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Cleo Parker Robinson pictured at her studio in Denver's Five Points neighborhood. Photo by Sarah Boyum

Choreographing the Revolution: Cleo Parker Robinson Celebrates 50 Years as a Cultural Force in Denver

Since founding her modern dance institution, the Denver icon has used her art to honor the African American experience—and as an agent for change. Now, as the nation reckons with systemic inequity, Cleo Parker Robinson reflects on her company’s milestone and the work that still lies ahead.

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Before Cleo Parker Robinson makes her way to rehearsal at her performing arts complex on the morning of August 11, she wakes up with a heavy feeling—a sort of emotional fog that’s unusual for the otherwise spirited 72-year-old. “I didn’t know if I was sad, I didn’t know if I was happy. I just knew I was emotional,” Cleo says. “I was like, ‘OK, you don’t do this often. Where the heck are you today?’” 

As she settles into her second-floor, lavender-hued office at her eponymous art institution’s headquarters in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood, Cleo begins to unpack the emotional morning. The 19th century Gothic Revival-style fortress on the corner of Park Avenue and Washington Street was formerly occupied by one of Denver’s oldest African American churches, which was destroyed in 1925 by a fire allegedly started by the Klu Klux Klan. Today, it houses the three studios and 240-seat theater that make up the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Company (CPRD), one of the nation’s most renowned modern dance companies, which is celebrating its 50th season this year. 

Cleo slides the windows open to alleviate the lack of air conditioning, letting in the sounds of Washington Street below, and switches from a flashy, gold embellished face mask to an electric pink one with floral rhinestones. Considering the times, any number of factors could have set off her emotional bout before rehearsal. This particular week in August marked the first time in months that she’d held a proper rehearsal on stage with her dancers. Coupled with the unrelenting grip of a global pandemic and the weight of the Black Lives Matter movement sweeping across the country, Cleo has every reason to feel introspective. 

“I talked to the ancestors this morning,” she says. The space teems with photos and mementos paying respect to these ancestors, both literal and cultural—from late family members to former colleagues like Marceline Freeman, who danced with Cleo’s company for over 30 years, and artists who laid the foundation for the art form, like legendary modern choreographer and Cleo’s personal idol-turned-mentor, Katherine Dunham. “I looked at [the ancestors] this morning very differently than I have many other mornings. I just saw them all together, and I go, ‘Wait just a minute. What the hell? Y’all are having a party up there! So there’s nothing for us to fear.” 

She lets out a cackle and chalks the whole thing up to a sentimental spell brought on by midnight text exchange with a friend the night before, reminiscing on the decade she spent working in Hawaii in the 1980s. Perhaps the nostalgic aura cast over her morning was fitting, as her ensemble was gathered that morning to rehearse for a virtual performance Out Of The Box, a retrospective celebration of several seminal works from her past 50 years, centering around themes of social injustice. It’s a sentiment that feels more relevant than ever right now, but has been a common thread in company’s work over the past five decades—a natural result of the tumultuous times the company was born from, according to writer and film producer Schyleen Qualls, who co-founded the company as a poet-in-residence in 1970.

CPRD Co-Founders Schyleen Qualls and Cleo Parker Robinson in 1978. Photo courtesy of CPRD Archive

“When you become aware as a young Black person, like Cleo and I were, of all of the inequities, and you begin to study Black history, and you see all of the things that are wrong—when that happens to you, you get angry,” Schyleen says. “We decided that our anger was not doing anything, and it was not hurting anybody but us. We had to transform that anger into creating something positive that would make a difference in the world and make this world a better place.”

Cleo didn’t always know she was destined to contribute to the world through dance. Born and raised in Five Points in the height of the Jim Crow era, Cleo was immersed in art long before the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s that would come to inspire her life’s work. As a baby, she slept in a dresser drawer in her parents’ apartment above the Rossonian Hotel—the legendary Five Points jazz club and lounge that touted performers like Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, and Bessie Smith, and helped Denver earn the moniker “Harlem of the West.” By the time she was a toddler, Cleo was falling asleep in the booths at the jazz club—her father getting in trouble with her mother for forgetting her there on occasion. As a teenager, she had Earth, Wind & Fire practicing in her basement. The music was always flowing. 

These secluded settings were some of the only places Cleo saw integration in her early life—something that would eventually have a large influence in her company’s cornerstone of inclusivity. “Daddy would dance [at the Rossonian] with somebody who was Mexican, or was Native American, or was white—and Mama loved it,” Cleo says. “I got to watch their joy of sharing music together, and then their hardships of ‘Where do you go? Where do you live? Where do you eat? Where do you drive so you don’t get followed by the police?’ It was an extraordinary dichotomy.” 

