Chris Carter: Hi, everybody! This is Chris Carter, executive director at The Bankhead Theater, and today I am talking to Cleo Parker Robinson, the founder of the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble. And they will be here on Thursday, February 9th, at 7:30 pm with a performance titled “Four Journeys.” You can go online and buy tickets at LivermoreArts.org. And we’re very happy now to have Cleo with us today.
I’m so pleased that you’re with us and we’re really looking forward to the performance next week. So very happy to be presenting it.
Cleo Parker Robinson: Can’t believe we’ll be there. I hope. I hope you have some sunshine because I came back from Toronto this morning like at two, and it was below zero and worse than Toronto. I was like, wait, I need warm weather.
Chris Carter: It’s it’s sunny. It’s a little cold out today, but it’s definitely sunny, so hopefully, it’ll stay that way.
Cleo Parker Robinson: Well, we’re thrilled to get there. I can’t believe we’ll be there so soon. So this is terrific. Well, we’ve never been there, so this is going to be a treat.
Chris Carter: It’s a great space. I think you really like it. Maybe we should start with an introduction about the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble for our audience. So they get to know you a little bit, and you had kind of a big milestone a few years ago for the 50th anniversary. And so, can you talk a little bit about the origins of the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance?
Cleo Parker Robinson: Well, I’d love to. You know, we started out in 1970 when I became the artistic director of the Model City’s dance program, and then I became the interim director of the Model City’s cultural center there in Denver. And it comes out of the wonderful 60s-70s, all the different movements, the black arts movement, definitely around the country that had such an impact on communities of color and all over, I mean, all over the world.
And so here we were in Denver. I was born and raised, but I, I was born to my father was an actor, the first black actor in Denver at the Bonfils Theater that now was the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. And my mother was a French horn player with the San Diego Symphony as an apprentice at the age of 12.
So she loved music. They both were wonderful musicians that love, love music. And so I was the first child of four. And then later, our family grew, and now we have an 11, 11 children.
Chris Carter: Wow.
Cleo Parker Robinson: I’m, yeah. So I have a brother that lives in Los Angeles, Maurice Parker Warfield, who worked for Michael Jackson for about 25 years.
Cleo Parker Robinson: And so we have this California–Denver connection, but I’d never met him until I was about, about 16. But I started, you know, I was born in Five Points in Denver. So that’s a historic district, a little bit like L.A., like Watts, or like Harlem. And it was wonderful because I was born in a hotel that had phenomenal artists that would come in and Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway.
And so, so I was exposed in Denver to these amazing artists, but it was also during the Jim Crow laws. So there was tremendous segregation. And I then moved to Dallas when I was about 10. So between 10 and 12, I became very ill, and the doctor said I would never I would live, but I wouldn’t walk again.
And I think just that–that idea of no movement as a child was one that inspired me to move
Chris Carter: Wow.
Cleo Parker Robinson: So now, so I started early teaching dance. I had teachers that were really wonderful that wanted to make sure that I was exposed to, you know, all kinds of cultures and arts and so on, and so started really young.
And that was that that kind of saved my life, really. But I had a; I had a bad heart. And so I was worried about dancing. But it was–it was really when I became a–that opportunity to create a dance company when I was 21, that was that was it. So from then on I became incorporated, and I had my husband, who I had met when I was 12.
So Tom Robinson was right there, and he was an athlete, so he knew that I was an athlete.
Chris Carter: Yeah.
Cleo Parker Robinson: I loved loved the arts.
Chris Carter: And you were 21. That seems so young to me. Was it hard at the time? Did you feel like you have a lot of confidence that this was going to work out for you or what was–what were you feeling when you got the going?
Cleo Parker Robinson: I never thought about any of that, but I think I was so driven to see people come together.
Chris Carter: Yeah.
Cleo Parker Robinson: That’s all I thought about. I just knew that when people were dancing and when they were singing, they were the best part of who they were. That–that’s what I love. And I had seen lots of really tragic things early in my life, so seeing people in their highest place was really wonderful.
