. at the White Box. www.Sandiegodancetheater.org/whitebox.