Cleo Parker Robinson Brings Healing Through Dance in Sacred Spaces?

Burned prayers from St. Mary's Baptist Church.
Burned prayers from St. Mary's Baptist Church. Debbie Fleming Caffery
At the end of August, dancers with the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble gathered at their studio inside the Shorter African Methodist Episcopal Church. The dancers had been working on their moves for months, preparing for an upcoming performance at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House and coming off a slew of performances at Jacob's Pillow, a dance school and performance space in Massachusetts.

The dance that they'll perform September 17 and 18 has a connection to the building where the company is based. The original Shorter AME Church — named for Bishop James A. Shorter, who led the congregation there in 1880 — was a large brick building at 19th and Stout streets. The congregation sold that structure (today it's the federal courthouse) and relocated to a house at 119 Park Avenue West. But that building was burned down in 1925, reportedly by the Ku Klux Klan. It was rebuilt in the same spot in 1926, and since the late 1980s, the Gothic-style structure has been home to the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance.

"The spirit was here, and we had to rebuild from nothing with no money, the same way everybody does everything — in faith," says Robinson. "You believe in it."

CPRD started when Robinson was recruited by the Model Cities Program to create a cultural outreach program in Denver. After that, she established the New Dance Theater with a group of artists; the troupe morphed into Cleo Parker Robinson Dance in 1970, co-founded with poet and writer Schyleen Qualls. Robinson's mentor at the time, Katherine Dunham, was a choreographer, activist and anthropologist who inspired Robinson to use dance to educate people on culture and social activism.

At the tail end of the civil rights movement, CPRD was looking for a way to bring people together and bring art into the movement. "We were young and we were hungry," recalls Robinson. "We wanted to do something that fed our spirits and connected us to each other and our communities."
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Cleo Parker in 1968.
Ed Klamm
With the help of different donors and architects, Robinson and her husband, the late Tom Robinson, were able to lease Shorter AME Church for CPRD in 1987 for just one dollar a year. The building had been empty for seven years at the time.

In recent decades, many nonprofit churches have not been able to afford the renovations and upkeep of big buildings, and many have become performance art spaces. CPRD finally bought the Shorter building last December.

Over the years, the company has performed all over the United States and in thirty countries. Its productions have centered around themes of social activism and have told the stories of marginalized communities. A dance titled "Witness" dealt with the AIDS epidemic. In 2002, "One Nation Under a Groove, Part 2" used dance to tell the story of the moments leading up to the bombing of the 16th Avenue Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Robinson even collaborated with Maya Angelou in 1983 on a jazz-and-poetry combination titled "Lush Life."

Robinson has received many honors over the past five decades, including the Governor's Award for Excellence in 1974 (the same year CPRD became a nonprofit), and was inducted into the Colorado Women's Hall of Fame in 1989 and appointed to the National Council on the Arts in 1999. She won a Kennedy Center Medal of Honor in 2005 and an Honorary Doctorate of Public Service from Regis University in 2008, all for her contributions to the arts.
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Cleo Parker Robinson leads a rehearsal in 2020.
University of Denver
When the company started, Robinson recalls, theater, dance and art were a means of connecting people; everybody wanted to be part of something. But by the time the company celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, in 2020, making connections was a lot more difficult. People were already more isolated because of the internet and social media, and then COVID landed.

Even today, people are more concerned about how many zeros are on their own paycheck than they are with what's going on in their local arts scene or what social injustices they can fight each day, Robinson notes. As a result, it's harder to get people interested in the arts and to recognize their importance.
Even after decades in the business, she still worries about ticket sales: "You’d think after 52 years I would not wake up and feel that stress. You know, you would think that oh, that’s a given, but it's not."

Today the CPRD building is full of Black history and culture, from the walls lined with artwork to Robinson's bag decorated with multiple magazines dedicated to the Obamas. The church itself is a celebration of Black creators, politicians and historic figures — and a testament to the troubles such institutions still face.

In 2019, 24-year-old Holden Matthews set fire to three predominantly Black Baptist churches in St. Landry's Parish in Opelousas, Louisiana: St. Mary Missionary Baptist Church, Greater Union Baptist Church and Mount Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church. Matthews said he committed the acts — considered federal hate crimes — to elevate his status in the black-metal music community, where people often engaged in church burnings and vandalism in the early 1990s, specifically in Norway.

The Performing Arts Serving Acadiana, an arts organization in Lafayette, Louisiana, approached Robinson after the church burnings with the suggestion that they work together to create a dance surrounding the burning of these sacred places and to tell the story of their impact.
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The burned interior and steeple of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church.
Debbie Fleming Caffery
In June, Robinson visited St. Landry's Parish along with Adonis Rose, artistic director of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra; Winifred Harris, associate artistic director at CPRD; Malik Robinson, CPRD executive director and Robinson's son; and Micah Bursh, a member of the CPRD marketing team. The group spoke with those who'd lost their churches in the fires to get a better understanding of the social, emotional and spiritual elements of the burnings.

