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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 show.

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 his dancers.

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 her web page.

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