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Cleo Parker Robinson Dance collaborates with Thomas Talawa Prestø

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On a summer afternoon, Norwegian choreographer Thomas Talawa Prestø was watching as two dancers from his Oslo-based company, Tabanka Dance Ensemble, put another dance company’s artists through the paces of one of his new works. Bob Marley played over the speaker system in the rehearsal room of the Five Points home of Cleo Parker Robinson Dance. Prestø stood with his hands on his hips, aware that the dancers were still finding their way through his system of ancestral and contemporary movements, called the Talawa Technique.

Meanwhile, dance doyenne Robinson stood nearby, smiling as she walked along the wall panning with her iPhone camera and documenting the open rehearsal of “Catch Ah Fire.”

As her dancers rehearsed beside Prestø’s dance instructors, a faint sheen of perspiration began to glisten on their chests, arms, and foreheads. They stomped, leaped and held poses. Things were getting strenuous. The audience was warming up, too, offering whoops and yelps. So, this is what creative collaboration can look like among the descendants of the African diaspora. For Prestø, a magician of movement and memory, the Black body is itself an archive of the ancestral as well as a transporter of contemporary ideas about liberation. Of course, Robinson, a creative force as well as a community builder, would offer the younger choreographer a stage. And, in doing so, she offers Denver a glimpse at a broader, richer world.

Norwegian choreographer Thomas Talawa Prestø is pictured at the Cleo Parker Robinson dance company in Denver as he works with dancers in a training session on July 19, 2023. For the fall dance show “Firebird,” Cleo Parker Robinson Dance is collaborating with Thomas Talawa Prestø. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

This weekend, Robinson’s “Firebird” and Prestø’s “Catch Ah Fire” arrive at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House as part of Cleo Parker Robinson Dance’s fall show.

Her piece is set to Igor Stravinsky’s ballet symphony of the same name. It leans, however, into a folklore tradition different than the Slavic lore of the European classic: that of Hawaii. Prestø’s piece — scored with Marley’s socially reckoning ballad “War” but also songs from German singer Ayo and Jamaican singer Etana — nods to notions of resistance and resilience.

That the Norwegian choreographer was in Denver working with Robinson’s dancers serves as a reminder of Robinson’s stature as a global dance world figure. As if we needed the nudge: In late March, Robinson was among the five co-founders of the International Association of Blacks in Dance awarded the National Medal of Arts at a White House ceremony.

It was at an IABD conference that Prestø and Robinson first met a few years back. “We kept bouncing into each other, ended up in the elevator together so many times that it became a joke,” said Prestø. “Our spirits really connected and gelled. Then we were teaching classes near each other, almost overlapping. We ended up peeking into each other’s classes. I think both kind of fell in love with the spirit.”

It was 2019 and the two talked about collaborating then, but life — and sorrow — intervened. First, there was the pandemic and its upending effects on the performing arts. COVID forced the company to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2020 virtually. Then in spring of 2022, Robinson’s husband, Tom, a co-founder of the company and himself an outsized, beloved figure in Denver, died.

In early summer, Robinson and Malik Robinson, Cleo Parker Robinson Dance’s executive director and Cleo Parker Robinson’s son, called Prestø from Hawaii and said, “Let’s see if we can do this.”

Cleo Parker Robinson, center, chats with Norwegian choreographer Thomas Talawa Prestø as he works with her dancers during a training session at the dance company's Denver studios on July 19, 2023. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)
Cleo Parker Robinson, center, chats with Norwegian choreographer Thomas Talawa Prestø as he works with her dancers during a training session at the dance company’s Denver studios on July 19, 2023. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

The Fire Goddess and Stravinsky

“Let’s see if we can do this” may not be succinct enough to become a motto, but it nails Robinson’s ethos. Sure, her name graces her dance company, but she likes working with others. The word “Company” is an invitation; it means something more communal than martial or commercial.

“I don’t know what it is to do anything alone,” she said sitting in her office. “I don’t know what that is. But I do think — growing up in the Civil Rights Movement, growing up during Jim Crow laws — that unity is an underlining necessity for my survival. I know that what I’m creating is an opportunity for people to sort of commune in the highest way.”

It was her work with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra conductor Marin Alsop that led Robinson to take on “Firebird.” “She loved working with me,” recounted Robinson. “She was just becoming a really famous conductor, and she would always say, ‘Cleo, what about this? What about ‘Aida’? What about that?’ Once she said, ‘Why don’t we do “Firebird?”’” Robinson admitted that initially, she was not especially interested in “Firebird. “But,” she told Alsop, “I am interested in Pele. I am interested in the fire goddess.”

At the time, Robinson had already had a long relationship with Hawaii. Some of it was complicated: Her mother’s father was a developer on Oahu. But she also traveled there with her husband Tom Robinson, who officiated several Aloha Bowls. But the professional tipping point came when she began going to the Big Island on behalf of the National Endowment for the Arts to evaluate arts organizations. That work led to her bringing her dance company to Hawaii.

