Hall, Arthur 1934–2000
Arthur Hall 1934–2000
Choreographer Arthur Hall was the founder of the Afro-American Dance Ensemble Hall. He possessed an artistic vision that was a combination of traditional African dances and modern dance. What he lacked was the superhuman business acumen required to manage a dance company with the kind of reach his had; forcing him to eventually leave the troupe and venture in new directions. After 30 years with his own company in Philadelphia, Hall restarted in Camden, Maine, where he was artistic director of his own Ile Ife Films and the Arthur Hall Collection and International Dance Center until his death in 2000.
Arthur L. Hall was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 18, 1934. He was the son of Sally Yancey and Joshua Milton, but was raised by his mother and maternal grandmother, Emma Yancey. He took the surname Hall when his mother was remarried to a man named Patrick Hall. At the age of 16, he made his dancing debut as a chorus member of the National Negro Opera Company’s production of The Ordering of Moses.
Hall moved with his family to Philadelphia in 1951. At the age of 17, wrote Rusty Pray in the Philadelphia Inquirer, “Hall was a prodigy with a ton of talent and a grand vision.” He studied there under several well-known teachers, including Joe Nash, John Hines, and Marion Cuyjet. He studied in New York City with Syvilla Fort, Leigh Parham, Walter Nicks, and Percival Borde. He also studied in Haiti with Lavinia Williams. Hall cited F. Saka Acquaye as the most influential person in his dance career, however. Acquaye was from Ghana, and was an artist, Olympic athlete, and cultural minister who encouraged Hall’s interest in African dance, stories, and culture. In 1953, with drummer Bobby Crowder and long-time dance partner lone Nash, Hall was a principal dancer in the West African Cultural Society, which was founded by Acquaye. The group was integral to the introduction of West African art and culture to American popular culture.
Hall went on to grace the stages of Lincoln Center in New York City, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and the Academy of Music and the Art Museum in Philadelphia. In 1955 Hall became a member of the U.S. Army, Special Services, and was stationed in Germany. There, he became an excellent photographer, and opened a photography studio upon his return to Philadelphia in 1958.
In 1958 Hall was also working as director of the Sidney King Dance Theater, and choreographed African Sketches, which was based on what he had learned from Acquaye. This group evolved into Hall’s Afro-American Dance Ensemble, one of the first dance companies devoted to African dance forms. Hall resided at the dance company’s headquarters, which also served as a cultural center, called the Ile Ife Center for the Arts and Humanities. “Ile Ife” is a Yoruban term for “house of love.” Hall presented workshops in dance, theater, and the visual arts, all of which were backed by federal grants. In 1974 he and his troupe traveled to Ghana and Nigeria for the United States Information Agency. Hall studied with John Kow Mensah Eshun in Ghana, and in Nigeria with Obediah Craig and at the University of Nigeria.
Born on April 18, 1934, in Memphis, TN; died on July 6, 2000 in Camden, ME; son of Sally Yancey and Joshua Milton. Military Service: US Army, Special Services, 1955-58.
Career: Afro-American Dance Ensemble, founder and director, 1958-88; Ile Ife Center, founder and director, 1969-88; Ile Ife Museum, founder and curator, 1972-00; Vermont Governor’s Institute for the Arts, Dartmouth College, faculty member; 1977-80; Sydney King School of Dance, faculty member, 1980s-90s; People to People Dance Company, founder and director, 1981-00; Ile Ife Films, artistic director, 1994-00; Arthur Hall Collection and International Dance Center, artistic director, 1995-00.
Selected memberships: Model Cities Cultural Arts Program of Philadelphia, director; National Endowment for the Arts, panel member, 1971-00; World Affairs Council; Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance; American Dance Guild.
Selected awards: National Endowment for the Arts, Choreographers Award, 1971; United Nations Award of the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia, 1973; City of Philadelphia, Human Rights Award, 1975; Mayor of Memphis, Award for Artistic Achievement, 1977; Mayor’s Award of Portsmouth, NH for Ahminsa; Nonviolence, 1991; Arthur Hall Appreciation Day by Proclamation of the City of Philadelphia and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 1993; For Excellence in Arts Education from the Governor of New Hampshire, 1997.
Hall’s major works include his direction of the ballet Orpheus, A City Called Heaven, Aida, Fat Tuesday & All That Jazz, and Eulogy for John Coltrane, which was staged at Dartmouth College, where he was an adjunct professor. He also choreographed What’s Going On, a ballet set to the music of Marvin Gaye. He was a master dance instructor who taught at Philadelphia Community College, and was a visiting teacher and artist in residence at dance studios and public schools in Africa, across the United States, and in Ireland throughout his career. He led dance classes for professional dancers, beginners, and held therapy classes for the physically and mentally disabled.
When he left Philadelphia in 1988, however, Hall was “baffled, bitter, and broke,” according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. He owed back taxes to the city; his home was boarded up; and his collection of African sculpture had been looted. The troupe continued to perform regionally without him, under the name Asapho African-American Dance Ensemble, but ceased activity in November of 1999.
Hall’s biggest downfall in Philadelphia was what he considered to be one of the most artistically important ventures of his career. His 1987 production of Oba Koso, a classic Nigerian folk opera, played to an empty Philadelphia theater in 1987 and left the company more than $20,000 in debt. In 1988 Hall boarded a bus and moved to his mother’s home in Memphis. He left Philadelphia “for my own sanity,” he said in a 1989 interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer. “I had to get away. There were a myriad of problems I couldn’t handle any more .You’d think that after 30 years some of my problems would have gotten solved, but it just got worse. It got to the point where I didn’t have support from either the community or my company. It became less and less fun.” The year after he left Philadelphia, Hall told the Inquirer that he was “trying not to think about Philadelphia. There are terrible scars.”
Hall had started doing winter artist-in-school residencies in New England in 1977 and he continued wintering in New England as he danced, taught, and choreographed in Memphis. When his mother died in 1995, Hall moved permanently to Camden, Maine, where he had established the People-to-People Dance Company in 1981. While there, Hall won the Mayor’s Award of Portsmouth, New Hampshire for Ahminsa: Nonviolence. The production was a modern ballet which explored the lives of Martin Luther King and Ghandi. He also founded his own production company, Ile Ife Films, and served as director for the Arthur Hall Collection and International Dance Center.
Hall was diagnosed with colon cancer in March of 2000. He underwent chemotherapy treatment for the disease, but died on July 6, 2000. He was survived by one uncle and three aunts. “He truly was a humanitarian,” one company member told the Bangor Daily News. “He gathered everyone in the name of dance, but he did it in a way that was fair. It didn’t matter what level you were on, he wanted to see you out there in movement.”
African Sketches, 1958.
Africa’s Children, 1968.
A City Called Heaven, 1975.
Fat Tuesday & All That Jazz, 1977.
Eulogy for John Coltrane, 1978.
The Golden Stool, 1980.
We Have Stories to Tell of Africa, 1985.
What’s Going On, 1986.
Oba Koso, 1987.
Paul Robeson: All American, 1989.
Tickle the Rain, 1989.
Water Spirit Festival, 1989.
Ahminsa: Nonviolence, 1991.
Once on This Island, 1998.
Bangor Daily News (Bangor, Maine), July 13, 2000, p. C1.
Philadelphia Inquirer, July 15, 2000, p. C8.
“Ile Ife: The Arthur Hall Collection,” www.columbia.edu/jwl57/ileife (March 19, 2003).
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