Singer Diane Reeves doesn’t remember the day she met dancer Cleo Parker Robinson, her friend, fellow artist and, these days, her collaborator.
“Cleo has always existed,” said Reeves, who grew her up in Denver, the city Robinson also calls home. “We’ve always known him.”
Robinson doesn’t even remember the exact moment. Their families go back a long way, she said, as far in the past as Reeves’ uncle, famed jazz bassist Charles Burrell, actually brought Robinson home from the hospital when she was born 73 years ago, as a tribute to his father. was doing favors.
Certainly though, they met before establishing themselves in the top tier of Denver performing artists. Reeves won five Grammy Awards along the way, before gaining international fame for his easy and fluid vocals. Before Robinson built his company – Cleo Parker Robinson Dance – into a movement powerhouse and established himself as an in-demand choreographer, working in North America, Europe and Africa.
During that time, both had said in the interview last week, there was a plan to work together. But it never happened due to his busy schedule. Someone was always out of town, always performing somewhere or preparing for his next act.
In the end, it was one song that brought them together: Reeves’ “Freedom Dance”, which first appeared on her landmark 1994 album “Art and Survival”.
She recently brought it back to her live show, performing it during a pre-pandemic event in San Francisco, where Robinson’s former co-creator Shillen Qualls now lives. Qualls caught hold of the concert and knew a moment of solidarity was at hand.
He quickly called Robinson.
“Shillene said, ‘It’s time,'” Robinson recalled.
And, in a sense, the pandemic – which had brought the entire world to a halt – enabled the start of a long-delayed partnership. “Both women were parked with time in their hands and ideas about the projects they wanted in their lives,” Reeves said, “the things that were really important and I kept avoiding them.”
They started connecting via text message or over the phone, pushing the collaboration toward the finish line.
They will cross it out on September 25 and 26 at the Ellie Colkins Opera House, where Reeves will sing while Robinson’s troupe performs the brand new choreography they created to accompany the tune. The piece is part of an action-packed fall concert with four major works running back-to-back.
Among them: the premiere of another work destined to be part of CPRD lore, “The Four Journeys”, choreographed by Amalia Viviana Basanta Hernandez, a respected producer of contemporary dance in Mexico City. The monumental work traces the history and intersection of four distinct cultures that coexist in Mexico today – indigenous, Spanish, African and Asian.
CPRD started this dance before the pandemic and spent two challenging years developing it, mostly through Zoom. It is only recently assembled in its final form during full, in-person rehearsals.
There is also the costume-coloured “Fusion”, which explores indigenous, African and French influences on the culture of Haiti, where its choreographer Jeangue Santas lives. Santas is expected to appear for the concert.
Finally, there’s the Denver premiere of “Standing on the Shoulders,” a Robinson production “celebrating unity, renewal, and reunification,” which was commissioned by the Vail Valley Foundation, and received an outstanding reception at the Vail International Dance Festival this summer. The premiere took place. Famous composer Omar Thomas composed the music.
Still, it’s the Reeves-Robinson alliance that local audiences are anticipating the most. The pair have very different performance styles, even though they have a lot in common.
(Just one of those things: Both have been honored at the Kennedy Center. In 2018, Diane Reeves was celebrated with the NEA Jazz Masters Award. Back in 2004, Robinson was awarded the Kennedy Center Medal during “Masters of African” Received of Honor. American Choreographer ”Program.)
They came together for “Freedom Dance” with the source material – Reeve’s song – as their guide.
“When I first talked to Diane, she said, ‘Okay, what do you think we can do? Robinson remembered. “And I said, ‘Well, freedom dance sounds like the dance I’ve been doing all my life.’ “
The piece turned into a joyful expression of femininity and liberation, of “divine energy,” as Reeves says, and that sense of freedom that Robinson calls women “from being mothers, from being lovers, to being wives, from being nurturers.” By being a warrior, that’s all.”
As Robinson began to think of moves, Reeves quickly assembled his band at the Los Angeles studio to record an updated version of the song. He sent the audio to the CPRD, which used it during rehearsals.
Reeves will perform it live at the Ellie Colkins Opera House but plans to give himself the freedom to feel the moment. She envisions an authentic moment where singers, musicians and dancers improvise based on each other’s energies. This is jazz meets contemporary dance.
Robinson originally thought she would involve only women in the work; The main movement is set for 10 female dancers who perform a set of coordinated steps that allow for a great deal of individual expression. But, she said, the male dancers in her company wanted the energy they were looking for during studio rehearsals, so she added in other, smaller roles for men.
The process of putting together the entire fall concert schedule was organic, Robinson said, but it was never easy, especially “The Four Journeys” because it required cross-border collaboration between artists during the pandemic.
At one point she was faced with questions about whether company members needed to be vaccinated against the coronavirus in order to participate. It was difficult, she said, to weigh the varying desires of different dancers against concerns for the greater good.
Finally, he asked them to take the shots. But she still expresses doubts over the decision.
“All I know is that I think this is the right thing to do. We want to work and we want to work together,” she said. “And so if that’s what we have to do, we have to do it. We have to walk in faith together.”
Both Reeves and Robinson are still shaping up to “Freedom Dance,” which will be fine-tuned at technical rehearsals this week.
For Reeves, this is the natural next step for a piece of art that is near and dear and continues to grow. “I’ve always had the vision to have someone choreograph the song,” she said, “and next weekend’s performances would make it real.”
Robinson foresees a long life for the work and hopes to take it on tour using a recorded version of Reeves’ vocals at future locations. The themes of individual liberty, and fraternity, will resonate long after the trials of creating work during the global health crisis. They speak for the moment, but they also speak beyond that.
“How do we really just look at another woman and just thank her for who she is?” Robinson said.
Subscribe to The Know, our weekly newsletter, to have entertainment news sent straight to your inbox.