Embracing the Lewitzky Technique : Construction of Bunker Hill Dance Gallery Will Extend Dancer’s Teaching to Thousands

<i> Knaff, a former Calendar intern, is a graduate student at UC Irvine. Shauna Snow contributed to this article</i>

It’s been 20 years since Judy Alter, UCLA assistant professor of dance, took a master class from Bella Lewitzky, but she’s never forgotten it:

“I still take things from that class, still use parts of what she gave us in my own teaching. It was so rich, the combinations were so powerfully chosen, that it has always stayed with me.”

Alter echoes other dancers and dance teachers in their praise of Lewitzky’s abilities as an instructor. But it is not simply Lewitzky’s classroom charisma that makes her valuable as a teacher: It is also the strength of the form of dance she teaches.

“The system of technique itself is first class,” according to Fred Strickler, chair of the program in dance at UC Riverside and a former Lewitzky dancer. “Its thoroughness and rigor is as great as Limon, Graham and others.”


Many more dance students will have access to that technique when Lewitzky’s long-planned Dance Gallery opens on Bunker Hill, scheduled for 1991.

But missing a June 30 $20-million fund-raising deadline has snagged the Dance Gallery’s development, causing the facility to move its proposed site in the Calfornia Plaza. Although another location on Grand Street just north of the Museum of Contemporary Art--about one block north of the original location--has been discussed, no agreements have been made, said Roy Willis, the city’s director of operations for the Bunker Hill project.

Lewitzky, who called the missed deadline and site change “a disappointment” and “setback,” said she expected the new site would be finalized in “a month or so.” But Willis said that decision would probably come in the first quarter of 1989.

“Missing the fund-raising deadline was not unexpected because the demands placed against us (raising $20 million in construction and equipment costs before construction began) were impossible . . . but we have been reconfirmed in the minds of the developer and the CRA (the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency) and both are very interested in having the Dance Gallery in the California Plaza.”


More than $14 million had been raised by the end of September and fund-raising efforts are continuing, said Arline Chambers, Dance Gallery executive director.

She added that the issuance of more than $10 million in tax-exempt bonds to provide cash for the construction “up front” will be considered once agreements on the site and design changes are completed.

Meanwhile, plans for the Dance Gallery are moving forward.

In addition to a 1,000-seat dance theater, an experimental performance space seating 75 to 100, an outdoor performance area and a dance research library, there will be a teaching institute.

Perhaps the least understood component of the Dance Gallery, this institute will include four studios, with resilient floors and surfaces designed for the different demands of both modern dance and ballet; a physical therapy room, dressing rooms and staff offices.

The plan is for Lewitzky-trained instructors to teach 50 classes a week, embracing modern dance, ballet and tap as well as dance appreciation and fitness; accredited courses on a variety of subjects will be offered for educators. The Gallery Library will be open to institute students.

Members of Lewitzky’s company as well as Lewitzky herself and guest teachers will hold classes for all levels of students, from children to professional dancers and senior citizens to choreographers.

The Dance Gallery was planned as part of the California Plaza Development on Bunker Hill, an 11 1/2-acre site bordered by 4th, 1st, Grand and Olive streets that will also house apartments, a hotel and office buildings. The city awarded contracts for California Plaza to the developers on the basis that it include two cultural institutions; the first, the Museum of Contemporary Art, has already been built.


Supported by corporate and private sponsors as well as federal, state, county and city agencies, the Dance Gallery was required by the city to have all funding in hand before construction could begin. The development firm, Bunker Hill Associates, established a deadline of June 30, 1988, for the fund-raising efforts.

Lewitzky, who founded the Lewitzky Dance Company in 1966 after dancing with Lester Horton for two decades, will serve as artistic director of the Dance Gallery. “I hope this will be a nurturing place for dance,” she said. “Everything revolves around that. It’s essential that dance and dancers have a place to come home to.”

She added: “Taking classes will give (novices) first-hand experience of an art form that cannot be understood as a sedentary activity.”

Larry Attaway, musical director and composer for Lewitzky’s company, who has been asked to serve as director of the institute when it opens, said classes for all levels “will be based on Bella’s philosophy of training and professional work.”

That philosophy, as outlined by Attaway and others who have trained with Lewitzky, includes an emphasis on proper alignment of the body, a careful balance of strength and flexibility, good coordination of body parts and good articulation of the feet.

Attaway said classes would also emphasize other Lewitzky strengths such as quick, complicated movements, strong jumps, the ability to work off balance, and strong projection as a performer.

Attaway and dancers who have trained with Lewitzky emphasized that her technique is designed to prevent injuries.

Gary Bates, who danced with Lewitzky’s company for five years in the company’s early days and now teaches dance at Loyola Marymount University, said part of the “healthiness” of Lewitzky’s teaching derives from her ability to make dancers more aware of their own bodies.


“She is very good at helping the dancer to focus, to listen, to his or her body. . . . She is very aware of the body and she doesn’t do things that are likely to cause injury,” Bates said.

Iris Pell, who danced with Lewitzky from 1971 until 1983 and is now teaching dance at Santa Monica College, agreed with Bates.

“I find it’s a very safe technique. She uses strength as well as stretch, power as well as flexibility. She’s very structurally oriented. She has a very strong sense of putting the body together.”

Attaway said of Lewitzky’s approach: “It is stylistically free. People can come and study and not be bound to a certain style. Bella’s training will produce a good, strong well-rounded dancer, and one who can assimilate easily.

“Which is not to say that it’s generic training. But it is without decoration. It enables you to be free enough to add whatever you need.”

While Lewitzky’s technique is based on principles that are unlikely to change, the technique that Dance Gallery Institute students receive will not be static.

“It’s an evolving technique. It’s constantly changing,” Pell said. “And all of her students who teach also develop it with their own strengths. It’s all an ongoing process--it’s truly modern dance.”