Dance Revolutionaries

Reviewer: Helen Tope

Choreographers: Robert Cohan and Kenneth MacMillan

Director: David Stewart

Bringing together two of the biggest names in choreography, the film Dance Revolutionaries examines the influence and legacy of Robert Cohan and Kenneth MacMillan.

Directed by David Stewart, the first half of the film concentrates on Robert Cohan’s collection of solo pieces, Portraits. Cohan, who died in 2021, was a former student of Martha Graham and also responsible for introducing contemporary dance technique to the UK. Cohan’s teaching method was not only to impart the how of dance, but the why: the psychology and philosophy of dance. In Portraits, featuring soloists including Freya Jeffs, Edd Mitton and Romany Pajdak from the Yorke Dance Project, Cohan’s choreography is full of intent. As Mitton dances on an isolated beach, he reaches towards the horizon; lines extended, challenging the limits of what the body can do. The dynamic, dramatic shapes made by Jeffs also reference the classical ballet sphere: there is a sweeping, exploring energy to this piece.

Originally shown online during Covid as Lockdown Portraits, the solos were filmed in deserted spaces: a Sussex beach, an empty theatre. The intensity of the Covid-19 experience transforms personal stories of loss, grief and survival into something more universal. Communicating shared anxieties and hopes, Cohan’s Portraits are deftly impressionistic and contemplative in tone; weaving us in and out of spaces and moods.

The rarely-performed Sea of Troubles by Kenneth MacMillan represents the second part of the film. A contemporary of Cohan, MacMillan’s choreography also possesses a keen interest in the psychology of dance. Focusing on ballet, MacMillan not only brought elements of contemporary dance to the classic ballet repertoire, but he looked to bridge the gap between “ballet theatre and the theatre of the spoken word.”

Based on Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, MacMillan’s ballet is more narrative-led than Cohan’s Portraits. With a definite cinematic feel, Dance Revolutionaries stages this piece at a manor house, with all the resonant vibes of a place steeped in history. Focusing on the central characters, Sea of Troubles portrays the inner turmoil of Hamlet, as he finds himself trapped in a nightmarish world. MacMillan’s freer choreography, even within balletic steps and attitudes, allows the Yorke dancers to make a more personal connection with the audience. Hamlet watches wordlessly as Claudius and Gertrude dance together, revelling in their shared sensuality. As with Cohan, movement has a psychological purpose.

The film also uses sound to convey Hamlet’s fragmented state of mind. Animal noises and bird calls merge with courtly whispers; a conspiracy of sound to plague him further. With a chilling coup de theatre for its final act, this new production of Sea of Troubles makes a persuasive argument for the ballet to be seen more often.

Dance Revolutionaries notes Cohan and MacMillan’s differences but finds a commonality in their work. How they approached their choreography makes for a complex, but enjoyable, experience. There is enough to charm the enthusiast, and it also works as an introduction to the respective choreographers. Their impact on twenty-first century dance is not only explained, it’s underlined.

DanceRevolutionaries will be in select UK cinemas from 26 June 2024.

The Reviews Hub Score:

Complex but enjoyable

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The Reviews Hub - Film

The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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