Performing Arts: Dance
February 8, 2023
When modern dance began to take it root, the majority of the creativity and action was centered on the East Coast and Manhattan in particular. As a result, dance history underscores techniques and companies built in NYC.

This East Coast superiority aggravated Bella Lewitzky, one of Lester Horon's muses and partners in creating a modern dance branch in the American west.

A power-dancer with a tightly pulled back bun and sharp cheekbones, Lewitzky thrived with Horton whose most famous student was Alvin Ailey. But then, even Ailey left California for NYC.  Remarkable in his own right, Horton invited people of all races to his studio--at a time when races did not mix. Fascinated by large scale works, Horton presented extravaganzas at the Hollywood Bowl including his version of the radical "Rite of Spring" in 1937.

Despite these high profile events, paying the dancers proved challenging. Nationally, people struggled to make ends meet because the Great Depression ransacked livelihoods in 1939. This made it tough on dancers, spending hours a day dancing, to survive.

Bella explains that Horton's film gigs secured company members' financial sustenance.  However, determined to follow her own drummer, Bella leaves Horton to form her own group. Her mantra centered on the importance of modern dancers being able to improvise and discover the choreography in their own bodies--even when executing someone else's dances.

Insightful archival footage captures Lewitzky dancing  in the 1940's, 50's and onward.  As much an activist as an artist, Lewitzky was subpoenaed to speak in front of the Un-American Activities Committee charged with "outing"  Communists polluting  America. Black-balled after the incident, only Agnes deMille dared employ Lewitzky inviting her to work as her choreographic assistant on the groundbreaking musical, Oklahoma.

Over the years, Letwitsky built a successful dance school and company that toured throughout the world. Her husband, a former Horton dancer turned architect, proved an inspired partner.

When the National Endowment for the Arts came under attack by the Conservative Right in the early 1990's, Letwizky once again faced legislators in Washington D.C. refusing her $70,000+ grant and demanding her First Amendment Rights.

A tenacious task-master, former dancers recalled her demands in the classroom, caring less about their feelings and more about the craft. Dance excerpts and comments by former company members are sprinkled throughout Bridget Murmane's well tailored film (Alex Bushe, editor) bringing this nationally recognized modern dance luminary to life. Indeed, like Martha Graham, Bella Lewitsky dug into "the bones of the work."
Screening February 13 as part of the Dance on Camera Festival
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia IPiotis

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