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Arts & Life

Dance Company Wants 'Edge' To Move Conversations About Race

Cleo Parker Robinson believes society is flanking a pivotal moment in race relations. The artistic director of one of Denver's most venerated dance companies said it is time to choose what happens beyond that brink.

"I have a tremendous excitement inside that says we're a part of something on the edge," Parker Robinson said during a rehearsal break. "That can be tilted either way. And I'm about being ready to tilt it in a way of upward movement."

That ascent takes the form of an evening of works titled On the Edge, three dances that commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights movement.

The performance features two new pieces, the world premiere of Free?, by guest choreographer Rennie Harris, and On the Edge of Higher Ground, a work-in-progress by Parker Robinson.

The dances – which Parker Robinson described as equal parts celebratory, cautionary, and call-to-action - explore significant moments in the Civil Rights movement to today. They are presented through different styles of dance; Harris is a hip-hop authority while Parker Robinson, and her company of dancers, are stalwarts of modern dance.

Parker Robinson, a Denver native, recalled community meetings and groups organizing during the Civil Rights movement to insist on equal rights for all races.

"There are young people who don't know what we have come through, who were not a part of that movement that need to see some of the struggle and hear about the struggle," Parker Robinson said. "But also hear all of the range of roles that people have played that have come through tough times and through trying times and that we do know how to get through and take it to another level."

On the Edge of Higher Ground, Parker Robinson's response to the disproportionate incarceration rates for people of color, delves in to her desire to see the community explore this problem.

"And so, we are questioning, aren't there better ways of dealing with our communities of color," said Parker Robinson, who is African and Anglo American.

The dance includes multimedia elements of sound and projection and poems and images from the 1960s are spoken, by dancers, and shown as part of piece. Elsewhere, there are reminders of more recent events in Ferguson, Missouri.

Harris' piece took inspiration from eight pivotal moments in American history including both the Civil and Voting Rights Acts; the murder, in 1964, of three civil rights workers; and the Watts Rebellion.

The abstract exploration, through dance, of weighty topics is for Parker Robinson the heart of her dance company, which she founded in Five Points 44 years ago,

"I think knowing history allows us not to repeat it or to choose where we want to go in history," Parker Robinson said."Art brings people together in their hearts not in their heads."

Emotionally or intellectually, she has long championed artists' responsibility to take on issues of societal concern. That has resulted in presenting new dances as well as performing works of significance by other dance greats such as Katherine Dunham and Alvin Ailey.

Parker Robinson admitted she questioned whether to create this evening of work and if people would rather "turn a blind eye" to injustice. Ultimately, she decided to forge ahead.

"I keep thinking we're gonna go to a higher place," Parker Robinson said. "So for me, it's that opportunity to look back at those 50 years, see where we've been and to take it to a higher ground."

Arts District is a collaboration of KUNC, RMPBS, and KUVO

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