- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 25, 2000

Tony Powell's admirers consider him a Renaissance man. Others regard him as a jack-of-all-trades.

The artist sees himself as simply on the right track.

"My dream as an artist is to wake up every morning and create in whatever medium my impulse takes me," Mr. Powell says. "This is what I'm here for."

Mr. Powell's talents as composer, choreographer, photographer, filmmaker and, not incidentally, public relations whiz are bringing him recognition on an ever-widening stage.

The most concentrated example of his wide-ranging creativity will be on display Wednesday night when he brings his company to the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater.

Last month, he received his most major exposure on the national scene when the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago performed the nine-minute "Lyric Discourse," a commission for which Mr. Powell created both the music and the dance.

In the five years since he formed Tony Powell/Music & Movement, the 32-year-old choreographer has created more than 50 ballets for his group of about 20 members. Most were set to his own music.

Mr. Powell also composed a score for the David Parsons Dance Company, presented two evenings of his filmmaking at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and created a life-size photographic collage of the Washington Ballet dancers in motion. The ballet displays the artwork at its performances.

His company's performance next week will include three premieres: a symphony for strings Mr. Powell has written, a dance to Johann Sebastian Bach's Double Violin Concerto and a ballet en pointe to music by Frederic Francois Chopin. The last ballet, "Romantique," will be accompanied by concert pianist Amy Belcher.

He will also show the film "Contact," with Washington Ballet dancers Brianne Bland and Jason Hartley and choreographed especially for the screen.

The program is noteworthy not only for its scope, but for its sign of the evolving nature of Mr. Powell's art. For this program, two of his premieres are set to classical music, rather than his own. Two of the works are en pointe, an area he is interested in exploring further.

The freewheeling nature of Mr. Powell's creative endeavors — his fearless interest in trying anything and everything — is something he says he comes by naturally.

His childhood was full of exposure to the arts. His father was a jazz musician, and young Tony was playing the trumpet and the piano when he was 5 years old. He also had an aunt who took him to every show that came to town. That same aunt gave him an encyclopedia set, and he fixated on volume P.

"The P book was full of paintings from all over the world," Mr. Powell says. "When I was maybe 6 or 7, I asked for paints, and I re-created all the paintings I saw. The first two paintings I did were Picasso's 'Three Musicians' and Marc Chagall's 'The Juggler.' That's still what attracts me — that kind of surrealistic, dreamlike, hallucinatory work."

Many special experiences came his way, and he soaked them up like a sponge. He found himself performing in Europe in the musical "Raisin," based on "Raisin in the Sun," when he was 9. Listening to a 60-piece orchestra every night made a big impression on him. Soon afterward, he started going to the children's theater program at Howard University during the summer.

"We'd have dancing classes, a lunch break, then acting classes and music classes and percussion class," he says. "At the end of the day, you'd all come together and show what you did. Mixing the arts together was instilled in me at an early age."

Mr. Powell went to Juilliard School in New York as a dance major and also took as many music composition and theory courses as he could squeeze in.

"I'd sneak into every composition seminar that came, held by John Cage, Milton Babbitt, David Diamond, Jacob Druckman, Pierre Boulez — all those great artists. I took full advantage of that wonderful opportunity."

With all this positive energy, Mr. Powell still fell into a frightening abyss. He says he became an alcoholic, selling everything he owned for a daily bottle of vodka or drugs. He was in and out of treatment centers and almost died. He says others in his family also have struggled with alcoholism.

"I haven't had a drink since December 11, 1993," Mr. Powell says. "I feel very fortunate to be able to say that. What I went through informs so much of what I do, and the energy people talk about in my work — that's pure happiness."

His delight in all the arts that characterize his work is something Mr. Powell is anxious to share with young people. He says it is a large component of his company's activity.

"That's why in the morning, before the gala, we'll have 500 Montgomery County and D.C. school kids coming to the Terrace Theater," the director says. "We'll have some of them coming up onstage, learning how to construct a dance, and the audience clapping in rhythms and playing instruments we'll pass out. It's a great chance for kids to understand what it takes to become a choreographer or a composer.

"It's really important to me to give back to kids, especially the ones 5 to 11 years old, because that was the age when art became so important to me. For me, art is my sofa, my bed, the air under my wings — it's what I do."

Mr. Powell's multimedia approach to the arts, together with his determined exploration of new ways of doing things, has led him to the extensive use of modern technology in his art. This has proved to be an expensive path to follow and the artist, who appears to be a genius grant writer, has been successful in finding patrons to support his needs.

These include Maryland and Montgomery County, whose grants have enabled him to acquire state-of-the-art computers he uses to record his dances while rehearsing, and to create his dance films.

This year he is applying for more high-tech upgrades, all to help him create his dance, music and art better and faster. These include a color copier and a $12,000 oversize poster printer to enable him to make in-house the 7-foot-high posters announcing his programs like the one hanging in the Kennedy Center this week. He also wants a new Hasselblad camera system — "that's $8,000 right there" — and two lenses, which will come to an additional $12,000, plus a fireproof safe to house the 20,000 slides he has made.

But his wish list doesn't stop there. His biggest dream is to gather all his artistic activities under one roof.

"I'm trying to build a building to house my music, photography, graphic design, filmmaking, to eventually house my dancing as well and also to have a painting and welding studio because I'm also a sculptor and painter," Mr. Powell says. He is confident he will be able to raise the money for this ambitious, nearly $1 million project.

Mr. Powell is looking at property in Silver Spring; he has been offered support ("but no checks yet," he says) from the Cafritz Foundation, the state of Maryland, Montgomery County and from Maggie Allesee, a Detroit patron of the arts who has given Mr. Powell $10,000 this year to have live music in his program next week.

The Bach Sinfonia, a 15-member Maryland group specializing in baroque music, will play the Bach Double Violin Concerto for the premiere of his "Cantus Firmus."

"That's one reason I chose that music," Mr. Powell says, "because it was in their repertoire."

The orchestra also will play Mr. Powell's Third Symphony, a composition he has been working on for several years. He also will conduct it and is thrilled the Bach Sinfonia has agreed to play his music.

"I probably won't be able to get through it without crying," says Mr. Powell of this rare opportunity to conduct his own music.

WHAT: Tony Powell/Music & MovementWHERE: Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NWWHEN: 7:30 p.m. WednesdayTICKETS: $25 and $50PHONE: 202/467-4600

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