Robinson leaned into the lore and life of the Hawaiian Islands as well as the story of Pele the goddess of the volcanic. Her re-imagining of Stravinsky’s “Firebird” had its world premiere with the symphony under Alsop’s direction in 1997.

Dance assistant Joel Ramirez, second from left, leads Cleo Parker Robinson dancers in a warm up before their training session at the dance company's Denver studio on July 19, 2023. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)
Dance assistant Joel Ramirez, second from left, leads Cleo Parker Robinson dancers in a warm up before their training session at the dance company’s Denver studio on July 19, 2023. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

The Oslo-Denver Connection

On a recent afternoon, Norwegian choreographer Prestø was talking about his collaboration with Robinson as he walked through Oslo’s multicultural district where he lives. He was on his way to the city’s Intercultural Museum where his company has been holding rehearsals since the pandemic.

As he entered the sleek but warm, modern museum space, talk turned to the Talawa Technique, his codification of African- and Caribbean-inflected movements, and what it was like teaching Robinson’s dancers the choreography for “Catch Ah Fire.”

“They took quite quickly to the bent knees, the difference in posture, the active centers,” he said. “There’s so much synergy between the Caribbean and the American,” he continued. “They also felt it was hard. It’s a very muscled way of dancing. It takes strong muscles, and it also takes strategic relaxation. So, this understanding [of] when do you use power? when do you relax? and alternating between those to create this kind of pulse and this power with ease,” he said.

“Very often as black dancers, we are asked to compartmentalize ourselves. I wasn’t asking the dancers to negate any part of themselves. I was simply asking them to turn up the volume. And for a lot of them, that seemed to be quite big,” Prestø said. “I think they didn’t believe me in the beginning and then seeing my dancers and how they moved and how I moved and that it was so similar yet so different — because each one is turning up the volume on their own self.”

Robinson could have simply invited Prestø and his dance company over as guests. “But it was also about the blending of the companies, allowing the African American dancers she has to engage and interact with the Afro Norwegians and Afro Scandinavians. To see that similarity and difference,” said Prestø, whose company is one of two Black dance ensembles in Northern Europe.

“It’s about extending the village.”

IF YOU GO

“Firebird”. Choreography by Cleo Parker Robinson. Music by Igor Stravinsky. Performed by the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance. “Catch Ah Fire”. Performed by Cleo Parker Robinson Dance and members of the Tabanka Dance Ensemble, choreographed by Thomas Talawa Prestø. At the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, 14th and Curtis, Sept. 16 and 17. Tickets at axs.com. Info: cleoparkerdance.org

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter, In The Know, to get entertainment news sent straight to your inbox.


On a summer afternoon, Norwegian choreographer Thomas Talawa Prestø was watching as two dancers from his Oslo-based company, Tabanka Dance Ensemble, put another dance company’s artists through the paces of one of his new works. Bob Marley played over the speaker system in the rehearsal room of the Five Points home of Cleo Parker Robinson Dance. Prestø stood with his hands on his hips, aware that the dancers were still finding their way through his system of ancestral and contemporary movements, called the Talawa Technique.

Meanwhile, dance doyenne Robinson stood nearby, smiling as she walked along the wall panning with her iPhone camera and documenting the open rehearsal of “Catch Ah Fire.”

As her dancers rehearsed beside Prestø’s dance instructors, a faint sheen of perspiration began to glisten on their chests, arms, and foreheads. They stomped, leaped and held poses. Things were getting strenuous. The audience was warming up, too, offering whoops and yelps. So, this is what creative collaboration can look like among the descendants of the African diaspora. For Prestø, a magician of movement and memory, the Black body is itself an archive of the ancestral as well as a transporter of contemporary ideas about liberation. Of course, Robinson, a creative force as well as a community builder, would offer the younger choreographer a stage. And, in doing so, she offers Denver a glimpse at a broader, richer world.

Norwegian choreographer Thomas Talawa Prestø is pictured at the Cleo Parker Robinson dance company in Denver as he works with dancers in a training session on July 19, 2023. For the fall dance show “Firebird,” Cleo Parker Robinson Dance is collaborating with Thomas Talawa Prestø. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

This weekend, Robinson’s “Firebird” and Prestø’s “Catch Ah Fire” arrive at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House as part of Cleo Parker Robinson Dance’s fall show.

Her piece is set to Igor Stravinsky’s ballet symphony of the same name. It leans, however, into a folklore tradition different than the Slavic lore of the European classic: that of Hawaii. Prestø’s piece — scored with Marley’s socially reckoning ballad “War” but also songs from German singer Ayo and Jamaican singer Etana — nods to notions of resistance and resilience.

That the Norwegian choreographer was in Denver working with Robinson’s dancers serves as a reminder of Robinson’s stature as a global dance world figure. As if we needed the nudge: In late March, Robinson was among the five co-founders of the International Association of Blacks in Dance awarded the National Medal of Arts at a White House ceremony.

It was at an IABD conference that Prestø and Robinson first met a few years back. “We kept bouncing into each other, ended up in the elevator together so many times that it became a joke,” said Prestø. “Our spirits really connected and gelled. Then we were teaching classes near each other, almost overlapping. We ended up peeking into each other’s classes. I think both kind of fell in love with the spirit.”

