United we stand when bridges are built and communities are galvanized through the arts. The 6th annual Mile High Dance Festival, produced by Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, gave Denver, once again, a high-spirited celebration of cultural diversity highlighting nine local professional dance companies. The festival took place on Saturday, July 22nd on the outside stage in the intimate amphitheater that rests between the Thomas W Bean Towers and the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance (CPRD) Performing Arts Complex in Five Points. The Mile High Dance Festival was the culmination of the 23rd annual International Summer Dance Institute (ISDI) which begins with One Spirit/Many Voices, a two week children’s summer camp followed by two weeks of pre-professional and professional dance intensives at CPRD.
This festival powerfully and passionately stands for inclusion and access to the arts for all. It welcomes disenfranchised communities into a safe space where there is “peace, love, and respect for all,” and which honors “the ancestors and elders whose shoulder you stand on and collectively whose shoulders WE stand on,” according to the opening welcome of the show. It is an homage to several theater icons: Joseph Papp, founder of Free Shakespeare in the Park and The Public Theater in New York City’s Central Park; Tony Garcia, artistic director of Su Teatro; Henry Lowenstein, considered the father of Denver theater and the creator of Festival Caravan; Helen Bonfils, Denver philanthropist who established the Denver Center of the Performing Arts; and Dr. Charles (“Baba Chuck”) Davis, a modern dancer and choreographer from Howard University who was artistic director and founder of the DanceAfrica festival, and brought the African Dance genre into the American mainstream. The message of the evening was that the only time you look down on somebody, is to help him up.
The Festival Caravan documentary showed at 2:30pm and 3:30pm in the Cleo Parker Robinson Theater. Festival Caravan began as an outdoor summer series that ran from 1973-1985. Shows were performed on a portable stage that traveled to various neighborhood parks. The performance series was produced by Henry Lowenstein and the Bonfils Theater with the goal of exposing Denver residents to diverse performing arts and cross-cultural divides. The University of Denver’s Carson Brierly Giffin Dance Library currently houses an exhibit in Anderson Academic Commons of the documentary featuring artists who worked with Lowenstein including Cleo Parker Robinson. The world premiere of the film was June 15 and the exhibit runs through November 2017.
At 7pm, the show opened on a brilliantly hot evening with a procession led by Cleo Parker Robinson herself, accompanied by a band of drummers and a group of young dancers dressed in white. They chanted “Ashay Ashay” (Amen Amen) along with the audience in a moving memorial for Baba Chuck Davis. Hannah Kahn Dance Company performed three short pieces throughout the evening including an excerpt from Wheeling with music by Handel, (Pro)longing by Scottish composer Malcolm Lindsay, and an excerpt from Flock by Pakistani musician Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. (Pro)longing was an exploration of weight and momentum with a white square of flowing fabric that in the beginning, recalled Martha Graham’s Lamentations. The dancers poked through the fabric, were swaddled in the fabric, and were carried across the stage in it. At the close of the piece, the fabric seemed to represent a link that held them together, and though they released it, the connection remained. (Pro)longing took the stage at sunset which produced a profound and harmonious lighting effect.
Nu World Contemporary Danse Theater, founded by Chris Page-Sanders and Bashir Page Sanders, former CPRDE members, presented Love’s Liberation. The piece addressed a mother-son relationship and the complexity of unconditional love. Dancers Rachel Harding and Martez McKinzy painted a powerful image of frustration and pain with their blended technical and gestural movement. The soundscape was one of media headlines and music that left us with the words of Maya Angelou: “I am a human being, nothing human can be alien to me.”
Samba Colorado is a Brazilian dance school and entertainment company led by the dynamic Kebrina Josephina de Jesus. The company performs to live music and offers dance, drumming and Capoeira classes. The group joyfully tells stories through movement and music. Other companies that graced the stage included: Flamenco Denver, represented by lead dancer Maria Vasquez; Delsie Khadem-Ghaeini, a Persian dancer who dances on behalf of the Persian Cultural Circle; Moraporvida, Jacob Mora’s urban modern dance company; Davis Contemporary Dance Company, Terrell Davis’ contemporary jazz company; and Fiesta Colorado Dance Company, an Hispanic dance company.
The Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble took the stage as darkness fell on the night with five pieces of powerful, intentional classic modern jazz dance to music by Nina Simone. The first piece was a duet that boasted seamless partnering skills and the solos that followed spoke to the audience of the human experience. CPRDE dancers are technically spectacular and the characters that they portray are every man and every woman in every lifestyle. They take us where we have all been at some point in life, in our relationships and in ourselves, they make us remember and relate and sigh in recognition. CPRDE closed the show with a quintet of strong women who left the audience fulfilled and unified.
Cleo celebrated 47 years with her company this year and the Mile High Dance Festival is the perfect example of how she has been inspiring communities with art for decades. As she took the stage to close the show, looking empowered and proud, she simply declared “We want Denver to know that dance is alive!”
Shelly Clements: Shelly Chapple Clements was raised in rural Pennsylvania, in Amish Country. She was drawn to the city of Pittsburgh through dance at the young age of 9 and never looked back. Her dance education and career has taken her to Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, the National Academy of Arts in Champagne-Urbana, IL, Pittsburgh High School for Creative and Performing Arts, San Francisco, and Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico. She currently teaches dance in Highlands Ranch, is the Artistic Director of Youth Programs for SPEC, the ballet mistress for DAMAGEDANCE, and is a faculty member at Arts Immersion. Shelly has been a Colorado resident since 2002 and holds Bachelor’s Degrees in Spanish Interpretation and Translation, Hispanic Literature, and Theatre Dance from Colorado Mesa University, and attended the master’s program at the School of Education and Human Development at University of Colorado Denver. Her passion for writing gives voice to the dancer who speaks not on the stage.