Saturday, July 15, 2000
ARTHUR L. HALL, 66, INSPIRATIONAL TEACHER OF AFRICAN DANCE, CULTURE
By Rusty Pray
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
Arthur L. Hall was one of the first Americans to found a dance company devoted to African dance forms.
Arthur L. Hall, 66, a dancer, choreographer and teacher who was responsible for raising public consciousness of African dance and culture in Philadelphia, died July 6 of colon cancer at the Camden Health Care Center in Camden, Maine. Mr. Hall, who was diagnosed with the disease in March, had been living in Maine since 1995.
He was "an inspirational man," said Patrice Janssen, a Maine schoolteacher who had been taking dance class regularly under Mr. Hall for more than 10 years. "In class or a workshop, he could bring out the strength of each dancer, no matter what the dancer's level."
When he moved to Philadelphia from Washington with his family in 1951, Mr. Hall was a 17-year-old prodigy with a ton of talent and a grand vision. He left alone in 1988, baffled, bitter and broke. In between, Mr. Hall became one of the first Americans to found a dance company devoted to African dance forms, prompting one national African American organization to call him the "father of the black arts movement in Philadelphia."
He named his troupe the Afro-American Dance Ensemble, and it performed under his guidance and to his choreography for 30 years, from 1958 to 1988. Its headquarters in Germantown also served as his home and as a cultural center, the Ile-Ife Center for the Arts and Humanities. Mr. Hall's ensemble performed in dance festivals in Ghana, Nigeria, and other African countries, as well as in the United States. In Philadelphia, it danced in the city's schools and at such theaters as the Shubert and the Painted Bride Art Center.
The troupe continued to perform in schools and other regional venues even after Mr. Hall had left Philadelphia, changing its name a few years ago to the Asapho African-American Dance Ensemble. It has been inactive since November 1999.
Over the years, Mr. Hall also choreographed modern dances on contemporary themes, but his true passion was to preserve African culture in America and to expose black Americans to their heritage. That passion was born while he was in Philadelphia.
"He understood that African Americans had little knowledge of their cultural background," said Van Williams of North Philadelphia, who danced with Mr. Hall in the Afro-American Dance Ensemble. "We were living in a vacuum."
Backed by federal grants, Mr. Hall filled that vacuum with cultural outposts across Philadelphia, providing workshops in dance, theater and the visual arts for more than 2,000 students through the Model Cities Cultural Arts Program. But it all unraveled. When Mr. Hall left Philadelphia in 1988, he owed back taxes to the city, his home was boarded up, and his collection of African sculpture had been pilfered.
Problems with funding and management were factors in his Philadelphia undoing. But in a 1989 Inquirer interview, Mr. Hall said the primary reason was the financial failure of what he believed to be one of the most artistically important ventures of his career, a production of a classic Nigerian folk opera, Oba Koso.
It was performed before empty houses at the Uptown Theater on Broad Street for a week in October 1987 and left the company owing $20,000, according to accounts at the time. In August 1988, Mr. Hall boarded a bus, rode for three days, and returned to his mother's house in the town of his birth, Memphis, Tenn. He told no one except his board chairman, Robert Rutman, a retired University of Pennsylvania biochemistry professor. One of Rutman's first acts was to get the cultural center going again. Today, it is the Village of Arts and Humanities, and its mission is to "build community through art."
In the 1989 Inquirer interview, from Memphis, Mr. Hall said he hopped that bus "for my own sanity. 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."
He said he was "trying not to think about Philadelphia. . . . There are terrible scars."
Mr. Hall continued to dance, teach and choreograph while he was in Memphis. He spent winters in New England, as he did during his Philadelphia years, doing artist-in-school residencies. His first Maine residency was in 1977. He later founded the People-to-People Dance Company in Camden. He became a permanent Maine resident after his mother died in 1995.
Mr. Hall studied under several well-known teachers, including John Hines and Marion Cuyjet in Philadelphia. At Cuyjet's Judimar School of Dance, Judith Jamison was a classmate.
The most influential person in his dance life, however, was Saka Acquaye, of Ghana, who inspired him to pursue African dance.
"As a dancer, his technique was remarkable," Janssen said. "And no one was better at interpreting African stories and culture."
In addition to many African dance dramas, Mr. Hall choreographed What's Going On, a ballet set to the music of Marvin Gaye, and Eulogy for John Coltrane at Dartmouth College, where he served as an adjunct professor. He also once taught at Philadelphia Community College.
As a dancer, he made his debut in 1948 with the Negro Opera Company's production of The Ordering of Moses. He went on to perform on many stages, including at Lincoln Center in New York, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, and, in Philadelphia, the Academy of Music and the Art Museum.
Mr. Hall, who was an Army veteran, received numerous awards over the years, including the Pennsylvania Governor's Hazlett Award for Excellence in the Arts in 1980.
He is survived by an uncle, Thomas Yancey, and aunts Gracie Dawson, Katie Wade and Annie Rose.
Plans for a memorial service and dance tribute in Philadelphia were incomplete. Burial was private.
Memorial donations may be made to the Arthur Hall Education Fund, in care of Nancy Salmon, Maine Arts Commission, 25 State House Station, Augusta, Maine 04333.
Rusty Pray's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 2000 PHILADELPHIA NEWSPAPERS INC.
May not be reprinted without permission.
Used with permission - AHC, 7/25/00