Dancing with Cleo

Arts and Culture Institution Celebrates 51st Anniversary

By Angelia D. McGowan

In 2020, countless milestones around the world were celebrated on a much different scale than most anticipated due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Cleo Parker Robinson Dance (CPRD), which marked 50 years as a Denver-based artistic and cultural institution, was no different.They were on a roll, looking forward to tour dates in the U.S. and abroad, when everything stopped. Tours to Senegal, China and Mexico were all canceled. The 2020 Dance/USA Conference, which was scheduled to be held in Denver in June 2020 with a keynote by Cleo Parker Robinson, was canceled. This national service organization shifted its conference to a virtual format, leaving the world-renowned choreographer delivering a keynote to participants worldwide — from an empty studio.

It was odd at first, but the company found its rhythm online. In honor of its golden anniversary, CPRD also debuted its first-ever virtual concert entitled, “Out of the Box.” While deeaply disappointed that they missed their 50th anniversary on a larger scale, Parker Robinson believes that it allowed time for self-reflection.

“I had to get to a place where I could try to see what others were seeing in regard to the 50 years,” says the artist who is also warmly known around the world as simply Cleo. “I had to ask myself ‘Who are we? The big we. Who is me?’ I really was all of the ‘we’ and blessed to be me in the ‘we,’ in something larger than myself.”

Parker Robinson, who co-founded the institution in 1970 with Schyleen Qualls and other community leaders, recalls using the stillness of 2020 to sit and view archival dance footage and documentaries of performances that they rarely, if ever, went back to review.

“It was truly Sankofa, looking back at ourselves and sometimes laughing at ourselves, and sometimes being in total awe of what we were able to do. We’d ask, ‘How’d we do that? How did that happen?’ It was remarkable,” she explained. “We weren’t just busy. We were doing things that were meaningful. We stopped to revisit that meaning, and how so many people made a dream a reality for this community. So much sacrifice was made. People were so bright, committed, courageous …how risky and how young we were.”

Today, Parker Robinson is the recipient of numerous honors and awards from civic, community and artistic organizations around the world, as well as four honorary doctorates with the most recent being from the University of Colorado at Boulder. She is called on by organizations and performance venues to bring her ensemble for performances, and conduct workshops, master classes and motivational seminars.

Her philosophy of “One Spirit, Many Voices” is reflected in all she does, and is the vision she brings to everyone she meets, everywhere she goes. That vision has taken her company around the globe to such places as Iceland, Singapore, Belize, Israel, Egypt, Turkey, and throughout Europe and the African continent. She extends the reach of the company as one of the five founding dance companies of the International Association of Blacks in Dance, along with Philadanco in Philadelphia, Dallas Black Dance Theater in Texas, Dayton Contemporary Dance Company in Ohio, and Lula Washington Dance Theatre in Los Angeles.

“Cleo is a treasure, but what she has created with the company is bigger than her,” says Gary Steuer, president and CEO of Bonfils-Stanton Foundation, which is dedicated to fostering, through arts and culture, a creative, inspiring and connected community in the Denver region.

The foundation has funded CPRD with more than a $1.1 million since their grant-making relationship began in 1989. Steuer has personally known the Denver native since he became head of the foundation in 2013. Prior to moving to Denver, he recalls hearing of the reputation of the cultural organization. He notes that Denver has a lot of great arts institutions, but CPRD is one of a few Denver-based companies that tours. He believes that for some people around the world, the first way they may know Denver is through CPRD.

Within the first seven years of being established, the dance ensemble was one of only two U.S.-based Black ensembles to perform in Lagos, Nigeria at Festac 77, known as the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture.

Parker Robinson jokingly says, “Once we went to Africa it was over. We knew exactly who we were. There was no doubt. We were not the lost tribe.”

The ensemble toured for various organizations, including the NAACP and Historically Black Colleges and Universities. One tour took them to an air force base in Florida where the ensemble was racially discriminated against and not served food. Situations like that reinforced her intention to be a force for change.

“You couldn’t just dance. You had to be an activist,” she says. “We didn’t have the luxury to just be artists. We had to be activists because you have to change things not only for yourself but for those who would come after you.”

It’s a sentiment that registers with her son, CPRD Executive Director Malik Robinson.

“We don’t take comfort in being one of the few Black performing arts organizations in the region,” he says, adding that CPRD wants to use its influence and social capacity to help elevate up-and-coming arts organizations in the region, and that includes providing an alternative space to places such as the Denver Center for the Performing Arts (DCPA) complex.

Because DCPA is one of the nation’s largest nonprofit theater organizations, Robinson says “a lot of organizations just can’t get dates at the DCPA. If they could get dates, they can’t afford it. The difference for us is we’re much smaller and we have a focus on Black, brown and indigenous people. If you look at the 30 companies that perform in our space, I’d say 50% are led by people of color. It’s providing access for folks to come in to create and build test works and be in the laboratory in a space that’s in downtown Denver where they just wouldn’t have access otherwise.”

“Cleo as a mentor has inspired so many young dancers to start their own companies,” says Deborah Jordy, executive director of the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD), which is the only cultural funding model in the nation that serves a region of seven counties. SCFD funds nearly 300 organizations across the Front Range urban corridor, including CPRD, distributing more than $60 million annually. “Not everyone takes on that mentor level that she has.”

