Cleo Parker Robinson grew up in the historic Rossonian Hotel in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995, the Rossonian Hotel catered to touring Black musicians during segregation. Parker Robinson lived in an apartment at the hotel, above a jazz lounge that hosted legendary Black musicians like Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday. She would go to sleep every night hearing music being performed by artists from around the country and the globe, taking in their energy and dreaming about how she would one day make her mark on the world.
“As a child, it felt worldly to me. I was always hearing classical music, jazz music and music from all over the world,” Parker Robinson said. “It just made me want to bring the world together all the time. I always felt like I wanted to be in the world. Growing up there was destiny.”
Parker Robinson has certainly made her mark on the world, particularly through her founding of Cleo Parker Robinson Dance (CPRD). Based in Denver, it is one of the world’s most well-known, reputable dance companies. With her company, she aims to honor the African Diaspora, explore the human condition, champion social justice, unite people of all ages and races, and ultimately celebrate the complexity of life through movement.
As part of her mission, CPRD each year hosts an International Summer Dance Institute for dancers of all ages and ability levels. The Children’s Global Camp teaches students more than a dozen dance genres through cultural movement. Past genres have included hip hop, capoeira, Celtic, Polynesian, West African, jazz, hula, modern, South Korean, flamenco, ballet, Mexican folklorico and East Indian.
For more advanced dancers, CPRD offers intensive master classes with some of dance’s most influential artists. Guest choreographers come from all over the world to work with CPRD dancers during the International Summer Dance Institute. This year, CPRD welcomes Thomas Talawa Prestø, founder and artistic director of the Tabanka Dance Ensemble based in Oslo, Norway. He is visiting as a guest choreographer and teacher of his Talawa technique of dance.
“Thomas Prestø and I discovered that we have this connection, this powerful connection,” said Parker Robinson. “I’d been curious about Norway for a while. When I previously visited Iceland, I only met one Black person. When I met Thomas and he said he was from Norway, I said, ‘no way, I didn’t think there are any Black folks in Norway.’ When I met him at the International Association of Blacks in Dance, he was so hungry and so present. I connected with him immediately.”
Prestø said he felt the same about meeting Parker Robinson.
“Cleo Parker Robinson has been a lighthouse and inspiration to us across the Atlantic,” said Prestø. “Fate, God and the ancestors have brought the opportunity for us to work together. Together we will affirm dance as a catalyst for social justice and a refuge for the oppressed. Through movement yesterday arrives today, and brings tomorrow.”
Prestø’s Tabanka Dance Ensemble was founded in order to promote and represent the existence of Black personhood and identity in Norway and Scandinavia. As one of the leading institutions of African Diaspora dance in Europe and the Nordic countries, Tabanka seeks to advance the sector through sharing knowledge, practices and advocating for equity within the European and Nordic art sectors, as well as society at large.
Tabanka Dance Ensemble dancers specialize in African and Caribbean dance practices. They are Scandinavian pioneers, carving a space for Black and Brown dance artists and challenging the normativity of the northern European dance and arts field. Each dancer is also trained as a youth and community worker, and is highly committed to equity and inclusion, and work to ensure that economy, race, ethnicity and culture are not a barrier to participation.
‘Firebird’ and ‘Catch a Fire’
The Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble will be performing on Sept. 16-17 at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver, along with select members of the Tabanka Dance Ensemble. The program will include three performances: “Firebird,” choreographed by Parker Robinson; “Catch a Fire,” choreographed by Prestø; and the third performance was yet to be announced as of Colorado Community Media’s press deadline.
“To see this combination of what we’re doing with the Tabanka dancers from another culture is real education,” said Parker Robinson. “People get to embrace this beautiful thing of music and dance that we’re all a part of.”
Parker Robinson’s performance of “Firebird” will be set amid the enchanting Hawaiian islands, presenting an unconventional concept that departs from the traditional Slavic versions of the ballet. The essence of Pelé — the powerful Goddess of the Volcano — permeates the performance and introduces the presence of historical figures like King Kamehameha and Queen Lili’uokalani, paying homage to their significant contributions to Hawaiian history.
“I was invited to teach on the big island in Hawaii,” Parker Robinson said. “I didn’t know much about the culture at the time. Once I started working there, they invited me to dance on the edge of a volcano. I was terrified (but) it was of the most invigorating, close-to-death experiences I’ve ever had. Then I started teaching there, at the volcano, every year for 10 years. Hawaiian culture on the Big Island is just so alive.”
This experience inspired Parker Robinson, and in 1997, she choreographed “Firebird” for the Colorado Symphony, working with Marin Alsop, who was the principal conductor at the time.
“The dancers I have now never did that version of ‘Firebird’ with me, so I’ve reconstructed it” for the September performances, said Parker Robinson.
In addition to Parker Robinson’s “Firebird,” Prestø will present his original work, “Catch a Fire.” Inspired by both Parker Robinson and Bob Marley lyrics, the piece will be perfectly juxtaposed to “Firebird.”
“Bob Marley’s lyrics are all about consequence. They’re about anyone in power catching the consequences of their actions. So all of the songs in the piece kind of have this commonality,” said Prestø. “‘Catch a Fire’ is also about catching the fire that Cleo (Parker Robinson) has created. It’s about carrying on the torch to the next generation.”
Black representation in dance
For both Cleo Parker Robinson Dance and the Tabanka Dance Ensemble, Black representation in dance is of critical importance.
“Growing up, we didn’t see enough of ourselves in any of the media. I think it is very important to read about — and to understand — our culture from a deeper and broader perspective,” said Parker Robinson. “Growing up, what we were seeing in the media was pretty degrading and it wasn’t very realistic of who we were. We had a tremendous desire to know more about our culture. In Denver, we began to build a place for ourselves. Most of our young people didn’t have opportunities to work, to create, to be paid, to develop. I think for young people, this has become an opportunity to continue to evolve.”
Across the Atlantic Ocean, Prestø mirrors Parker Robinson’s sentiment.
“There is a weird paradox of this idea that Blacks naturally and inherently sing, and that we have natural rhythm. But at the same time, (that) we don’t have culture and our dance is just at a body level — it’s not cerebral, it’s not intelligent. It is something we do by instinct, something we’re born with,” said Prestø. “Black dance is important because it reclaims intelligence and reclaims culture. It affirms it for the Black body. That is an aspect that we don’t talk about enough. We have to counter that image that is still there.”
Both Parker Robinson and Prestø are looking forward to sharing their work with the community this September.
“We all have that fire energy that helped us survive the pandemic. We all had that fire saying, ‘I want to live, I want to be alive, I want to dance, I want to sing, I want to find my passion,’” Parker Robinson said. “You’ll find that fire in the work. I think that kind of fire empowers people and helps build community.”