The desecrated cow town that pushed its charred carcass toward the water and created one of the world's most glittering lakefronts has always been a city populated by scrappersand Joel Hall is no exception. Stepping down this summer after more than 40 years at the head of his eponymous dance company, Hall has forged his legacy the Chicago way: Using the raw materials at hand and telling his own stories his own way.
Hall announced his retirement as artistic director and head choreographer from the dance company that shares his name earlier this summer. The news marked the end of an era for Chicago dance.
Young, Black, gay and gifted
Hall's legacy is undisputed: Joel Hall Dancersincluding a school company, a pre-professional company, and the professional companyhas debuted more than 70 new works and collaborations over the years including such memorable pieces as Night Walker," "El Gato Negro" and "Y2Day."
Joseph "Joel" Hall grew up Black, gay, and uneasy in a working-class neighborhood in the 1960s, a whisper away from the Cabrini Green housing project. But a passion for danceintensified by a four-year stint as a detainee of the Illinois Youth Commission so he could, "learn not to be a homosexual," set him on an artistic trajectory that spanned five decades.
In his groundbreaking work as a choreographer and a performer, Hall proved that there was ( and is ) a place for a style of jazz dancing that didn't deny its ethnic or social roots.
This is how we communicate'
"In Africa dance has a functional role in death, birth, marriage, harvesting, in all those natural things that happen," Hall said in a lengthy interview with the Windy City Times. "( S )o it was very natural for me to do 'street dance' because that was very much a part of my culture," Hall said. Hall used his culture to reshape dance culture, creating a method of jazz dance that mixes in elements of ballet, jazz, modern, funk and "street."
"Street dance refers to the dance of the people," said Jacqueline Sinclair, Hall's long-time collaborator and the newly anointed artistic director of the company ( see related story. ) "It is our way of saying vernacular dance, but with our context added to it. This is how we communicate together in the world and then we add this to the stage."
Intersecting activism and art
Hall, 69, began his training in classical dance in Chicago in 1968, before moving to New York in 1969 for a stint in the trail-blazing modern dance world of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
Collective wisdom has it that no matter how great your talent and technique, you can't truly create as an artist until you've endured something truly momentous. Hall found his momentum in New York City, a bonfire of activism as the LGBTQ community began to organize and demand its agency. When he wasn't dancing, Hall worked with the Lower East Side's Fire House, a community center for gays and lesbians.
When returned to Chicago, his dance bag was brimming with stories to tell. He quickly found the intersection between dance and activism. Throughout his career, Hall has spoken about combining the two, and using his art as a means to address social justice issues.
Founded as the dance arm of the Chicago City Theatre company in 1974, the Joel Hall Dancers quickly gained a foothold in both Chicago and New York. During the 1980s and '90s, the troupe concertized extensively throughout Europe.
"We were the premiere company coming out of Chicago that was able to do this, so every year we would have one or two seasons in Europe," said Hall. "I was able to take young dancers who never thought they would be able to travel outside the United States or travel outside of Chicago really, to places in the world that were very different, culturally. It was a wonderful experience to be very much accepted by those communities."
Trials by fire
It was an experience that Hall couldn't have imagined when he was locked up at 14 by a judge determined to "correct" his homosexuality. Hall remained in juvenile detention at the hands of the Illinois Youth Commission for four years, after numerous attempts to run away from home. Predictably, the imprisonment had no impact on his sexual orientation. Hall came out at 17.
Keeping Joel Hall Dancers thriving wasn't always easy. The company's studio was struck by lightning in 1993. A jazz class fled the building before it burned to the ground, taking all the company's props, scenery, costumes office equipment with it.
"The lightning struck down the chimney and ignited basement photography darkroom and its contents. The studio, above the darkroom, was a wooden loft with heavy beams and it went up fast," Sinclair said.
"It happened in the middle of Joel's 6:30 p.m. pro level jazz class. Everyone ran from the studio, grabbing Civic ( our studio cat ) and stood in the rain.
"The storm scared Civic and he ran back in the studio. That day we lost Civic and all the contents of the studio including costumes, props, music and office equipment," Sinclair said.
Undaunted, Hall debuted his ballet Nuts & Bolts in 1994, which quickly became a holiday staple in Chicago, and is coming back into the company's repertoire this year.
Ensuring the legacy
In true Chicago style, the company remains vibrant, safely housed at 5965 N. Clark St., for now. Sinclair is pounding the pavement, searching for what will be the company's next ( and hopefully forever ) home.
Meanwhile, Hall isn't slowing down. He's diversifying. "I'm planning to do more and not less, but I'm planning to do it in a different way and I have to have someone ( Sinclair ) to step in that I trust to be able to do that," he said.
With Sinclair at his side, Hall has already begun the work of codifying his signature method, from the building blocks of the vocabulary to a technique that can be taught in certification programs that will give it continuance.
And he's only just begun to teach; He's writing a book. As a survivor of a generation of artists wiped out by AIDS, Joel Hall is uniquely poised to write one of the history books to which the youngest generation so desperately needs access, before the fiery backlash against our newly attained rights and privileges engulfs us all.
For more information about the Joel Hall Dancers, go to JoelHall.org .