Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble at Lincoln Center
Many dance company leaders, especially the most venerable ones, stay behind the scenes, letting their dancers and the works do the talking. Cleo Parker Robinson is not one of them.
At the Lincoln Center Out of Doors on Friday night, during the appearance of the troupe she founded and led in Denver for more than 40 years, Ms. Robinson, 64, verbally panted in front of the audience. She praised it and the city of New York, presenting the pieces, talking about her life and her art, paying homage to Catherine Dunham and Alvin Ailey. She rapped black pride rhymes from Maya Angelou. She rocked her hips in a short, sparkly dress and looked very good doing it.
the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble shares his generous spirit and warm appeal, though no one else on stage matches his vitality or charisma. The four selections on the program included both the brand new (a world premiere by the Haitian choreographer Jeanguy Saintus) and vintage (a signature piece Ms. Robinson made in the 1970s), but, stylistically speaking, there was nothing in any of the works that would have felt out of place in the troupe’s inaugural season. Struggle and resilience, spiritual uplift and fun: the ancient truths of African-American modern dance have not been abandoned in Colorado.
In the oldest work, an excerpt from Mrs. Robinson’s ‘Spiritual Suite’, three women dressed in colorful shawls rocked in chairs and stood to witness an electric blues recording of ‘Mary Don’ t You Weep”. The recorded voice of the poet Nikki Giovanni spoke of willows, and these women bent but did not break, contracting in staccato sobs, heroically stretching one leg skyward, articulating from the knee to the ground.
Similar vocabulary marked “Arranged,” a 2010 ensemble work by Milton Myers, a choreographer of Mrs. Robinson’s generation, but the music was from Philip Glass’ 1984 opera “Akhnaten.” A company stalwart, it was a ritual of circular formations, using poses and movements to resist and ride the increasingly intense pulse of the score. (Here, and in “Mary,” from the “Spiritual Suite,” Melissa L. Tyler stood out for her sharpness.)
For “Fusion,” Mr. Saintus’ premiere, the music was Haitian, as were many of the ritual elements, but there was also a clear debt to Martha Graham. Although it was a fusion of sorts, the boldest came in how a leaping strength in the men was transferred to the women, and a wavy smoothness in the women was transferred to the men. Despite adding red skirts towards the end, the energy waned. Yet easy sensuality was pleasant on a summer evening.
So were the excerpts from Mrs. Robinson’s 1983 jazz piece “Lush Life”. A cliché love triangle in a nightclub preceded a laid-back evening of mambo and swing dancing. Ms. Robinson recited a text by Ms. Angelou, in which the refrain, “Now ain’t they bad? Aren’t they black? resolved to “And it’s not okay?” ”
The audience seemed willing to agree, but their assent was strongest when Ms Robinson joined in the dancing.