Cleo Parker Robinson is a living legend in the world of dance -- officially. In 1997, she was chosen along with four other women for the project, DanceWomen: Living Legends. She is also first vice president of the International Association of Blacks In Dance, and she was named last year to the National Council on the Arts, a 14-member group that advises the National Endowment for the Arts. But her first passion is Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, the Denver-based, multi-cultural performing arts organization that she founded back in 1970 with a focus on bringing dance performance and education into the underserved communities of Denver. The Ensemble performs Friday at the Beasley Performing Arts Center in Pullman and on Saturday at the Panida in Sandpoint.
Housed in the renovated historic Shorter AME Church in Denver's Five Points neighborhood, the year-round dance school serves more than 350 students, many of whom come to the school thanks to need-based scholarships. Summer institutes for advanced dancers and programs in the Denver public schools touch even more. But perhaps the most visible ambassadors of the organization are the dancers of the ensemble. A group of 17 salaried professional dancers, the ensemble tours both nationally and worldwide, bringing its unique fusion of African-influenced modern dance to an even wider audience, and picking up new cultural influences along the way.
"I think it's really important that art is functional, " says Robinson. "If it's not engaged with the community, it becomes archaic. "
To that end, Robinson says all the dancers in the ensemble take part in the school programs. "We've been going into the schools for over 30 years, and that's just as important [as the performance] because that's our future. The kids keep us absolutely vibrant. They're always giving us new movements. "
New movements also come about from the group's travels. During the spring of 1999, the Ensemble toured Egypt, dancing in the Cairo Opera House and at the pyramids of Luxor. While there, they collaborated with Egyptian composer Halim El-Dahb on a new dance called "Inshalla, " which premiered a year ago and will be performed for only the fourth time this weekend. The piece evokes the days of Egyptian queens and pharaohs, Robinson says.
"I've always been aware of Cleopatra, because of my name, " she laughs. "But just to be there, dancing on top of the pyramids, that brought the history alive. "
Painted on the walls, Robinson saw many of the images that had inspired Martha Graham to create her dances "Cleopatra " and "Clytemnestra. " Bringing that inspiration and history back to the students in Denver and the audiences throughout the United States was one of the motivations for creating "Inshalla. "
"Many young people need to know that we have a rich history, " she says. "The Nubian has been written out of history. What we've chosen and what we've edited out is very unfortunate. So it's marvelous to recapture the richness of Egyptian culture and these African queens, pharaohs and gods. "
At both shows, the ensemble will do "Rain Dance, " its signature piece. The dance was created 15 years ago by Milton Myers, a former member of Alvin Ailey's dance company. "It's like an urban ritual, " says Robinson. "It's about unity and about oneness. It's a circle, but individuals keep coming out and going back into the circle. It reminds us that we all need each other. In a circle, each person is better than they would be alone. "
The piece has been used in school programs, as well, as a tool for teaching tolerance.
Not long after returning from Egypt, Robinson traveled to Bahia, in Brazil, to work on another piece, "Temple In Motion, " with Brazilian dancer Rose Angela Sylvestri. While there, she discovered that Sylvestri had also just visited Egypt, so the two made some powerful connections.
"It was planned by the universe, " Robinson says of the collaboration. "She has created some marvelous symbols within [the piece], and the score is all original. "
Robinson is excited to weave this new cultural thread into the fabric of dances performed by the ensemble. "[Sylvestri] is a woman who's Brazilian, but she really feels her African roots. "
After its sojourn in the Northwest, the ensemble is off for another trip to the Middle East, this time to Israel. The recent upswing in violence in Jerusalem concerns Robinson, but the trip is still on.
The ensemble will spend a week touring Israel, visiting four or five cities including Jerusalem. Despite the potential danger, Robinson is happy for another opportunity for cultural exchange. "You can't, " she says, "be afraid to move. "
& & & lt;i & The Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble performs Friday, Oct. 13, at 7:30 pm at Beasley Coliseum, Pullman. Tickets: $8-$28. Call: (509) 335-1514. On Saturday, Oct. 14, the ensemble appears at the Panida Theater in Sandpoint at 8 pm. Tickets: $8-$15. Call: (208) 263-9191 & lt;/i & & lt;/center &