Mile High

Denver-based Cleo Parker Robinson Dance grooves to one nation.

Last year, when the last of the Birmingham bombers finally went on trial for murder, Cleo Parker Robinson was riveted by the television coverage.

"It opened up my own Pandora's Box," the choreographer said by telephone last week from her Denver home. "We've learned to close it out. Everything I needed to know and hear started coming back to me."

Robinson, the founder and artistic director of the eponymous troupe Cleo Parker Robinson Dance--which performs this Saturday night at Centennial Hall--had been tossing ideas around for a dance with David Roussève. Both choreographers are known for their fusion of African-American and modern dance, and Roussève had set his "Dry Each Other's Tears in the Stillness of the Night" with Robinson's company back in 1993. (Roussève brought his own troupe, David Roussève/REALITY, to Centennial Hall in 1999 to stage his dance theater work Love Songs.)

This time around, Robinson wanted him to choreograph Part II of her dance "One Nation Under a Groove." The first section, she said, was "my own personal history, my life growing up in Five Points in Denver," the daughter of a white mother and black father who did a lot of sit-ins.

"That was their work," she said. "I wanted to create a piece that would deal with love and healing."

With the Birmingham trial of bomber Bobby Frank Cherry vividly recalling the violent opposition to civil rights, Roussève had his subject. His 2002 "One Nation Under a Groove, Part II--24 Hours in Birmingham" will open Saturday's concert. Set to recordings of popular music by such black artists as Ella Fitzgerald, Ike and Tina Turner, James Brown and the Temptations, the dance theater piece will incorporate a spoken text written by the choreographer. The whole company of some 16 dancers will perform the nine-part work; among them is Rachael Ashley, a UA dance grad now in her third season with the Robinson. Ashley will solo to the Temptations' "Ball of Confusion."

The two parts of "One Nation" have never yet been danced together. "That would be too much in one night," Robinson said. "It has too much power, passion and pain." Robinson finds that even some of her young dancers don't know much about recent African-American history, and she believes dance has a responsibility to "guide people."

"Young people don't know where we came from," she said. "They're into hip-hop and rap. Social responsibility is in our work."

The Robinson troupe's distinctive dance style draws on influences as diverse as Katherine Dunham, the legendary black choreographer who almost single-handedly revitalized African-American dance in the '30s and '40s, and the modernists Merce Cunningham and Jose Limón.

"Much of modern dance is rooted in African and European movement," Robinson said, yet each of the artists in this concert of all-guest choreography taps different roots. Ronald K. Brown, whose "Ebony Magazine to a Village" is on the program, studied dance in West Africa.

"He uses African movement directly. Roussève has never been to Africa; he was able to develop his own movement style," said Robinson.

Milton Myers, who developed "Raindance," uses the Horton technique. "We each come from a different base," Robinson said.

The 1984 Myers work, "Raindance," is "our signature piece," Robinson said. "Milton was with Alvin Ailey, (and) then became director of the Joyce Trisler Dance Company. I told him, 'I'd love for you to set a work on us.'

"He came to Denver, and jumped into that energy. The music is marvelous, contagious. All the dancers are in red skirts. It's mesmerizing. It's a ritual, with a sense of power and energy."

Brown choreographed "Ebony Magazine to a Village" for the Robinson troupe in 1996. Performed here last year by Brown's own company, the piece is a "fusion of ballet, modern and African," Robinson said. It begins with the stiff, false gestures of the vain, then segues into African movement, more authentic and closer to the ground. Brown, hailed as a choreographer worthy of the Ailey mantle, has lately been making dances for the Ailey troupe. Robinson claims credit for introducing his work to Ailey artistic director Judith Jamison.

"I brought the work to New York, and Judith said to me, 'Whose dance is that?' That's how he got started with Alvin Ailey. I love seeing where Ron has gone."

The concert will end with "Temple in Motion," a Brazilian work whose origins span several continents. Choreographed for the company by the Brazilian Rosangela Silvestre, the piece got its start in Egypt. Both Robinson and Silvestre had recently traveled to Egypt, where both women were struck by the "universal symbols, connected with our ancient ancestors." Silvestre came to Denver to set it on the company, and the dancers premiered it in Rome.

Both Brazilian and abstract, the dance is "about the body being our temple," Robinson said. "It uses our entire company of 16 dancers and Rosangela's original sound score. Her mother is a priestess, and she has taken that power into her work."

It's part of the company's mission to travel frequently, and they've danced everywhere from Iceland to Belize to Singapore and points in between. But they've been based in Denver, Robinson's hometown, since 1970. The company renovated a historic black church in downtown Five Points into a theater and studio building; the troupe runs its own dance school and works in the public schools with disadvantaged kids.

"We work in the mountains," Robinson said. "We work a mile high every day. We stay on a natural high. We're not in New York but we have unity. We're finding the universal spirit."

Comments (0)

Add a comment

Add a Comment

Tucson Weekly

Best of Tucson Weekly

Tucson Weekly