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Flash Review 2, 7-3:
Tony! Tony! Tony!
Powell Needs to Sit Down and Focus
By Tehreema Mitha
Copyright 2000 Tehreema Mitha
WASHINGTON -- When you
see the flyers announcing a performance by "tony powell/music and
movement," Powell is everywhere on the program. When you read articles
about Tony Powell he is "multi-talented": "dancer, choreographer,
composer, instrumentalist, filmmaker, photographer, graphic designer,
painter and sculptor." What you don't expect is that when you go
to see a performance of his company at a venue like the Dance Place
in Washington, as I did Saturday, he is also "all over" there: in
the hall and in the audience; part of the show without being the
When we went in, we saw
a small baby in the hall and discovered later, as it started to
cry the cry of a very newborn infant, that it was Tony Powell's
child. Instantly he was there picking up the child and cuddling
it. The hall was not yet full and it was not yet time to start.
Suddenly we see the dancers, some of them already in costume, come
out on stage and start moving around. After a while we realized
that this was not the beginning of some dance, but an "open the
audience to the back-stage dancers warm up." Except that it was
not backstage and the dancers were very aware that they were being
watched. Usually witnessing dancers prepare themselves for dance
is, for me, a treat in itself. It is like watching the tightly closed
bud begin to tremble open. It is an exciting moment. However this
was not anything that made you feel a part of the beginning of an
adventure. And it all felt very put-on. Especially as after a while
of this we see Tony Powell walk onto stage and join hands with his
dancers. From behind the back curtains came more and more of the
dancers, until they all formed a big circle holding hands. The choreographer
said some things that we could not hear (he had his back to us)
but there were some laughs and some smiles from the group. I was
not sure if this was supposed to be a spiritually uplifting moment
for the dancers, or the audience.
The lights on the stage
faded and the hall lights were prepared. The Dance Place host briefly
introduced the work and then we had Tony Powell himself. He proceeded
to compliment his audience for turning up, amazed that people actually
come "to watch other people doing things on stage" and then spent
the next five minutes saying Thank you to various people and foundations.
It made me wonder if the Oscar ceremonies are having a long-term
effect on the population in general. After this he told us all about
how he had been terribly pressed with time, since he made all his
own programs, and so in all the hurry of getting the program to
the printer he had omitted the most important name, that of his
assistant, etc., etc.
Now, when I go to see
a performance I like to read the program. That's what it's there
for, right? And if you forget something that should have been part
of the program than you can always print on an extra piece of paper
and put it in as an insert. Besides, all the acknowledgements are
on the program and I don't need them to be spelled out for me.
After this not too promising
start, we actually got to the beginning of the performance. And
it was a joyous and lively beginning! The first dance, entitled
"Quiet Place," was not in any obvious sense quiet, but it had a
calm and sweet sense to it. My discomfort with it was only because
somehow there was something lacking in most of the dancers. When
I see ballet moves I want to see ballet training right down to the
tips of the fingers. The total control and refinement so necessary
to turn pure technical choreography into a piece of art was not
in evidence. However, this dance was a pleasant beginning and relatively
short and sweet.
Next was a film presentation:
"Shadow Dance." This was perhaps the best production in the whole
show. The music is interesting and though pulsating right from the
beginning, it gathers momentum and seems to go somewhere. The lone
male dancer featured in this piece, Jason Hartley, is from Washington
Ballet -- and what a dancer he is! The beauty of his body movements
captured at all angles, in every speed, from every possible dimension,
is awe-inspiring. In this medium Powell's urge to play around with
what he has and to study the formulas, mixing them together to see
how many results he can get, is actually used to the best potential.
The one figure is sometimes many; some in the full, some from different
angles, others leaping across the stage. There are times the dancer
seems to move with the rhythm and at the same time you see the body
spanning the space in close-up running almost counter point; or
else just the arm flexing and picking up the subtlety in the music
phrase. Despite the fact that one can see that there are sections
that are played again and again in different orders, the repetition
is not irritating.
However one does not
feel this thrill when after two more dances we are introduced to
the premiere of his new film "Contact." This film again features
Hartley, this time paired with Brianne Bland (both of Washington
Ballet). Perhaps we have already seen all that Powell had to explore.
