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Cleo Parker Robinson resurrects Southland -- and the memory of Katherine Dunham

Few Denver natives have made as lasting an imprint on this city as Cleo Parker Robinson. For over forty years she's been dancing her way through Colorado's cultural scene, establishing a dance troupe and a school, winning countless awards and bringing social awareness to controversial subjects along the way. Her new production, Southland, is the resurrection of a fleeting, racially driven drama first performed by longtime friend Katherine Dunham. And it's a show over sixty years in the making.

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Cleo was raised in Five Points. Her father was a black actor, her mother a white musician who was disowned by her own parents for marrying a black man. The interracial couple faced a lot of prejudice, as did their daughter. But Cleo learned to cope through the arts -- including one of the most cathartic: comedy. "We had to learn to laugh," she remembers. "We laughed a lot -- because of the remedy of it. But it was still very frightening to live like that."

While laughing helped Cleo see the brighter side of life, it was dancing that truly inspired her. After her father introduced her to the basics, she began to look for other dancers who could help improve her skills. That's how she found Katherine Dunham, an innovative Afro-Caribbean choreographer with a hypnotizing midsection.

Cleo remembers first seeing Katherine Dunham perform on TV. But that was enough to convince her to enroll in one of Dunham's classes -- as James Dean, Warren Beatty and Shirley MacLaine had before her -- when she moved to New York at the age of nineteen.

She wasn't sure what to expect. What she got was a revelation.

"I didn't know there was a Dunham technique," Cleo recalls. "When I was introduced to it, it just felt right. My body responded to it. It was sensual, it was strong, it had yin and yang. It was a whole new philosophy of dance and life. The heartbeat of humanity was in it."

With the introduction to a new technique came the start of a lifelong friendship. The two women bonded -- not just through dance, but also through their shared desire to live a spirited life and enlighten others as to how to do the same. Together the women would talk -- about live, about love (a lot about love), about spirituality. Nothing was out of reach. "It was like I found a soulmate -- someone who understood my complexity," Cleo says.

In the mid-'60s, Dunham moved to St. Louis, to pursue a career in education. It was there that she opened her arms to gang members and the impoverished alike, offering an alternative to the streets that emphasized a life of dance and music. When Cleo went to visit, she was rattled by what she saw. "She was deep," she remembers. "She was a priestess. She was a goddess. She was a disciplinarian. She was everything to me. I was interested in all aspects of Ms. Dunham, but it was the social work that got me."

Inspired by Dunham's work, Cleo headed back to Denver to establish the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble in 1970. Her immediate impact in the community, especially the Five Points area, was as strong as Dunham's accomplishments in St. Louis. And over the next four decades, Cleo Parker Robinson earned a plethora of awards, including an induction into the Colorado Women's Hall of Fame and Blacks in Colorado Hall of Fame.

But while Katherine Dunham had accomplished so much, she began to struggle later in life. To her, the world seemed to be backtracking on already-made progress toward justice and equality, and she fell into a deep depression. Robinson began to worry about her beloved friend, and even recalls Dunham saying a final goodbye during one visit. "I went to kiss her goodnight and she said, 'I'll see you in the next civilization,'" Cleo says.

Finally, when Cleo suggested to her friend that they resurrect Southland, Dunham experienced a renewed sense of vitality. The two-act work, which Dunham had created, centers on a black man accused of raping a white woman; Dunham first performed it in Santiago, Chile, in 1951 -- but because of its controversial subject matter, the ballet was immediately shut down. The piece was performed just once more, several years later in Paris, then seemingly faded into oblivion.

Until Cleo decided to bring it back. Although Dunham passed away in 2006, she was a key figure in the early stages of the recreation process and a loving memory throughout. When it's performed this weekend, Southland will undoubtedly bring a renewed sense of awareness of the racial components that got it banned in the first place -- but it will also be the culmination of a crucial friendship.

Southland premieres in Denver at 7:30 p.m. Friday, September 14, in the Newman Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Denver. The performances will continue September 15 and September 16. For more information, go to the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance website.

And for more from Cleo Parker Robinson, come back to Show and Tell tomorrow.