A two-minute ragtime shimmy choreographed by Katherine Dunham in 1938, “Barrelhouse Blues” was always meant to capture the moment when a lonely old woman channels her lost youth through dance.
Denver's own Cleo Parker Robinson describes the female dancer in the duet as "a woman who for one night could think that she is being longed for and being cared about even though she is lonely, even though it’s cold outside in Chicago and she’s alone going into a bar.”
Robinson, who was born in 1948, learned the dance directly from Dunham and has made it one of her signature pieces for the last quarter-century. Tonight, Robinson will perform “Barrelhouse Blues” one last time as part of her ensemble's Rhapsody in Black. Then the role will be passed on to Chloe Abel, a dancer in her seventh season with Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, who recently played the leading lady in the company's rendition of Romeo and Juliet.
"It's mind-blowing; I'm grateful to get the dance directly from Cleo," says Abel.
“She’s been around forever, and we’ve been around forever,” says Jane Easley who came to the Newman Center to purchase tickets on Thursday as soon as she heard Robinson would be performing. Jane and her husband, Bill, began ushering at the theater shortly after it opened in 2003. “We always saw her when she came, and we’ve enjoyed seeing her through the years.”
Robinson calls the Newman Center "Daddy's house," because her father, J.P. Parker, ran the theater as facilities manager until his death in 2015. Mr. Parker was a well-known black actor who broke the mold and married Martha Roberts, a white French horn player.
Robinson grew up with her siblings in a Five Points home frequented by artists and filled with love and music. She attended Hill Junior High and George Washington High School, taking and teaching dance classes along the way.
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“We grew up dancing," she says. "We danced in our homes. We danced on the corner. We danced on the playground. We danced in the grocery store. We danced. But most of the studios were segregated, so you didn’t see any children of color.”
Growing up as a multi-racial child in Denver came with struggles, Robinson says. "I took ballet classes, but I never saw anybody who looked or felt like I did. I felt like I had this unbelievable energy. I had rhythm, so it was hard to find where do I belong.”
When Robinson first saw the Katherine Dunham Company dance on television, she says, “Everything stopped. It was like watching the World Series. It was amazing.”
It would be more than a decade before Robinson met Dunham in person, but then the two dancers would form a deep and lasting friendship. In addition to honoring Dunham's legacy, Rhapsody in Black pays tribute to the golden era of black artists in Paris, including activist Josephine Baker, poet Langston Hughes, composer Duke Ellington, singer Nina Simone and novelist James Baldwin, who is being channeled by devoted spoken-word artist Charles Reese.
Throughout her company's 48 years, Robinson has been recognized by various mayors, the New York Times and even President Bill Clinton for her work. In 2005 when she received a medal of honor at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, the real reward that night was winning Dunham's approval when she performed “Barrelhouse Blues.”
“[Dunham] was right there, and she said ‘That’s it sister, that’s it,’” remembers Robinson. “I think even now I’m trying to figure out exactly what she did. You’re almost doing someone else’s spirit; you’re not just doing their dance.”
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If there’s a lesson to be taken from “Barrelhouse Blues,” Robinson says it’s about moving on. "[Dunham] said one of the worst things we can do in life is to be nostalgic. You have to know the past, but you can’t live in the past.”
While Robinson has announced that this will be her last performance of “Barrelhouse Blues,” she is by no means retiring and will continue to choreograph, teach and perform in the annual extravaganza Granny Dances to a Holiday Drum.
Fortunately, Robinson is also working on a book — because you need one to fully appreciate the richness of her life, as well as the people she met and admired and continues to influence. Plus, no one can tell a story like she can.
Cleo Parker Robinson Dance is performing Rhapsody in Black at the Newman Center for the Performing Arts, 2344 East Illiff Avenue, at 7:30 p.m. Friday, September 28, and Saturday, September 29, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, September 30. Adult tickets are $45; children and student admission is $35; get tickets here.