Growing up, Cleo aspired to be a doctor (her father studied pre-med at the University of Denver but never pursued it as a career), though both of her parents were also artists at heart. Her mother, Martha Mae Roberts, who was white, played the French horn as an apprentice for the San Diego Symphony before marrying Cleo’s father, Jonathan “J.P.” Parker. Her father carved out his own space as a local theater legend after being hired as a maintenance man and the first person of color—and later one of Denver’s first Black actors—at the old Bonfils Theater in 1956. “Growing up there in the theater was magical,” Cleo says. “But Blacks went through the back door—nobody went through the front door. And why would you? I mean, whatever was on stage had nothing to do with you.” 

CPRD Ensemble in approximately 1979 in a photo later used for Lush Life (From left: Lenny Williams, Marceline Freeman, Darrel Haynes, Schyleen Qualls, George Clark, Cleo Parker Robinson, Winifred Harris, Curtis Fraser, Roslyn Briscoe, Ron Whittaker, and Leslie Sue Parker-Wallace.) Photo courtesy of Margie Soo Hoo Lee/Cleo Parker Robinson Dance

For much of her childhood, Cleo saw dancers go unpaid, so she never considered it a career worth pursuing. Instead, art served as a means of escape from a world plagued with hate. Cleo’s parents were activists, participating in frequent sit-ins, and even traveling across five states to get married as an interracial couple before it became legal in Colorado in 1957. Their family endured their fair share of harassment from police and other people around town—and anywhere south of Colfax was off limits. Cleo says she felt a heavy sense of responsibility for keeping her three younger siblings safe and developed stomach ulcers by the time she was a teenager from the sheer anxiety of watching her parents navigate racism in Denver. This was after she survived a near-death experience at the age of 10 when her kidneys failed. She remembers shutting down for several years, essentially going mute, and using art as her voice instead.

“We never felt comfortable, I’ma tell you that,” she says. “Even if we were singing and dancing, that was our healing space—but we didn’t feel safe. But we knew we had to create a safe space.” 

Cleo became formally interested in dance as a teenager, performing in shows at the Bonfils, getting involved in the Neighborhood Youth Corp, and taking classes from former George Balanchine company dancer Rita Bergér at Colorado Women’s College (now the University of Denver). By the time she was 16, Cleo was teaching Bergér’s Youth Corp classes around the Front Range, including at the University of Colorado. She went on to earn her degree in education and psychology from Colorado Women’s College, but couldn’t shake her desire to give dance a proper try. After a brief stint taking classes at the revered Ailey School in New York City, Cleo knew she needed to bring her artistic ambitions back to her hometown. 

“That’s been my journey as a dancer: Rather than ‘I want to be on Broadway,’ that wasn’t as important to me as ‘I want to create that safe space for others,’” she says. 

Cleo Parker Robinson, circa 1968–69. Photo by Ed Klamm/courtesy of CPRD Archives

In 1970, she was back in Denver running a workshop at the Model Cities Cultural Center, when Schyleen approached her to collaborate on a fundraiser concert for the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. The two went on to re-create the multi-disciplinary performance for a local TV station, and the group was billed the “Cleo Parker Robinson dance ensemble” on the promotional materials. It was the first time that name was put out into the universe—but to Cleo and Schyleen, it wasn’t an afterthought. 

“We discovered pretty immediately that we were on a similar wavelength, and we both wanted to see something professional and Black emerge in Denver,” Schyleen says. “And so we just established that dream. We knew that what we were going to do—it was going to be a professional company that would tour the country and the world, and be the equivalent of the Alvin Aileys and Arthur Mitchells of the world.” 

After receiving a $30,000 grant from the City of Denver, the nonprofit Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Company was born that same year, creating an esteemed ensemble and academy that has rivaled similar coastal institutions for five decades. The company has performed in 30 countries, and notably inherited the rights to perform masterworks of the most influential Black dance figures like Eleo Pomare, Donald McKayle, and Katherine Dunham. All the while, Cleo has collaborated with more cultural vanguards than you can count on both hands—from Harry Belafonte and Eartha Kitt, to the family and peers of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Excerpts from several of Cleo’s most striking works were revisited in the Out Of The Box virtual performance that debuted August 22, including pieces from Lush Life—Cleo’s 1983 collaboration with Maya Angelou, who shared the stage with the ensemble when the work debuted at the Arvada Center for the Arts—and documentary footage of Cleo in her portrayal of Angela Davis in the 1983 work Run Sister Run. While you won’t see much of Cleo herself on stage anymore, she doesn’t shy away from taking part in rehearsals. Like on that sweltering August afternoon at her company headquarters, where Cleo twists her body with a sense of commanding muscle memory, showing her group of dancers how to loosen their elbows to hit a proper shoulder shimmy. 

“When you’re at 70, and you want [movement] to come through your body, it’s not comin’ through the same way,” she says back in her office, letting out another hearty laugh. “When I go down to the floor, y’all just better get up because I’ma be down there for a second.” 