Not everyone is positioned to speak to social movements the way Parker Robinson does.

For example, on March 6, 2020, CPRD hosted the signing ceremony for the Crown Act with Gov. Jared Polis. The bill was introduced in Colorado by state Rep. Leslie Herod, state Rep. Janet Buckner and state Sen. Rhonda Fields, who were all in attendance. Also in attendance was Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old unarmed Black youth shot by a neighborhood watch coordinator in 2012 while visiting relatives living in a gated community. The Crown Act prohibits discrimination based on a person’s traits that are historically associated with race, such as hair texture, hair type and protective hairstyles, including locs and braids,

The interchange between art and activism is seamlessly intertwined for Parker Robinson, whose life is steeped in the civil rights movement. On any given day, the cultural institution can be in either space. However, when she was commissioned by the Vail Dance Festival to create a piece to bring people together in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder she was surprised. The process was not easy because it brought up a lot of anger.

She wondered how she could turn that anger into something that could unite. Then over time, the ancestors started revealing themselves to her, easing her process. The performance in August was a success in many ways, including bringing her full circle at the Gerald Ford Amphitheater, where in 1987 she performed as part of the amphitheater’s opening ceremony. It was also where she met legendary photographer Gordon Parks. Everywhere she turns there is a journey worth sharing, and ancestors worth remembering.

Also in August, CPRD presented its Dancing with the Denver Stars Gala. The event, created by CPRD Board Chair Gwendolyn Brewer, met its fundraising goal of $100,000. It supports kindergarten to 12th grade Arts in Education (AIE) residencies for dance movement and culture as well as their expanded Movement Diaries for preschool and eldercare participants throughout the eight-county Denver metro area.

Building on virtual outreach during the COVID-19 pandemic, both AIE and Movement Diaries continue to connect communities in support of mental and physical health. The evening’s goal was to significantly grow these programs and expand new cultural themes and choreography in program content. 

Following the event, Parker Robinson said, “Black actors and dancers in Hollywood continue to inspire Sankofa moments for us all. The Akan people of Ghana taught us that we look back on the past as we step forward into the future. Our Black legacy of talent from Hollywood was, and is, irrepressible!”

She went on to say, “Lena Horne, the Nicholas Brothers, Hattie McDaniel (who was a member of our Historic Shorter AME Church, our headquarters!), Carmen de Lavallade, Geoffrey Holder, Sidney Poitier…we stand on their shoulders. Watching the film “Stormy Weather” reveals a Who’s Who of Black talent. In it, we see Katherine Dunham, my mentor; Donald McKayle, my inspiration; Harry Belafonte, my friend…and so many more stars.”

Although her name is on the entrance to the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance facility, the building pays homage to those who helped to make the dream a reality. When visitors take the stairs or elevator up to the theater or down to the academy, they will pass by a mural on the wall and door created by Denver artist Adri Norris. It displays faces of founding board members and advisors and sweeping visuals of the ensemble members that reach two floors in height. 

At the top of the stairs from the front entrance of the building, (once the oldest African American Church in Denver) is a baobab tree graphic on the lobby wall which also recognizes the supporters of the organization. 

“We’re all here and we’re breathing together,” says Parker Robinson, who acknowledges her ancestors, parents, husband, son, artists, and community in the village of Cleo Parker Robinson Dance. “Life is so precious. It can be so beautiful if we think beyond ourselves.”

Editor’s note: For more information, visit https://cleoparkerdance.org/.

Moving Forward: Five Pillars for Growth and Change

In a concerted effort to support their performances and outreach, Cleo Parker Robinson Dance has developed five pillars to enrich their foundation as they grow.

Academy of Dance: The year-round academy teaches students of all ages, and collaborates with Metropolitan State University of Denver in a bachelor of fine arts degree program in dance, the International Summer Dance Institute (ISDI), and an in-school lecture demonstration and teaching residency series during tours.

Arts-In-Education: The outreach program with multiple curricula reaching (before COVID) 80 schools and more than 15,000 students (now reaching more than 40 schools in Colorado and globally), and the STREAM theater technology program for middle and high school students (offered virtually).

Dance Ensembles: A modern dance ensemble (Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble) and second company (Cleo II), which tour both nationally and internationally, a youth ensemble, and a junior youth ensemble.

Health and Wellness: Starting this year, the art outreach expands into wellness and creates collaborative partnerships in the areas of health, performance art, civic engagement, and community events, as well as policy development for arts advocacy in education and health equity.

Theater: A renovated 240-seat CPRD Theatre is also home to 30 nonprofit and arts organizations who rent it to develop, rehearse and perform their works. It features a rebuilt stage with technology upgrades and a new sprung floor launched in January 2021 to enable rental groups to present their virtual performances.

CPRD Fall Concert “Journeys,” Sept 25-26. Ellie Caulkins Opera House: The Four Journeys explores Mexico’s four root cultures – indigenous, Spanish, Asian, and African. Freedom Dance, created by Grammy Award-winning jazz icon Dianne Reeves, will be performed live, and choreographed by Cleo Parker Robinson, as is Standing On The Shoulders, a celebration of unity, renewal, and reunion. Fusion by Haitian, by Haitian Jeanguy Saints, is a myriad of Haitian, African and French influences. For more information, visit www.cleoparkerdance.org.