Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble


Tuesday, Jul. 2

Reynolds Industries Theater, Durham

There are rare, transcendent moments when art is imperative, and the audience becomes a collective witness to a communion that leaves them cleansed, at least momentarily, and enlightened.

Such was the case at Duke’s Reynolds Industries Theater on Tuesday night during the American Dance Festival performance by Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble. The legendary choreographer and dancer’s Denver-based company offered a stunning and inspiring tribute to several masters of the black tradition, including Katherine Dunham, Talley Beatty, and Donald McKayle. 

The lithe, commanding, superbly trained ensemble was also a noble echo of “The Black Tradition in American Modern Dance,” an ADF program from 1988 that chronicled black dance from the Middle Passage to the modern era and paid homage to the power of Pearl Primus, the elegance of Carmen de Lavallade, the muscular beauty and control of Asadata Dafora, the original bad boy-ness of the notoriously brilliant Eleo Pomare, and the all-inclusive spirit of Durham’s own dance titan Chuck Davis, among others too numerous to name.

The night began with Robinson performing Dunham’s Barrelhouse Blues, a duet with Martez McKinzy. The couple, with Robinson resplendent in a flapper’s shimmering dress and headpiece, delightfully captured Dunham’s description of the duet—“a beat old woman who goes to a dance to recapture a moment of her lost youth”—while being “insinuating, sexy and delightfully humorous,” as the piece was called in a 1955 review in the New York Herald Tribune. While capturing the spirit of Dunham’s work, Robinson also evoked the memory of Davis, which became all the more apparent upon learning that the red handkerchief McKinzy twirled once belonged to Davis.

“The ancestors are really present,” Robinson said afterward.  “We are in ceremony.”

The three classic works, described by Robinson as “embodying the masters,” ran the gamut: After Barrelhouse Blues, which premiered in 1938, we saw a poignant take on the immortal Mourner’s Bench, a 1947 solo by Beatty. It emotionally contemplates a mixed-race farming community in the South that was destroyed by the Ku Klux Klan. Finally, the powerfully relevant Uprooted: Pero Replantado, a 2015 masterpiece by Donald McKayle, dealt with the struggles of undocumented workers in the United States.

Tyveze Littlejohn’s performance of Mourner’s Bench was captivating, with elongated movements melded in such perfect synchronicity with the wooden bench that the inanimate object seemed to move at times.

“It was like he and the bench were one,” said Triangle dance veteran McDaniel Roberts.

Uprooted: Pero Replantado offered a counterbalance to the reports of the horrors taking place in immigrant camps on the U.S. Southern border.

“I watched the reports and pictures of young children carried by their older siblings, parting from their mothers, climbing the border fences of our country in search of freedom from oppression, poverty and desperation,” McKayle wrote in the program note about the genesis of the work. “Some may have come here legally or undocumented, or were already born here in the United States to parents that came here looking for a better life. I observed them being American, yet carrying their cultural heritage and genetic memory and their upbringing by hard-working families grateful for the opportunities available to their children.”

The night’s most intriguing work was Catharsis, a 2017 piece by Garfield Lemonius. The themes of release, purging, and letting go called to mind art’s primordial origins—Ancient Egyptian culture viewed performance art as a form of worship; Aristole contemplated it as a means of cleansing the soul—and its role in the modern black church as a sanctuary where believers find a safe place to momentarily lay down the cross, bear witness of their sorrows, be possessed by the Holy Ghost, and feel the possibility of tears giving way to redemptive joy.

Small wonder that the work earned the night’s first standing ovation.

“That was everything!” Toya Chinfloo, a former dancer with Chuck Davis’s African American Dance Ensemble, said after the performance, which led into intermission.

Mention must be made, too, of Resist, a work by Micaela Taylor that was commissioned by ADF. It begins with dancers clad in cobalt-blue suits moving in synchronicity to the Bee Gees tune “Too Much Heaven,” which segues into discordant, disjointed industrial-like sounds that morph into “Play That Funky Music,” that imminently danceable seventies tune by Wild Cherry. But the title refrain cut off abruptly before the “white boy,” a brilliant and pointed reminder of the white colonization of black art. After all, “funk” has its origins in the African Bantu language, meaning “the highest praise.”

By definition, ensembles are democratic groupings in which each member’s contribution, no matter how seemingly minor, adds to a greater good. The ADF audience at Reynolds were in deep need of the spiritual cleansing and the democratic message offered by Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble. Waves of sustained, standing applause washed over the ensemble after their enlightening performance.

Correction: Micaela Taylor is not a member of Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble. Taylor has her own company, The TL Collective.