Many dance company directors, especially the most venerable, keep to the wings, letting their dancers and the works speak for themselves. Cleo Parker Robinson is not one of those.
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At Lincoln Center Out of Doors on Friday night, during the appearance of the troupe she founded and has directed in Denver for more than 40 years, the 64-year-old Ms. Robinson ran short of breath verbally working the audience. She praised it and New York City, introducing the pieces, talking about her life and art, giving shout-outs to Katherine Dunham and Alvin Ailey. She rapped black-pride rhymes by Maya Angelou. She swung her hips in a short and sparkly dress and looked mighty fine doing so.
The Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble shares her giving spirit and warm appeal, though no one else onstage quite matched her vitality or charisma. The four selections on the program included both the brand-new (a world premiere by the Haitian choreographer Jeanguy Saintus) and the vintage (a signature piece Ms. Robinson made in the 1970s), yet, stylistically speaking, there was little in any of the works that would have seemed out of place in the troupe’s inaugural season. Struggle and resilience, spiritual uplift and lowdown fun: the old verities of African-American modern dance have not been abandoned in Colorado.
In the oldest work, an excerpt from Ms. Robinson’s “Spiritual Suite,” three women in colored shawls rocked in chairs and rose to testify to an electric-blues recording of “Mary Don’t You Weep.” The taped voice of the poet Nikki Giovanni spoke of willows, and these women bent but did not break, contracting in staccato sobs, heroically straightening a leg to the sky, hinging at the knee down to the floor.
Similar vocabulary marked “Arranged,” a 2010 ensemble work by Milton Myers, a choreographer of Ms. Robinson’s generation, yet the music was from Philip Glass’s 1984 opera “Akhnaten.” A memorial to a stalwart company dancer, it was a ritual of circular formations, using poses and motion to resist and ride the score’s intensifying pulse. (Here, and in “Mary,” from the “Spiritual Suite,” Melissa L. Tyler stood out for her sharpness.)
For “Fusion,” the premiere by Mr. Saintus, the music was Haitian, as were several of the ritual elements, but there was also a clear debt to Martha Graham. Although that’s a kind of fusion, the bolder one came in how a leaping strength in the men transferred to the women, and a wavy softness in the women transferred to the men. Despite the addition of red skirts near the end, the energy flagged. Yet the easy sensuality was pleasant on a summer evening.
So were the excerpts from Ms. Robinson’s 1983 jazz piece “Lush Life.” A clichéd love triangle in a nightclub preceded a loose party of mambo and swing dancing. Ms. Robinson recited text by Ms. Angelou, in which the refrain, “Now ain’t they bad? An ain’t they black?” resolved into “An ain’t we fine?’ ”
The audience seemed willing to agree, but its assent was loudest when Ms. Robinson joined the dance.
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