London Contemporary Dance School was established in 1966, moving to The Place in 1969, giving the trust headquarters, studios, offices and, eventually, a performance venue.
In 1967 Robert Cohan, a leading Graham dancer, came to London to produce a full evening of contemporary dance by students and guest Graham dancers. He stayed to become choreographer and director of what became London Contemporary Dance Theatre. Under his leadership the company evolved a recognisable school of contemporary dance, derived from the Graham technique. It became the flagship of modern dance in Britain.
With no modern dance repertory on which to draw, students were encouraged to choreograph their own work. The result was an outstanding generation of dancer-choreographers. Richard Alston, Robert North and Siobhan Davies were among the first students in 1966; then came Christopher Bannerman, Micha Bergese, Patrick Harding-Irmer and Darshan Singh Bhuller.
Exhilarating images of uninhibited, energetic dancers made the public realise that dance could be more than tutus and swans. Young audiences responded to the new choreography, modern scores and exciting design and lighting.
For 25 years the company maintained a high level of creativity, constantly finding new talent as dancers left to found their own companies and teach. In 1994 Contemporary Dance Trust was restructured and Richard Alston became artistic director. The company was disbanded and replaced by the smaller Richard Alston Dance Company.
The Waterless Method of Swimming Instruction
The Waterless Method of Swimming Instruction was created by Robert Cohan in 1973. He wittily set the action in a dry swimming pool on board an ocean liner, in a stylishly cool set designed by Ian Murray Clark. At first, the dancers engaged in 'swimming' movements, including a bit of synchronised 'swimming', before extending into more general games and gymnastics. As a contrast to the dancing, Siobhan Davies performed a great piece of clowning in a classic routine of an awkward girl trying to put up a deckchair and trying to dress and undress herself inconspicuously for sunbathing.
This photograph of People Alone includes dancers who contributed memorable performances to London Contemporary Dance Theatre over many years: Celia Hulton, Sally Estep, Anita Griffin, Philippe Giraudeau and Christopher Bannerman. Robert Cohan created People Alone for London Contemporary Dance Theatre in 1973. It later became the first part of a longer work simply called People. Cohan concluded that, in the end, people are always alone. Being with someone only increases each individual's inner loneliness. Cohan had just suffered a long illness, which probably influenced his bleak view of the world.
When People Alone was revived in 1977, the designer, Norberto Chiesa, took the chance to revise his original costumes. He reduced each character to skeletal, ghostly essentials. As often happens with dance, it is a still image, not a moving one, that makes a powerful and memorable statement about the work.
The photograph shows London Contemporary Dance Theatre in Robert Cohan's Nympheas in 1976. Choreographers get ideas from many different sources – from watching people in the street, television programmes, books or films. Often the inspiration comes from other visual sources, especially painting and sculpture. In Nympheas it was Monet's famous paintings of waterlilies. For the music, Cohan used Debussy piano pieces which perfectly reflected the impressionistic style of the paintings. Norberto Chiesa's two-tiered set was an important part of the production. The dancers work on two levels, almost on a 'wall', allowing Cohan to create friezes of great beauty. The dancers' dappled leotards, the shifting light, and rippling movement created a theatrical parallel to the original paintings.
'A real humdinger' was how one critic described Robert North's Troy Game, choreographed for London Contemporary Dance Theatre in 1974. It started out looking like any work built around athletic ability, until a beautifully formed pyramid collapsed and, with it, all seriousness. There were 'Keystone Cops' style chases, fighting duets and 'heroic' solos until everyone was too exhausted to carry on. Because it didn't present any obvious stereotypes of male dancers and was also genuinely funny, Troy Game was a great hit with more than the usual dance audience. In 1976, in Liverpool, the company Director, Robert Cohan, arranged for the dancers to rehearse and perform the show in sports centres and gyms, in an attempt to bring in new audiences. At the same time, he announced open classes, promising that, if there were more men than women in the class, there would be no charge. There were. It turned out that, to get out of paying, all the girls had bullied their boyfriends and brothers into going.
In 1984, in keeping with their aim to reflect modern life and attract young audiences, London Contemporary Dance Theatre presented Tom Jobe's Rite Electrik. When Jobe created the ballet, he was appearing in the evenings as Electra in the Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical Starlight Express. The main dancer in the photo is Darshan Singh Bhuller. In Rite Electrik, six girls and four boys strutted their courtship rituals in a disco-related piece with an underlying sense of evil. The cast wore Paul Dart's stylish, studded, leather outfits and punk make-up. The solo saxophonist had on what one reviewer described as a storm-trooper uniform and another wore tatty motorcycle gear. The choreography featured high kicks, gyrating hips, robotics, body-popping and martial arts. As the photograph implies, it was performed with fantastic energy, which made it very popular with young audiences.
Khamsin grew out of London Contemporary Dance Theatre's policy of opening up dance to the general public. In York in 1976, the company allowed the public in to watch Robert Cohan creating the work in the studio. Dance works are usually created behind closed doors. There is no generally accepted method of writing dance steps down, so a choreographer does not write a 'script' for the dancers to learn. He works directly onto the dancers, and may use existing ideas, or take inspiration from the dancers themselves or their chance movements. Sometimes inspiration comes very slowly and Cohan was terrified that, in front of an audience, he would dry up completely. 'Khamsin' is the name of a wind in the Sahara which is said to bring mirages and hallucinations. This stunning image conveys the idea of unattainable or lost love, the swathe of fabric distancing the woman from the man.