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Mission ready: Cleo Parker Robinson Dance

Colorado’s celebrated nonprofit dance ensemble, academy and theatre is celebrating a 50th season unlike any other by taking its cherished “Granny Dances to a Holiday Drum” digital.

November 25, 2020

By Monica Parpal Stockbridge

Late on the first Friday of November, Cleo Parker Robinson wrapped a production unlike any she had ever been a part of in more than 50 years of dance: a prerecorded performance.

Cleo Parker Robinson Dance’s 29th annual “Granny Dances to a Holiday Drum” will stream digitally Dec. 5 to Jan 2. Tickets are available for purchase now, and ticket holders may watch it an unlimited number of times during that period.

“Everything is digital now,” said Parker Robinson, founder, artistic director and choreographer of the eponymous Denver dance institution, which partners with Metropolitan State University of Denver's dance program to cultivate young talent. “That’s not the world I’ve ever been in.”

Now in her 70s, Parker Robinson writes, produces and dances in the show every year as a way to bring to life on stage cultural celebrations such as Hanukkah, Native American Winter Solstice, Diwali, Christmas and Caribbean Junkanoo.

A portrait of Cleo Parker Robinson from the 1970s by Ed Klamm. Photo courtesy of Cleo Parker Robinson Dance
A portrait of Cleo Parker Robinson from the 1970s by Ed Klamm. Photo courtesy of Cleo Parker Robinson Dance

This year, due to COVID-19 safety regulations, the performers wore masks and maintained 6 feet of distance while dancing on a stage swathed in green-screen material. There were many shifts of recording and postproduction editing. As a result, this year’s show will be an entirely new version of “Granny.”

Despite the massive shift, Parker Robinson accepted the challenge. “It was such a wonderful moment when I realized that we had entered something that I never would have experienced before,” she said.

Dance for a digital age

CPRD is one of many nonprofits in Denver navigating a new normal during the COVID-19 pandemic. For an organization built on community, creative expression and crossing cultural divides, the pandemic initially made Parker Robinson feel like “we couldn’t even move.”

Still, by the end of March, the nonprofit was moving in a new direction. The Dance Academy and Ensemble began offering live and recorded online classes. Last summer, students flocked to outdoor-only classes held at the CPRD Amphitheatre and patio area.

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CPRD Academy Director Amelia Dietz played a key part in shifting classes to a virtual space. “Summer camps moved completely online and virtual,” she said. “When the fall came around, we said, you know, we’re here, we’re in this pandemic, it’s not really going anywhere. What can we do? Now we have about 15 classes a week compared to our normal 55. So very much limited. But they’ve been successful, both online and outdoors.”

CPRD has been housed in the historic A.M.E. Shorter building, one of the oldest African-American churches in Denver, since the late 1980s. After undergoing years of renovations, it has become a space where the community can converge and commune over art and dance. These days, “we’re not in the studio and not in the theatre,” Parker Robinson said. “The places that we live in, that we spend more time in now, are our real sacred spaces.”

Dietz echoes this idea. “I’ve seen teachers say, ‘Go grab your favorite item in your house. Now we’re going to make a dance about it,’” she said. “That’s something that wouldn’t normally happen in the studio.”

Students are making do and finding that the power of dance transcends physical spaces.

Parker Robinson has always felt a certain magic in dancing together with and for others. Going digital, she said, is just “a different kind of magic.”

College collab

Beyond that magic, another force sustaining and driving CPRD forward is its partnership with MSU Denver's Department of Theatre and Dance. The University’s dance program, which launched in 2018, and CPRD combine to form an incubator for local talent, a chance for serious students to train to become professional dancers while also earning their four-year degrees.

CPRD Executive Director (and Cleo’s son) Malik Robinson was a key player in the program’s inception, along with Nicole Predki and Leslie Merrill, co-coordinators of the dance program; former MSU President Stephen Jordan, Ph.D.; and former CPRD board member Ramon Del Castillo, chair of the Chicana/o Studies Department.

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Shawnee DeChristopher is an MSU Denver dance student and an administrative assistant at CPRD. She’s seen the dance major flourish over the past two years. Through the Dance Troupe Association for Performance Production, a student organization dedicated to promoting dance on campus and beyond, she’s had a chance to grow her involvement through fundraising and production.

“I would say just recently within the last year, I really realized how important not just dance but creative expression in general is,” DeChristopher said. “I think (CPRD) does a wonderful job promoting it and also making it really accessible to the community.”

Shawnee DeChristopher, an MSU Denver dance student and an administrative assistant at Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, dances at Cheesman Park on Monday, Nov. 21, 2020. Photo by Amanda Schwengel
Shawnee DeChristopher, an MSU Denver dance student and an administrative assistant at Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, dances at Cheesman Park on Monday, Nov. 21, 2020. Photo by Amanda Schwengel

Hope for the holidays

“Granny Dances to a Holiday Drum” has long been a cherished holiday tradition for the Denver community. But this year, as that community navigates new ways to connect and navigate, the production feels especially important, Parker Robinson says.

“I write it and produce it with all of the support and love I can get from everywhere,” Parker Robinson said of the holiday show. “So it really becomes a village.”

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Today, that village feels much more distant. Yet, pulling people together in our pandemic-stricken state is invigorating, she says.

“We’re doing something that will be so inspiring, uplifting, hopeful,” she said. “And it's not going to be the same, but we really will have the same kind of impact, we hope.”

Editor's Note: RED's "Mission Ready" is a monthly feature highlighting the work of an outstanding Colorado nonprofit. There are more than 25,000 nonprofit organizations in Colorado, and MSU Denver's Department of Human Services & Counseling is providing students with the skills and fieldwork required to lead them through its Nonprofit Studies concentration.


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