In the Shadow of Nina Simone (Reverb)
In the Shadow of Nina Simone (Reverb) Credit: Michelle Reid

In March 2020, the Joel Hall Dancers were preparing for a concert celebrating the work of cofounder and artistic director emeritus Joel Hall, with dances spanning each decade of his choreography, from the company’s origins in the 1970s to the present day. LEGACY: Phoenix^5 was originally intended to be a sequel to The Life and Legacy of Joel Hall—in the words of current artistic director Jacqueline Sinclair, “a glimpse into the future by those of us who are carrying the organization into the future.”

With works by Hall, Sinclair, assistant artistic director William Gill, Joel Hall Dance Youth Company codirector Van Collins, and Joel Hall Dancers and Center instructor Merrick Mitchell, the program features a spectrum of perspectives honed through years of dancing and teaching alongside Hall. “That’s where ‘phoenix to the fifth power’ comes in,” says Sinclair. “I’ve been with the organization for 30 years, and Merrick and Van were already both in the company when I was a baby coming in. William has also been with us for many years. It’s been decades of learning Joel Hall’s aesthetic.”

Continuity through change, migration, and the phoenix have been recurring themes for the Joel Hall Dancers ever since the company, founded as part of the Chicago City Theatre Company in 1974 by Hall and Joseph Ehrenberg, rebounded from the ashes of a 1993 fire that decimated their studio—and with it, their costumes and 20 years of archival material. Now the company prepares to move for a ninth and final time from its Edgewater studio, which it vacated during the pandemic, to the Hall, a new location in Albany Park with three state-of-the-art studios and a black box theater with support from the Reva and David Logan Foundation. “We have very magically found ourselves a new home,” says Sinclair. “We are moving into this new space that will house not only JHD but also will be embracing other arts organizations to reestablish a solid ecosystem for our city and its artists.”

The company’s The Life and Legacy of Joel Hall concert remains on hold for reasons attendant upon the conditions of the pandemic and the need for a stable studio space. “Some of those pieces had a cast of 15 people, and they would need to be in the studio taking classes in person together because Joel Hall’s style of jazz from 1970s to 80s to the 90s changed throughout the decades,” says Sinclair. “To get those fine nuances would be difficult in small pods.” Without an open studio of their own, when the company resumed rehearsing this March (“a year to the day” since their last rehearsal of 2020), dancers were organized into pods that rehearsed in studios around the city, including those of Black Ensemble Theater and the Hyde Park School of Dance

Originally intended as an online fundraiser for the new studio, “three days before the concert, we were told we didn’t have to do it for the cameras, and we could invite up to 500 people!” Sinclair says. “We knew that was not going to be a possibility in three days, but we were able to celebrate with over a hundred people in concert at the Logan Center for the Arts. It was the first in-person concert the Logan Center has had since the pandemic. It was a good way to come back.”

LEGACY: Phoenix^5, performed on Juneteenth, is a “healing-based program,” says Sinclair. “The pieces are geared around our ideas of what has happened throughout the pandemic, social unrest, a reflection of the year.” The works presented include pieces dating from the early 2000s, including Hall’s 2006 In the Shadow of Nina Simone (Reverb). Of her new work premiering in this program, Sinclair says, “Namo is a bow, a révérence, paying homage to the body which has carried our spirit.”

On the longevity of the Joel Hall Dance Company, Sinclair says, “Many people have thought jazz dance is time-stamped. But that’s simply not true through the Joel Hall lens. Joel Hall’s life is exactly the illustration of the staying power of jazz dance as an art form to be expressing decade after decade after decade. It’s not a dance craze from a specific decade, it’s a dance genre that has evolved. If people are not allowing the art form to evolve through the decades, it’s going to be fading away. But it’s really not different from how ballet has changed throughout the decades: the capacity, the technical ability have changed, but if you have a solid vocabulary, you still stick to the vocabulary but let it slightly evolve. One thing Joel Hall has done is create a codified technique for us to play with, explore, adhere to, deviate from—he’s created decades of choreography but also a technique, too. There will always be a school and a company, because the school is the training for the technical voice, the urban jazz voice, and then it leads into the choreography.” 

“Joel has identified jazz as a way to express how he walks through the world as a Black, gay man. We use that to translate the way in which we each walk through the world,” she says. “I started taking classes with Joel as a teenager—my first classes were in the 80s. When I found jazz, I found my home, my true calling. I would seek out all the classes Joel was teaching anywhere and moved to the city at 17 to pursue my career in dance. There was a sense it was a piece of me or a piece of home, there was something so familiar and comfortable about it that I knew it was my language. I knew that’s what I was going to do in perpetuity. It would always be with me. It was an absolute discovery of a kernel of self. I’ve been doing it ever since then. It sparked something so deep within me that it can never be erased.”

“Juneteenth is a time for us to celebrate liberation from old ideas. It’s time for us to find hope, healing, and new voices. I’m really hopeful that this concert and the Hall as a new home will provide a sanctuary for our dance community. We’re interested in collaborating with other organizations and artists in order to rebuild the ecosystem we have here. We’re extremely excited about that. If people are looking for a space to cultivate their artistry, our doors are open.”  v