Arthur L. Hall, was a genius, a giant of a man, a pioneering dancer and choreographer, an integrator of diverse art forms, a master teacher, a great humanitarian, a spiritual adept who attained the rank of Priest and King, and an international leader of the Afro-American cultural renaissance, a citizen of the world, and he had an easy laugh and a rich sense of humor. He was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 18, 1934, and he passed away on July 6, 2000, in Camden, Maine. His legacy lives on in the lives and in the continuing work of his thousands of students, in the alumni of the Arthur Hall Afro-American Dance Ensemble, and in the hearts of all who knew him.
The Early Years
Arthur Hall was the only son of young Ms. Sally Yancey Hall. His father was Joshua Milton, a young man who appreciated the jazz and blues of depression era Beale Street. Arthur was raised by his grandmother, Ms. Emma Yancey. Ms. Sally, as part of the great migration north, moved to Washington, DC, during the early years of WWII, leaving young Arthur behind in the care of his grandmother. In his autobiography, Arthur writes of growing up poor. He lived in a wooden tenement without electricity or plumbing. His grandmother's life and household were not free of discord, and Arthur found freedom in his inner life. He thrilled to the the music of Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday. He was a reader and deeply spiritual. He found joy in watching movies, especially musicals, and was thrilled by the spectacular lightning, costumes, props, and theatrical designs. He forgot nothing and visualized a day when he would recreate such grand works, when he would tell meaningful stories that would appeal to people like him, stories that soon involved African Gods and Kings.
Arthur tells of walking down Beale Street to lie on the banks of the Mississippi to read or to study a map of the United States. He thought the country looked like a cow whose head was Maine. In his mind, Maine became a magical space that was as far away from Memphis as he could imagine. In this way, the dreams and visions of the young Arthur established the template of a life that was to be fulfilled by his blossoming artistic genius.
At nine, Arthur travelled alone by train to join his mother in Washington, DC. There he gained greater access to the arts than he had known in Tennessee. During the war, Ms. Sally married Mr. Hall, and Arthur Milton became Arthur Hall. Ms. Sally encouraged Arthur's pursuit of the arts, and on July 28, 1950, at the age of 16, Arthur Hall made his stage debut in the chorus of The National Negro Opera Company's production of Robert Nathaniel Dett's The Ordering of Moses at Griffith Stadium in Washington. He said the opera was notable for its "sledgehammer sociology."
When Arthur was 17, the family moved to Philadelphia. He studied ballet with Marion Cuyjet and modern dance with Joe Nash and John Hines, among others. He worked with Sydney King to stage the annual cotillions for the debutants of Black Philadelphia, which is where he learned to compose a whole evening's entertainment. He found early inspiration for the high standards of costume design in the work of Katherine Dunham, Josephine Baker, and Uday Shankar of India. Especially influential was his close association with the Ghanaian artist, Olympic athlete, and cultural ambassador F. Saka Acquaye, who was studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Saka Acquaye was a pioneer in his own right, infusing West African art forms into United States culture. He formed the West African Cultural Society, with Bobby Crowder on drums, Ione Nash and Arthur Hall as principal dancers, among others. In the early 1950s, Saka Acquaye saw that many African Americans had no knowledge of African culture, and he dedicated himself to introducing them to authentic African art forms. Arthur Hall was an adept student, he had a genius for adapting traditional forms for the modern stage and the classroom, and he carried what he learned from Saka Acquaye with him for the rest of his life.
"I studied with him three years, and during this time I decided to dedicate myself to keeping this lore in America. After all, there are 20 million black people here, and I think we must know something of our culture. Our people are not aware of their culture and heritage. I saw in the dances a chance to bring grandeur back into Blackness." (Daniel Webster, Philadelphia Inquirer, 1968)
From 1952 to 1953 Arthur was also a part of Saka Acquaye's Black Beats Band and from 1954 to 1958 in Saka Acquaye's African Ensemble in America. From 1955 to 1957, Arthur was in the United States Army Special Services. He used the African dances he has learned from Saka Aquaye as part of variety shows put on with an integrated cast on army bases and in Heidelberg's beer halls, much to the amusement of soldiers and German civiliams alike. Also in Special Services was the Argentine filmmaker Jorge Preloran. They worked together to produce The Unvictorious One, which was not completed because of Jorge Preloran's homophobia. Preloran went on to teach filmmaking at U.C.L.A., and as he prepared his life's work for deposit at the Smithsonian, he apologized to Arthur for his youthful intolerance.