Yeah. And so and being able to bring people together, I never thought about having courage or if I was doing something innovative or I knew no one else was doing it. So I knew I always thought I was a little crazy. A little, oh, is that okay? I’m out here doing things that nobody else is doing, but I had a wonderful family in a really, I think, starting to really teach at 16.
And I was teaching college level at that time, so I had amazing teachers that passed on their information to me. So I, I never felt I never felt like I was really ready, but I was always getting ready. I think I’m still after 52 years of the company, I’m still getting ready. Guess the pandemic really taught us, you know, there’s no there’s no comfort zone in this.
Chris Carter: No, well, and it strikes me between your father as the actor and your mother as a musician and you as the dancer. It was a triple threat as far as your family went and you had everything in the makings of bringing you to where you are. So that’s a really great to know the background. I appreciate that.
Cleo Parker Robinson: Thank you.
Chris Carter: So 50 years later, you have you’re inspired to work on this new project called “The Four Journeys,” and “The Four Journeys” is the one that’s coming to The Bankhead Theater on February 9th, Thursday, February 9th.
Can you tell me a little bit about and by the way, I saw this film documentary about the making of the four Journeys, and it was really fascinating. The timing was insane. It must have been so crazy for you all, but why don’t we just start? What was the inspiration for “Four Journeys?” And tell me a little bit about the–the performance.
Cleo Parker Robinson: Yes. Well, it’s just it’s a beautiful work and it does have all kinds of layers. We had a chance to work with Viviana Basanta, who was really the daughter of the founder of the national company out of Mexico. And we worked with her a year before on a work La Mulata. And she was very interested; this was a second choreographer out of Mexico and second choreographer who was very interested in the different that– the intersection of cultures and how do we–how do we constantly tell our story and give different perspectives?
Most of the time, young people, when they’re studying history, they don’t get that kind of complexity. Everything seems to be really kind of monolithic. That’s just like that. And it doesn’t have all of those wonderful edges. So I think she was interested in telling the story of how the influence in Mexico is influenced by all of these cultures Africa, Europe, Asia, the Indigenous culture.
And she wanted that story told and she wanted it on our company because she knew that, you know, we had already been to Mexico. I had already worked with her with La Mulata, and she brought in a wonderful composer and customers and people who were designing and all of a sudden, while we were in the middle of the pandemic, everything kind of stopped.
And so here we were thinking we could quickly premiere it and bring it to Denver and have it at the L.A. Opera House. Everything kind of just stopped. And so it was weird. So, you know.
Chris Carter: You had one rehearsal.
Cleo Parker Robinson: We didn’t know where it was going to go. I think the documentary shares a little bit of that insight, like, how are we going to do this? Yeah.
Chris Carter: And you had to rehearse through Zoom, and the dancers had to wear masks, and it was– I can’t imagine.
Cleo Parker Robinson: It was crazy. But I think we were blessed to have the project because it kept us focused. I mean, we had like eye on the prize, this stay right there. Like, I don’t know how we’re going to do it, but we’re going to do it. We don’t know when we’re going to do it, but somehow, you know, just everybody, that wonderful commitment everyone had together and it kept us–it kept us aware that we really were even we were miles and miles apart, that we were really connected.
And it kind of kept us in that mindset that even though we’re not sure how we’re going to do this, I think when the filmmakers came and they were filming, and here we were trying to find out if we could, what can we do constructive during this crazy period. So we thought we would rebuild our stage. Well, nobody could come into the theater, so let’s rebuild our theater. So we began to rebuild the stage and that was really wonderful. Yeah.
Chris Carter: And there was somebody…
Cleo Parker Robinson: Viviana finally got to Denver and finally and she was so happy to be with the dancers. But working with the language barrier, a little bit, although I think that the dance is a universal language and so we were able to to use that–that was wonderful.
