Sunday, December 31, 2000
Denver Cleo Parker Robinson's parents ignited her passion for the arts when she was just a young girl in the 1950s.
Her parents, an actor and a French horn player, introduced her to the world of theater and music, where she became enthralled with dance.
At age 10, Robinson's thoughts brimmed with movement, with dancers and dance, when she contracted nephritis, a kidney disease that triggered a heart attack. Although the condition disappeared within weeks, doctors feared she wouldn't fully recover.
Robinson wouldn't hear of it. She developed a will to live that propelled her into the dance world and helped shape her as director of a multicultural dance company recognized around the world.
"I learned this thing about will," she recalls. "I was an overachiever because I had been given the gift of life."
Douglas Sonntag, director of dance at the National Endowment for the Arts, says Robinson has been a true success in multiethnic modern dance.
"There are other repertoire companies that might do it similar, but she has been a leader," he says. "She was one of the first people who started dance companies outside of New York City. So she's really played a role of a pioneer."
'A divine destiny'
On a recent day, Robinson watches her dancers rehearse in their home, a historic church in the heart of Denver's black community. At 52, Robinson she still carries herself with a performer's studied posture and grace.
Her upper-level office is cluttered with stacks of papers, the walls papered with dozens of posters and awards. A brightly colored, smiling mask with speckled feathers adorns one wall.
Robinson struggled to build her 30-year-old company from a small operation with no money to a business with an overall operating budget of nearly $1.5 million a year.
"I think I've been able to follow kind of a divine destiny," she says.
"We have a modern dance company that comes with talent and vitality. But I think there is also a spirituality that people see."
Although most modern dance companies are in larger cities with broader support bases, Robinson has kept her outfit in Denver.
Her exposure to the business end of dance began when she was 15. A University of Colorado dance teacher went on a trip and left the teen-ager in charge of her dance courses.
Robinson continued to teach through high school and started her company by the time she graduated from Colorado Women's College. The company began as a grassroots organization in 1970 out of the Model Cities Cultural Art Center.
The early years were a challenge, and Robinson constantly wrote grant proposals to secure funding.
"Everything was fast and furious," she says. "At that time, we had very few opportunities because no one was talking about black dance."
Finding dancers to share her vision proved difficult so Robinson visited high schools and recruited students. She offered dance lessons for 25 cents, charging only after a dismal turnout for free lessons.
"I wanted to get to blacks ... and Hispanics, and get to those kids who I felt didn't have an opportunity," she says.
She also tried to reach out to young men to balance the gender scale.
Robinson wanted to pattern her choreography after the modern dance style of Alvin Ailey and the more classical ballet style of Arthur Mitchell, but realized that blacks were not well-represented at most dance studios in Denver.
"We had a whole lot of exposing to do," she says.
Keeping people's attention
She started taking her company out of Denver for short tours, including a performance at a prison in Canon City, about 100 miles south.
Success came slowly as Robinson exposed her brand of dance to more audiences. "I believe that what really built the company was all the people who cared. We were really hungry," she says.
Robinson decided early on that the only way to survive financially was to turn her company into a nonprofit organization.
As the years passed, her role in promoting multicultural dance set her apart from others in the field.
"In everything you do, you see these kinds of challenges. I saw them as a woman, as a black woman, as someone in the West," Robinson says. "In the arts you are always vulnerable."
Eventually, Robinson's company began performing around the world, including stints in Kenya and Singapore. The group also has appeared at the Out-of-Doors Festival in New York City and the American Dance Festival in North Carolina and Idaho.
The company tours regularly, showcasing its diverse repertoire of works by Robinson and other renowned choreographers, including Talley Beatty, Katherine Dunham, Carlos dos Santos Jr. and Roseangela Silvestre.
She frequently brings in new choreographers to keep the repertoire fresh, allowing her company to explore a melange of modern dance styles.
Among her most popular pieces is "Rain Dance," a 20-minute work by Milton Myers. Dancers move in a pulsing rhythm, form a giant circle and twirl individually, their flowing skirts like giant tops on stage. Their arms sway from side to side and stretch toward the sky in a plea for rain.
"The way I imagine it is in this desert that has no rain," says company dancer Carlos Venturo. "We get in the ritual of calling for rain; we are praying and we are stomping."
Message through movement
Venturo, 29, joined the 16-member company three years ago after gathering experience at the School of Ballet Municipal de Lima in his native Peru. He said Robinson's group gives him variety and passion.
"None of these pieces we do are just about the movement. They're also about the stories they tell and the spirit they show," he says.
Robinson believes part of her company's signature is its ability to send a message through movement.
Among her many honors, Robinson was inducted into the Blacks in Colorado Hall of Fame in 1994 and received the Mayor's and the Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts.
Robinson doesn't train like she used to but she still takes classes and choreographs.
"I love the fact that I can go into the studio and it's still my world," she says. "It's still the world that I understand."