Also while in the army, Arthur developed skills as a photographer. He opened a photography studio when he returned to Philadelphia, and for at least one Easter Sunday he had people in their finery lined up around the block. Photography, however, is a hard way to make a living, and he was soon back to working in a button factory. Nevertheless, he kept true to his vision and despite poverty and discrimination, he provided seminal leadership in the birth of the Blacks Arts movement in Philadelphia. Eventually, his influence reached far beyond Philadelphia, allowing Arthur to change the world, as he himself asserted in an interview:
"We have changed the world through our music and dance. There is no place you go without listening to Black music. There is no place now where you go and people are not dancing like Black people. We have touched the heart of the world. I call this the quiet revolution. We have changed the world, and we didn't use a gun.
(Enimil Ashon, The Weekly Spectator, Accra, Ghana, 1/12/91)
How did Arthur accomplish this quiet revolution? With visions and dreams of creations waiting to come to life under his artistic direction, with dedication and perseverance, Arthur changed the world. These vital elements are reflected in thirty years of artistic leadership from his home base of Philadelphia, and another ten plus years spent spurring the development of the arts in his birth place of Memphis, Tennessee, and in diverse other places such as Arizona, New Mexico, New Hampshire, and Maine.
The Birth of Afro-American Dance
The "quiet revolution" Arthur describes continued in 1958. Arthur Hall served as a director and choreographer for the Sidney King Dance Theater. 1958 launched the pioneering work of not only Arthur Hall, but also of Martha Graham on Broadway, the modern dance of Alvin Ailey, and the angry political dance of Eleo Pomare. Each of these giants established their own dance companies at the same time. These are the seeds of a major dance, art, and cultural renaissance in America. As an artistic director, Arthur played his part in the quiet revolution and cultural renaissance by first presenting African Sketches, largely reflecting what he had learned from Saka Acquaye. Arthur had an profound memory for diverse art forms. People called him a walking encyclopedia. He could remember all of the dances and stories taught to him by Saka Acquaye and that he had seen on stage and in movies. Yet Arthur's choreography was original. He could combine traditional with modern with ballet with dramatic, always true to the spirit of the original. Because of this, Arthur's work represented a link between two cultures - the Africans who were taken away from their tradition and the Africans who still had it.
Joan Kerr of the Joan Kerr Dancers encouraged Arthur to do for African dance what she was doing for Yiddish dance. Recognizing that he was pioneering original dance forms, Arthur formed his own company from the Sidney King Dancers, some of whom - Elizabeth Roberts and Charles Edward White - continued to perform with Arthur for the rest of their lives. The Sydney King Dancers under the direction of Arthur Hall rapidly evolved into the Arthur Hall Dancers and eventually into the Afro-American Dance Ensemble.
Blessed with a mother who dearly loved her son and encouraged his vision, Ms. Sally's house on Sydenham Street near Susquehanna Avenue in Philadelphia became the headquarters for the Dance Company for several years. From 1958 to 1969 Arthur worked in a button factory, forcing him to choreograph, rehearse, and direct performances evenings and weekends. Other dance troupe members similarly worked full-time, as they dreamed the kind of visions that only dance companies with generous financial backing dared to project into the future. Nonetheless, Arthur dedicated himself to combining all the ingredients for success, as he designed and made costumes, found dancers and musicians, and provided the kind of nurturing and charismatic leadership essential to creation of a repertory group bound by a family type love and esprit de corps.
Arthur's dreams and visions were destined to come to life. Other key ingredients to this process included Arthur's dance education. Arthur acknowledged his dance education as including study with a host of other mentors: John Hines of the John Hines School of Dance in Philadelphia; Marion Cuyjet of the Judimar School of Dance in Philadelphia; Melvina Taze of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia; Sylvilla Fort of the Katherine Dunham School of Dance in New York City; Joseph Nash of New York City and Philadelphia; Leigh Parham of New York; Walter Nicks of New York; John Kow Mensah Eshun of Ghana; Obediah Craig of Nigeria; Lavinia Williams of Haiti; Percival Borde of New York; and, exposure to various teachers at the University of Ife in Nigeria.
