Described as "...one of the greatest American dancers of our age," (Walter Terry) Bella Lewitzky was a talented, strong, out-spoken artist, who dedicated her creative life to protect the rights of every American citizen.
This film will follow Bella Lewitzky’s early years in the Llano del Rio Utopian community in the Mojave Desert, through her move to Los Angeles in the 1930s, her work with Lester Horton, her prominence in both the cultural and entertainment societies of Los Angeles, to her blacklisting by HUAC and ultimate career as a recognized international choreographer, educator and arts advocate/spokesperson.
Based in Los Angeles in the 1930’s and 40’s, Lewitzky was the primary developer of the Horton dance technique. Her students included Alvin Ailey and Carmen de Lavallade, who went on to form the Alvin Ailey Dance Company in New York City. The Horton technique is taught world-wide, and unlike modern techniques developed in the eastern United States, is based on Native American dance. In Lewitzky, Horton found the body upon which he would build his technique, a uniquely west coast modern dance style, historically under-represented in the lexicon of dance and cultural history. Social injustice, anti-fascism, and American and Mexican history were some of the themes explored in Horton’s dances and embodied by dancers who committed to these themes in their daily lives.
Being a modern dancer in Los Angeles at this time did not provide a sustainable income. To support herself and her family, Lewitzky worked under the Federal Theatre Project in works choreographed by Horton and others. She also assisted Horton on film projects as well as serving as assistant to Hanya Holm and Agnes DeMille. The support of the Federal Theatre Project was essential to the well-being and development of many artists during the “New Deal.” The effect of the program was enormous, as it kept hundreds of artists employeIn Los Angeles, many moved into the “Hollywood” system, as did Bella, often performing as a background dancer, featured dancer or dance assistant. Although the history of the “Hollywood Entertainment Industry” has been well documented, those artists in the background who moved between mainstream entertainment and art have not been addressed. These films, often full of racial, class, and sexist stereotypes, featured Lewitzky as the “exotic” one, e.g., credited as a “specialty dancer” in films such as White Savage where she danced on a large drum as a “native.” Although the veneer of these films was white, privileged and male, the reality of who did the below the line work was quite different, and often this work was uncredited. There were many historical intersections between the mainstream and artistic communities in Los Angeles at this time, and I would like to examine how these intersections affected Lewitzky, her community, and the development of dance art in Los Angeles.
In 1950 Lewitzky and Horton parted ways. Lewitzky felt a need to develop her own choreography and opened a small studio, Dance Associates, on the other side of Hollywood. She recalls, “… one day a gentleman with a hat on… handed me a subpoena.” She was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee where she pleaded the Fifth Amendment. Her life took a drastic turn following these events. While most Americans are familiar with HUAC and the famous producers, directors, writers and “The Hollywood Ten,” who were called before it, many are unaware of those like Lewitzky who were not famous and had no power base within the industry. Some have inferred that she was named due to her support of the integration of dance/ballet schools. Although she was called before the committee only once, every time the committee came back to Los Angeles for hearings, her case and picture were prominently featured in the media. She could not “safely” work in films, colleagues would cross the street to avoid her, she received threatening phone calls, and her friends had rocks thrown through their windows. The only person who would hire her at this time was Agnes DeMille, who brought Lewitzky on as her assistant on the movie “Oklahoma,” with the stipulation that Lewitzky would not receive credit. After this, Lewitzky did not work in the "industry" again. She later stated, “It really is frightening when you can realize that your safety and right to life can be removed from you and that your enemy is never seen, is hidden, and that your accusers cannot be confronted because you don’t know who they are.”
In 1966 Lewitzky founded the Bella Lewitzky Dance Company. Unlike her earlier work, which was dramatic and socially conscious, her new choreography emphasized pure movement, and her dancers became noted for their strength, line, elevation, and agility—a tribute to her gifts as a teacher. She also became the founding Dean of the School of Dance at the California Institute of the Arts, where she developed a multicultural/inter-arts approach to teaching modern dance. She worked tirelessly to promote dance in California and sat on many national panels and boards. In 1984 she accepted an offer from the Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival to produce its dance component, bringing in such international companies as Pina Bausch’s Wuppertal Dance Theatre, and Japan’s Sanki Juku, for the first time to the United States. In addition, she presented local Hispanic, Asian and African American groups who received national and international exposure, putting Los Angeles and California on the cultural dance map for the first time.
In 1990 Lewitzky refused to sign an anti-obscenity clause on the acceptance form of a $72,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant. This was a clear intersection of art and politics and Lewitzky stated, “Please watch out. This is a pattern with which I am very familiar and it has nothing to do with pornography. Pornography is simply the demagogic weapon that permitted mind rule and censorship to move forward.” Unable to meet their payroll, her company disbanded as she joined with People for the American Way to sue NEA director John Frohnmayer. Lewitzky prevailed in this landmark case and was finally awarded the grant. The NEA was instructed to “take into consideration general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public.” This process took time away from Lewitzky’s choreography and fund raising. After a re-organization she decided to close her company with a final international tour and gala.
On May 17, 1997 at the Luckman Theatre at Cal State LA, the campus where her company gave its first performance, she said good-bye to her audience and stated, “The arts are under threat more than ever before. What legacy I have left here will die unless you become responsible for keeping it alive.” This case and the actions of the NEA changed the funding structure for the arts in the United States. Individual grants are no longer given to artists, but must be supported by institutions. Could Lewitzky have succeeded without the support of the Federal Theatre Project, or subsequent support from the NEA and NEH? How are California artists subsidizing their work today and what direct impact did Lewitzky’s actions have on our present artistic environment?
Bella Lewitzky died on July 16, 2004. At age 88, her physical health had deteriorated but her vital spirit continued to inspire those around her. Designated one of America's Irreplaceable Dance Treasures by the Dance Heritage Coalition and awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Clinton, Lewitzky’s life demonstrates how a “uniquely Californian” artist with vision and tenacity can change the lives and landscapes of her fellow citizens for the better.