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May 26, 2011

High Steppin': An Evening with Cleo Parker Robinson

Cleo Parker Robinson.jpg

Anybody who's been following this blog for a few years knows that I have some interest in dance in film. A while back, Marilyn Ferdinand had her which inspired me to contribute three entries. What I haven't mentioned is that sporadically during the Eighties, I did some videotaping for some Denver area choreographers. Back when the University of Colorado hosted some great dance workshops and performances in the Boulder campus, I took a class on dance and video under the direction of Lisa Nelson. It was my introduction to Contact Improvisation. A year or so later, I visited Berkeley to take a workshop in Contact Improvisation so that I could have some greater personal knowledge of what it means to be dancer. That experience is part of the reason why I have no tolerance for filming of dance that is composed of fragmented movements rather than those films that make greater effort to show the entire body or bodies in motion.

All of this is a somewhat wordy explanation regarding my seeing choreographer Cleo Parker Robinson at the Denver Film Center talk about dance in Hollywood films last night. I wasn't sure what to expect other than that there would be some film clips, and that the evening would be hosted by Robert Denerstein as part of his "Colorado Cinema Salon" series.

One might describe the presentation as a mix of autobiography and personal choices. The first clip was from Stormy Weather, and was the title dance number, choreographed by Katherine Dunham. For Robinson, it may have initially been seeing a large number of African-American dancers and actors on screen, but what evolved was Robinson's own learning from Dunham, as well as her own role in preserving Dunham's choreography. A more personal choice was from the prologue of West Side Story, with the rivalry of the Jets and the Sharks established through dance and stylized fighting on the streets of New York City. For Robinson, this was the film that made her decide on a life of dance. What she also liked about West Side Story was that it presented men dancing.

The Wiz was chosen primarily based on Robinson's association with some of the people involved with both the stage production and the film. What was significant was that the film had the most African-American dancers in a film at the time, and finding strength in numbers, the dancers successfully went on strike for better pay. What impressed Robinson about All That Jazz was primarily the open sexuality of Bob Fosse's film. The clip from White Nights, with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines' duet choreographed by Twyla Tharp, combining tap and ballet, served to to remind me that Taylor Hackford was at one time a pretty good filmmmaker. For Robinson, it was both the combination of these two different dancers performing together as well as a great showcase for showing men dancing.

The final clip, from Stomp the Yard brought out mixed feelings from Robinson. On the plus side is the popularity of stepping. On the downside is the competitiveness that has resulted in violence, as well as the lack of interest by many involved regarding the history of stepping. Robinson also talked about having classes where those who have been involved in stepping or related dancing were unable to do any kind of the more traditional forms of dance. There was also some discussion on how dance has been presented on film, both with the heavy editing which essentially destroys any coherent sense of the choreography, but also with the various films centered on "street" dancing emphasizing attitude over the skills and discipline involved with dance.

There were some personal anecdotes, including a strange, chance meeting with Twyla Tharp's brother at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, and working with Gordon Parks, and being with him when Parks found out through a Denver newspaper that his son had died in a plane crash in Africa. A one of a kind evening, with someone who is much more than a local legend.

West Side Story.jpg

Posted by peter at May 26, 2011 07:49 AM