Benefiting from all that his mentors could provide through dance education, Arthur Hall's own genius, zest for life, and loving charismatic leadership style allowed him to attain to the rank of Master Teacher as he mentored members of his own dance troupe with a tireless drive. Through his Arthur Hall Afro-American Dance Ensemble, he trained several generations of dance leaders, numbering in the thousands in Philadelphia, all over the country, and around the globe. The next 30 years saw the Arthur Hall Afro-American Dance Ensemble blossom into a national and international treasure chest, being sprung from the bosom of his mother's house in Philadelphia.
Arthur's fulfillment of his vision and the success of the quiet revolution were guided by a philosophy he shared with his students. Arthur believed that the term "Afro-American" made a strong cultural statement that African Americans had a unique contribution of art to give to the world. Arthur was not implying that the dancers were not African American or descendants of Africans. Instead, he chose to emphasize how "Afro-American" meant that the descendants who were taken away from Africa were able to create a unique identity through the various cultural expressions. This is why Arthur retained the name Arthur Hall Afro-American Dance Ensemble over the decades. He thought it was important that members of his dance company learned the African traditional dance and music, and then follow his direction in fusing it with their own experience to create something through which the troupe could make a unique artistic contribution as African Americans.
This creative fusion was one of the most important things Arthur Hall contributed through his artistic genius. Even when Arthur learned the African traditional dance, he would choreograph it in such a way that the final product was truly spectacular and uniquely his own. As confirmation of his genius in creating something new, as a pioneer in his own right, the Africans witnessing his creations would love it. Arthur's dance and choreography constituted an expanded embellished creation with African roots that reflected his unique genius.
Audiences experienced his creations as transforming, as they felt deeply touched, emotionally moved, and were left feeling joyful, spiritually uplifted and transformed through the universal language of dance and music. Audiences seemingly expressed relief that the creative genius inside African descendants was alive and well, despite slavery and oppression, and was capable of finding expression in unique art forms. Sometimes the standing ovations would last for five minutes with people hooting and stomping their feet until the troupe returned. And Arthur always had more to give them. His work mesmerized audiences that were hungry for and grateful to be witnessing Arthur's innovative creations. As a truly gifted dancer and choreographer, Arthur's productions and performances not only integrated traditional and contemporary African, as well as African American dance forms, but also modern American and American jazz presentations.
The Arthur Hall Afro-American Dance Ensemble gained regional and national recognition through performances at numerous noteworthy locations: The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia Academy of Music, Town Hall of Philadelphia, The Art Institute of Chicago, Kennedy Center of the Performing Arts, Smithsonian Discovery Theater, City Center, Lincoln Center of New York, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Wolf Trap, Jacob's Pillow, Constitution Hall, South Korea Culture Center, Lincoln University, Howard University, Hunter College, Purdue University, Dartmouth College, and Hopkins Center.
His major choreography included Obatala which came to Arthur in a dream and was performed originally as his own dance solo in 1958, evolving over the years into one of his finest major productions. Obatala became known as the signature dance of the Arthur Hall Afro-American Dance Ensemble. On December 12, 1973, Obatala was performed with the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra at the Academy of Music. Obatala's origin in a dream forebode Arthur's career-long spiritual service as one destined to bring forth art forms capable of changing a world through quiet revolution and cultural renaissance, for Obatala represents that divinity of created forms, the patron saint of artists, the patron of all created form, the King whose every day becomes a feast, and who as the Lord of the White Cloth is one of the principal orisha of the Yoruba people of Nigeria. To the Yoruba, Obatala is the embodiment of the Creative Spirit and represents cosmic consciousness and the manifestation of purity and righteousness.
In Arthur Hall's production of Obatala, this King teaches his children the lessons of compassion, patience and love, approaching each child to answer their requests. The powerful symbolism in Obatala standing as one of his greatest creations and reflecting the purity of his artistic genius rests in the reality of how Arthur served as Master Teacher who loved his students as children to whom he gave the wisdom of dance and music. As King of his domain, Arthur gave all of his students of dance and music gifts that they could cherish for the rest of their lives, answering the unspoken and spoken requests of students' innermost soul to learn the universal language of dance and music. All were spiritually transformed in the process.
