#ArtFindsUs takes performance art to the people during coronavirus
In a Safeway parking lot in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood on a mid-June weekday, dancers Jasmine Francisco and Samiyah Lynnice Parramore were making the most of #ArtFindsUs’ teensy stage.
Above them, clouds were gathering energy for a burst of rain that would scotch their third stop, at the Blair-Caldwell Library. (The first took place in front of health care workers at St. Joseph’s Hospital.) But for the moment, stragglers, supermarket patrons and fans of Cleo Parker Robinson Dance — standing apart, nearly all of them masked — were getting a fix of live performance.
This month, on Thursday, July 16, the itinerant event will continue its mobile revelry along the Santa Fe arts corridor and through the blocks of District 3. There are plans to hit all seven districts, culminating with Denver Arts Week, slated for early November. The latest installment is set to feature Native American poet Tanaya Winder, the dance troupe Samba Colorado, and members of the indie rock band DeVotchKa.
Adding to the local flavor, Santa Fe’s Access Gallery — a hub for artists with disabilities — is contributing a piece for the panel trucks, and tracks by Youth on Record’s FemPowered Band will rock from the trucks.
This arts-on-wheels program began in April, when K Contemporary gallery owner Doug Kacena answered the coronavirus pandemic’s challenges by putting mural-size paintings on panel trucks and sending them throughout the city. It was a hit.
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The following month, when the Athena Project’s artistic director Angela Astle and arts champion and board member Holly Porterfield went looking for a partner to bring performing arts to communities, Kacena was practiced and game. “My mantra during COVID has been, ‘The obstacle is the way,’ ” he said.
Porterfield, who works on the Five Points Jazz Festival on behalf of Denver Arts & Venues and was blue when that annual gathering had to move online, had a vision for a sort of riverboat (OK, flatbed truck) that would amble through the storied neighborhood. In the end, hipster performance company Handsome Little Devils loaned its energy and mobile stage to the venture.
For his part, Kacena — with visions of Shriners on wee carts dancing in his head — eventually landed on the notion of pedicabs to convey the musical guests. “They’re mobile. They’re not loud. They won’t compete with the musicians,” he said.
One of the people making her way enthusiastically through June’s gathering was Cleo Parker Robinson herself, wearing a flowing blouse, smiling and engaging (at a thoughtful remove) the parking-lot audience. The Five Points Safeway where the truck stopped has been something of the dance ensemble’s “company store” for years.
“Not having a space to connect physically is a real thing, especially when you’re trying to change lives on the ground,” said Robinson on the phone earlier this week. “It was a such a joy. Real bodies. Real people. Our first time since March. It was wonderful. I was glad to see people.”
Robinson, founder of the internationally recognized dance company, is also a fount of local cultural history. She feels this version of #ArtFindsUs” shares, if not tactical DNA, at least a spiritual genome with the take-arts-to-the-community endeavors of Joseph Papp, founder of the New York’s Public Theatre and, closer to home, Henry Lowenstein and Bonfils Theatre’s Festival Caravan, which Robinson and her father, J.P. Parker, helped shape. Launched in 1973, it ran until 1985.
As members of the band Guerilla Fanfare blasted and blared a brassy warm-up, and then jimmied themselves into the intimate flotilla of pedicabs to begin their New Orleans-style procession, Kacena played the gentle, genial impresario. Standing in the middle of the street, he didn’t exactly do a jig, but it was close. “Wouldn’t it be great if the symphony orchestra did this?” he said through his mask to no one in particular.
The neighborhood’s residents did what was hoped for, even with drizzle turning to downpour. They stopped in their tracks on the sidewalk. They came to their porches. They hung out on apartment decks. A group of dudes outside a pizza joint greeted the pedicab brigade with enthusiastic bellows when it arrived at Coffee at the Point.
“I was beginning to whoop and holler” as the procession neared the landmark intersection,” Kacena recalled. “And then I heard this echo.” He panned his camera upward. “There were people on all of these decks.” When the caravan turned onto a tree-lined side street, kids followed for a block or two on bikes.
“My favorite takeaway from that night was just people’s expressions,” said Astle. “So many families came out on their porches. I have this one visual of this family, the mom and her two kids, and they were just plastered to the window.”
The traveling event serves artists’ need to be in front of audiences as much as it does the hankerings by arts lovers to see art and live performance. “The band told me that was their first gig since February,” said Astle. Even the pedicab drivers — so ubiquitous around the 16th Street Mall, Coors Field and the Pepsi Center in a year not called 2020 — thanked her “for giving them some kind of project to work on,” she said.
The next performance, on Thursday, holds the promise of another heartening meeting between artists and audiences — in-the-know, spontaneously created and at a safe remove. “We plan on sharing some of the street dances in Brasil that stem from oppression to freedom,” Samba Colorado founder and artistic director Kebrina Josefina De Jesús wrote in an email.
She gets the #ArtFindsUs vibe of taking it to the streets. “For us, dance is resistance,” she wrote. “We use our dance as social justice to share Black Brasilian stories, culture and dance. We believe that dance can heal and transform the Spirit.”
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