The Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble, the multi-talented, multi-cultural Denver-based dance company, brought its community-loving artistry to the St. Joseph’s Performance Hall at Durham’s Hayti Heritage Center on April 15 for a thrilling evening of modern dance. (They also performed the following night.) Having seen only musical performances in the charming venue, I was impressed at how well the company condensed the spacing to fit the smallish stage. Although one would enjoy seeing the group on a big stage, the intimate connection between the dancers and the audience that the space makes possible is a tremendous gift.

The program opened with a work by the legendary choreographer Katherine Dunham, from the 1940s. Choros combines Brazilian rhythms with classical ballet and subsumes both into Dunham’s modern technique. Dunham herself set this version on the CPRDE in 1994; more than ten years later, she is still active, at 94. It is a spirited and sprightly quartet, full of joy. Unfortunately this performance was marred by a glitch with the recorded music, and the piece ended rather unexpectedly.

Following was a dynamic 2004 work by Robert Sher-Machherndl, a former ballet dancer with several European companies. He set his “At Last” duet, from Etta, on Marisa Mack and David Holland, who joined CPRDE this season from the Ballethnic Dance Company (which presented their Leopard’s Tale at Duke a year ago). Their balletic style of modern movement meshed well with the choreographer’s, and their powerful dancing to Etta James’ ballad of love triumphant–at long last–made the heart swell in vicarious happiness.

The first half of the program closed with the stunning recent work by Christopher Huggins, Nine Ninas. Set to nine lesser-known songs by the late Nina Simone, Nine Ninas is an absolute knockout. Each of the nine dances was very fine, but two were outstanding: “Ol’ Jim Crow,” danced by five men, all wonderful; and the solo by Orialis Serrano to “I’m Feeling Good.” Serrano is tall, long-haired, and long-legged, and in her long red dress, slit all the way up both thighs, she was smokin’, doing full justice to Simone’s sultry song. One of the company’s hallmarks is the collective ability to get the legs up and out to make beautiful lines, but even among a dozen examples of amazing strength and flexibility, Serrano stands out. Her physical prowess was matched by her expressive ability and by her daring: her sole prop, on which she jumped and stood, was a metal folding chair! Nine Ninas closed with the full ensemble dancing to “Central Park Blues,” an instrumental, in a piece that gave a hint of the glories to come in the second half.

After intermission came Escapades, an Alvin Ailey work from 1983, restaged by Christopher Huggins (a former Ailey dancer), set to music by the brilliant jazz drummer Max Roach. This large-gestured, lyrical work featured vignettes by pairs of dancers, including soloists Orialis Serrano and Lawrence Jackson, who were superb, and more fabulous ensemble work by the company. Here we began to understand the limitations the space was putting on the company: A couple of dancers came perilously close to skidding over the edge into our laps, and another nearly took out a light stand just off-stage as he made a flying exit (the theatre has no wings or lighting grid). But despite these limits, they danced with heart and verve.

The program’s final work, by Milton Myers (another former Ailey dancer), has become the company’s signature piece since its 1984 premiere. All thirteen dancers, attired in belling red skirts and, for the women, red, one-shouldered midriff tops, filled the stage to capacity, circling and spiraling, stamping and leaping in invocatory patterns to rhythmic music by Jean Michel Jarre. After a middle section of short dances by smaller groups, the full company returns. All members of the ensemble seem highly attuned to each other, and the designed patterns of the dance are activated by the energy flowing among them. As beautiful as a solo may be – or a duet or small group dance – there is not much in performance art that is as thrilling to the audience as a large ensemble of dancers working in such close harmony to create a kaleidoscope of ever-shifting forms and images that speak wordlessly of the great joy of life.

Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble appeared at ADF several times during the 1990s, but the last time was in 1998. Perhaps after this considerable hiatus, they will be invited to return in 2006. But even if they do return to those larger stages, let us hope that they will also perform again in St. Joseph’s, where the love flows unimpeded from dancers to audience and back again, to the benefit of both the consummate art and the community.