What resulted is a dance performance called Sacred Spaces?, a series of three works that question what sacred spaces are and what happens when they are threatened or interrupted. The evening will start with "Dépouillé (Bare)," choreographed by Harris; and "Temple in Motion," choreographed by Brazilian dancer Roseangela Silvestre; the second half will consist of "Sacred Spaces?" the dance, choreographed by Robinson.

"Dépouillé" is a "moving meditation" that follows one soloist moving through different situations in life. "The whole thing is about stripping down to our bare essence and moving through life in a way that is meditative," Harris explains. Even when the chaos of life is stripped away, what remains at a person's core is the spirit, what the individual brings to every situation. People have the ability to carry their spirit and energy with them no matter what takes place; they can be a sacred space, and they can make any physical place a sacred space as well.

"Temple in Motion" shows how the body can be a sacred space, and demonstrates how physical presence itself can be sacred. According to Silvestre, everyone has an invisible spirit and power within them. "You don’t see your breath, but we know that it’s there because we’re moving," Silvestre says. "The same way we don’t see the air but we know it’s there because you feel the breeze; it moves your hair. This invisible power we all have, but we don’t know [what it looks like]."

"Sacred Spaces?" tells the story of the burning of the churches in Louisiana; Robinson choreographed it around music composed by Adonis Rose. "When I was writing the music, I wrote it according to the narrative of the events that took place," Rose says. "I worked with Miss Cleo and followed her advice when it came to how we wanted to structure it musically."

"Sacred Spaces?" consists of six movements. The first one is titled "Dirge," usually an artistic piece that is sorrowful and used to mourn. "That scene kind of describes the pain, the trauma and the mourning of the parishioners...after discovering the tragic news about the burning of the churches," Rose says.

The next movement is "The Plan," which recounts Matthews's plan to burn down the churches, from the original idea to actually carrying it out. "I added some elements of African conga drum and the rhythms in there, because I always wanted to keep elements of the Black church and the Black community in the pieces," Rose says.
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Samiyah Lynnice of CPRD.
Martha Wirth
The third movement is another "Sacred Spaces." For this, Rose wanted to keep a consistent rhythm to represent how united sacred spaces are. "It’s all on one harmonic chord, which kind of defines the oneness of sacred spaces all around the world. They’re all places of worship," Rose says. "So I did not move this piece around musically a whole lot, because I wanted to show the unity and the things that all churches have and all sacred spaces have in common, which is spirituality in some way, shape or form."

The fourth movement is "The Children Are Watching," which depicts how children witnessed these church burnings and the impact they had on the adults in their lives and the community. "I wrote the ballad to describe...the unwavering faith and resiliency of the children of the burned churches," Rose says. The fifth is "Glory Glory Glory," which Rose describes as a prayer and "straight-up Black gospel." He could easily have named it "Lord Lord Lord," which he remembers his mother saying as a way of asking, "Why us? Why do we have to deal with this?" when faced with discrimination.

The last movement is called "Rejoice," and it celebrates the churches being rebuilt in the end. "People show up; the guy’s arrested, [and] people show up to build the churches back," Rose says. "It really describes the optimism and hope for the future of the congregations."

All three parts look at the concept of sacred spaces from a different angle and question what a sacred space can be, so that audience members can leave with their own interpretation and begin to think about the sacred spaces within their lives and within themselves. "It’s not just a particular structure," says Robinson. "It can be anywhere; the body can be a sacred space. Our relationship with each other is sacred."
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The CPRD Ensemble rehearses for Sacred Spaces? in early September.
Stan Obert
Cleo Parker Robinson Dance's home is about to become a much bigger space. In March, the company revealed that it would be receiving a $4 million community revitalization grant from the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade, allowing it to greatly expand the building. It will add three additional levels to the structure, with more dance studios, another theater and music rehearsal rooms. Today the ensemble has thirteen members. Cleo II, an apprenticeship program started in 2011 to help form young dancers into professionals, has three members, and the company has two youth ensembles as well. The expansion will help the company prepare for the future.

But for now, Robinson sees Sacred Spaces? as a way to help people deal with the past, to rebuild and recover — not just from the burnings of these churches, but also from tragedies in their own lives. All of the dancers in the ensemble rehearsing in the studio each day have their own sacred spaces that they bring to the dance, Robinson says. "I think we’ve always used the arts as a healing place, because sometimes things happen that are really atrocious," she concludes. "We have to be able to laugh and to sing and to get out of our heads. What an honor to be able to be asked to do it."

The Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble will be performing Sacred Spaces? at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, September 17, and 2 p.m. Sunday, September 18. Tickets range from $25 to $125; get them here.
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Katrina Leibee, a recent graduate of Colorado State University, is an editorial fellow at Westword, covering politics, business and culture.
Contact: Katrina Leibee