Joel Hall Dancers

at the Merle Reskin Theatre, March 18-21

A couple of summers ago, while studying in Paris, I would occasionally go to dance parties with my European friends. These parties were always a drag: lots of cigarette smoke and hip-hop house music droning on too loud and too long. But the worst, the absolute worst, was the dancing. The music suggested big energy, and the crowd on the dance floor just shuffled along, barely picking up their feet. I’d watch them and shake my head, knowing that what they needed was a good dose of the Joel Hall Dancers, a hip, fast Chicago troupe that’s not afraid to pick up its feet.

“Street Life,” Hall’s concert at the Merle Reskin Theatre, melded jazz, classical, hip hop, and modern dance and added a bit of the Charleston, some soft-shoe, and an Irish jig. The result was an unabashedly American style, sometimes elegant, always passionate, and containing some of the fastest footwork this side of Moscow.

For this concert, Hall created new scenes and dialogue to unite five of his earlier dances focusing on life on the streets, highlighted by Sheryl Kosovski’s simple yet dramatic scenery. “Street Life” is American in content as well as style. Hall’s choreography evokes the gritty rawness of Chicago streets and the down-home spirituality of its African American churches. It seems to say, “For better and for worse, this is America.”

“Street Life” isn’t just about the homeless, it’s about survival. “I think there is ‘street’ in absolutely everyone,” Hall says in the current issue of StreetWise. “It’s a matter of being able to survive in any environment . . . be it in the streets, a university, a corporate environment and even, an artistic environment. All are related.” Hall received his baccalaureate in sociology from Northern Illinois University in 1972, and his social scientist’s perspective is evident in all his work. He doesn’t idealize his subject; he doesn’t worship his ideas.

He is, however, guilty of worshiping the dance. This works against him near the end of “Widows,” a pain-filled duet superbly performed by Tracey Hodgkin-Valcy and Ron Wilson to music by Miles Davis, Max Roach, and Abbey Lincoln. In “Widows,” a woman’s dead lover reappears and the two perform a dance of raw desire and domination. The duet is full of beautifully unusual lifts and turns, but ultimately Hall’s choreography disintegrates into dance for dance’s sake, greatly diminishing the impact of earlier moments. Likewise, “Now You See It, Now You Don’t” begins with a haunting, almost magical air, but then it seems Hall’s ideas run out before the music does. His message about the invisibility of the homeless disintegrates, again, into dance for dance’s sake, though the message crystallizes later as new characters and ideas are introduced.

The evening’s showstopper, “El Gato Negro,” is danced to the techno house music of CeCe Penniston, Zig Zag, and Nightmares on Wax–music that’s played in clubs worldwide. At first “El Gato Negro” feels like a highly organized version of club dancing. The dance builds to a frenzy, as Hall briefly introduces classical ballet, jazz, and modern movements performed at breakneck speed. Survival is what it’s all about, this piece seems to say: the faster we are, the longer we’ll live. The ensemble work in this dance, performed by the whole company, is truly awesome.

Hall ties the five dances together with a series of lively but harsh street scenes, each containing some powerful monologues about life on the bottom of the heap (scripted by Shabazz Perez and delivered by him, Herbert Allen, and Diana Campos). The evening ends on a hopeful note with a cathartic explosion of dance and gospel music led by the Reverend Calvin Bridges, with Donna Blakely, Audrey Ramey, and Patricia Yancey.