“From the Headlines of the Human Condition Spanning the 20th to 21st Centuries”

By Mary Hart – Director of Booking and Touring, Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble

One significant attribute of those dedicated to a life in the arts is their resilience in the face of adversity coupled with the willingness of many to create works that reflect the societal issues around them. Such is certainly the case with the renowned Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble (CPRDE). one of the leading modem dance companies in the United States, and based in Denver, Colorado at the base of the Rocky Mountains. CPRDE is rooted in the complex legacy of African American dance traditions and dedicated to a nuanced understanding of the human condition.

Founded in 1970 by dancer, choreographer, master teacher and cultural ambassador, Cleo Parker Robinson, CPRDE holds a vastly diverse repertoire of works by both iconic choreographers and innovative new artists. Parker Robinson is a fixture of American dance, honoured by a myriad of cultural and civic organisations world-wide through commissions, awards and grants. A presidential appointee to the National Council on the Arts for five years during the Clinton Administration, she holds four honorary doctorates including the Honous Causa from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

In 2020, despite the challenges of the pandemic, CPRDE forged ahead -bringing educational residencies and full concerts to students and audiences around the world via live streaming. Within two weeks of the initial Covid lockown, CPRDE was already providing recorded dance vignettes. intended specifically to lift the spirits of first responders, along with mini-concerts, podcasts, workshops, and classes to educate and entertain dance patrons around the world. The fully-salaried Ensemble and staff remained on payroll, and none were laid off. As the restrictions of lockdown eased, CPRDE was already in full momentum to launch a full touring season in 2021/22. along with the acquisition and production of two new major ballets: “The Four Journeys-‘” by Amalia Viviana Basanta Hernandez and “Sacred Spaces?”, set to an original score by jazz great Adonis Rose, Director of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra.

Twenty-six years after its 1996 appearance at Jacob’s Pillow, one of the nation’s most prestigious dance festivals, CPRDE was scheduled to celebrate its 50th Anniversary Season there in 2020. Robust plans aligned with the Pillow’s own 90th Anniversary celebration, came to an abrupt halt with Covid pandemic shutdowns, further complicated by a devastating fire on the Jacob’s Pillow campus which destroyed two of its historic theatres.

At press time in August 2022, the Pillow’s Executive Director, Pam Tatge, shares gratitude: “After a three year wait. we are overjoyed to be finally celebrating fifty years of Denver’s Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble with a program that will showcase its gorgeous dancers and the stunning body of work that this remarkable American company has assembled. Cleo has moved our field forward in her commitment to uniting people of all races and ages and to celebrating the complexity of life through movement She’s bringing a series of signature works that will highlight the amazing work this company has been doing for decades.”

The CPRD Ensemble performs at Jacob’s Pillow from 17–21 August, with five works in six concerts that dearly present the relationship between the iconic and the innovative in dance, linking historic perspectives with current social issues.

Works by American dance icons Katherine Dunham (Ragtime) and Donald McKayle (Crossing the Rubicon: Passing the Point of No Return) address issues of societal inequities and human rights injustices, while an excerpt from Cleo Parker Robinson’s Spiritual Suite (Mary Don’t You Weep) speaks to the deep sense of mourning that remains a constant in communities of colour.

From the ranks of contemporary choreographers, the Ensemble presents a deeply evocative work (Catharsis, pictured top, photo by Jerry Metellus) by Garfield Lemonius; his perspective urging audiences towards a heightened sense of release in body, mind. and spirit through choreography that alternates between frenetic and meditative, encompassing each note of music. Concluding the performances a work (Salomé’s Daughter) by 2008 Princess Grace Choreography Fellow winner, Nejla Yatkin, who uses the vehicle of ‘goddess culture’ with a blend of traditional Middle Eastern and modern dance movement to confront the issue of female empowerment.

Throughout its performances, this seasoned company demonstrates the full spectrum of one of its foundational principles – “Inspiring Movement!” – in both the literal and the figurative sense.

An updated version of this piece will appear in the August 2022 issue of International Arts Manager, published on 25 August. Tickets for CPRDE at Jacob’s Pillow are available here.