Tony Powell, 27-year-old composer, choreographer, recovering alcoholic, and recent Juilliard graduate, has exploded onto the D.C. dance scene in two short years. Yet sitting with him at La Madeleine in Bethesda, I sense he wants more. I’m hankering to get to his dance rehearsal down the street, but Powell is deluging me with his many other media: his sculpture (a crudely cubist plywood face sits on the table next to my baguette), his competent student drawings of nudes, bipolar self-portraits, photomontages, and celebrity photographs of phenoms from Carol Channing to Rudolf Nureyev.
I don’t find Powell’s visual work (which will be on display at Dance Place during his three-day gig this weekend) all that interesting. But the Powell aura is compelling indeed. A baby-faced, type-A wizard of toil, talent, and self-promotion, Powell spends 20 hours a day creating art and telling people about it. He has an ebullient personality that could melt the ice off any glacial arts bureaucrat. He wields a powerful body, the color of milk chocolate and toned to perfection. Arts advocates have hung their hats on his dance and music talents, but Powell clearly feels he is bursting with images and ideas that cannot be sustained by dance alone. “He is kind of high-maintenance,” says one arts administrator. “But the dance field needs more artists like him. He meets someone at the Kinko’s in West Virginia who ends up coming into town for his concert. He does what more dance people need to do.”
But get him into his studio (I finally did), and his boyish charm turns into the no-nonsense authority of a Russian taskmaster. All that Juilliard discipline wasn’t for nought. His 15 dancers—all attractive and strong, but of varying technical ability—are kept in line by a self-assured artistic director. (“You’re late!” Powell yells at one dancer who saunters into the studio in her high-heeled clogs and ripped T-shirt. “It’s not funny anymore. In fact it never was funny,” he says testily, in front of a hushed room.) After some dancers are obviously off-count during a particularly difficult movement phrase, Powell says dryly, “For those of you who don’t know, the performance is next week.”
The dancers take it all in stride, probably because they love performing his dances. Powell’s movement is vigorous, musical, and wildly aerobic. His choreography isn’t about things or social issues: “I guess what I do now is compose with bodies,” Powell says. Two new pieces, Stream of Consciousness and Three Constructions, strut both his musicality and his tempestuous nature. They build volcanically and then erupt in the megakinesis of 15 sweaty bodies experiencing heart rates of 200-plus. No e.e. cummings wordplay or dances to Bosnia here. This is fun, straightforward stuff that revels in the body. Audiences get it, and if they don’t they don’t care, because it doesn’t make them feel bewildered or stupid.
Powell grew up on the Silver Spring/Chevy Chase line and started playing piano and trumpet at age 5. When he was 9 years old, the Chevy Chase Elementary School student was chosen for a six-month tour of Europe to perform the role of Travis in Raisin in the Sun. “That experience had a profound effect on me,” Powell recalls. “I was constantly stimulated. I had a guardian with me but I also grew up fast.”
Soon he was dancing as well as playing music. As a high-school student, he decided that he wasn’t going to college if he didn’t get into Juilliard. In 1986, he was accepted into Juilliard’s dance program, where he studied the work of Martha Graham, Paul Taylor, and José Limón. For many years, one of his greatest interests has been in the female form and figure, and while his drawing may not be his strongest suit, it helps him connect the form to the dance to the music. “I really need to visualize my music….I want you to see what I see in my head.”
“I don’t believe in talent,” Powell adds. “What I believe in…is doing. Things in constant motion. What I’m trying to visualize is all that frenzy in the brain. We’re bombarded with and plagued by images. In my music and my dance, I’m trying to conjure up our dreamscapes—like the surrealists.”
Powell is one of those bodies in motion that would have to be hit by a Mack truck—or a bottle of vodka—to be slowed down. He sleeps three hours a night. He teaches dance at three different schools—Duke Ellington, Washington School of Ballet, and Maryland Youth Ballet. So far this year, he has created 97 pieces of music (he knows because his new Macintosh keeps track of his compositions), including one for a new solo by postmodern dancemeister David Parsons.
It’s difficult to imagine Powell as he returned to D.C. in 1990, a self-destructing, self-delusional, alcoholic mess. He drank his way through his last year of Juilliard and finally left without graduating. When he returned to his parents’ home in Maryland, he was drinking a bottle of vodka a day. “People tell me I was trying to kill myself,” Powell says. He says his problems had to do in part with the pressure of Juilliard and a predisposition toward alcoholism. “I went drinking with everyone else at school, and then they went home and I kept drinking. At that point I just wanted to be alone and drink.” Once he returned to D.C., Powell worked feverishly on his musical composition and visual art work. “I painted and composed music because I could still do those things and drink. But I suffered from delusions of grandeur about what I was doing….It was too hard to get up and dance around,” he says, laughing.
Powell says that a former girlfriend would not give up on him and gently guided him toward detox. He went when he was ready, when he had pretty much alienated everyone around him. He didn’t start dancing again until 1994. Last year, Powell went back to New York and finished his degree at Juilliard.
While he finished his degree, he stayed with dance great Anna Sokolow, an overlooked national treasure who is now an elderly Greenwich Village shut-in. Powell adores Sokolow, and sees her as one of his many muses. He has taken more than 1,000 photos of her, many of them in her bed, and some of them are quite striking.
There is a lyrical, quieter side to Powell, as an artist and a person, but he doesn’t stop long enough to attain a truly sensuous quality. Pauses seem to addle him, whether in dance or conversation. He rushes to fill the void. His manic energy is buoyed by grace and charm, and the bullying, aggressive power of those who do not stop for anything.
I watch, grateful, as his glistening, high-powered dancers grasp hands and couple in a disarmingly intimate way. They seem to be slowing, stopping—perhaps they will touch in a way that hints at a relationship other than one based solely on utilitarian interests (I support your weight, you support mine). No. They break without eye contact and swiftly begin the next phrase. There’s no time yet in Powell’s vocabulary for indulging the warm, the brutal, the inexplicable moments. He is very young, but his watch keeps ticking. CP