Steps back in time: how I re-created a dance classic

Published
25/03/2015 by

Robert Cohan’s piece Cell was made for London Contemporary Dance Theatre in 1969, but is about to be performed in a reimagined version that distills its most relevant elements

It’s not every day that you get approached to reimagine a piece of choreography that will then be performed at the 90th birthday celebrations of the original choreographer. But this is the position I found myself in a few months ago. The work was Cell by Robert Cohan, which was created back in 1969 for London Contemporary Dance Theatre when Cohan was artistic director at the then newly formed dance organisation The Place.

I was intrigued by the idea of trying to reinterpret something that had been made 20 years before I was born – and also to be working on a piece that has strong connections to where I trained myself.

I knew nothing about Cell. I’d seen other bits of Cohan’s work, but not this piece. So I sat down to watch the original BBC recording, and the first thing that struck me was the set. It’s very imposing and sculptural – it really defines the space for the performance. But I was told right from the start that I couldn’t have that set. How could I re-create that sense of confinement and intensity for the performers and for the audience?

Cell is very much of its time in terms of the movement style and music. I tried to find a way to do something aesthetically new, which drew on the concept and ideas of the piece, but I was looking at what I could take from it, and there are things that are still very relevant to now. There is this idea about our desire to expand our worlds: more knowledge, more connections. Cohan talked about this desire for always wanting more, and maybe that we don’t necessarily feel we have to work for it, we just feel we deserve it.

I went back again to the title, Cell, and thought: “What does this title mean for me and the dancers? What’s it about?” The idea of isolation, of being trapped, is very relevant today, especially thinking about metropolitan life, and how we live our lives online. I see us creating little worlds, our own personal cells. The idea that we build up these invisible walls around us that can restrict us rather than allowing us to realise our potential. I’m trying to distil all these elements.

I’ve had six weeks to create the new work, including one week of production time, and I’m working with six dancers who are all third-year students at London Contemporary Dance School. It’s the same number of dancers as in the original Cell, but I’ve got two guys and four girls, which is slightly different to the original.

The music is a new composition by Seymour Milton, who I’ve collaborated with four times now. The original sound was quite abstract, very modern at the time. But that’s not me: I tend to use music that’s more melodic. Seymour and I talked about how we can bring some of the ideas that were used in the original composition into the new music, so that there’s a sense of continuity.

I think it is important that we look back in dance. Quite often we are trying to re-do things that have been done many years before. As performers and choreographers, we need to know what’s come before so we are not repeating but moving forwards. Normally as a choreographer you are on your own. It’s been amazing to have that direct contact with Bob, to ask him about the ideas in the piece, to hear his stories, and hear his experiences of working in dance. I hope he enjoys watching Cell in the theatre.

• Work Place artist James Cousins’s commission for Cohan at 90 will be performed at The Place, London, on 26 and 27 March.