Joel Hall Dancers

at the University of Chicago Theater, December 7-11

Joel Hall might annoy a lot of balletomanes with his new, hip jazz version of The Nutcracker, set to Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. Even though Nuts & Bolts is a work in progress, it’s the most entertaining holiday dance going. It might be just the thing to compete with the Chicago Tribune Charities’ dance-recital version of The Nutcracker, which bores everybody but dance moms yet holds a virtual monopoly on the lucrative holiday dance season.

That doesn’t mean Hall can simply wiggle his hips and create a new holiday tradition. Nuts & Bolts has enormous potential: when grand old ballet shares the stage with cool modern jazz, just about anything can happen. Hall pokes fun at the contrasts, and the result was charming. (To the kid across the aisle–and kids are the ultimate arbiters of holiday dance specials–some movements were downright funny.) Throughout, the lead “ballerinas” wear purple and fuchsia tutus and Walkman headphones. In one movement the whole troupe jitterbug; in another they bop about in the same way the gang gets down in the party scene from A Charlie Brown Christmas. Perhaps the most entertaining was “Chinois Chocolat,” a goofy parody of ballet’s sensuous pas de deux (danced by Angel Abcede and Vanessa Truvillion) complete with kid-approved butt jokes.

But while Nuts & Bolts seems fresh on a first viewing, it might easily feel even more dated than the century-old Nutcracker. This is an inherent problem with jazz dance, which is often no more than glorified street or club dancing, in which coolness comes and goes with the wind. A dance choreographed for the stage must have emotional depth, not just a hip veneer, or it too will be gone with the wind.

Nuts & Bolts shared the bill with two earlier pieces. And while Nuts & Bolts was genuinely fresh and lively, El Gato Negro and Phoenix came off as hollow and passe, even though they’re relatively new pieces. When I first saw El Gato Negro two years ago, the dancers were like cool cats strutting down the street. They wore black fedoras with bright white bands, black pants, and black collared shirts, and their angular movements seemed both tough and gentle, as if to say, “If you mess with me, I’ll mess with you. If you don’t mess with me, have a nice day.” In this performance, however, El Gato Negro had no edge whatsoever.

Hall has latched onto a few favorite movements and uses them, with only slight variations, in all his dances. In themselves they’re fine, but we see them so often their impact is diminished. His dancers frequently kick above their heads, slide into the splits, or stand on one leg while holding the other straight above their heads. They undulate their torsos so often that I was tempted to call this concert “101 Ways to Undulate.” In fact the troupe seems obsessed with flexibility at the expense of balance and strength. Maybe it’s because the University of Illinois at Chicago Theater is a more intimate space than the last place I saw Joel Hall, but all I noticed in El Gato Negro and Phoenix were wobbly arabesques and wimpy leaps. And when dancers don’t put strength and energy into each movement, the dance becomes flaccid, losing the ability to convey any sort of emotion or idea.

This was most evident in Phoenix, which Hall choreographed last year after a fire destroyed the company studio and school. His intention may have been to express how he dealt with the destruction of the home it took years to build, but whatever he intended didn’t come through. At best Phoenix is a gentle, spiritual dance; at worst it’s a shapeless blob, with one meaningless solo after another.

What’s odd is that Hall’s strong spirit is evident in everything else he does. It shows in his warm smile and his glowing cheeks. It shows in the response his students have to his teaching, and in the community that’s built up around his school. It’s possible that Phoenix suffered because Hall was busy keeping this community together after the fire. Let’s hope that, now that the tragedy has passed, Hall can hold onto that spirit and get down to the nuts and bolts of good choreography.