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DANCE : Lewitzky: A New Canvas for Her Gallery

There was a time when Bella Lewitzky could ignore the mad scramble toward success as her choreographer colleagues defined it. Glad to focus inward on her company, she left wide-ranging Establishment ambitions to others.

No more.

In the six years since California’s most identifiable modern dance pioneer announced the formulation of her long-held dream--the Dance Gallery, a facility to showcase and nurture her chosen performing art--the world has encroached on Lewitzky’s sanctum. Happily, as it turns out. And at her bidding.

“Who would have thought that business, politics and art can recognize, much less work together on, a mutual goal?,” she asks rhetorically while smoothly sliding onto a metal folding chair outside her residential Hollywood Hills studio.

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“Certainly not I. And yet here we are, within days of an agreement that will signal a final plan for the Gallery (scheduled to be built as part of the California Plaza downtown).”

“The people I previously regarded as outsiders have proven that they care enough to stay committed to our cause. With every legal right and prerogative to say ‘go away’ they stood behind us. What an eye-opener this has been.”

As anyone following the progress of Lewitzky’s $20-million labor of love can verify, raising the funds has been a long, harrowing battle. Many opening dates, the first of them slated for the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival, fell by the wayside because of economic recessions affecting investors.

Significantly, however, the 72-year-old doyenne of California dance has not abandoned her creative raison d’etre just because she’s now waist-deep in funding seas.

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On Oct. 7, as an example, she opens the fall season of the UCLA Center for the Performing Arts with “Impressions 2 (Van Gogh),” the middle piece of a trilogy on artists.

This new choreographic track--basing dances on her responses to visual artists--is something Lewitzky says “has been gestating for I don’t know how long.” But it all points backwards to a childhood spent in the Mojave Desert with secular Jewish parents who belonged to the Socialist Utopian Colony. And, specifically, it points back to life with father, the artist.

“It was he who taught me the spirit of adventure . . . and how people with vision and creativity must have courage to carry out their ideals. Van Gogh, for instance. He ranked high in those values. As my father explained, only a great individualist would slash paint on with a palette knife as he sometimes did, instead of using a brush. But not indiscriminately--rather, as a means of getting across all that density and passion. I saw his qualities again while visiting the Van Gogh Museum in the Netherlands.”

It was a hectic time for Lewitzky: She had met with four ministers of culture from as many nations in five days. The mission involved setting up programs for the Dance Gallery’s International Presenters Network, a service that will bring European companies to Los Angeles and other cities around the country. However, she and her hardy cohort Darleen Neel made a point of seeing the Van Goghs.

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“There was an immediate renewal for me,” recalls Lewitzky. “Years ago I had fallen out of love with the work because of the public’s commercial exploitation of it. Van Gogh was crazy. He cut off his ear. He went around with prostitutes. That was the sensationalistic gist. And it turned me off. No longer were his canvasses the focus. Only the bizarre elements of his life.”

All that has been annulled in the process of responding to the Van Goghs. But Lewitzky cautions that she in no way “claims to achieve their passion” in her new work but merely suggests some of the character gleaned from the Dutch artist’s people and landscapes.

Besides her pull toward the common folk depicted in his sketches and paintings--working people, vineyard people--she finds “a certain evenhandedness” in his treatment of gender.

“There is a portrait, for instance, of the postmaster and an equally important one of the postmaster’s wife. I like Van Gogh’s egalitarianism. But what I’m doing (although it represents a step away from the usual Lewitzkyan abstraction) will not make recognition of these characters necessary. What I want to capture is the generalized feeling.”

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To represent the landscapes, dancers will wear flesh-colored unitards. For the women there will be homespun, earth-toned overdresses, with pants for the men. Once again Larry Attaway, Lewitzky’s nearly constant composer, will provide the score, while Neel takes charge of costumes and lighting.

The first “Impressions,” given a year ago, was based on Henry Moore, whose sculptures the choreographer remembers discovering in a plaza near San Francisco’s Embarcadero. “I kept running around them like a crazy person,” she says, “hollering out from each angle how different the figure was. Unfortunately, Moore died before the premiere. I was so sorry.”

On this mild afternoon just several weeks before unveiling her dance ode to Van Gogh, Lewitzky is in the throes of nervous anticipation. She complains that the Moore was easier because of its three-dimensional character, but credits her general worry to the present stage of creation. (‘It’s always like this.”)

Less vexing, actually, is the Dance Gallery’s current state of affairs.

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“Right now the CRA (Community Redevelopment Agency), BHA (Bunker Hill Associates) and Fred Nicholas (an indispensable volunteer and patron representing the Dance Gallery) are in discussion on the final plan. We’ve been given every assurance that the project will happen.”

“Despite the fact that we’re $5 million short of the $20-million mark, the (proposed) change in location--to one block north on lower Grand Avenue--will cost less because the construction will now be above ground. Meanwhile, we’ve lost none of the original design.”

Keeping things in perspective has not been easy. But as an old hand at surviving with her ideals intact, Bella Lewitzky believes she has sacrificed nothing. “I’m in the business of making my private world public, of staying vulnerable to the creative impulse. So far nothing has pushed me off course. With any luck it will stay that way.”


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