Cleo Parker Robinson: Denver’s modern dance pioneer

Cleo Parker Robinson grew up in Five Points, where her company resides today, and has been immersed in the mystique of the arts since birth — her mother played with the San Diego Symphony and she describes her father as a “jazz musician and theater man.” 
While attending the Colorado Women’s College, where she graduated with a degree in education, Parker Robinson visited Manhattan. The city’s nonstop energy inspired her; she decided she either needed to move there or develop the same type of vigor in Denver. 
Cleo Park Robinson is an intergral part of Denver’s artistic evolution.Upon graduation, she chose not to travel cross-country to pursue her dreams, but to build an artistic destination in her hometown:  Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble (CPRDE).
“When you are young, all you have is everything ahead of you,” she says of her decision to stay. “You just dream and you take risks that you don’t even realize are risks because you are driven by your passion.” 
Free of the binds of the already established traditions and expectations of New York, Parker Robinson saw an opportunity to create art as she wished, so subsequently she and several colleagues set out to build the Denver dance community from the ground up. 
From the beginning, Parker Robinson’s vision was clear. She wanted to not only reenergize the functional aspect of art through dance, she also wished to establish community through two parallel concepts: an international performing company that would provide livable wages and working conditions for professional dancers and a school that would allow Denverites to experience the power of dance firsthand. 
Breaking barriers 
“Parker Robinson has impacted the Denver arts scene on many levels,” says Malik Robinson, CPRDE’s Senior Director and her son. He’s been a part of the organization for over seventeen years and, along with his mother, he has witnessed the arts in Denver grow and diversify, and now marvels at how creative pursuits can transform people. 
But it hasn’t been an easy journey. Segregation has been a reoccurring theme in Parker Robinson’s life —- not only politically, but artistically as well. CPRDE become her vehicle for breaking barriers and stereotypes. The company now tours all over the nation, representing the Denver dance community and using art to spark dialogue. 
“[Dance can be] a catalyst for change,” say Parker Robinson. Her son agrees, commenting on how he believes in the functionality of art and admires CPRDE’s “dynamic artists who are committed to transforming and educating community.” Even in unwelcoming communities, CPRDE strives to get its message seen and heard.
Looking ahead
Parker Robinson’s impact on the local arts runs deep —- after forty years of active participation, her name can be tied to almost every major arts organization in Denver, including the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Opera Colorado, the Denver School of the Arts and the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District. 
“Through educational activities and performances, [the company] has served well over a million participants,” says Malik Robinson. He also comments on the ripple effect of the organization, explaining that CPRDE alumni “have remained in Denver to continue growing and enhancing the arts ecosystem in their own right.” 
According to Parker Robinson, the Denver arts scene is being infused with new, vibrant energy, which excites her. She says the “spirit of dance belongs to everyone,” and CPRDE spends a lot of time on this mission. Through ticket giveaways, scholarships, and sliding scale prices, the company and school are finding means to make art affordable and available to everyone in Denver. 
Advocating the arts is “a 24/7 thing,” says Parker Robinson. “My responsibility as an Artistic Director is to constantly create who we are and where we’re going,” she explains. But the extraordinary artistic innovation happening in Denver makes the hard work worthwhile. “There’s a certain pride people have about the arts here in Denver,” she gushes. 
Bringing the world to Denver
For two weekends in May, CPRDE will present the third annual DanceAfrica Denver. In collaboration with dance icon Dr. Charles “Baba Chuck” Davis, CPRDE will be joined by dance companies from all over the world to celebrate African culture through dance and music. CPRDE will perform Parker Robinson’s In the Valley of the Nile, a thought-provoking work that examines humanity and its capacity to achieve amazing feats.

This story originally appeared in Confluence Denver here