Chris Carter: One of the dancers in the documentary said rehearsing on Zoom kind of forced him to slow down and so, I don’t know. Did you learn anything or did it what…? Did you guys grow out of it or did you all…? I don’t know. What did it do for you?
Cleo Parker Robinson: Well…
Chris Carter: Any positive outcomes?
Cleo Parker Robinson: I think it for me, it pushed my limits. I mean, I–some days I did–I had no idea how I was really going to be productive. I just you know, at one point I just said never in my life, 50 years or 60 years, I’ve been dancing all my life. And I always knew dancers need a physical connection.
We need that. And we provide that for our children, in our communities, wherever we go. And not to have that was surreal to me. It was very surreal, almost like not eating, you know, like, how are we going to do this if we don’t eat, like will we survive, you know, it really was that that that surreal. And I think there were, you know, people in our office like, I think Malik, my son, who’s our executive director, would work with the staff, and they would just every day say, okay, you have a podcast–that I have a what?
What is that? And so, you know, then, then I began to just try to say, well, I’m going to learn a lot, and I’m going to open up because it was really against my nature. I was almost I was almost rebellious. I was like, I ain’t doing it. I’m not doing it. And then and then when I was choreographing and I was choreographing a new work for the dancers, but not new to me.
And I knew what it should look like and sound like. Now, when you do a new work and you don’t know what it looks like or sounds like, that’s different. But when you have a work that’s in your rep and you know what it looks like, it just never looked right. I just said, Forget about it. Let’s just create new work.
So because the timing of Zoom was off, so you could never find the real timing of dancers and if they didn’t have rhythm, that was making me angry. It’s like, you know, where’s the rhythm? Where’s connected? And if they were to partner, let’s just say even in “Four Journeys”, relationships that have to happen like when she’s been captured and she’s being tortured. You there’s–there’s a synergy that has to happen
Chris Carter: Yeah.
Cleo Parker Robinson: And it just wasn’t happening. So I think we came out of it pretty pretty good.
Chris Carter: Wow.
Cleo Parker Robinson: I’m impressed with everyone. I mean, we had Trey Grimes who began to try to help me with video. So what it did do, though, Chris, is it it took me to my core and I think it also took me to my work that I’ve done over years.
So I had to study, I had to study me. I guess when the dancer said he had to slow down, that was kind of good. We were not slowing down. We had a, we had a, I don’t know how many 15 city tour to China like the following couple of weeks. And I was to be in Senegal the day before the pandemic, you know, pandemic. So I was–we were–we needed to slow down.
Chris Carter: Yeah.
Cleo Parker Robinson: We needed to slow down. And we needed to study ourselves and study why we were doing what we were doing.
Chris Carter: Can you talk about that and maybe what’s your creative process even? I’m always fascinated. Like I’m a musician and I like to write music, but as far as dance goes, I’m not very visual. So how do you how do you start with that and what’s your process?
Cleo Parker Robinson: Well, you know, I think there any more there’s so there’s so many YouTubes and all kinds of material that’s out there. So what I did do is I, I just tried to listen to the ancestors. I just tried to listen to those who– two: one inspired me but two, faced tremendous obstacles and try to understand how did they get through it and and then realize that whatever obstacles that we were facing, we too would get through this.
That was–that’s the way I thought about it. But I looked at the work and how it has influenced my work. So I would look at I mean, I didn’t choose it. It was sometimes it would choose me. All of a sudden I’d be looking at something and then I go, What is that? And I’d say, Oh, well, that is blah, blah, blah, that’s, that’s Talley Beatty.
And Talley choreographed the last work before he passed on my company and he worked with Duke Ellington. Duke Ellington created a lot of his choreography. All of his music was created along with with Talley Beatty. And so I then began to think about what Talley worked with, Katherine Dunham let me look Mrs. Dunham’s work. So it almost was like little bread crumbs.
It would take me from one place to the other and I would look at the movement and realize that it was in my body. The movement was there and all I had to do is begin to claim it and try to pull it out of the dancers. So that’s what I did in Toronto last two nights ago. In Toronto, I did a work called “Standing on the Shoulders.”
