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BLACK HERITAGE: The sheer joy of dance
Festival opens with Cleo Parker Robinson Ensemble

Following the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble's August performance at Lincoln Center, the New York Times had high praise for the Denver-based troupe: "Struggle and resilience, spiritual uplift and lowdown fun: the old verities of African-American modern dance have not been abandoned in Colorado," gushed critic Brian Seibert.

Indeed, the Robinson ensemble, in its four decades of existence, has evolved into one of the country's premiere African-American dance companies, leaping and pirouetting itself proudly next to the likes of better-knowns like the Alvin Ailey and Bill T. Jones repertory companies.

The 12-member ensemble will dance Feb. 1 in the Johnny Mercer Theatre, as the opening event for the 2013 Savannah Black Heritage Festival.

A Denver native, Cleo Parker Robinson began teaching dance at the University of Colorado at the age of 15. Her many accolades include the Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts, the Oni Award from the International Black Woman's Congress, the Metropolitan State College of Denver's Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Peace Award for Service to the Community, and induction into the Blacks in Colorado Hall of Fame.

Robinson was named to the National Council on the Arts by President Bill Clinton in 1999, and in 2005, she was a recipient of a Kennedy Center Medal of Honor during the Center's "Masters of African American Choreography" series.

Her best-known works include Lush Life, a 1984 jazz, poetry, and dance collaboration with Maya Angelou, and the gospel-inspired Spiritual Suite (an excerpt from which is on the Feb. 1 program).

"I don't know if we define it as African dance," Robinson told "I think the range of expression is across the board. It starts on this journey of Africa, moving all the way through Africa, moving all the way through the Nile, moving through the Mississippi - sort of the journey of humankind.

"So I think it's not just African but I think it's universal. It's world dance, world experience. And I think if it's good, people are really for it."

Among the works to be performed in Savannah is Fusion, a commissioned work by celebrated Haitian choreographer Jeanguy Saintus. The piece blends elements of folk performance, free improvisation, voodoo religion, African, French and indigenous Indian influences.

Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble

Where: Johnny Mercer Theatre, Savannah Civic Center, 301 W. Oglethorpe Ave.

When: At 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 1

Admission: Free (advance tickets are required; Savannah Civic Center box office, Lester's Florist and Cumulus Broadcasting. They will be at the door, subject to availability)

Savannah Black Heritage Festival

Event schedule

Feb. 2

1:30 p.m. Monument -Memorial Walk - includes stops at war memorials and ends at the African-American Monument witha and wreath-laying ceremony. Meet at Rousakis Plaza on River Street.

Feb. 3

3-5 p.m. "Common Connections"- Art exhibition opening featuring works by Bernice and Andy Tate that celebrate the authentic African-American Gullah-Geechee heritage. Beach Institute African- American Cultural Center, 502 E. Harris St.

Feb. 5

7 p.m. Annual W. W. Law Lecture by John H. Franklin. Following the lecture, guests can view exhibitions presented by the Savannah College of Art and Design in the Walter O. Evans Center for African American Studies. SCAD Museum of Art, 601 Turner Blvd.

Feb 6

6:30 p.m. 12th Annual New Beginnings Art Exhibit Opening & Reception. Gallery S.P.A.C.E., 9 West Henry St.

8 p.m. Flight - presented by the SSU Players by the Sea. The play by Charlayne Woodard, based on actual slave narratives as well as African and African-American folktales, celebrates the African-American oral tradition. Reservations required for this one-night free performance - (912) 358-3190. SSU, Kennedy Fine Arts Auditorium.

Feb. 8

WHCJ-FM 90.3 kicks off the 24th National African-American Read-In along with the SSU Department of Liberal Arts, Jack and Jill of America, Inc., Savannah Chapter, and the Chatham Association of Retired Educators. Radio Broadcast and streaming from 8 a.m to 5 p.m; readings in schools and community centers arranged by sponsors throughout February.

Feb. 9

11 a.m. - 9 p.m. Grand Festival Day, Savannah Civic Center. A day-long array of family-oriented activities and a concert by Q Parker, the Manhattans, Dru Hill (concerts begin at 5:30 p.m.). 11 a.m.-2 p.m.: Health Fair in the SCC first-floor lobby. 11 a.m. - 6 p.m.: Sankofa African-American Museum on Wheels, a detailed display of artifacts commencing with the Middle Passage (slavery) highlights African Americans' inventions. In the SCC Mason Room. 11 a.m. - 6 p.m: A Documentary Mini-Theater; continuous showings of African American historical documentaries in the DeVeaux Room. 1-2:30 p.m. Local Authors Corner: Bryan Room. 1-3:30 p.m. African American Living and Learning Crafts Village: Second floor lobby. 4 p.m.: Youth Talent Extravaganza.

Feb. 10

5 p.m.: Gospel Concert featuring Dottie Peoples and others with chorus back-up by the SSU Wesleyan and the AASU Gospel Choirs. Temple of Glory Community Church, 1105 Stiles Ave.

Feb. 11

6 p.m.: Ogechee Theater "Celebrating the Connection of Cultures: Latinos, Hispanics, and African-Americans.". Armstrong Atlantic State Unversity.

Feb. 12

7 p.m.: Future of Jazz with Huxsie Scott and granddaughters Markeya Relaford & Eyana Thomas; Skyye Williams; Morgan Guerin and others. Jewish Educational Alliance, 5111 Abercorn St.

Feb. 14

6:30 p.m.: Personal Reflections of W. W. Law: A Renaissance Man - Dr. Charles J. Elmore, with personal reflections about the life of the late W. W. Law and his contributions/influences in the arts, African American culture, historic preservation and Civil Rights in Savannah. Jepson Center for the Arts, 207 W. York St.

Feb. 15

6:35 p.m.: Youth Entertainment Showcase. Savannah Ballroom, King-Frazier Complex, Savannah State University.

Feb. 16

2-4 p.m. Commemorating the first Black Heritage Festival, founded in 1988 by W.W. Law. Blues artist Drink Small along with Sheila Ray Charles, daughter of Ray Charles; the Clinton Powell Open Mic and others. King-Tisdell Cottage Museum, 500 block Huntington St.

Feb. 17

5 p.m.: "How I Got Over - Stories of Faith, Resistance and Freedom" by storyteller Lillian Grant-Baptiste and the Second African Baptist Church "Inspirational Voices" Choir. Second African Baptist Church, 123 Houston St 

Feb 19

10 a.m.: Documentary At the River I Stand. Savannah Technical College, Eckburg Auditorium.

6:30 p.m. Documentary Uneven Fairways. Savannah Technical College, Eckburg Auditorium

Feb. 20

7 p.m.: Freddy Cole Concert. Lutheran Church of the Ascension, 120 Bull St.

Feb. 22

6:30 p.m.: A Colloquy for music and drama students led by actress/playwright Jewell Robinson is a prelude to the Unforgettable Nat King Cole theatrical production by the National Portrait Gallery. Savannah State University Kennedy Fine Arts Auditorium.

Feb. 23

7 p.m. Unforgettable Nat King Cole - The Man and His Music, a theatrical tribute produced by the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institute. St. John Baptist Church. 522-28 Hartridge St.

Feb. 26

6:30 p.m. Documentary Crossing at St. Augustine. Savannah Technical College, Eckburg Auditorium