Hip-Hopping Into the World of Dance

By:Emily Haggstrom Issue: Biennial of the Americas 2010 Section:The Nature of Things

An Interview with Cleo Parker Robinson

World of Dance

There’s something very harmonious about Cleo Parker Robinson that resonates in everything she does. She is a product of her time, engineered to sway and dance while listening to beats and melodies of music. There is a sincere warmth and exultation of love when she speaks. She radiates a happiness that is deep-rooted in her soul.

She grew up to biracial parents in the Five Points neighborhood of Denver, which at the time was considered the “Harlem of the West” and a predominantly African-American community. During her youth, Five Points was a mecca where people from all around came to experience the best of what was coming out of its culture at the time. The neighborhood, historically known for visitors such as Miles Davis and Duke Ellington, brought powerful energy through music and movement that reverberated throughout the community. The nation and her neighborhood were just emerging from behind the Jim Crowe laws. Races and cultures were coming together. Robinson learned how to live with less and celebrate more, a lesson she was taught by her parents.

She began teaching dance at the age of 15, and by 22 had started Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, which has become an institution for dancers around the world. She has traveled the globe bringing dance to the masses, received awards for excellence and taken her ensembles to prestigious festivals and performing arts complexes across the country.

She resides in Denver, not by accident but by choice, and has become a cultural icon known throughout the performing arts community. She is a pioneer for her time; a great collaborator known for bringing cultures together and creating a philosophy that dance really is a way of life.

ICOSA: What did it mean to you and your company to be chosen as a participant for the Biennial of the Americas?

Robinson: It was really quite an honor. We knew how important this was to our community and to the country and to have such a celebration here in Denver is incredible. To be in that connection and that network was really very special. I think some of the things that we’ve been doing over the last 40 years just tied right in to everything they (the Biennial organization) were doing. Especially with our international summer dance program and celebrating Latin America throughout our history and our youth program is similar. We’ve been working on these for a number of years now bringing in the whole Latino and Hispanic culture and how it relates to the African diaspora and we’ve been doing this for a long time. "It also helps us see how our roots are so absolutely intertwined; that we really are one spirit with many voices. - Cleo Parker Robinson

ICOSA: Cleo Parker Robinson Dance performed with five companies during the Biennial. How did your performance play into the organizations themes?

Robinson: We’ve been working with Jeanette Trujillo-Lucero, Founder and Artistic Director from Fiesta Colorado and Artistic Director Lorenzo Ramirez of Grupo Folklorico Sabor Latino and it was an opportunity for our community and our neighbors right in Five Points, which is growing and "becoming" all the time, to see their local dance companies and their ensembles in their colorful costumes performing the history of the Spanish and the Aztec cultures and seeing how they integrate and come together throughout that history. Our goal was to combine that with our company which has been together for 40 years now with an ensemble that’s quite diverse and focuses on the style of Katherine Dunham who worked for years all over Latin America bringing in the cultural richness of these countries and celebrating them. And that’s what I’ve been doing all these years is following in her legacy. She was such a cultural icon and ambassador and I think she would be pleased to see our cultures come together through the Biennial.

ICOSA: How does your company exude innovation, sustainability, community and collaboration in your everyday business?

Robinson: We’ve found that being unique in Denver means we have to keep meeting the needs of the community, and we have a very diverse community so we’ve always been celebrative and sensitive to their needs. Having a year round school is really one of the ways that we deal with that. We teach everything to keep the body, mind and spirit together and we focus on that unity. We teach all ages, providing programs to seniors and children in the immediate area. A lot of times these programs are free…I think they are some of the most unique programs to allow the students their own creative voices. They are learning all about their cultures by creating murals and poetry around them with music, rapping, recording, filming and, of course, dance to find that creative voice to sustain a community. We are also always partnering with cultural institutions and are in the schools collaborating, offering support to many of the principals and educators who don’t have the expertise within their schools because funding has been cut so much.

ICOSA: Now that the Biennial has concluded, how do you feel about the city of Denver bringing the event here?

Robinson: I think it has uplifted everyone. There is such a higher energy and there is a greater awareness of the contribution of the Americas. I believe that will continue. I think that heightened awareness and celebration will last a long time and we can all keep building on it.