And what I loved about it is that, you know, oftentimes when we’re influenced by someone else and maybe you as a composer, you know, you never want to imitate, ever. But we’re always influenced and inspired by. And so I found it fascinating that whatever I did, it was clearly someone else could see where it came from, the root. And then I went, fabulous. That I wanted that, that I wanted that connection. But it was–wasn’t just me. It was that that’s been passed on.
Chris Carter: Yeah, well, and you kind of said how it was in you and it’s coming. It has to just come out and that’s like I talked to Chris Brubeck, Dave Brubeck’s son a while ago. And so he kind of said the same thing. He said, it’s all up in here and it’s just waiting to come out and I just have to let it come out sometimes, so.
Cleo Parker Robinson: Right.
Chris Carter: Okay. It sounds similar then.
Cleo Parker Robinson: Yes. Oh, yeah, it’s there. But you know what? For me, it’s a scary process every time. I mean, every time. You don’t know, you really don’t know. And then it’s almost like Pandora’s Box and there’s way too much. It’s like ok wait– hold it, hold it, that’s just way too much. I mean, it’s an overflow then, and I think that’s what maybe what we learn together about isolation and reflection and thinking about what, what what we value and what we value as human beings, you know, how we bring different perspectives and where our, our cultures are transitioning all the time and gender, race, culture, religion, all of those things that we look at that influence us.
But it’s very, very exciting. And I want young people to be curious. I want them to be hungry because I think that’s what I was. And I had much less than what these young people have. They have all kinds of access to all kinds of things. But maybe that–that idea that my mother and father, even though we were exposed, they made sure we turned off the television, that we read, that we listen to each other around the table, that we heard our successes and failures or our challenges, that we can build that connection of that. You know, we don’t know. Some days are not good days for us and we should be able to talk about that or sing about it or dance about it, you know?
Chris Carter: Well, in this particular piece, it was a collaborative process. Right. And so can you talk about the importance of collaboration? And this one is kind of a celebration of different cultures. And and why is it especially important now that we should be really focusing on that?
Cleo Parker Robinson: Well, I think collaborations are just the best. I think we all we all grow and we discover. So much about each other but about ourselves. And we don’t even know that interconnectedness until we are really deep in something together. And that’s that’s what happened with our–our wonderful collaboration with Viviana. We realized we felt like family, we, when we met, we met in Mexico City.
And I wasn’t speaking Spanish. She wasn’t speaking English. And we met at a Starbucks in Mexico City. We sat down and began to talk about what it was that we wanted to do. But more than that, we talked about how her mother was influenced by Katherine Dunham and how what–what that meant to her, to be able to go to Alvin Ailey studio in New York for the first time and to really see that technique.
And then I said, well, that’s what I did at 19. I went, we realized our journeys were absolutely almost like destinies, that we would come together like that. So after that, we fell in love. You’re teaching my–you’re teaching my dancers and I’m thinking I’m what! So I came–I came and she had the huge company which has hundreds of dancers and musicians because it’s a national company.
But she also had a smaller company. And when I went to teach the smaller company, I realized we had just sent one of our dancers who been working with us to that company, and he was the first Mexican-American to be able to join the company and then later tour with the company and be given the role of the The Deer Dance, which is usually done only by a dancer out of out of Mexico.
And so I just felt like, oh, that’s my child he’s right up in here taking class. And there’s something that that unites us so quickly that I love. And so everything else when you’re exploring ideas is not personal at all. I mean, you may have some ideas that don’t quite. I remember when we were working on the African section because that was important for her, and I kept going, Oh, I don’t, I don’t hear it.
I don’t feel it and she would be–she wanted my input and I’d say, but, you know, it’s it’s I need a djembe. I don’t want a congo. I don’t–I don’t wanna you don’t want timbales. You want a djembe. You want something out of West Africa. It also depends upon what part of Africa we’re hearing. And so she was quite open to that. And it was wonderful even with the costume designers as they would work with with our designer, the kind of fabric, the kind of research that would come out of Asia.