Other major choreography includes the following rich legacy of productions: African Sketches (1958); Bechlch (1967) at the Theater of the Living Arts, in collaboration with Rochel Owens, Andre Gregory, and Teji Ito; Africa's Children (1968); Orpheus (1973); A City Called Heaven (1975); Aida (1976) with the National Negro Opera Company at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia; Fat Tuesday and All that Jazz (1977) performed with Preservation Hall; Eulogy for John Coltrane (1978) at Dartmouth College; The Golden Stool (1980) at Dartmouth College; We Have Stories to Tell of Africa (1985) with the Theater Caravan at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia; What's Going On (1986) inspired by the Music of Marvin Gaye; Oba Koso (1987) by Duro Ladipo; Water Spirit Festival (1989); Tickle the Rain (1989) at the Blues City Cultural Arts Center in Memphis, Tennessee; Paul Robeson: All American (1989) at the Blues City Cultural Arts Center in Memphis, Tennessee; Harambee (1989) with the Bomas of Kenya for the City of Memphis, Tennessee; Ahimsa: Nonviolence (1991) in New Hampshire; and Requiem (1995) at the Camden Opera House in Camden, Maine - a celebration of the life and spirit of Adam Smith who died in an automobile accident and toured the country as a principal drummer for Arthur Hall.
The leadership and vision of Arthur Hall went beyond all that his Arthur Hall Afro-American Dance Ensemble accomplished through his innovative choreography and grand artistic direction. As early as 1967, Arthur's destined expansion on the cultural arts scene of Philadelphia became apparent when he began to hold dance classes at the Lee Cultural Center, a city Recreation Department center at 44th and Haverford Avenue, which offered Arthur space for a rehearsal hall. Father Paul Washington, rector of the Church of the Advocate, also provided rehearsal space at times during that period.
The Ile Ife Period and Cultural Renaissance
In 1969, working with the First Pennsylvania Bank and the Philadelphia National Bank, Arthur established the Ile Ife Black Humanitarian Center in North Philadelphia on Germantown Avenue. Ile Ife, or "House of Love" in Yoruba, was the first community arts center in America to be established by a dance company. The Ile Ife Museum was established in 1972, showcasing African art of the Diaspora. Arthur Hall became director of the Philadelphia Model Cities Cultural Arts Program (1970-1974), allowing several troupe members to also find employment and steady income. The Ile Ife Black Humanitarian Center flourished under Model Cities Program funding from 1969 to 1975, being impacted by government discontinuation of such funding in the mid-1970s. However, the late 1960s started a long period of grand success flowing from the foundation of Ile Ife, as the range of tours expanded, wide acclaim was attained, and the elite status of the Afro-American Dance Ensemble established.
Through the Ile Ife Center, the African identity resurfaced and came to life. Some of the world's most renowned Black performing and visual artists either visited, taught, or performed there, and it became the Mecca for Black dance. It also became the Mecca for Africans traveling to the United States. In many respects and for many reasons, Ile Ife was known as the place "where the world began."
Many art expressions were premiered at the Ile Ife Center, including African cultural parades and creations brought forth from coalitions of African and Latino artists working artistically together. Brazilian artists came to teach and share their traditions, as did artists from Liberia, Sierra Leone, Haiti, Nigeria, Ghana, Cuba, literally drawing those from all over the Diaspora. The result was community folk as well as artists having exposure to and interaction with the world's brightest and most talented creators of dance forms, producing a sense of common connection to Africa, thereby empowering and enlightening those so exposed to the cultural renaissance. All emerged with a greater sense of respect for themselves, others throughout the Diaspora, and for the resilience and continuity of African art forms, despite the separation and ravages of slavery.
Arthur, as a pioneer in this quiet revolution and cultural renaissance who created this Mecca at Ile Ife, was, indeed, the catalyst for this international resurrection and reaffirmation of a common African identity. Arthur Hall and his dance troupe were being used by Divine Forces to contribute to the evolutionary process and expansion in consciousness of the regional, national, and international community by way of the arts, African culture, and collective culture of the Diaspora. While any who dropped by Ile Ife might simply encounter Arthur staying up all night sewing costumes, listening to jazz music during the day, having a good time, there was much more going on than simply a gathering of fascinated young people happy to be doing what they were doing. Arthur Hall's Afro-American Dance Ensemble members were, perhaps without truly realizing it, participants in an opportunity of a lifetime. Through Ile Ife and the dance troupe, Arthur and his students were able to accomplish things that would shape the future of the cultural arts in general, and future of African Americans in the arts, in particular--doing so without guns through quiet revolution at their headquarters in North Philadelphia.