ICOSA: What does it mean to the performing arts community?

Robinson: For us, often times, we don’t see the diversity celebrated enough and I think this gives us permission to celebrate all the time rather than during a particular season, period of time or special affair. For us at Cleo Parker Robinson it will be integrated into our curriculum as we go into the schools and travel the country and around the world. It’s a great bridge to breaking down barriers and it helps encourage people to be bilingual. It also helps us see how our roots are so absolutely intertwined; that we really are one spirit with many voices.

ICOSA: In your opinion, why do you believe it is so important to keep these old cultural dances alive?

Robinson: First of all, it’s like opening your eyes every day and seeing the extraordinary diversity all around you. Like the food you eat, we also need to give ourselves a spiritual feeding. When we know our roots and we feel our roots and we are connected to the fantastic array of music and dance, we can see ourselves and we can see ourselves in each other. I think it makes for a more peaceful and a more powerful society. I think it is a truth.

World of Dance ICOSA: Do you and your instructors try to help your multi-cultural students understand each other through folkloric dance?

Robinson: Yes, I think it’s just providing the right opportunity for our students to choose and find themselves because people are so diverse. Many people don’t even know their own backgrounds and I think what it does is encourages them to look broader and deeper and to continue to discover themselves and experience true joy. I’ve had students who say they didn’t even know about their cultural history or even how they felt about it because they are always growing. I think for students of all ages and backgrounds we provide the opportunity to come to the studio, which is a universal place for everyone with or without money, to explore their own culture or somebody else’s culture, and to find the human voice within it until it empowers them. It helps them feel better about themselves and the way their own world is.

ICOSA: In your lecture series at the University of Colorado, how do you discuss the role cultural arts plays in social transformation?

Robinson: I think we are all raised reflections of society, in society, and art itself is a reflection of society. So we’re forever working within those social structures and in movement itself. As we learn the dances and create the dances, we realize that they are not isolated from what’s going on socially. I think we as artists choose how much we want to focus on social transformation. I’ve always been one because I came out of the 70’s; it was a time when we saw change take place because of the social consciousness of the society but also because of the direct role artists played in helping to create that transformation. So, I come from that and, I know how important it is and, I know how powerful that is. My works, I hope, have always been socially relevant and I talk about racism, sexism and all the “isms.” I start with racism because I think it is such an engrained product of all of the colonialism that’s gone on throughout the world. So, as we talk about the Biennial we are also talking about an aspect of that, and how it has shaped our attitudes about religion and the roles men and women play. They’re all based on those historic social factors. We should never have anyone who cannot have the opportunity to experience the arts and the best of them, the excellence, and so community and excellence should be synonymous.

ICOSA: In 1999 you were appointed by President Clinton and confirmed by the Senate to serve the on National Council on the Arts that advises the Chairman of the NEA on agency policy, programs and grant applications. Through your service how did you increase potential for programs like yours?

Robinson: Through the council, I have a great opportunity to see everything that’s going on in the country; it’s a powerful experience. Talk about diversity. We see people in Appalachia being as creative as people in New York City, in the middle of these Broadway shows where there is extraordinary creative magic. But we see it in some of the least expected areas, in some of the smallest communities because it is really about people and creativity. I’ve learned a lot about access and about making art and experiences accessible to everyone and about the kind of effort and sacrifices people are making to see that happen. It was inspiring for me. I think just my knowledge of it at every point, I used that information, and every decision I made was around that insight and awareness.

ICOSA: With all of your experience and expertise why did you choose to stay in Denver instead of moving to performance centered cities such as New York, Chicago or Los Angeles?

Robinson: I think it was very simple. I loved growing up in Denver. I was born in Denver and raised in a community that has been rich in my spirit and yet I saw things in other communities that I wanted to happen here. I knew if I left I couldn’t see it take place or make sure it happened here. I thought, we should never have anyone who cannot have the opportunity to experience the arts and the best of them, the excellence, and so community and excellence should be synonymous. We should be able to have them at the same time. It could be a pioneer community by doing things that people had never seen done here before. If I didn’t do it, who was going to do it?