Robinson, Cleo Parker 1948(?)–
Cleo Parker Robinson 1948(?)–
Dance company leader, dancer, dance educator
The Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble of Denver, Colorado, is widely regarded as one of the top modern dance companies in the United States, especially notable for a company far from the dance profession’s traditional coastal centers. Cleo Parker Robinson, named to the National Council on the Arts by President Bill Clinton in 1999, has spearheaded innovative and widely praised outreach programs designed to bring dance to at-risk inner city youth and to involve people of all backgrounds in dance. This impressive record of accomplishments has been attained through the single-minded determination of a woman who has overcome numerous obstacles, both social and personal.
Cleo Parker Robinson was born around 1948 in Denver, and grew up in the Five Points neighborhood on the city’s south side. Her white mother, Martha, was disowned by her parents for marrying her African-American father, Jonathan, a struggling actor and theater technician in Denver. The household was rich in love of the arts but perpetually short on cash, and Robinson’s early dance lessons came at the local YMCA. Interracial families didn’t have an easy time in conservative 1950s Denver: a cross was burned on the Parker family’s lawn, and at one point a white woman attacked Cleo with a broken bottle.
Those early experiences formed the basis for a dance mounted by Robinson’s company in 1993, titled Dry Each Other’s Tears in the Stillness of the Night. However, Robinson told the New York Times, “I don’t have any hatred. I have memory of fear and pain, but I also learned a lot about love, about how much my mother and father loved me, how much my grandparents loved me, how much the people in that community protected me.” By age ten she was teaching neighborhood kids how to dance, but what gave her creative talents special urgency was a brush with death at that tender age.
Living temporarily with her grandparents in Dallas, Texas, Robinson began taking medication for a kidney problem. She had a severe reaction to the medication, and her heart stopped. She was revived, although a segregated Dallas hospital denied her admission. From then on, she took every chance she could to study dance, and by the time she was 15 she was teaching dance part-time at the University of Colorado’s Denver campus. As a freshman at Colorado Women’s College in 1966, she lied her way into a class with former George Balanchine company dancer Rita Berger—the class required a traditional ballet background, which Robinson didn’t have. Berger soon spotted the fraud, but admitted the young dancer after being amazed by her ability to fake classical steps she had never been taught.
Robinson studied with top dancers and choreographers in Colorado and New York, including Merce Cunningham and African-American dance pioneer Alvin Ailey. Her family hoped that she would become a doctor; she compromised by majoring in psychology. When she was 21 she married her high school sweetheart, math teacher and basketball coach Tom Robinson, and got a job in a daycare center. But once again tragedy compelled
At a Glance…
Born ca. 1948, in Denver, CO; daughter of Jonathan (an actor) and Martha (a musician) Parker; married Tom Robinson (a teacher and dance administrator), 1971. Education: Colorado Women’s College (now Denver University), B.S., psychology and dance; studied with dancers Rhoda Cerstein and Rita Berger in Colorado, and with Merce Cunningham, Alvin Ailey, and others in New York City.
Career: Began teaching dance at age 15 as substitute instructor, University of Colorado at Denver; founded Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble, 1970; performed in Denver schools and parks; established dance school and company headquarters, 1974; numerous tours and exchange programs with international dance companies; commissioned works from top U.S. choreographers; named to National Council on the Arts, 1999.
Selected memberships: Vice president, International Association of Blacks in Dance; board of directors, Denver Center for the Performing Arts.
Selected awards: Honorary doctorate, University of Denver, 1991; named to Blacks in Colorado Hall of Fame, 1994; received $10,000 Coming Up Taller award from President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, 2000.
Address: Office —Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, 119 Park Avenue West, Denver, CO 80205.
her to stick to her dreams: her younger brother John Jr. died at age 19 of a heart ailment. After that, Robinson applied and was hired as dance director of the Model Cities Cultural Center in Denver, an experimental project that was receiving federal arts funding.
