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Bella Lewitzky - More Resources

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Bella Lewitzky (1916-2004)

By Naima Prevots

Bella Lewitzky’s legacy is multi-faceted. Her voice rang out for artistic freedom. Consistent virtuoso performances showcased a strong, lyrical body with powerful kinesthetic connections to audiences.  Numerous contributions she made to the teaching of dance, for diverse levels and populations, remain visionary today. Her choreography was visually compelling and technically demanding, and she toured and taught nationally and internationally.

Lewitzky was born to Los Angeles Russian-Jewish immigrants in a Southern California socialist utopian colony in the Mojave Desert, Llano del Rio. During her school years, the family lived in San Bernardino, and after high school she moved to Los Angeles. In 1934, a modern dance class with Lester Horton, then teaching at Norma Gould’s studio, was the beginning of their long association.  She became a star performer in his company, and a major collaborator.  Lewitzky was instrumental in encouraging Horton to organize his various ideas on technique. She was also a choreographic partner in three of Horton’s important works: The Beloved (1948); Warsaw Ghetto (1949);and Estilo de (1949).

Together with her husband Newell Taylor Reynolds, Lewitzky helped Horton found Dance Theatre in 1946. They embarked on purchasing a building for school and performance space, and it opened to the public in 1948. By 1950, Horton and Lewitzky had numerous differences about teaching, choreographing, and managing the theater and company.  In 1951, she left to create her own school, Dance Associates, and began choreographing independently.  In 1954, she began teaching summer programs in Idyllwild, California, a long-term involvement that culminated in 1958 with her appointment as Chairperson for Dance. Serving as administrator, teacher and choreographer, she brought in important guests, new to Southern California. Among these were John Cage, Merce Cunningham, John Butler, Carmen de Lavallade, Eugene Loring Players, and Daniel Nagrin.

Lewitzky formed a dance company in 1966, at age fifty.  The birth of her only daughter, Nora, in 1955, and various teaching responsibilities, were determining factors in her choice not to take on this commitment earlier.  In 1971, the company began touring nationally and internationally, in forty-three states and twenty countries. She ended her own performance career in 1976, retiring at the age of sixty-two, and closed the company in 1997. Over many years of touring and teaching, she created new works  each year, and these were characterized by strong visual imagery, technical virtuosity, group and spatial dynamics. Overall, Lewitzky produced more than fifty major concert works, commissioned by national and international arts groups and patrons.   

Teaching, performing, choreographing: all these activities intertwined and began to bring Lewitzky significant attention in Southern California’s arts and education worlds. The California Institute of the Arts was first proposed by Walt Disney in 1960, and he was also prepared to provide funding for a building and programs.  It was envisioned as an institution of higher education where young painters, dancers, and musicians would not be subject to conventional college curricula and faculty. They would be mentored by mature artists, be immersed in their chosen art forms, but also have numerous opportunities to interact and work with students and faculty in all areas of the arts. Lewitzky herself did not have a college degree, and had been skeptical about artists trained in institutions of higher education. When asked in 1969 to form a dance department for this new school, she agreed, and spent the next year working on a curriculum and hiring faculty. The school opened in temporary headquarters in 1970, and moved into its new (and current) building in 1971. Lewitzky stayed as head of dance through 1972, and her influence and vision remain strong to this day.  

Lewitzky felt passionately  about the importance of the arts in the lives of all children, and from 1970-1972 was active in a program developed by the National Endowment for the Arts. Interdisciplinary Model Program in the Arts for Children and Teachers (IMPACT) brought dance artists into the schools to teach sessions, with the goal of helping teachers bring dance into the classroom. From 1974-1977, she served as vice-chair of the National Endowment for the Arts Advisory Panel.   

In 1951, Lewitzky was anonymously accused of being a Communist Party member.  This resulted in a subpoena to appear before HUAC, The House Un-American Activities Committee. HUAC had been created in 1938, when conservative congressmen launched an initiative to fight against Roosevelt’s reforms and the supposed threat of communist infiltration. Lewitzky was asked to name people who had been associated with the Communist Party, but she refused to “name names.” She noted that the questions asked were unconstitutional, and her response is often quoted: “I am a dancer, not a singer.” (Moore, p. 36)

Not long after, in 1954, she received an invitation from UCLA to join the dance faculty. One of the conditions was signing a loyalty oath, then required by California law. Lewitzky refused to do this, and never worked at UCLA. When invited to teach at Idyllwild, she was also asked to sign the loyalty oath. This time, the director of the school ignored this requirement for employment. It was not too long after these events that the Supreme Court ruled that a loyalty oath was unconstitutional.

