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In the Swing

Stephanie Powell Salutes the Duke

Sam Holden
The Ballet Theatre of Annapolis will perform Stephanie Powell?s ?Ellington Suite? and other pieces Oct. 22 and 23.

By D.C. Culbertson | Posted 10/20/1999

Stephanie Powell says it pays to be prepared. "I have a million dances in my head," the Baltimore choreographer says. But she's not content to let those dances stay there.

"The object for me is to get things working," she insists. "If somebody calls me today I'll have enough things on the drawing board. If you wait for the commission you may not be in the work mode."

For example, when she learned that this year marked the centennial of Duke Ellington's birth, she decided to choreograph a suite set to his music. And, as it turned out, she did indeed get a commission for the piece last spring from the Ballet Theatre of Annapolis (BTA). The result, "Ellington Suite," is scheduled to premiere Oct. 22.

Powell got the commission through BTA artistic director Edward Stewart, a fellow faculty member at the Baltimore School for the Arts. Stewart saw several pieces Powell had choreographed for the students and liked them so much—"She does good work," he puts it simply—that about four years ago he asked her to create a work for BTA. She produced, "Cascade," which she describes as "an abstract modern piece" featuring movements that suggest animals of the rain forest.

Stewart commissioned two more works: "Family Ties," about a day in the life of a family, with a focus on their daughter's coming of age, and "Voyages," another abstract piece set to East Indian music.

Powell describes "Ellington Suite" as "a celebration of the music of Duke Ellington . . . paying homage to his creative genius and his music." The suite uses six of his pieces, from such instantly recognizable classics as "Sophisticated Lady" and "Take the A Train" to lesser known works such as "Such Sweet Thunder" and "Cotton Tail." All 26 BTA company members will be involved in the dance, and the style will be a mix of modern, jazz, and ballet.

(The remainder of the program will include Stewart's abstract "Sapphire Romance," set to Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2; a pas de deux from Shostakovich's The Golden Age; selections from the classic ballet Don Quixote; and a new romantic duo by Stewart, "Forever You," created for new principal dancer Zhirui Zou.)

As an African-American woman, Powell is a rare bird among modern ballet choreographers. In the world of ballet, choreography is very much a boy's game. Nearly all major ballet choreographers to date—Marius Petipa, Serge Diaghilev, George Balanchine—have been men, and while in recent years several African-American men, such as the Dance Theatre of Harlem's Arthur Mitchell, have joined their ranks, it's still rare to see ballets choreographed by a woman, let alone a woman of color.

Also, most ballet choreographers shy away from using jazz or jazz-inspired movement to accompany their pieces, preferring abstract contemporary music and moves instead. This exclusion is "kind of sad," Powell says, because jazz "is so dance-oriented" and Ellington's music especially is "so about rhythm." But she says Stewart "has a different perspective about daring." Indeed, what the BTA leader shies away from is tradition; this past fall, for example, his company presented his full-length ballet based on Dracula, which featured some unusually provocative (for ballet, at least) duets between the main character and his victims.

After graduating from Goucher College in 1982, Powell spent 10 years as a member of the now-defunct modern-dance company PATH. After leaving PATH, Powell helped found Morton Street Dance Center; around that same time, she began doing choreography for other companies and schools in the area. (She'd been teaching at the School for the Arts since 1984.) As if that wasn't enough to keep her busy, she also decided to go back to school and get a master's degree. It took her five years of night school, but she finally received her master's in liberal arts from Johns Hopkins University this past spring.

This looks to be a busy season for Powell, and a breakout one as well. On July 31 she left the staff of Morton Street to start her own studio, which she runs with her sister, Yvonne Walker. Located in the West Baltimore United Methodist Church on Route 40, the school now offers only children's classes, but Powell plans to add classes for adults in a few months. She recently choreographed a setting of excerpts from Handel's Messiah (arranged by Quincy Jones) for a holiday concert by the student dance company at Florida's Jacksonville University, and earlier this month she did a piece for the Gettysburg Dance Center in Pennsylvania. She has also formed her own company, the Stephanie Powell Dance Ensemble, which makes its debut at the Baltimore Museum of Art Nov. 5 and 6. And, as she does every year, she's assigned herself several choreographic projects, including pieces set to music by contemporary composers John Adams and Arvo Pärt and a suite to George Gershwin's music.

While she acknowledges it would be nice to be asked to do pieces for companies such as the American Ballet Theatre or the Washington Ballet, Powell says, "For right now, the things I'm doing are fabulous. For now, my plate is full."

The Ballet Theatre of Annapolis performance featuring Stephanie Powell's "Ellington Suite" will take place Oct. 22 and 23 at 8 P.M. at the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, 801 Chase St., Annapolis. Tickets are $22, and $12 for children and full-time students. For more information, call (410) 263-2909 or visit BTA's Web site at

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