A TRIBUTE TO BELLA LEWITZKY
What do you give the woman who has everything? If the woman is Bella Lewitzky and you’re a former member of the Bella Lewitzky Dance Company, you give a dance concert in her honor.
At 70, this dancer/choreographer/company director/educator already has almost everything else she ever wanted: a renowned, Los Angeles-based modern dance company that turned 20 this year, and the Dance Gallery, a $15.5-million dance theater-cum-institute that’s Lewitzky’s brainchild, broke ground on Sept. 14.
Both company and gallery fulfill lifelong dreams for Lewitzky, who began her career training and performing with California dance pioneer Lester Horton and played a key role in creating and supporting dance in California.
And now there’s that performance honoring her: On Thursday and Friday, nine Lewitzky alumni--Gary Bates, Rebecca Bobele, Linda Davis, Jan Day, Loretta Livingston, Iris Pell, David Plettner, Fred Strickler and Kurt Weinheimer--will gather at the Los Angeles Theatre Center for “The Lewitzky Legacy in Los Angeles.” This program features works by seven of these former company dancers and nothing at all by Lewitzky herself.
It’s a far cry from the usual retrospective/tribute, but the principals consider it a fitting way of honoring Lewitzky’s special, far-reaching influence.
“This concert reflects our deep roots with Bella and her impact on our artistic lives,” explains Pell. “We’re not just Bella’s dancers. We’re maturing artists in our own right, carrying on her commitment in our own ways.”
Collectively, the nine dancers spent 67 years in her company, but they’re hardly Lewitzky clones. Livingston is lithe and languidly graceful as a dancer and vividly dramatic as a choreographer. Pell is solid and strong as a dancer and implosively sensitive as a choreographer. Strickler applies formal classicism to elegant tap solos. Bobele takes a looser approach in the development of her eclectic, highly personal movement style.
“Our individuality is part of the legacy,” says Livingston. “Bella gave me the strength to be myself, not a carbon copy of her.” Bates concurs. “Bella brought out our differences and we hope the diversity shows.”
Of the nine, all but Plettner, Livingston and Weinheimer joined the Lewitzky company in its first five years. “It was a wonderful time of exploration,” Bobele remembers. “Bella was setting the tone of the company and building its reputation.”
Bates recalls the company’s debuts at the prestigious American Dance Festival and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and its role as a pilot company in the trailblazing Artists in the Schools program in Los Angeles.
Dancing with Lewitzky, who was celebrated for her strength and dramatic power until she retired from performing in 1978, was part of the excitement of the early days. “What fueled her movement was present in performance,” Bobele explains. “Her fire and energy and dynamic as a performer were a potent part of our experience.”
Developing the foundation of the company repertory was another. “We had a lot of hopeful young choreographers in that group,” Strickler says, “and Bella encouraged our participation in the process of choreography. For example, she would assign a duet and describe it and plot a sequence of events, then we’d go off and create movement that she would shape and mold. She was very clear and articulate and her ideas were very solid. Then--working within a certain vocabulary and structure--we filled in.”
Several veterans of the early days agreed that they contributed more creatively to the company than have latter-day Lewitzky dancers. According to Bates, “The first group was more creative, but as the company’s vocabulary and style take shape you don’t need the same dynamic creative energy. You need a group of people to work on without the distraction of all that input.
“Now Bella has the tightest ensemble ever, but it’s lost some of the spontaneous individuality and creativity that was characteristic of the company. It’s the same with (Martha) Graham or (Merce) Cunningham or (Alwin) Nikolais or (Murray) Louis. Every company that manages to stay alive begins to find dancers instead of artists.”
Strickler agrees. “As the original company members began to move on, Bella replaced choreographers with dancers to do her work and learn the repertory.”
However, Lewitzky herself sees it differently: “Each work determines whether it’s a collaborative process,” she says. “We still have an enormous level of collaboration.” Nonetheless, she concedes that “almost all the early company was very creative. Now it’s about 50/50.”
For these members of that intensively creative early company, eventually the time came to leave Lewitzky. For Strickler, “It was time to sprout wings. I wanted more time to make my own pieces and Bella was such a strong influence, I needed to be away in order to develop my own vision.”
For Livingston, “Adolescence had struck again and I became restless and critical. But Bella hadn’t changed, I just needed to stand apart, and find my own voice as an artist. I was afraid, but Bella was very supportive.”
Other former company members echo Livingston’s sense of support from Lewitzky. But not Bates. Feeling himself under attack by Lewitzky for forming other commitments, he walked out in mid-tour in 1973. “I didn’t leave very well,” he admits, “but Bella was into controlling and I was into rebelling.”
Ironically, it is Bates who originated the idea of the “Legacy” concert and serves as artistic director. “I’m doing this concert because I love L.A. and what Bella has done for us,” he explains. All the Lewitzky alumni taking part in the concert have gone on to active dance careers, performing, choreographing, teaching at major universities and institutes--and organizing their own companies. All nine remain based in Los Angeles.
Strickler sums up the Lewitzky legacy this way: “She created one of the best-organized, best-budgeted, best-known companies on the West Coast, and she has always supported other artists. Bella proved that New York was not Mecca.”