Chris Carter: Mm hmm.
Cleo Parker Robinson: And its influence on on Mexico and the layers of lace and design. It was way fun. And then we had our our lighting designers come together. So then our designer couldn’t get in from Japan. And he got stuck during the pandemic in Singapore. So there he was designing the work and he could never see it. So when we got where we got his images, we were like, Oh, wait just a minute.
Japan is a way in another place technically. And so we could feel that. And so we were like that one. That one doesn’t feel African to me. It doesn’t feel Asian to me it doesn’t feel–it was he was way futuristic. And so we have all these different layers that took place because of where we were and how we could work together. So that that was fascinating.
Chris Carter: So this this production is there’s there’s dance, there’s music, there’s art, it’s multimedia. Is the costume you talked about, it’s telling stories. Anything else we can expect from this particular performance?
Cleo Parker Robinson: Oh, yeah. We’re going to do some other works. I think that we’re going to do a work that we just premiered that we’ve only done maybe.
Chris Carter: Wow.
Cleo Parker Robinson: Once, once Robert Moses out of San Francisco. And he’s brilliant and I forgot because we only premiered it and didn’t look at it again. I saw it the other day and it’s beautiful. It’s and it’s really beautiful. The language that he uses, you can tell. I mean, we use many East Coast choreographers, but when you have the opposite side and I’m in the middle of the country, but when you see the influences of very different and how we worked with the dancers, it was very different.
Of course, at that time his father in law was passing and my husband was passing at the time we were creating it. So when I look at the work, I see that journey in it and then I realize that it helped us heal because I could barely be with him. I had to be at the hospital the whole time, and, and so the work is painful for me to watch, but it’s also healing because it’s we were able to be creative in a time of true pain.
And I think that’s really that’s something extraordinary about the human condition that we can do that. And then then another piece we’re going to do is “Ellingtonia”, and that’s Talley Beatty’s last work. And that one is fantastic. And then I’m going to do I’m going to do either a solo or a duet. I did the solo, “Everything Must Change” on my company in the 70s, and I wanted to bring something back that was rooted in our beginnings.
And then I, I changed. Then I created it as a duet at the OKC in Kansas City as a duet. So I’ll decide whether I wanted the solo or the duet. But both of them are “Everything Must Change”. And it’s it’s about being resilient. How do we change? So I’m excited. The “Four, four and six” is Robert Moses’ piece. But you’ll love it.
Chris Carter: Oh, good.
Cleo Parker Robinson: It’s just really good and the dancers are so excited about doing the new work, but they’re excited about being there with you. Now tell me about the theater. It’s named.
Chris Carter: Bankhead. It’s The Bankhead Theater. Yeah. Yeah.
Cleo Parker Robinson: Is it is it Tallulah Bankhead?
Chris Carter: Well there’s there is a distant relation Tallulah Bankhead, yes.
Cleo Parker Robinson: Okay.
Chris Carter: So that’s very astute of you to, to pick up on that. The theater’s only about 15 years old and it’s named for a family out here who is related to Tallulah.
Cleo Parker Robinson: Oh wonderful.
Chris Carter: Yeah, we– the ghost in the theater is named Tallulah The Bankhead Ghost.
Cleo Parker Robinson: Wonderful. No, you’re kidding! I love it! We have ghosts in ours. So I grew up with–with Tallulah Bankhead, with her whole history. I grew up, my father was the first person of color hired in the theater and it was Don Seawell was married to Eugenia Rawls, who did Tallulah Bankhead’s work. She was in, she was in “The Little Foxes” with her.
So that’s how I grew up in the theater. I started in the theater there with with her. So we always knew about Tallulah Bankhead now that will be fun, I will be speaking to her in spirit.
Chris Carter: Oh, good. And by the way, we’re we’re proud to be presenting this during Black History Month. But do you just want to talk about how important it is to present artists of color, not just during February, but throughout the whole year? Why it’s so important and how?
