The Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble Gives a Roof-Raising Performance at ADF

The American Dance Festival will present the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble at 2 and 8 p.m. on Wednesday, July 3rd, in Duke University's R.J. Reynolds Industries Theater (photo © Jerry Metellus)
The American Dance Festival will present the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble at 2 and 8 p.m. on Wednesday, July 3rd, in Duke University’s R.J. Reynolds Industries Theater (photo © Jerry Metellus)

Classics are works of art that withstand the analysis of each new generation — and in the process, lay the groundwork for the future. Cleo Parker Robinson understands that delicate meshing of old and new, and last night she brought that knowledge with a booty-shaking swagger to the American Dance Festival at the R.J. Reynolds Industries Theater on Duke University’s West Campus in Durham, NC, for the first of a three July 2nd and 3rd performances.

Fans in the audience for the Tuesday, July 2nd, opening-night performance of the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble were treated to a performance by Cleo Parker Robinson herself. The 70-year-old dance genius brought her passion and talent to her version of Barrelhouse Blues, a signature dance originated by the legendary Katharine Dunham (1909-2006).

This sultry, smoky work made its world premiere in 1938, introducing the “swamp house shimmy” from Florida to the dance world. The main character, played by Robinson, is a tired woman who goes out dancing, rediscovering her youth and sensuality as she shakes the kinks out of her body with her partner (Martez McKinzy).

Robinson and McKinzy slide and gyrate and create a type of mating dance that’s both narrative and comic. Robinson’s wide-eyed connection with the audience and her sidelong glances at her younger partner bring hoots and hollers from the audience.

That’s all she needed to do. She owned the audience.

But the evening was far from over. The rest of the night belonged to the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble, a troupe of extraordinarily talented contemporary dancers who are powerful, fast, razor-sharp, and exciting to watch. In Catharsis (choreographed and premiered in 2017 by Garfield Lemonius, who Robinson calls “young and brilliant”) and Resist (an ADF-commissioned world premiere by a new “hot” choreographer, Micaela Taylor), the dancers move in and out of solos, duets, and group dances without a pause or moment to catch their breath. Their precision is phenomenal; and when they all are awarded with a very long standing ovation after Catharsis, it’s the highest compliment, because this is a hardcore dance audience. They well deserved that recognition.

With a strong troupe such as this one, it’s near impossible to pick out dancers who might be stars, because they’re all focused and at the top of their game; but sometimes a performance takes your breath away such as Tyveze Littlejohn’s heartbreakingly beautiful solo in Mourner’s Bench, originally choreographed by Talley Beatty and premiered in 1947. Littlejohn’s control and balance creates poetic, statuesque movements that are slow and painful, but gorgeous to watch.

The evening closed with Uprooted: Pero Replantado, choregraphed by Donald McKayle and premiered in 2015. The dance, a story of undocumented immigrants in the United States, is poignant and important, especially against today’s headlines. A relevant and moving sequence of five dances, the work uses all of the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble in a finale that showcases their beautiful synchronicity, and the genius of their director.

An icon in the dance world, Cleo Parker Robinson not only teaches and choreographs, but runs a school, a summer institute, has a theater named after her, and provides an extensive outreach program for deserving communities in Denver and the Front Range. She won’t dance during today’s matinee performance, but she will dance during tonight’s performance. Robinson is the engine behind this phenomenal group of dance stars, and it’s worth your effort to get tickets for this very special ADF performance.

The American Dance Festival will present the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble at 2 and 8 p.m. on Wednesday, July 3rd, in Duke University’s R.J. Reynolds Industries Theater (photo © Jerry Metellus)

SECOND OPINION: June 26th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview Byron Woods:

The American Dance Festival presents CLEO PARKER ROBINSON DANCE ENSEMBLE at 2 and 8 p.m. July 3 in the R.J. Reynolds Industries Theater in the Bryan Center, 125 Science Dr., Durham, North Carolina 27708, on Duke University’s West Campus.

TICKETS: $12-$43.

BOX OFFICE: Duke University Box Office: 919-684-4444,, or

SHOW:,, and





BLOG (ADF Blog):



Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble (Modern Dance company, founded in 1970 and rooted in African-American traditions): (official website), (Facebook page), (Twitter page), (Wikipedia), and (YouTube).

Cleo Parker Robinson (Denver, CO-born dancer and choreographer and founder and artistic director of the CPRDE): (CPRDE bio), (Twitter page), and (Wikipedia).

NOTE: Dawn Reno Langley is the award-winning author of The Mourning Parade, as well as other novels, children’s books, nonfiction books, essays, short stories, poems, and articles. She is the creator of The Writer’s Hand Journals and runs workshops on using journals in every walk of life. A Fulbright Scholar, she holds the MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier, VT, and the PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies from Union Institute and University. She lives in Durham with her dog, Izzy. To read all of Dawn Langley’s Triangle Review reviews online at Triangle Arts and Entertainment, click


Dawn Reno Langley is a Roxboro, NC-based author who writes novels, poetry, children’s books, and nonfiction books on many subjects, as well as theater reviews. She is also Dean of General Education and Developmental Studies at Piedmont Community College in Roxboro, where she oversees the theater program at the Kirby Cultural Arts Complex, and is a member of the Person County Arts Council. Her website is