The arts funding didn’t last long, but it convinced Robinson that there was an unfilled need for an urban, grassroots dance company in Denver. She had been teaching ever since her teens, and she and her students put together free performances in Denver schools and parks. Those performances formed the nucleus of what became Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, and when Robinson and her husband leased a 6,500-square-foot warehouse in downtown Denver in 1974, with no clear idea of how they would pay the rent, the new company and school had its first real studio and headquarters.
At first, dancer Jo Bunton Keel told the Rocky Mountain News, the company “didn’t have a dime or a clue.” Robinson herself told the newspaper that “I’d get into my car and find slobber on the steering wheel. I’d think ‘Ooooh, someone has been sleeping in here!’” But Robinson proved adept at dealing with the street people and gang members who plagued her neighborhood, sometimes even persuading them to come in and take dance lessons. Audiences began to discover Robinson’s company, which began to mount several productions a year, some of them choreographed by Robinson herself.
By the mid-1980s Robinson could command the services of some of the top modern dance choreographers in the United States. The 1984 Milton Myers creation Raindance became the ensemble’s trademark piece, and in 1994 the legendary black choreographer Talley Beatty would create his final work, Ellingtonia, for Robinson and her dancers. By that time Cleo Parker Robinson Dance had taken over the historic but vacant Shorter A.M.E. Church building in downtown Denver. Skeptics had doubted Robinson’s ability to finance the renovation of the 24,000-square-foot hulk, but Robinson, a fundraising dynamo as comfortable talking with CEOs as with gang members, raised the money, and the company took up residence in the church in 1987.
Tales of Robinson’s public relations skills are numerous in the Denver area. At one point she inspired the city council of Gillette, Wyoming, to take off their shoes and begin dancing in the aisles of their own chambers. However, her efforts became increasingly focused on the place of dance in the wider world, as well as on the success of her own company. Many of the dances mounted by Parker’s company had social themes. Witness, produced after the death of founding troupe member Curtis Fraser, dealt with the AIDS scourge, while the theme of Blood River was South African apartheid. In the 1990s Robinson paid tribute to a key spiritual ancestor by mounting two dances by African-American choreographic pioneer Katherine Dunham. And in 2002, One Nation Under a Groove, Part 2 enacted in dance the 24 hours leading up to the bombing of the 16th Avenue Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963.
Robinson became noted in the late 1990s for obtaining funding for Project Self-Discovery, an outreach program that attempts to direct young people involved with gangs or substance abuse into artistic activities. Her long record of community involvement led to her appointment in 1999 to the National Council on the Arts, an advisory body reporting to the National Endowment for the Arts. Robinson and her dancers have toured the world, and the turn of the century saw her leading the company into artistic exchanges with dance ensembles in other countries: Cleo Parker Robinson Dance entered into a three-year exchange with choreographer Jelon Vieira’s DanceBrazil, and the company also worked with Masai dancers in Kenya. More than any other dance figure, perhaps, Cleo Parker Robinson has embodied the spirit of social idealism in dance.
To My Father’s House, 1971.
A Poem for Angela Davis, 1971.
Strange Fruit, 1972.
Mournin’ Sun, 1973.
The Creators, 1974.
Run, Sister, Run, 1976.
Lush Life, 1983.
Blood River, 1987.
Witness: Another Still Morning, 1992.
The Wisdom of the Baobab Tree, 1994.
Mary Lou’s Mass, 2000.
International Dictionary of Modern Dance, St. James, 1998.
Columbus Dispatch, October 20, 2002, p. G5.
Dance Magazine, January 1996, p. 110; August 1999, p. 24.
Denver Post, October 2, 2000, p. F5.
New York Times, October 1, 2000, section 2, p. 27.
Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO), May 29, 1994, p. M8.
Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, http://www.cleoparkerdance.org
The History Makers, http://www.thehistorymakers.com
—James M. Manheim
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