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Connecting dance and the community through Cleo

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

When Aspen Dance Connection celebrates its 25th anniversary this week, the connections will be numerous, multilayered and meaningful.

Aspen Dance Connection’s silver anniversary will be marked with a performance by Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, a 33-year-old Denver dance troupe with an international reputation. Aspen Dance Connection was the first group to bring the Cleo Parker company to Aspen, some 20 years ago.

The performance – set for Friday, July 11, at 8 p.m. at the Aspen District Theatre – will open with “Spiritual Suite,” a piece that the Cleo Parker company has not danced in Colorado in years. “Spiritual Suite” was choreographed by company founder and executive artistic director Robinson herself, which ties in with Aspen Dance Connection’s original goal of having companies do original works: “Versus doing `Giselle’ or the `Nutcracker,'” said Fran Page, a part of the eight-member group that founded Aspen Dance Connection in 1978, and the organization’s director since 1985.

And “Spiritual Suite” connects Robinson to her own past. The piece is composed of a number of smaller works choreographed by Robinson; among them is the first dance she ever created, “Mary, Don’t You Weep,” a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. The overall work, first put together as a suite in the late ’70s, also comprises “To My Father’s House,” “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” “Holy Moses” and “Roll Me Through the Rushes Like Moses.”

“Spiritual Suite” connects Robinson not only to her choreographic beginnings, but to even deeper roots. The piece is inspired by her childhood experiences in the church in Dallas, the black gospel music she heard there, and her overall impression of church, religion and spirituality.

“We were in church all the time,” said Robinson, who has brought her company, now numbering 16 dancers, to Europe, Africa, Asia and across the United States – but won’t be in Aspen this week, due to teaching engagements on the East Coast. “`To My Father’s House’ showed that the rooted experience that guides us in the church, the spiritual. And it’s about our elders, the deacons and deaconesses I remember from the church, and what characters they were. And how the children had their role too.

“All of that, the power of it, fascinated me. If we were dealing with sorrow or crisis or poverty, the spiritual made the difference. It gave us affirmation. I was rooted in that. The church gave us opportunity to rejoice and gave us hope.”

“Roll Me Through the Rushes,” the last part of the “Spiritual Suite,” comes from the years Robinson spent in Hawaii. Still, she says it fits right in there. “In Hawaii, they’re not too familiar with our gospels, our African-American spiritual traditions,” said Robinson, who returned from Dallas to her native Denver to study dance, education and psychology at the University of Denver, back when it was Colorado Women’s College. “But we all are rooted to the same essence. We just have different cultural expressions.”

“Temple In Motion,” also on Friday night’s program, is an example of the different cultural expressions. The piece was created by Brazilian choreographer Rosangela Silvestre to music by jazz saxophonist Steve Coleman. Where Robinson says her own “Spiritual Suite” “is more of a traditional spirit,” “Temple In Motion” is something else.

“It’s abstract, out there, and puts you on the edge. It pushes you to the edge, it doesn’t carry you,” said Robinson. “She created this powerful energy that comes from an on-the-edge experience. She gets to a nonreligion and gets that the real religion is in the spirit within us.”

“Temple In Motion,” added Robinson, is as much about the physical as about the spiritual: “The `Temple’ is the body, and she does it like mad. It’s hot.”

Another dance to be performed in Aspen, “Raindance,” is the company’s signature piece. Choreographed by former Alvin Ailey American Dance company member Milton Myers, “Raindance” was set on the Cleo Parker Robinson Company dancers in 1984. Myers recently returned to Denver to work with the company and, much to Robinson’s surprise, found that, even after 20 years, the piece needed no changes.

“He came to work with us, because after 20 years you have changes in the company,” said Robinson, adding that Myers has never set “Raindance” on another company. “But the dance doesn’t need any changes. He said he didn’t want to touch it. It has stayed so alive.”

Robinson said that “Raindance” has become her company’s signature because it has the same resonance for audiences everywhere. “It’s about universal energy, energy coming from ancient forces,” she said. “It creates something where you’re absolutely connected to anything, anything living, breathing. We travel a lot, and this connects us to people everywhere. It’s the one piece that transcends everything, and that’s why I love it.”

The final piece on the program, “Choros,” is laden with connections. Like “Temple In Motion,” it is rooted in Brazilian dance. “Choros” was choreographed by Katherine Dunham, like Robinson, a black female dancer and choreographer. Over the years, the two women have become friends; Robinson has brought Dunham, now 94 and still active in dance, to Denver to teach and celebrate her birthday several times over the last 15 years.

Robinson first saw “Choros,” choreographed in the 1940s, performed as part of the Alvin Ailey company’s tribute to Dunham.”When I saw this piece, I saw the magic of Katherine Dunham,” said Robinson, who studied with Dunham in East St. Louis last week. “I knew about her when I was 19 and went to New York, and the anticipation of seeing her … Whew!”

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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