Jazz artist Joel Hall is one of Chicago's living legends. At 58 years old, he remains intensely active in running not only a critically acclaimed dance company but also a thriving dance studio in Andersonville, where he teaches and oversees administration. Hall is among the dance pioneers responsible for putting Chicago on the map as a credible source for dance, on par with New York City and the great cities of Europe. Though Chicago has always had a thriving dance community, many dance artists who started here, such as Bob Fosse and Twyla Tharp, did not become famous until they reached other destinations. But Hall, like Ruth Page, Gus Giordano, Shirley Mordine and others, knew that you could make innovative dance art and still call Chicago home.
Hall, like many male dancers, was not introduced to formal ballet and modern training until the relatively late age of 17. That's not to say, however, that he didn't start dancing when he was much younger. 'In the Black community, dance is something that is cultural,' Hall said. 'It's a normality to listen to music and move to what you're listening to. Dance was always, for me, something that I was brought up with.'
A native of Chicago, Hall grew up in Cabrini Green and discovered ballet when some friends took him to a class taught by Ed Parish, a teacher who made it a habit to take in kids off the street and educate them in the discipline of dance. Hall later studied modern dance with Nana Shineflug—who still teaches today and leads the Chicago Moving Company—and was trained in the Graham technique with Denise Jefferson, who now runs the Alvin Ailey school in New York.
After studying at the Ailey school for a brief period, Hall returned to Chicago to get a degree in Sociology from Northeastern Illinois University and pursue graduate studies in social sciences. 'My whole approach to dance has been from a sociological perspective,' Hall explains. 'Dance is a recording of our culture and history, without writing. We move our recording.' Before finishing his thesis for his graduate degree, Hall had the opportunity to open his own studio, something he couldn't pass up, and thus his career transitioned from academia to business.
Hall was always interested in jazz because of its musical dynamic and because it was closer to his cultural upbringing. He ultimately chose jazz as his expressive idiom, fusing it with ballet, modern and African elements. Hall even found inspiration for his choreography and technique in dance clubs. 'I found in the clubs there's a freedom and an exhilaration that was so spontaneous and euphoric,' he said. 'People were just giving [ their energy ] away. I used to love to go to clubs for music ideas or thematic ideas. A lot of material can come from that experience, and I feel that the essence of the movement should come from those same elements, from the street, from the people. This is the base from which we expand, but we must start at the base in order to communicate our ideas.'
Upon successfully opening his studio, Hall went on to nurture his young company, the Joel Hall Dancers, and was supported in no small part by his partner at the time, Joseph Ehrenberg, whom he was with for 23 years. Ehrenberg managed the company and allowed Hall to grow as an artist. One might imagine that Hall began by taking Chicago audiences by storm, but his success as a dancemaker did not actually gain momentum until he took his company elsewhere.
Many of the company's early performances were in Europe. What started as an invitation to a dance festival in Glasgow called 'Mayfest' blossomed into a whirlwind European tour, an unexpected and unique opportunity for Hall and his dancers. The company garnered an array of critical praise in Europe, which Hall credits to the fact that European audiences had not been exposed to the Midwestern style of dance vernacular upon which he was expounding. That same praise led to a successful run in New York City where, again, audiences had experienced a New York style of jazz but not the Chicago style, which incorporated more soul, funk and street essence without compromising detail and technique. Eventually, the extensive touring took Hall away from his school for too long and he began to notice a decline in attendance. Hall decided to shift his attention to be more equally balanced between running the Joel Hall Dance Center and maintaining his performing company.
Since those early days of stabilizing his company and his studio, Hall has continued to perform in Chicago and throughout the world, expanding his school and always challenging himself as a teacher, mentor and artist. Hall's latest achievement, however, is not due to one particular act in the studio or on stage, but from the culmination of his work. Last August, Hall was awarded the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award from the Jazz Dance World Congress, an international organization that celebrates and supports the jazz genre. When he first found out that he was to receive the award, Hall said, 'I almost fainted. I was so delighted to be honored in that way, from that group, because it was an international decision from a global selection [ of artists ] . I'm so very appreciative to be noticed in that way.'
Looking ahead, Hall has found new inspiration in the act of collaborating with other artists. The Joel Hall Dancers will participate in a 'dance exchange' with the Detroit-based Eisenhower Dance Ensemble, joining the company for a performance in Detroit this fall and then hosting the company for a show in Chicago early next year.
Also, in February 2008 ( in connection with Black History Month ) , the company will remount the Nina Simone Suites, a series of dances celebrating the life and art of the late 'high priestess of soul.' The Nina Simone Suites was choreographed by Hall, along with his longtime friend and mentor, Paul Sanasardo, another dance legend. Hall described the process thusly: 'Paul said to me, 'Joel, I'm not a jazz choreographer.' And I said, 'I don't want you to do jazz, I want you to do what you do.' So Paul choreographed a more modern-oriented first half, and I choreographed a more modern jazz-oriented second half. I like the idea of collaborating with people because I learn so much from them and they learn so much from me. It's a mutual exchange.'
Hall also has plans to begin developing a new piece this fall that will debut sometime next year. So, like many artists who can never get enough of the creative process, the work goes on. Hall has been building a new relationship of nine years with his current partner, Craig Davis, who serves on the board of the Joel Hall Dancers. Hall is also preparing a long-term project to preserve the Joel Hall Dance Center as a source for dance education in Chicago's community, especially for people who would not ordinarily get the opportunity to dance. 'I'm examining how the center will look without me. That may be 20, 30, 40 or 60 years down the road,' Hall commented with a sly grin. Hall may have his eye on the future, as any intelligent artist and opportunity-seeker does, but he always stresses the importance of living in the moment, and for appreciating what one has today. That is certainly the key to understanding Hall's brilliance, good humor and incredible staying power.
For more about the Joel Hall Dance Center, see www.joelhall.org .