Arthur L. Hall, a genius of great stature, as a pioneering dancer, choreographer, integrator of diverse art forms, Master Teacher, humanitarian, spiritual adept who attained the rank of Priest and King, and international leader of the Afro-American cultural renaissance, passed away on July 6, 2000, in Camden, Maine. On this date, October 14, 2000, the City of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the world pause to memorialize the passing of Arthur Hall, through a special program dedicated to his legacy. This memorial observance pays tribute to Arthur's legacy of art forms left to be eternally cherished as a rich archive. His legacy will also be eternally embodied in the lives and continuing work of literally thousands of former students, Arthur Hall Afro-American Dance Ensemble alumni, and mesmerized spectators of his art forms.
The Early Years
Born in Memphis, Tennessee, April 18, 1934, as the only son born to Ms. Sally Yancey Hall and Mr. Joshua Milton, Arthur Hall was raised by his mother and grandmother, Ms. Emma Yancey. As part of the classic migration pattern of that time, his mother moved to Washington, DC, leaving the young Arthur behind to be cared for by his grandmother, living in close contact with his aunts, many cousins, and other family. At an early age, Arthur knew well the responsibilities of baby-sitting for his cousins and taking care of other family members. Perhaps stemming from this childhood was Arthur's drive and determination to create and re-create families as an artistic director, always seeking to fulfill a deep desire to be loved and accepted as part of a loving unit.
Arthur, like so many children impacted by migration, was not happy that his mother's call to work and for upward mobility took her North and away from him. His grandmother's life and household were not totally free of discord. So, Arthur found freedom in fantasy. In his autobiography, Arthur speaks of having no electricity in Emma Yancey's apartment and of cleaning sooty lantern glass. Arthur was thrilled by the music of Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday heard through the walls from a neighbor with the first electricity and the first radio in the Beale Street tenement building. This excited Arthur and he engaged in a great deal of visualization and expanded his experience of reality through creative imagination. He also loved to read works that provided spiritual inspiration. As a youth, Arthur found particular joy in watching movies, especially musicals, being thrilled by the spectacular lightning, costumes, props, and theatrical designs. This inspired Arthur to plan for the day when he would re-create such grand fanfare, but his dream was to tell meaningful stories that would appeal to people like himself. During his early years in Memphis, Arthur would walk down Beale Street to the Mississippi River and study the map of the United States. He would dream of Maine, yearning for magical spaces 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 to be filled in each year by his blossoming artistic genius.
At the age of nine, Arthur joined his mother in Washington, DC. Once there, Arthur gained greater access to the arts than he had known as a boy in Tennessee. His mother supported Arthur in pursuit of dance training, and on July 28, 1950, at the tender 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, Washington, DC.
In 1951, at the age of 17, Arthur moved to Philadelphia with his mother, studying dance under Marion Cuyjet, Joe Nash, and John Hines, among others. During this period he found early inspiration for the standard of costume design which was to become his hallmark in the work of Katherine Dunham, Josephine Baker, and Uday Shankar of India. Especially influential was his close association in Philadelphia from 1952 to 1959 with the Ghanaian artist, Olympic athlete, and cultural minister F. Saka Acquaye, who was a pioneer in his own right, infusing West African art forms into United States culture. Saka Acquaye saw so many African Americans with no traces of African culture, deciding to start a dance troupe that would embody authentic African art forms.
From 1952 to 1953 Arthur was a part of Saka Acquaye's Black Beats Band, and he went on to become a principal dancer in the West African Cultural Society of Saka Acquaye, also participating from 1954 to 1958 in Saka Acquaye's African Ensemble in America. Arthur noted in an interview how "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 1955 to 1957, Arthur was in the United States Army. His two years of service in the Army were spent with an integrated cast putting on variety shows, as Arthur performed and did choreography for this Special Services troupe. The troupe toured Europe and performed on army bases in Germany, including German Beer Halls in places such as Heidelberg. [It was at this time that Arthur worked with Jorge Preloran to produce The Unvictorious One] Having already been exposed to the work of Saka Acquaye and authentic African art forms, Arthur Hall's dance forms were already allowing him to serve as an international ambassador of Afro-American culture. Also while serving in the army with the Special Services, Arthur developed skills as an expert photographer. Once he returned to Philadelphia in 1958, Arthur Hall opened a photography studio.
The value he placed upon capturing powerful visual images served him well throughout his career, as this allowed a rich archive of visual images to accumulate over the years, including films of his artistic creations. In addition, Arthur's genius included full cognizance of how his life's work and artistic endeavors constituted history in the making, spurring him on to document that which he was pioneering as a pivotal leader of an Afro-American cultural renaissance of national and international proportions. Arthur Hall provided seminal leadership in giving birth to the blacks arts movement in Philadelphia, but his influence went way 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? Visions and dreams of creations waiting to come to life under his artistic direction, as well as dedication and perseverance allowed Arthur to change 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, as well as in diverse places such as Arizona, New Mexico, New Hampshire, and Maine.
The Birth of Afro-American Dance
The quiet revolution began in the year 1958, marking Arthur Hall's service as director and choreographer for the Sidney King Dance Theater. The year 1958 launched the pioneering work of not only Arthur Hall, but also of Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey, and Eleo Pomare, as each established their own dance companies at that time. The seeds for a major dance, art, and cultural renaissance in America were thereby planted. 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 incredible memory for art forms. People called him a walking encyclopedia, because he could remember all of the dances and stories taught to him by Saka Acquaye and others. Yet Arthur's choreography was 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.
Arthur's next mentor, Joan Kerr, of the Joan Kerr Dancers, also encouraged Arthur to explore African heritage through dance. Needing the recognition of one pioneering original dance forms, Arthur left The Sidney King Dance Theater, finding the year 1958 to be an ideal launching pad for what evolved into the Arthur Hall 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. 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