State of Black Arts Organizations: Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble Celebrates 50th Anniversary

Photo Credit :Jerry Metellus, Courtesy CPRD

During this period of multiple crises—COVID-19, racial injustice, record unemployment and economic stagnation—I think it’s important that we remember the essential role of Black Arts institutions. Over the coming months of these ongoing crises, I will be shining a spotlight on the state of Black Arts organizations to keep the readers of Arts & Culture Connections abreast of how these valiant Champions of the Arts are continuing their work. This week’s post marks a milestone anniversary.

The Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble is celebrating its 50th anniversary this summer, and that news is definitely worth celebrating! Based in Denver, Colorado, CPRD has performed for millions throughout the United States, in 40 countries and on five continents, The ensemble is best known for keeping alive and updating the works of many legendary African-American choreographers, such as Katherine Dunham and Donald McKayle, while mixing elements of traditional modern dance, the African diaspora and contemporary ballet. CPRD also has been a demanding and challenging training ground for thousands of dancers.

Recognized as an “international beacon for African American dance in all of its forms,” I first met Cleo Parker Robinson in the early 1980s at the start of my career in arts administration. At the time, I was working for the late Larry Phillips, the head of the Thelma Hill Performing Arts Center. Larry produced a dance series featuring African-American female choreographers—the “Big Bold Black and in Brooklyn” Festival—which was held at City Tech’s Klitgord Auditorium.

Cleo and her company were among the participants. I remember being so impressed by her effusive personality and the beautiful dancers in her ensemble. I wanted to do anything I could to ensure they had a comfortable stay in Brooklyn. Consequently, I intuitively developed a strategy to create activities for the dancers during their down time and offer opportunities for people to meet the dancers and attend the performances. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the launch of my decades-long career in community engagement and making the arts accessible.

Over the course of its 50 years, in addition to the touring ensemble, CPRD has offered classes to the general public and has been engaged in community development utilizing the arts. Cleo has received numerous awards, including the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors for lifetime achievement in the performing arts.

I recently had the opportunity to work with CPRD’s Executive Director Malik Robinson, who also is Cleo’s son, and the board chairman of Dance USA. We worked on Dance USA’s Expanding Dance Audiences initiative, which provides technical assistance for the development of new audiences; the sustaining of current audiences, and methods for enticing former audiences to return.

This past week, Malik shared a few thoughts with me about the company’s 50th anniversary during this time of pressing pandemics, particularly COVID-19 and racial injustice.

Donna Walker-Kuhne: What is the state of Black Cultural Arts Institutions amidst the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and racial injustice?

 Malik Robinson: Black cultural arts organizations have always envisioned a better society and have used our work as a vehicle to engrave these ideas in the hearts and minds of other folk. Our work has always been essential because it’s work that keeps our communities sane, creative and connected. It’s mental health work; it’s sanctuary work where people can find refuge from the storm.

As the arts sectors, methodically move with due deliberation to address the thinly veiled racism pandemic, we need them to know that Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) organizations are essential, and the most vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Donna: What is the most critical issue?

 Malik: Funding for Black Arts institutions. According to the Giving USA Annual Report on Philanthropy, 80-percent of philanthropic giving is from individual support and the majority of all giving goes to organizations operating at $5-million or above. If we know that individual giving for the nation’s top Black and Latinx arts institutions is around six- to eight-percent, foundations and the government need to respond with the same energy and urgency that they have responded to the fiscal crisis that emerged as the result of COVID-19, and make sure that these gaps are filled.

BIPOC organizations don’t have the breadth of individual donors to carry the organizations through pandemics. During the economic recession of 2008, for example, Denver lost The Shadow Theatre Company, a dynamic Black company that had been in operation for 10 years and had just relocated to a new space.

Donna: A lot of arts organizations are now utilizing technology to reach their audiences. What is CPRD doing?

Malik: We are continuing to explore and experiment with new online content and augmented reality programming. In the fall, we will collaborate with the Colorado Symphony on a televised event through our local CBS station. Our 2019 collaboration with the Colorado Ballet entitled the MOVE/ment, is currently being streamed for free and available for viewing.

Recently, we offered our first online technical theatre camp which uses a STREAM-infused curriculum (Science, Technology, Robotics, Engineering, Arts and Media) to teach sound engineering, lighting design, stage craft and robotics to young women and students of color. And in the coming week, we are offering our first virtual summer dance camp, and we have local students, as well as students from northern India and favelas in Colombia, who are participating.

Donna: Your 50th anniversary is a major milestone—not just for CPRD, but for all Black Arts institutions. We can learn a lot from your ability to not only survive but continue to thrive in a community that is just 10-percent African American.

 Malik: Our company is working to realize a vision for society that is connected, engaged in exchange and, most certainly, socially equitable. In preparation for our 50th anniversary, which technically began June 1, we were working to elevate the burgeoning dance community in Denver and the West.

As part of this effort, we worked more than a year to host the Dance/USA conference which was cancelled and reimagined virtually. CPRD was permitted to repurpose funds originally raised for the conference to now primarily support local artists of color.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve also received endorsements from large and small arts organizations to initiate a Regional Arts Alliance for Health Equity. The alliance is focused on ensuring cultural arts are included in public policy and city planning especially where cultural deserts exist. We have ruminated over this work for years and we are now driving efforts to make this a reality with critical funding pending.

Donna: How do you sustain your engagement with the community?

Malik: By staying relevant. Let me give you a recent example. One week prior to the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns in March, CPRD hosted a powerful event on our stage. With the theatre filled mostly with Black women, Governor Jared Polis signed the CROWN Act into Colorado law, making it only the fifth state in the nation to do so.

According to the bill’s summary, the “CROWN Act of 2020, which stands for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair,” specifies that, “for purposes of anti-discrimination laws in the context of public education, employment practices, housing, public accommodations, and advertising, protections against discrimination on the basis of one’s race includes hair texture, hair type, or a protective hairstyle commonly or historically associated with race, such as braids, locs, twists, tight coils or curls, cornrows, Bantu knots, Afros, and headwraps.”

The Crown Act of 2020 was sponsored by State Representatives Leslie Herod, Speaker Pro Tem in the State House Janet Buckner, and Assistant Majority Leader in the State Senate Rhonda Fields, Despite opposition to this bill by some lawmakers, who felt that business owners should have the authority to dictate their own dress codes, the bill passed the 42-21 in the State House and 23-11 in the State Senate.

After the signing, our company performed a brief homage to Black social justice movements, which was then followed by a conversation with Sybrina Fulton, who is the mother of Trayvon Martin, a 17 year-old, unarmed Black youth shot by a neighborhood watch coordinator in 2012 while visiting relatives living in a gated community. Ms. Fulton is running for an open seat on the Miami-Dade County Commission.

 This was a major milestone in a state where the population of Black women is about five percent, and we were honored to pay tribute to this effort by hosting the bill’s signing, as well as through our performance.

Donna: Thank you, Malik.

Cleo Parker Robinson is a trail-blazing Champion of the Arts and I am so proud that she is celebrating the 50th anniversary of her dance ensemble, even amidst the pandemic! Her efforts have both broadened and enriched the dance landscape; honored and kept alive cultural traditions and legacies, and have showcased a diverse array of talented dancers. We are all the beneficiaries of her pioneering and innovative efforts!

I hope you will join me in celebrating Cleo for her inspiring example of courage, conviction and commitment to share the power of dance.

As always, I’d like to know what you think. Please share your thoughts below. Be safe, stay well and stay strong!

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