Cleo Parker Robinson: Well, you know, I don’t know. Our country is very, very interesting because we have a lot of um… We’re more diverse and complex than most–most of the time that we show ourselves. And so I think we’ve figured out an easy way to get–get to it and have certain months that we can focus on different cultures. But I think that that’s sort of the challenge because I think we should be looking at each other holistically all the time.
Yeah, all the time. You know, and that isn’t an easy fix to just put everything into one month, you know, Cinco de Mayo or Woman’s Month or whatever. But the Black History Month, we we we’re always happy to be working, but it’s like we are overworking in February and we go and there are a lot of more months to work.
Chris Carter: Right.
Cleo Parker Robinson: But I mean, so we know we know that that’s a little while. But to be able to to see the how beautiful our world is all the time and the contribution that we’ve made and people of all backgrounds, the contribution that people make to make it what it is, is really important. And I think that Black History Month allows us to do that.
Yesterday I was at lunch in Toronto and I don’t know if, you know Charmaine Jefferson. Charmaine, I don’t know Charmaine Jefferson. Yes. But anyway, she brought me a present and it was it was a book about black women in the arts. And I was in the book with–this is from 1995. And that was when Carnation decided, Carnation Milk, decided to celebrate black women and the arts in the country.
And it was just really, really something. And Charmaine brought me this, she said, Cleo, it’s just I was in my garage and this dropped out and you’ve got to see it and that was it was wonderful. And so I thought, well, that, that that’s a marvelous thing to be able to look at it and to see that I was honored with. Of course, at that time Vanessa Williams was Miss America and she got, she got dethroned. So that was a fiasco.
Chris Carter: She’s performed here.
Cleo Parker Robinson: Oh, really?
Chris Carter: Yeah.
Cleo Parker Robinson: We had a wonderful time together.
Chris Carter: She’s great.
Cleo Parker Robinson: Oh, she’s wonderful. So., Suzette Charles was then Miss America. So another a black woman who was Miss America. And for–for people to see, I think the media is really our best friend, and also really it can be very difficult because like I was with these young kids from Memphis yesterday and for me to see on the news the whole time about the murder of this young man by four black police officers, we see it all the time.
We see really tragedy. And so if we began to just get conditioned to think about black men as being a threat in our country, it’s a real challenge. So we have to see we have to see people in all of these different dimensions. And so I think that’s the important part about the Black Lives Matter, all of all of those different kinds of movements.
The Civil Rights Act came out, the Civil Rights movement. And what we endured to change this country and to have an influence in the rest of the world was very important. But there are still people who come to our country and treat people who are of African, of the African diaspora, badly just because they’ve seen it on television where they you know, so we have to constantly battle what these images are and what these scenarios are.
So we have to create our own stories. And I think our stories are very important. So I thank you for bringing this story this time and I– and I thank you for presenting across the board. I think it’s important, but it is a challenge because many I remember booking agents would say, oh, Cleo, you know, we already have one black company and so they don’t sell. Oh!
It’d infuriated me. I’m thinking, how dare you? I mean that–How insulting is that? How small minded is that? And who’s going to change that? Who changes it if we don’t have the courage and the foresight to change that? So then I went and we opened the Opera House in Denver. We were the first company that opened the Opera House and we were the first one to do “Aida” and “Firebird” and “Cinderella” and all of… And we keep these other legacy here alive with Shostakovich, Beethoven, Bach. Why are we not keeping all of the composers and all of the dancers alive, all of the time. That’s it, that’s it.
Chris Carter: Well, thank you so much. We’re really looking forward to it. And we’re definitely happy and proud to be presenting the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble on February 9th at 7:30pm. And you can get tickets online at LivermoreArts.org and I think we’re done, but thank you, Cleo.
Cleo Parker Robinson: Thank you Chris, I thank you for bringing this. I can’t wait to see you all.
Chris Carter: Yeah, me too!