Cleo Parker Robinson is a Denver institution. Her dance company is now in its fifth decade, and tonight will perform the long-forgotten Southland, which Katherine Dunham had danced more than sixty years ago.
This production should be a real revelation, but when we spoke with Cleo about the dance, we also asked her to reveal a few other things that her longtime fans might not know:
Westword: Who's your all-time favorite jazz artist? Cleo Parker Robinson: Wow. I love so many. I love Sarah Vaughan; I love all of them! I'm doing my gala October 6 and we're going to line the tables with '70s albums as decorations. You know, I love Nat King Cole; I love Nina Simone. I danced "Strange Fruit" to Nina Simone before my son was born so I know I loved her early. What's your favorite dance-related movie?
Oh my! My favorite dance-related movie? Well, I love seeing Katherine Dunham in Stormy Weather. I saw her when I was young. When she was coming down the stairs, she was so magical -- her amazing costume and grace. And then Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain! I loved that one too. That was just wonderful. Black Swan isn't for me. I have a lot to say about that one, but we'll save it for another time.
What's the worst dance you've ever seen?
I always felt I could bear any dance. Even if I could not deal with it, I would sit and try to find something I could get out of it. If a dancer is really not trained well and they're doing things that their bodies can't handle, I cringe -- worrying that there could be an unbelievable injury. It's like football or basketball, seeing something that you don't want to see.
I've seen a lot of dance around the world, from Bulgaria to Egypt, but even an ugly dancer is something I can appreciate. Things touch me in different ways. Even if it's grotesque, it's still an interesting way of moving. I'm sure there have been times where I've seen something and said, "Oh my, that was a waste of my hour and a half." But I have to see everything and I always try to find something that I can relate to. I've seen a lot. I've done things myself where I went, "Whoo, that was ugly. Let me do that again!" You know, we're more critical of ourselves than anyone else.
If you were stuck on an island and could only have three things with you, what would they be?
Oh my goodness! That's too much! Well, I've been stuck on an island before and I loved it. I wish I could be stuck on an island more often. I worked on the Big Island in Hawaii for ten years and loved it. Nobody could reach me. No cell phone, no texting, no nothing! All I need is the ocean. I wish I could be there right now with my husband and my grandchildren. What would you like your last meal to be? I'd probably have yogurt and a decaf mocha. Something from Starbucks, as ridiculous as it sounds. I don't think about eating much. People have to make me eat. Right now I'm eating two to three meals a day and all I can think is, "You've got to be kidding me? People really eat like this?" I love chocolate. Honey, that's all I probably need is a little chocolate. Just enough to stimulate my brain so I can do another movement and feel grateful. What's your idea of a perfect vacation? I love Hawaii. My grandparents are from Hawaii, very much like the president -- my white grandparents. That's where my spirit calls me. I'd love to be there in the water and on the beach, dance to the hula, listen to the people sing, eat fresh fish. Just be in the rhythm of life! I've been all over the world but if you just give me a little bit of water with my husband and the people I love, I'm good. I definitely couldn't be anywhere alone long. I need my family.
What's one thing nobody knows about you that you'd like to share now? Well, I've shared a lot of things nobody knows about me. I've been a very public person. I share a lot of my journey. Maybe they don't know that I used to love to paint and I really love to write. Writing is a great therapy for me, but I never seem to have any time because you have to stay still.
What are you most afraid of? One year I decided to face all my fears at the same time. One really was skiing. I never used to allow myself or my dancers to ski because I didn't want anything to happen to our legs. But I have faced that fear. I got my instructor and asked him to teach me how to fall because I knew I was going to fall. I kept asking him, "When are you going to teach me how to fall?" Well, the entire time I didn't fall. At the end, all I wanted to know was why he refused to teach me how to fall and he said, "You're a dancer; you already know how to fall." It was amazing. I skied down that mountain following him and never fell once. You talk about a natural high. It was phenomenal to watch the magic of people moving like that, the shift of weight and what muscles to use. It was amazing but I only did it once.
What's the most misunderstood aspect of Denver? We probably have so many people who move to Denver to live as artists. Not to come and see art, but to live it. We create jobs for people in the arts. I think that's a shift in the way people think about Denver and the way they think about the country. They used to only think about New York or L.A. for that stuff. That's one of the things Katherine Dunham used to love about Denver. She said there was a synergy here because it's right in the middle of the country where both coasts culminate. Nowadays these dancers move to Denver for the experience. People move here to see great art and also to be great artists. The more people that understand this, the more they will support the artists living here.
If you could say one thing to the entire world, what would it be? I would say that the journey of discovering your greatest potential is probably the most important thing you can do. Every day. Knowing how it not only elevates you, but elevates others -- that's a real party! That's the best party ever because if you can really elevate yourself, you are ready to empower someone else. If you get caught up in "You can't, you can't, you can't," then you won't want anybody else to, either. As Mrs. Dunham used to say, nothing is impossible, and that goes for everyone.
I think that's why we've created such a great country. Even if you look at Southland and ask how something like that ever happened, you must then ask how you can become the best humanitarian you can be. Look at the big picture and ask what you can do to make this world a better place.
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