Out Of The Box came on the heels of another virtual debut steeped in history. On June 25, the ensemble released a reprise of a collaboration with the Colorado Ballet called The MOVE/ment—a modern ballet performance that originally debuted in the Tour de Force weekend at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in March 2019, which included a performance from Wonderbound, and revisited themes of the Civil Rights movement. The performance was presented again online in the wake of the protests that followed the death of George Floyd in late May. “You can’t be proud of something that doesn’t make sense to you—that’s devious, and that’s cruel,” Cleo says. “So I think that’s what’s happening in the country right now.”

The collaboration for The MOVE/ment hearkens back to the philosophy of inclusion that has guided Cleo’s work over the past five decades: the idea of “Sankofa,” a term from the Akan Tribe in Ghana that implies we must come together and acknowledge our history in order to pave a path forward, with “one spirit, many voices.”

“[Denver] is an extraordinary place that has transformed,” Cleo says. “And we’ve been a part of that transformation, because our intention has been, since day one, to make it a place that all people are proud of being a part of it and have ownership in it. And we’ve used dance and the arts to do that.”

Cleo Parker Robinson talks with a group of youngsters during Festival Caravan outreach in 1975. In the mid 1970s and for a dozen years, Festival Caravan was a major cultural outreach program developed and led by Henry Lowenstein to parks throughout Denver. It presented cultural works from around the world. Photo courtesy of CPRD Archives

The roots of this philosophy extend beyond the stage, too, as is evidenced by the many accolades—including the  2019 Mayor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts—that honor her company for its broader impact in the community. Along with CPRD’s Arts-In-Education programming, which reaches nearly 20,000 kids each year in schools across the Front Range, Cleo has also collaborated with Harvey Milkman, professor emeritus with the Metropolitan State University Psychology department, on “Project Self Discovery” for almost 30 years. The community wellness program harnesses creativity and movement as a means of creating “natural highs” for at-risk youth—or as Cleo preferred to call them, “youth at promise.” For 10 years in Denver, the duo plucked 14- to 18-year-olds from gangs and vulnerable situations to give them mindfulness training and creative outlets as healthier alternatives to substance abuse or any other vices they might’ve sought out. They’ve since brought the program to communities around the world, hosting similar workshops in cities like Reykjavik, Iceland, and Bogotá, Colombia. 

“Psychology is all about people trying to understand themselves, and art is also a way of trying to look at the possibilities of the human condition,” Harvey says, recalling the day he met Cleo in 1976 after overhearing her infectious laugh at Pete’s Satire Lounge (she, of course, welcomed him to join her meal). “Cleo does that better than any artist I know in the dance genre: She not only is performing spectacular dance, but she’s telling stories that have deep meaning in terms of culture and helping to transcend some of the problems that culture has encountered.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic shook any previous understanding of what community outreach might look like for the company in its 50th year, as they’ve pivoted to a virtual format for events and classes since mid-March. They’re also exploring ways to safely adapt annual favorites, like Granny Dances to a Holiday Drum, a multicultural holiday show and 29-year Denver tradition that tells the story of Granny (played by Margarita Taylor), who is losing her memory and being retold all of the dances and songs of her lifetime by her grandchildren and guardian angel (played by Cleo).

While the future of CPRD’s operations will depend on a continued nimble response to the demands of the COVID-19 pandemic, at least in the near term, one thing is for sure—those who learned from and have been inspired by Cleo plan to carry on her work, both in the arts and in the community. Cleo’s son and executive director, Malik Robinson, associate artist director Winifred Harris, who grew up learning under Cleo’s wing, and CPRD principal dancer and rehearsal director Chloé-Grant Abel all appear poised to preserve the company’s character in their own unique roles for decades to come.

“I want to continue her legacy,” says Chloé-Grant, who coincidentally plays one of the grandchildren in the holiday classic. “There are so many layers to her legacy, but the spirit of Cleo Parker Robinson is that passion…she’s inviting and loving. That’s the legacy—it’s that spirit of the company.” 

Just don’t count on Cleo slowing down any time soon. 

“Her level of energy at 23 when we started the company is exactly her level of energy today,” Schyleen laughs. “I’m still not convinced that she sleeps.” She says Cleo is fueled by the people who are the lifeblood of her artistic community—what Cleo likes to call “the village.” It’s their spirit that motivates her unwavering drive to create, even through decades of struggle. It’s the same energizing spirit she felt when she looked to her ancestors on a hot August day to help pull her from an emotional slump. 

“Are we afraid of death? I mean, we are going to die,” Cleo says, alluding to her moment of clarity that morning before rehearsal. “Now let’s figure out how to live in a place where we can create some harmony, and love, and peace of mind, and joy, and laughter for as long as we can—for ourselves and each other. That’s it.”

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