During this period of great success at the home base of Ile Ife, meaningful ties to the community were forged, as well as deep roots in the schools established through workshops, performances, and residencies in schools and communities. As the Philadelphia Public School system sought to deliver a curriculum to meet the needs of Afro-American students at the time, Arthur Hall and members of his troupe were engaged to deliver school assembly programs, expanding to school residencies that lasted for weeks. Arthur began service as a movement specialist for the National Endowment of the Arts in 1971, promoting the historic, pioneering integration of dance into schools, and his active travel schedule took him around the country and the world. His association with Maine also began at this time, and he met the monumental task by engaging in frequent lifetime travel to schools across the country, as he returned year after year to conduct one or two week residencies in hundreds of schools. Eventually, the Mesa Public Schools in Arizona engaged him in February residencies for over fifteen years, while New Hampshire and Maine claimed his spare months in the fall and spring semesters. He began as an Artist-in-Residence in the Friends School in Philadelphia through the Young Audiences program of Eastern Pennsylvania.
During the 1970s and 1980s, a period of high success at Ile Ife, his noble career as an educator also included varied other cultural, college-level, and international settings. Arthur taught and performed in association with the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago. Arthur's service as an educator included being a faculty member of the American Dance Festival,which sent him abroad on several international tours. Arthur conducted Master Classes for Teachers and for the national dance companies of Ghana, Zaire, and Mozambique, including classes for the Muntu Dance Theater of Chicago and dancers in Haiti, Brazil, Kenya, Ireland, and South Korea.
Other teaching service included the Bates Dance Festival and Vermont Governor's Institute for the Arts. His academic career included service to colleges such as Dartmouth College, again finding great success in teaching dance and acclaim for his productions Eulogy for John Coltrane (1978) and The Golden Stool (1980). In addition, Arthur provided leadership as Director of the Department of Dance at the Philadelphia Community College for many years.
The Arthur Hall Afro-American Dance Ensemble also became international ambassadors of dance in the 1970s, initiating tours abroad as a result of their elite status. The troupe's first tour took 18 dancers to Ghana, Togo, and Nigeria in West Africa in 1974. In Ghana, the High Priestess and President of the Ghana Psychic and Traditional Healers Association, Nana Okomfohene Akua Oparebea invited the troupe to perform at her compound in Larteh, Ghana. Arthur's association with Nana Okomfohene Akua Oparebea resulted in her initiating him into the Akan priesthood in 1974. He received the name Nana Kwabena Affoh and the title Asonahene, or King - the one responsible for upholding the Asona and Aberade royal family traditions some centuries old.
This destined connection allowed Nana Okomfohene Akua Oparebea to fulfill a mission that had come to her early in life through a powerful vision. She knew she had children in America and wanted to reconnect with her lost family who had been taken from Africa, died in the Middle Passage, and suffered through slavery, but now lived in the United States in places such as Philadelphia. Nana Kwabena Affoh and his mother hosted Nana Okomfohene Akua Oparebea's first historic trip to Philadelphia, serving as vital links in the fulfillment of her mission. As Nana Kwabene Affoh and the Asonahene, Arthur served as the chief priest of the Asona Aberade Shrine that Nana Okomfohene Akua Oparebea established in North Philadelphia - the first officially recognized African shrine in the United States. Arthur's mother Sally Hall was also initiated as Queen Mother of the shrine.
Arthur's spiritual and artistic endeavors led to many more trips to Ghana, including the 1985 American Dance Festival residency. Other international tours included Dahomey, the Virgin Islands, Trinidad, Jamaica, Haiti, Nigeria, Brazil, Zaire, Mozambique, Kenya, Senegal, and South Korea.
The 1980s also saw Arthur deepen his roots in Maine, while he continued to work out of Ile Ife in Philadelphia. In 1981 he founded and was the artistic director of the People to People Dance Company of Camden, Maine, a company that survives to this day. The years 1980, 1985, 1986, and 1987 brought the debut of new productions, despite increasingly hard times in the late 1980s. Dancers had grown accustomed to lack of income and engagements in December and summer months, facing the harsh reality that our society fails to adequately support the arts. Without adequate funding and support of his troupe, as well as the nation-wide impact of Reagan-era policies that hit inner-city communities in places such as Philadelphia particularly hard, spurring dance troupe members to contemplate their own financial survival and cope with hard times, Arthur Hall left Philadelphia at the end of 1988. His Ile Ife Center on Germantown Avenue was left behind, closing a grand era.
* Continued *
The Post Ile Ife Era Beyond Philadelphia