Perhaps we are by now too used to the music. Perhaps by now, we
expect much more. Whatever the reasons, the senses are not stimulated
by this new film, only muted. Only the costumes for this piece,
simple and unadorned, somehow make an impact. There is no interchange
between the two dancers, no communication; in fact no reason for
there to be two dancers instead of one. In an interview that I read,
Tony Powell says, "Whenever you put a man and a woman on stage it
changes the nature of the choreography"; but I have to say that
this does not seem to be the case.
"Pulse," first produced
in 1997, is the only other dance that stands out in one's mind.
The piece, all with women in attractive black costumes, throbs with
rhythm and an almost martial sense of dance. Yet there is power
in the choreography, which is mostly lacking in the other items.
Particularly so, in the premiere of "Pas-de six," an excerpt of
a piece commissioned by the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago and set to
a score by Arvo Part. Enter the two male dancers as well. I have
to say that it is a long time since I have seen dance in which the
choreographer has used his male dancers to so little effect. This
seems particularly sad when not only do the two dancers seem good,
but when one is almost outstanding -- that is, if I was given more
to judge him by! Ted Freeman somehow projects a capacity for emotion
that permeates every movement of his tall and strong frame, and
makes me think that some day he will move me to weep. But there
are no real roles for the men here; they do not stand out in any
way. In the dance world of today it is generally accepted and proven
that the women dancers are as strong as the men and there is no
need to prove them equal yet again; but there is freedom to celebrate
the differences. Tony Powell needs to explore this dimension with
I think that also ballet
really needs to be viewed in a larger hall where you cannot hear
each thud of the toe shoes and each landing as the partners put
the ballerinas down. This can be surprisingly distracting. It would
also make more interesting viewing if there were some sets added
to the program to create more visual diversity through the evening,
especially since the dancers (except for "Pulse") were dressed in
muted pastels throughout.
For the last and most
important premiere of the evening, "Contrapunctus," much to our
surprise we had a new member of the audience share a seat in our
row: Tony Powell. We had heard him loud enough throughout the evening,
clapping from the back and making enthusiastic noises when the dancers
would take a bow; telling us during one interval that at the end
there would be a ten- minute question and answer session with the
dancers. But now he came down to introduce the introduction to be
given by the conductor for the live music played by The Bach Sinfonia.
He then sat down in a nearby seat while the conductor told us what
Counter-point meant and how wonderful he found Tony Powell's choreography.
Eventually the dance
started. I found in this dance some progression in the choreographic
sense from the earlier pieces. There were some very short solo pieces,
in particular one danced by Suzanna Bryant, that were exquisite!Light,
with unexpected movements of the hands and flowing body postures
that created a mood unto themselves. This stood out because of it's
clarity. Otherwise, the different groupings of the twelve dancers,
sometimes in threes, fours, and twos, moved easily across space
and from within and without each other.
The music by William
Boyce, which is in nine sections, seems too segmented to create
any flow in the dance and was often brought to an end by the loud
and too-hasty clapping by -- you got it, the choreographer himself!
His total involvement in the ongoing dance was clear with the coiled
movements of his body as he sat seated near us, and this was very
distracting for us as we tried to concentrate on what was going
on, on stage. At the end of the piece, Tony Powell gave a standing
ovation (interspersed with loud whistling) for the orchestra.
There were several good
dancers in the company; notable after those already mentioned above
were Kristy Windom, Kellie Payne and Maggie Belzer.
I really feel that Tony
Powell needs to focus in on one, or at the most two, of his talents
and let the others play on, like the planets around the sun. Most
choreographers have some say and some hand in the music, costumes,
programs, lights etc. of their production. However, relegating responsibility
and collaborating with other artists creates new insights that cannot
be found through only monologues. Interaction with other minds,
artistic visions, and inspirations can only enhance a true talent
that has been plagued by this same restraint (according to several
old reviews) from the beginning of the founding of the company.
Editor's Note: Tehreema
Mitha is a choreographer, dancer, and teacher. For more info, visit
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