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“I had an apartment in New York, and at 2 o’clock in the morning, I would go into the kitchen and turn on the lights and the roaches would just scatter in different directions,” says Tony Powell, artistic director of Tony Powell/Music & Movement. “That’s what this is looking like.” Powell, 33, is trying to tweak the opening sequence of his new ballet, Language of the Heart, in preparation for its May 29 premiere at the Kennedy Center; it will debut as part of “Brief Encounters,” the KenCen’s 2002 Spring Gala.

The roach anecdote is much-needed comic relief: With just two days until showtime, the mood at the Maryland Youth Ballet studio in Bethesda, Md., is not exactly relaxed. But even when Powell is correcting his dancers, he tempers his critique with reassurance. “It’s going to be fine,” he tells them. “It will be perfect.”

The “Brief Encounters” program marks Powell’s fourth time organizing the Spring Gala at the Kennedy Center; this time, however, only Powell’s works—including two other ballets, Where the Children May Safely Play and Rapture, as well as an orchestral piece titled Symphony #4—will be presented. “This is the first year that it’s just us,” says Powell of his 6-year-old company. “It shows that we’re really coming into our own.”

Powell says that this ballet is different from most of his others: “Language of the Heart is more modern; most of my works are classical ballet. Also, it’s more emotional—almost romantic. My earlier stuff was more athletic, more moving around. This is more about connections between people.”

The Juilliard-trained Washington native’s artistic ability extends beyond choreographing and composing. He is also an artist and filmmaker who has taken still photographs for the Washington Ballet and screened his abstract dance films at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. “Either you’re making things, or you’re just living life,” he says. “Art is in everything.”

Powell was introduced to the arts before reaching elementary school. “My father was a musician. He played the trumpet. He put the trumpet in my hand at an early age, at about 5 years old,” he says. “Exposing young people at an early age—like I was exposed—is important. It makes the kids believe that they can do it, too.” The day before the gala, the company is planning a special performance at the Kennedy Center for 500 D.C. public-schools students. “It’s very important to do outreach,” Powell says. “We’ve even created a booklet filled with activities with info about the pieces and the history of the music.”

Even after a nearly four-hour rehearsal, including a full run of Where the Children May Safely Play, Powell’s workday isn’t over. He’s off to a meet-and-greet with the dancers and others involved in the performance. “When I leave the studio, a different reality doesn’t set in,” says Powell. “I live my life through the world of rhythm.” —Sarah Godfrey