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The living dance legend Cleo Parker Robinson grew up as a Black woman in the segregated South of the United States. Her introduction to Black dance and music brought her in contact with artistic legends like Maya Angelou, Duke Ellington, and Katherine Dunham, and she developed a legendary career as a choreographer and director in Denver, Colorado, as opposed to a traditional United States arts capital on the coasts. Known for her tireless optimism and good spirit, she spoke to Dance ICONS, Inc. about some of the more challenging sides of her fabled career.
ICONS: How did you initially get into dance?
Cleo Parker Robinson: I grew up in Denver at the Rossonian Hotel. It was the first hotel for blacks, with apartments on top. And in the hotel, modern dance and great music came through, like Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and so many other legends. I grew up moving right away.
Everybody kept saying, “She's gonna be a dancer.” I never thought about dancing; I thought about being a doctor. I studied medicine and Latin and tried to work in a hospital. But I was always a moving child, and both of my parents were musicians. I didn't take formal classes until much later, but I always danced.
ICONS: How did you make a pivot toward choreography?
CPR: I was born in Denver, but I was raised in Dallas during segregation, and I became very ill. I was hospitalized in a segregated hospital, and right after that, I became kind of mute. The doctor said I wouldn't be normal. I wouldn't be able to move. I would be bedridden. I began to create and watch people come together in a very magical way. I was interested in the fact that segregation was so weird. My mother would drink out of the “white” water fountain, and I would drink out of the “colored,” and I'd be confused about why my water wasn't colored. I was trying to figure out what this madness of racism was about. I began watching how people would connect. I studied a lot of non-verbal communication and discovered that people were in their highest place dancing.
When I moved back to Denver, my father became the janitor, the first person of color to be hired in the Bonfils Theater, which now is the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. I was exposed to amazing artists. I was just fascinated with the power of what could happen when you're on stage with lights, sound, and costumes. I began doing a lot of musicals at around age 16. I began to choreograph and create what I was hearing and seeing, influenced by all of those things, but definitely wanting to find my own voice.
ICONS: What specifically drives you to make a dance?
CPR: I approach choreography based upon what the opportunity is. If I'm doing a musical, that's what I do. If I’m doing “Firebird”, that’s my focus. However, I want to approach it from a different cultural perspective and honor the roots of a different viewpoint, usually my own personal one.
ICONS: You've choreographed for stage, you've choreographed for your company, you've choreographed full-length works, you've choreographed shorter works. Is there something always present in your process?
CPR: I think it would be the Dunham technique for me. It is so rooted in your core. I think it was the Dunham rhythms that were so ingrained in my natural sense of moving because my father was from the South. He was from Texarkana, Arkansas; he always said he was from Jamaica, and my mother would say, “No, no, Jonathan, you're from Texarkana.” But, his spirit was Caribbean. I always find something in the rhythms and the counter-rhythms; the connectivity is how we connect with the heartbeat.
ICONS: Do you have any recurring or favorite collaborators you work with during your choreographic production process?
CPR: Donald McKayle, it didn't get better than that. He set 11 works in my company. I learned so much from him when I watched him work. He would be working in one studio, and I'd be working in the other, and then in the evening, we would have dinner and talk about our processes. They were so aligned, just magical. He was really brilliant. I watched what he did with Broadway, what he did with concert dance, and what he did with college, university, and high school kids.
He gave his total self and was always so vulnerable, but what I love about him the most was that he had so much laughter. He sang all the time; no matter what, he was always singing. When things would get really funky and intense, and you were going way beyond the schedule, he would just start singing and take it to another vibration. He adored my husband and my son. And so, we became a family.
ICONS: What about choreographing do you find most challenging?
CPR: My husband was my manager. He was a math teacher and very analytical, and he would always say, “Cleo, how long will it take you to choreograph this particular work?” And I'd look at him like he had lost his mind. What do you mean, how much time? It's time that's always challenging because you never have enough of it.
Once I make a commitment to a work a concept, it's a Pandora's Box. At first, I don't have a concept, I don't have music, I don't have an idea, I don't have a phrase, I don't have a step, and all of a sudden, I have more than I’ve ever imagined. How do I stop all that flow? That's a challenging thing. It's the time that I do or don't have.
