A disease shut down Cleo Parker Robinson’s kidneys and caused a heart attack when she was 10. Doctors said she would never have a normal childhood.
Cleo didn’t listen.
“I learned this thing about will,” she said. “I was an overachiever because I had been given the gift of life.”
Already engrossed by her love of dancing, Robinson started down a path that would lead to successes beyond her wildest dreams, including the creation of a world-famous modern dance company.
Robinson built the 30-year-old company from a fledgling grass-roots organization with no money to a business with an overall operating budget of nearly $1.5 million this year. She has defied tradition by keeping her company in Denver and promoting multiculturalism.
“She’s been a leader in trying to ensure that the African-American modern dance contribution is kept alive and vibrant. There are other repertoire companies that might do it similar, but she has been a leader,” said Douglas Sonntag, director of dance at the National Endowment for the Arts. “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.”
Robinson’s company, dance school and theater are housed in a historic church in the heart of Denver’s black community.
Her upper-level office is cluttered with stacks of papers and wall hangings displaced by dozens of posters, awards and even handwritten notes from the White House.
A dancer for as long as she can remember, Robinson is tall and muscular and carries herself with a performer’s studied posture and grace.
The Cleo Parker Robinson Dance 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.
While Robinson frequently brings in new choreographers to keep the repertoire fresh, popular pieces have emerged that are performed regularly.
In Rain Dance, a 20-minute work by Milton Myers, dancers move in a pulsing rhythm, forming a giant circle and twirling 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,” company dancer Carlos Venturo said. “We get in the ritual of calling for rain; we are praying and we are stomping.”
Venturo, 29, joined the 16-member company three years ago after previous experience with the Lima Municipal School of Ballet 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 said.
Robinson said her company performs pieces that send a message through movement, and she believes that is part of its signature.
“We have a modern dance company that comes with talent and vitality,” she said. “But I think there is also a spirituality that people see.”
She said her success has also come from hard work, from talented collaborators and with a little help from fate.
“I think I’ve been able to follow kind of a divine destiny,” she said.
Robinson grew up in Denver, the daughter of an actor and a french horn player. She said her parents exposed her to theater and music at a young age, giving her a passion for the arts.
At 15, Robinson began instructing college-level dance courses at the University of Colorado after a teacher went on a trip and left the classes in her hands.
Robinson taught through high school and started her company by the time she graduated from Colorado Women’s College. The company began as a grass-roots organization in 1970 out of the Model Cities Cultural Art Center.
The early years were a struggle, and Robinson constantly wrote grant proposals to secure funding.
“Everything was fast and furious,” she said. “At that time, we had very few opportunities because no one was talking about black dance.”
Robinson visited high schools throughout the city to recruit students. She offered dance lessons for 25 cents, charging only after dismal turnout for free lessons.
“I wanted to get to blacks--African Americans--and Hispanics, and get to those kids who I felt didn’t have an opportunity,” she said. She also tried to reach out to young men to balance the gender scale.
Robinson was familiar with the dance styles of Alvin Ailey and Arthur Mitchell and wanted to be like them. But looking at most dance studios in Denver, Robinson found that blacks were not well represented.
She started taking her company out of Denver for short tours, including a performance at a prison in Canon City. Eventually, the company performed in venues as far away as Kenya and Singapore.
“I believe that what really built the company was all the people who cared. We were really hungry,” she said.
Among her many honors, she was inducted into the Blacks in Colorado Hall of Fame in 1994 and received both the Mayor’s and the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts.
In April 1999, Robinson was appointed to the National Council on the Arts, a 14-member panel that advises the National Endowment for the Arts on grant proposals.
Her community programs have received recognition as well. In addition to her company, dance school and educational endeavors, Robinson offers a program aimed at getting at-risk youths to engage in art instead of crime.
The program, Project Self Discovery, was selected recently by the President’s Committee on the Arts to receive the prestigious Coming Up Taller award.
At 52, Robinson relishes her achievements. She remains married to her high school sweetheart, Tom Robinson, who is also her business manager. Her adult son Malik works as the company’s booking and development director.
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. It’s still the world that I understand,” she said.
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