It was 2019 and the two talked about collaborating then, but life — and sorrow — intervened. First, there was the pandemic and its upending effects on the performing arts. COVID forced the company to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2020 virtually. Then in spring of 2022, Robinson’s husband, Tom, a co-founder of the company and himself an outsized, beloved figure in Denver, died.

In early summer, Robinson and Malik Robinson, Cleo Parker Robinson Dance’s executive director and Cleo Parker Robinson’s son, called Prestø from Hawaii and said, “Let’s see if we can do this.”

Cleo Parker Robinson, center, chats with Norwegian choreographer Thomas Talawa Prestø as he works with her dancers during a training session at the dance company's Denver studios on July 19, 2023. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)
Cleo Parker Robinson, center, chats with Norwegian choreographer Thomas Talawa Prestø as he works with her dancers during a training session at the dance company’s Denver studios on July 19, 2023. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

The Fire Goddess and Stravinsky

“Let’s see if we can do this” may not be succinct enough to become a motto, but it nails Robinson’s ethos. Sure, her name graces her dance company, but she likes working with others. The word “Company” is an invitation; it means something more communal than martial or commercial.

“I don’t know what it is to do anything alone,” she said sitting in her office. “I don’t know what that is. But I do think — growing up in the Civil Rights Movement, growing up during Jim Crow laws — that unity is an underlining necessity for my survival. I know that what I’m creating is an opportunity for people to sort of commune in the highest way.”

It was her work with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra conductor Marin Alsop that led Robinson to take on “Firebird.” “She loved working with me,” recounted Robinson. “She was just becoming a really famous conductor, and she would always say, ‘Cleo, what about this? What about ‘Aida’? What about that?’ Once she said, ‘Why don’t we do “Firebird?”’” Robinson admitted that initially, she was not especially interested in “Firebird. “But,” she told Alsop, “I am interested in Pele. I am interested in the fire goddess.”

At the time, Robinson had already had a long relationship with Hawaii. Some of it was complicated: Her mother’s father was a developer on Oahu. But she also traveled there with her husband Tom Robinson, who officiated several Aloha Bowls. But the professional tipping point came when she began going to the Big Island on behalf of the National Endowment for the Arts to evaluate arts organizations. That work led to her bringing her dance company to Hawaii.

Robinson leaned into the lore and life of the Hawaiian Islands as well as the story of Pele the goddess of the volcanic. Her re-imagining of Stravinsky’s “Firebird” had its world premiere with the symphony under Alsop’s direction in 1997.

Dance assistant Joel Ramirez, second from left, leads Cleo Parker Robinson dancers in a warm up before their training session at the dance company's Denver studio on July 19, 2023. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)
Dance assistant Joel Ramirez, second from left, leads Cleo Parker Robinson dancers in a warm up before their training session at the dance company’s Denver studio on July 19, 2023. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

The Oslo-Denver Connection

On a recent afternoon, Norwegian choreographer Prestø was talking about his collaboration with Robinson as he walked through Oslo’s multicultural district where he lives. He was on his way to the city’s Intercultural Museum where his company has been holding rehearsals since the pandemic.

As he entered the sleek but warm, modern museum space, talk turned to the Talawa Technique, his codification of African- and Caribbean-inflected movements, and what it was like teaching Robinson’s dancers the choreography for “Catch Ah Fire.”

“They took quite quickly to the bent knees, the difference in posture, the active centers,” he said. “There’s so much synergy between the Caribbean and the American,” he continued. “They also felt it was hard. It’s a very muscled way of dancing. It takes strong muscles, and it also takes strategic relaxation. So, this understanding [of] when do you use power? when do you relax? and alternating between those to create this kind of pulse and this power with ease,” he said.

“Very often as black dancers, we are asked to compartmentalize ourselves. I wasn’t asking the dancers to negate any part of themselves. I was simply asking them to turn up the volume. And for a lot of them, that seemed to be quite big,” Prestø said. “I think they didn’t believe me in the beginning and then seeing my dancers and how they moved and how I moved and that it was so similar yet so different — because each one is turning up the volume on their own self.”

Robinson could have simply invited Prestø and his dance company over as guests. “But it was also about the blending of the companies, allowing the African American dancers she has to engage and interact with the Afro Norwegians and Afro Scandinavians. To see that similarity and difference,” said Prestø, whose company is one of two Black dance ensembles in Northern Europe.

“It’s about extending the village.”

IF YOU GO

“Firebird”. Choreography by Cleo Parker Robinson. Music by Igor Stravinsky. Performed by the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance. “Catch Ah Fire”. Performed by Cleo Parker Robinson Dance and members of the Tabanka Dance Ensemble, choreographed by Thomas Talawa Prestø. At the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, 14th and Curtis, Sept. 16 and 17. Tickets at axs.com. Info: cleoparkerdance.org

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter, In The Know, to get entertainment news sent straight to your inbox.

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