 In 1990, Lewitzky again took a strong stand against restrictions for artists related to freedom of expression. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) had instituted new clauses in their grant approvals. Starting in 1989, prompted by an exhibit by Robert Mapplethorpe that contained homoerotic material, there had been an outcry among conservative congressmen, who attempted to ensure that any arts supported by the government meet certain criteria.  These would limit possible themes and structures addressed by artists, and constituted government censorship. All artists were required to sign newly legislated pledges not to create obscenity, and Lewitzky refused to sign on constitutional grounds. She filed a suit against the NEA, and was supported by the People for the American Way. This was a bold and attention-getting move. She won, and on January 9, 1991, Los Angeles District Judge John G. Davies ruled in her favor, eliminating the pledge.   

Bella Lewitzky was the recipient of many awards: Dance Magazine (1979); California Governor’s Award for Lifetime Achievement (1989); American Society of Journalists and Authors Open Book Award (1990); University of Judaism Burning Bush Award (1991); National Dance Association Heritage Award (1991); National Medal of Arts (1996); Capezio/Ballet Makers Dance Foundation Award (1999). In 2010, Indiana University’s Contemporary Dance Program received funding from the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) to reconstruct Trio for Saki: Suite Satie. Nora Reynolds, Lewitzky’s daughter, and a performer, choreographer and teacher in her own right, was in charge of the reconstruction, and the piece was seen for the first time since Lewitzky’s death.

Bella Lewitzky’s legacy is kept alive through the numerous people she trained and taught. Her political activism and insistence on freedom of expression remain inspiring. She had hoped to found a permanent theater and school in Los Angeles, and worked on this for over fifteen years. Although this goal did not materialize,  she helped to make modern dance in Los Angeles a vibrant component of the arts, a legacy that remains a motivating factor for many artists, choreographers and teachers in that city.

Naima Prevots, Professor Emerita, American University, Washington, D.C., has been a performer, choreographer, writer, administrator, educator, and critic. She has written three books, several monographs and many articles. Honors include: National Endowment for Humanities Fellowship; six Fulbright Fellowships, and awards from CORD, and other groups. She is currently working on a book about American dance, 1953-2010.


Selected Resources for Further Resources

Books & Articles

Cohen, Selma Jeanne, ed. “The Dance Theatre of Lester Horton.” Dance Perspectives 31, 1967. Articles by Larry Warren, Frank Eng, Bella Lewitzky, Joyce Trisler.

Joel, Lydia.  “The Impact of IMPACT,” DanceScope, Spring/Summer 1972, pp. 6-25.

Moore, Elvi.  “Bella Lewitzky: A Legend Turned Real.” Dance Chronicle. Volume Two, Number One, 1978.

This monograph has the best and most detailed information on Lewitzky’s life and career through 1978.

Prevots, Naima. Dancing in the Sun: Hollywood Choreographers 1915-1937. UMI Research Press, 1987.

Warren, Larry. Lester Horton: Modern Dance Pioneer. New York: Dance Horizons, 1977.

Wenner, Gene. “Impact,” Journal of Health, Physical Education and Recreation, October 1972, pp. 27-30.

Online Resources

Craig, Jenifer. “Bella Lewitzky.” Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women’s Archive. June 19, 2011. http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/lewitsky-bella

Bella Lewitzky: Explore the Arts- The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Facing West: Dance and Film from Michio Ito, Lester Horton, and Bella Lewitzky. https://www.kennedy-center.org/Artist/B13330

YorkeDanceProject: biographical information and information on reconstruction of Lewitzky work. http://www.yorkedanceproject.co.uk/2009/04/bella-lewitzky

Bella Lewitzky: biographical information and information on reconstruction of Lewitzky work. http://bellalewitzky.blogspot.com/

Luminario Ballet website: material on reconstruction of Lewitzky work. http://www.luminarioballet.org

Moving Image

D.A. Pennebaker, Pennebakers Associates. Dancers in the Schools, 1972.

The film was made to show aspects of Project IMPACT, the Artists in the Schools program sponsored by the NEA and Office of Education. Murray Louis, Virginia Tanner and Bella Lewitzky were filmed as they did dance residencies with their companies in public schools. The film is 28 minutes long and is available in the following libraries: University of Maryland (Theodore R. McKeldin Library, College Park); Pennsylvania State University Libraries (University Park, PA); York University Libraries (Toronto, Ontario). 


Lewitzky Dance Company Archive (link)

Housed at University of Southern California, Doheny Memorial Library, Special Collections. The archive houses about 300 boxes of records, and the material was given to USC in 1997 by Bella Lewitzky, following the final performance of her company. Included are: papers, films, photographs, clippings, programs, posters, sound recordings, stage plots and costume of the company. Lewtizky’s personal papers are not included.

New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Lincoln Center, Dance Collection

This can be accessed online at http://catalog.nypl.org/search. There are 63 items which include performance reviews, short articles, photos, and some video.