Arts and Culture / Magazine Feature

New ‘Blood’: Cleo Parker Robinson Dance returns to DU

The world has changed a lot since Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater premiered choreographer Donald McKayle’s Blood Memories in 1976. A deeply symbolic piece about the black experience, Blood Memories centers on two rivers — the Nile in Africa and the Mississippi in America — as centers of community life. One of its segments, “Levee Blues,” is about a Mississippi levee breaking, causing a man to die.

When the piece was first written, Hurricane Katrina was almost 20 years away.

“When you think of the Mississippi, when you think of Katrina, you think of all of the  loss and bravery and the things that had to happen for those people at the mouth of this river,” says McKayle, 79. “With all the change in the world, there’s change in the feeling and the resonance of these works.”

McKayle was in Denver in early September to work with the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble on its new production of Blood Memories, which the company will perform Sept. 18–20 at the Newman Center as part of “Rivers of Hope,” a show that also includes the Robinson-choreographed piece Wisdom of the Baobab Tree. The latter piece is named for the so-called African “tree of life” under which the community would gather to share songs and stories.

Robinson says Baobab and Blood Memories are “spiritually connected.”

“The spirit that keeps us together as a civilization is people growing and becoming even more beautiful,” she says. “It’s the rituals that take place between all people. [McKayle’s] connection with the river made me very aware that we are people who are connected to Earth and all of the elements.”

There are other connections within the Newman Center performances as well. McKayle and Cleo Parker Robinson Dance are connected via the nine works he has choreographed for the company (“I’ve given so many of them to Cleo because I just love her spirit and I love the kind of humanity she brings to them,” he says); and Robinson is connected to the University through her father, Jonathan “J.P.” Parker, a longtime Lamont School of Music facilities manager who retired last year at age 80.

“When they built the Newman Center, he came to make sure that building was going to be everything it is,” Robinson says.

Blood Memories is set to an original score by Harold Roberts that includes jazz, classical, African drums and American rock; Wisdom of the Baobab Tree is set to music composed by jazz vibraphonist Jay Hoggard. Both scores are prerecorded for the Newman Center performances.

“Rivers of Hope” plays at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 18 and 19 and 2 p.m. Sept. 20 at the Newman Center for the Performing Arts on the DU campus. Tickets are $19–$38. The gala fundraiser “Step It Up With Cleo Parker Robinson Soiree” is Sept. 17 at the company’s downtown studio. Visit for more information.

Comments are closed.