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.
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."
Cleo Parker Robinson
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.