Chicago’s Living Dance Legend
When asked: What’s going on in the world of dance? The artistic director and co-founder of the company that carries his namesake – Joel Hall Dancers – responded “ It’s going through what we know of as ‘Concert Dance.’ It’s going through somewhat of a change into a 21st-century mode.”
“What we know as dance today is 20th-century dance, because all of the creators were in the 20th century: Ailey, Mr. Mitchell, Martha Graham and George Balanchine. All these people were 20th-century choreographers,” the living legend said.
Established in 1974 as the Chicago City Theater Company, Joel Hall Dancers is one of Chicago’s premiere dance companies and one of the nation’s most recognized names in classical, modern and freestyle dance. The creator of over 70 ballets for his company insists that “We’re dealing with a different kind of audience that is influenced by technology. They can pull up anything and watch it on YouTube. They don’t have to sit in a theater. They don’t have to spend any money.”
Dance like the rest of American culture is trying to find a way of survival; in a 21st century way, he opined. “Choreographers are the social scientist and we’re making social commentary.”
Mr. Hall, a native Chicagoan, who grew up in Cabrini Green learned a lot about choreography from his environment. Growing up in a challenged community taught him timing and coordination he says. “It forces you to become aware of your surroundings, in the dance world, it’s perfectly suitable. You have to know what everyone else is doing and thinking and sync your movements with theirs.”
Having created new works with composers and live music, Hall is on the precipice of merging 2oth century techniques with 21st-century sensibilities. As seen in his recent works like Civil Rights Opera (2012) and Conversations with Charles Heath (2013).
Having reached his 40th-year anniversary in 2014, Hall says his foundation is stronger than ever and his vision is coming together thanks to his newly found appreciation of his African spirituality. Hall, who at one time discovered that a trusted employee and confidant had betrayed him and put his company at risk was forced to deal with the business side of dance, which can be elusive to the creative mind. “I’m grateful for the experience, the adversity taught me a valuable lesson, one I try to impart to my students,” he said.
The Joel Hall Dancers and Center are comprised of three independent companies: JHDYC (Youth Company), JHD II (Trainee Company), and Joel Hall Dancers, the premiere company. “My goal,” says Joel “is to focus more on the holistic development of the dancers. I have really good people in all three companies, adults, and children and I want to take them to another level of dance. And that’s what I’m planning.”
Hall then enthusiastically whips out a scroll and slowly unrolls it to reveal a vision he’s had going back to the late 80s. It’s an architectural rendering of a multiplex dance/theater/retail center that he would like to have built someday from the ground up. “Dance within a supportive community that’s self-sustaining.” The shops generate income to cover the expenses while the not-for-profit runs the dance center and theater.
Hall insists this is the future of the dance community and that this approach is what’s needed now in the Midwest he says. “I’m looking to partner with some philanthropist and putting together a new board to bring this vision to pass.”
Hall who was profiled on History Makers was notified that his interview was officially archived by the Library of Congress takes it all in stride. The city of Chicago just honored him earlier this year with a Joel Hall day and then last week renamed a portion of north Clark Street after him.
Lori Cannon, who is one of the co-founders of Open Hand, an organization that provides meals on wheels to persons living with aids, initiated the street renaming to honor Hall’s work in the LGBTQ and HIV communities. She said “He’s a man who finds beauty in everyone who comes his way whether they’re elderly, disabled, no matter what, he helps them find the beauty in dance.”
And how can we honor a gentleman who has given so much and asked for so little in return she stated. Joel Hall is among a few individuals in Chicago that have received this honor while still living.
When asked: How did it feel having a street named after him? Hall stated “It’s not for me. It’s for my ancestors.”
And that my friends is the Joel Hall way.