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For Dianne Reeves and Cleo Parker Robinson, a collaboration was delayed, but inevitable

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For Dianne Reeves and Cleo Parker Robinson, a collaboration was delayed, but inevitable

Singer Dianne Reeves doesn’t recall the day she met dancer Cleo Parker Robinson, her friend, fellow artist and, these days, her collaborator.

“Cleo has just always existed,” said Reeves, who did her growing up in Denver, the city Robinson also calls home. “We just always knew her.”

Hillary Harding, Cleo Parker Robinson Dance

Cleo Parker Robinson and Dianne Reeves in studio.

Robinson can’t remember the exact moment, either. Their families go way back, she said, so far into the past that Reeves’ uncle, the legendary jazz bassist Charles Burrell, actually brought Robinson home from the hospital when she was born 73 years ago, carrying out a favor for her father.

Surely though, they met before each established herself in the top-tier of Denver performing artists. Before Reeves went on to achieve international fame for her easy and fluid vocals, winning five Grammy awards along the way. Before Robinson built her company — Cleo Parker Robinson Dance — into a movement powerhouse and established herself as an in-demand choreographer, working across North America, Europe and Africa.

During all that time, they both said in interviews last week, there was a plan to work together. But with their busy schedules, it never happened. Someone was always out of town, always performing somewhere or preparing for their next act.

In the end, it was a song that brought them together: Reeves’ “Freedom Dance,” which first appeared on her landmark 1994 album “Art and Survival ”

She recently brought it back into her live show, performing it during a pre-pandemic event in San Francisco where former Robinson co-creator Schyleen Qualls now lives. Qualls caught the concert and knew the moment of togetherness was at hand.

She quickly rang up Robinson on the phone.

“Schyleen said, ‘It’s time,’ ” Robinson recalled.

And, in a sense, the pandemic  — which seemed to stop the whole world — enabled the start of the long-delayed partnership. Both women were parked in place, with time on their hands and thoughts about projects they wish they had done in their lives, “the things that were really important and I kept putting off,” as Reeves put it.

They started to connect, via text message or over the phone, pushing the collaboration toward the finish line.

1632237273 247 For Dianne Reeves and Cleo Parker Robinson a collaboration was
3 images: Standing On The Shoulders, Choreography Cleo Parker Robinson, commissioned by the Vail Dance Festival. World Premiere, Vail Dance Festival 2021. Denver Premiere: “Journeys” Fall Concert at the Ellie. (Christopher Duggan, Vail Dance Festival, provided by Cleo Parker Robinson Dance)

They’ll cross it on Sept. 25 and 26 at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House where Reeves will sing while Robinson’s troupe performs brand new choreography she created to accompany the tune. The piece is part of an action-packed Fall Concert with four major works running back-to-back.

If you go

Cleo Parker Robinson Dance’s 2021 Fall Concert, “Journeys,” takes place Sept. 25- 26 at The Ellie Caulkins Opera House in the Denver Performing Arts complex. Tickets and info at cleoparkerdance.org.

Among them: the premiere of another work destined to be part of CPRD lore, “The Four Journeys,” choreographed by Amalia Viviana Basanta Hernández, a well-respected maker of contemporary dance in Mexico City. The monumental work traces the history and intersection of four distinct cultures that co-exist in Mexico today — Indigenous, Spanish, African and Asian.

CPRD commissioned the dance before the pandemic and spent two challenging years developing it, mostly via Zoom. Only recently has it been assembled in its final form during full, in-person rehearsals.

There’s also the costume-colorful “Fusion,” which explores Indigenous, African and French influences on the culture of Haiti, where its choreographer Jeanguy Saintus lives. Saintus expects to be present for the concert.

1632237273 697 For Dianne Reeves and Cleo Parker Robinson a collaboration was

Jerry Metellus, Provided by Cleo Parker Robinson Dance

Freedom Dance, named after Dianne Reeves’ song with movement choreographed by Cleo Parker Robinson Dance. Reeves’ will perform live with the dancers; CPRD Co-Founder Schyleen Qualls will also perform her new original work, Freedom Poem, with the performance. CPRD Ensemble member and Rehearsal Director Chloé-Grant Abel.

Finally, there’s the Denver premiere of “Standing On the Shoulders,” a Robinson creation “celebrating unity, renewal and reunion,” which was commissioned by the Vail Valley Foundation, and premiered to an excellent reception at the Vail International Dance Festival this summer. Noted composer Omar Thomas created the music.

Still, it is the Reeves-Robinson alliance that local audiences are anticipating most highly. The pair have vastly different performance styles even though they have much in common.

(Just one of those things: Both have been honored at the Kennedy Center. In 2018, Dianne Reeves was celebrated there with an NEA Jazz Masters award. Back in 2004, Robinson received a Kennedy Center Medal of Honor during the venue’s “Masters of African American Choreographers” program.)

They came together for “Freedom Dance” by letting the source material — Reeve’s song — be their guide.

“When I first spoke to Dianne, she said, ‘Well, what do you think we can do?,’ ” Robinson recalled. “And I said, ‘Well, freedom dance sounds like the dance I’ve been doing my whole life.’ ”

The piece turned into a joyful expression of femininity and liberation, of “goddess energy,” as Reeves puts it, and that feeling of freedom that Robinson says women “discover from being mothers, from being lovers, from being wives, from being nurturers, from being warriors, all of that.”

As Robinson began thinking through the steps, Reeves quickly assembled her band in a Los Angles studio to record an updated version of the song. They sent the audio to CPRD, which used it during rehearsals.

Reeves will perform it live at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House but plans to allow herself the freedom to feel the moment. She envisions an authentic moment where the singer, musicians and dancers improvise based on each other’s energy. It’s jazz meets contemporary dance.

Robinson originally thought she would cast only women in the work; the main movement is set for 10 female dancers who execute a set of coordinated steps that also allow for plenty of individual expression. But, she said, during studio rehearsals the male dancers in her company wanted in on the energy they were seeing, so she added in other, smaller roles for the men.

TDP L DIANNE

Provided by Cleo Parker Robinson Dance

Dianne Reeves will be performing with Cleo Parker Robinson Dance.

The process of putting together the entire Fall Concert program was organic, Robinson said, but it was never easy, especially “The Four Journeys” because it required cross-border cooperation between artists during the pandemic.

At one point she faced the question of whether company members needed to be vaccinated against the coronavirus to participate. It was difficult, she said, to weigh the varying wishes of individual dancers against concerns for the greater good.

In the end, she asked them to get the shots. But she still expresses doubts about the decision.

“All I know is that this is what I think is the right thing to do. We want to work and we want to work together,” she said. “And so if this is what we have to do, then we’re going to have to do it. We’re going to have to walk in faith together.”

Both Reeves and Robinson are still shaping “Freedom Dance,” which will get fine-tuned in tech rehearsals this week.

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