Frances Smith Cohen, founder of Center Dance Ensemble, dies at 87



Choreographer Frances Smith Cohen, who championed modern dance in Arizona for more than half a century and inspired thousands of children who performed in her annual “Snow Queen,” died Wednesday, May 14 in Phoenix in the age of 87.

Cohen has been the founding artistic director of Center Dance Ensemble, a resident company of the Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix since the venue opened in 1989.

Previously, she founded the Kadimah Dancers in Tucson and directed it from 1955 to 1971. She also co-founded the Department of Dance at the University of Arizona in 1972, and she worked in Washington, DC, as director of opera for George Washington University from 1981 to 1986.

Cohen suffered a heart attack last week, less than two months after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. A private funeral was held on Thursday and a public memorial service will be scheduled later this year.

Inspired by modern dance icon Martha Graham, Cohen was passionate about storytelling through movement. In addition to ‘Snow Queen’, an annual holiday concert based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, other hit pieces at the Dance Center included tales of Bram Stoker’s’ Dracula ‘,’ Anne’s Diary Frank ”(interpreted as“ The attic ”) and the Mexican legend of“ La Llorona ”.

Choreographer Frances Smith Cohen at a rehearsal in 2002 for Center Dance Ensemble, the company she founded in Phoenix.  Cohen passed away on May 14, 2019.

“She was the accomplished storyteller, and that’s what she loved,” said Diane McNeal Hunt, associate artistic director of the company. “She was brilliant at getting the dancers to dig into and engage with the characters she wanted to portray through her choreography.”

Radiant with energy that belied her years, Cohen tended to re-choreograph her work in the midst of rehearsals. But each piece came from a singular inspiration, as she explained in an interview in 2012.

“I don’t need music. I don’t even need the dancers. I need the title, ”she said. “It allows you to concentrate. Much of the creative process happens while you are asleep.

Cohen’s other passion was education, cultivating the talents of children who would not otherwise have the opportunity to participate in the arts. She was one of the founders of the Arts Education and Outreach Program at the Wolf Trap Performing Arts Center in Virginia, and after moving to Arizona, she started an Affiliate Program for children in that state. .

Will Center Dance continue?

Howard Paley, CEO of Center Dance, said Center Dance Ensemble management and dancers should meet to decide whether or not to produce a full season for 2019-2020.

“All of the work that Fran created in his lifetime could support the business for many years to come,” he said. “The question is whether it is the will of the performers.

Tamalyn Lewis, Co-Chair of the Board of Directors, said: “Rest assured that Center Dance will perform Frances’ work in the fall and also present ‘Snow Queen’. “

The next council meeting will be in June.

Cohen, born October 27, 1931 in New Jersey, moved with her family to Tucson, where she began dancing at the age of 3. In 1953, she married attorney Marvin Cohen, who would serve as chairman of the Arizona Commission on the Arts from 1988 to 1990. He died in 2009.

Cohen is survived by their three children, Samuel, Jeffrey and Rachel Cohen.

All of them grew up taking dance lessons and all embraced the arts, said Samuel Cohen, who has a day job in computer science and plays the trombone with the West Valley Symphony. Jeffrey is a piano teacher at the prestigious Manhattan School of Music in New York City, and Rachel is a special education teacher who also teaches at Dance Theater West, the Phoenix studio that Frances Cohen ran alongside ballet teacher Susan Silverman.

“The arts permeated the whole family,” said Samuel Cohen.

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