ICONS: You've been running Cleo Parker Robinson Ensemble for over 50 years; where do you find sources of inspiration?
CPR: It's really creating space. Being in the moment and knowing that everybody has a story and that my story will connect with stories in the room. It happens all of a sudden: people are crying and we're laughing, living: it's a party. It's a celebration of the now and the past and it's pretty amazing how that happens.
ICONS: What is challenging about being an Artistic Director for that long?
CPR: Money and budget of course. I start with a budget, and all of a sudden, things don't work the way I think they should. And then we’ve got to spend in order to make it work and then we’re overspending and wondering where in the world is that gonna come from?
“Firebird” was very difficult for me. I kept saying every day, “I don't have a production assistant”. Why, after 53 years, is it still as difficult as it is? It should be easier. I should have more resources than I've ever had. What I realized is that I had to stop that thinking because I’m always in different phases of life. Sometimes, there's an abundance; sometimes, it looks like nothing, and I have to work with it.
ICONS: You're an artistic director and a choreographer? How do you manage both of those responsibilities?
CPR: I don't. Once, I was the Executive Director, Artistic Director, CEO, Board Chair, and choreographer and dancer. Donald McKayle told me one time there aren't enough seats for you to sit in there. Then it became clear to me that I have Founder Syndrome: if you don't do it, it's not going to get done. And if you don't do it, no one will care enough. Once that happened, I realized that I was exhausted.
Now it's wonderful to be able to see my son Malik Robinson, our President and CEO, and my Associate Artistic Director, Winifred Harris, being allowed to create space to be really heard and respected. Creating space for others in their own way, that's the choreography I think I'm doing now.
ICONS: What projects or new works or developments do you have coming up?
CPR: I'm going to Nigeria to do work that is collaborative with another culture. I haven't been there since 1977, and I’ll be meeting with the Artistic Director of the National Company there. My co-founder is there so I'll reconnect and see if we get back to working in Africa again because that changed my life. Then, coming back, we will get back on tour.
We'll perform with the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra with my work called Sacred Spaces? about the burning of the churches in the South. Then we get on stage and do my 31st year of Granny Dances to a Holiday Drum, which I created because I've done so many Nutcrackers. I wanted to do something absolutely original.
ICONS: You're a living legend. Is that a burden, or is that an award? Is it both?
CPR: Well, thank you. What's exciting is that I'm living! I'm still here, and when I turned 75, I had the biggest birthday party. I thought if I had known that it would be this much fun, I would have acknowledged how old I was all the time. But I think it's a burden on some level because you have to be “on” all the time.
The expectation of others for you is always high, and your expectation of yourself is always great. Maybe you even have to be better and don't always have the same resources. It’s a beautiful honor to know that people are watching, but I want them to know that their lives are very important, and hopefully, I inspired them to be all they can be. It's a privilege. It's a blessing.
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CLEO PARKER ROBINSON BIOGRAPHY:
CLEO PARKER ROBINSON DANCE ENSEMBLE is represented and available for international booking by KMP Artists, Kristopher McDowell, CEO, at https://kmpartists.com/
Cleo Parker Robinson debuts in a social justice performance called Sacred Spaces:
RMPBS: Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Granny Dances 25th Anniversary: Celebrating the 25th anniversary of her original composition, Cleo Parker Robinson once again leads her dance company and students in Granny Dances to a Holiday Drum, celebrating the winter holiday traditions of many cultures.
CPRDE “Catch Ah Fire” Rehearsal - July 2023 - Thomas Prestø - Tabanka
Photography © Jerry Metellus, Cleo Parker Robison photo portrait
Photography © Martha Wirth, photo studio with the dancers
Photography © Martha Wirth, performance images Sacred Spaces
Photography © Stan Obert, performance images from Firebird and Catch Ah Fire
DANCE ICONS, INC. TEAM ACKNOWLEDGMENTS:
Interviewer: Charles Scheland
Executive Content Editor: Camilla Acquista
Executive Assistant: Charles Scheland
Executive Director: Vladimir Angelov
Dance ICONS, Inc., November 2023 © All rights reserved.