Lanier: No Longer in Lewitzky’s Shoes
The only life form more fleet of foot than veteran Lewitzky dancer and budding choreographer Nancy Lanier may be the deer that abruptly bolted down the hill behind Lewitzky’s San Fernando Valley studio recently while the company was rehearsing “Impressions 3: Paul Klee.”
At 32, Lanier is busy getting ready for the premiere of this work in Tunisia on July 29, as well as preparing choreography of her own for a fall unveiling in Costa Mesa. And then there is her work with the Lewitzky company.
Bella Lewitzky calls her “incredibly versatile” as a dancer. “I can put Nancy in dances which require a clarity of footwork that is nearly balletic,” Lewitzky explains, “or I can put her in intense, dramatic roles.”
Now in her sixth year with the company, Lanier performs the mercurial “Silver” duet in “Facets” in addition to highly theatrical solos in “Continuum” and “Nos Duraturi,” but she prefers the role of the girl on the flying plastic platform in Lewitzky’s 1974 classic “Spaces Between.”
“ ‘Spaces Between’ is so Lewitzky, so architectural,” Lanier said. “It’s the kind of technical playing with the body and space that I feel comfortable with. You’re testing space and the areas that the body can create within it. It’s a romp and,” she chuckles, “I get to fly.”
A peripatetic child whose family moved annually as her father ascended the corporate ladder, Lanier first encountered dance at 17 in Denver when she saw the Paul Taylor Company.
“They showed me the sheer exuberant joy of movement,” explains the Illinois native, who avidly pursues white-water rafting and off-trail hiking in her spare time.
Lanier got an MFA in dance from the University of Michigan and a scholarship to Jacob’s Pillow, where she danced in Taylor’s “Three Epitaphs.”
During her two years in New York, Lanier worked with Manuel Alum and Dancers and discovered “the spontaneity of improvisation” with David Parsons and Daniel Ezralow at Dance Theatre Workshop.
Despite all that, Lanier confesses that her dancing was not as free as it is now. “I was more tightly reined in, less willing to take risks.” New York classes with Nora Reynolds (Lewitzky’s daughter) led to a position in the L.A.-based company, and Lanier credits her work with Lewitzky for much of the change in her dance style and her body structure.
A lithe dancer who admits to having shortened calves and bound quadriceps when she first joined the troupe, Lanier finds that the stretching exercises the company members perform rigorously each day have elongated her muscle structure, creating more of a physical balance.
“The technique that created this stretch comes from Bella’s philosophy, which involves doing everything to the fullest extent,” she says. “It’s an enormous challenge. Bella believes in perfection and feels the only way to do a movement or create one is to do it over and over each time in a different way so that it’s always an improvement.”
Private coaching sessions with Lewitzky were the most enlightening times for Lanier.
“Bella takes one diagonal movement and dissects it so that you are aware of what you are trying to communicate through the movement itself, the space around it and the whole quality of the performance,” she says.
If Lanier could change any of the Lewitzky approach to dance training, it would be in improvisation:
“I would want to broaden the problems we are given and allow more freedom,” she comments. “Bella believes that by limiting the problem and making you work within a strict limitation that it will force you to find the multiple solutions within the narrow, confined definition. I think you can also achieve those things by opening up the boundaries, not making them as confined.”
One area in which Lewitzky has inspired Lanier to explore boundaries is in choreography:.
“Bella will say, ‘I have this image, can you make it work for me?,’ ” Lanier says, “and I feel I’m giving to her choreographically because she’s not dictating the movement. I’m developing it with her image in mind.
“I think her feeling is that she wants to develop her dancers as choreographers. However she doesn’t want what you do on the outside to distract from the work you do for her.”
For that reason, Lanier uses only her time off from the company to explore these future possibilities. Also a member of the L.A. Junior Chamber of Commerce, she helps to further the business community’s understanding of the dance world’s needs by working on their Humanities Committee and she works with Special Olympics when time permits.
Although previous vacations have been spent on these and teaching chores around the country, this year Lanier is choreographing “Deep Thaw,” for Dance Kaleidoscope in Orange County. It will premiere in September.
“Movement-wise it’s like a spring thaw,” she says. “It has rush and flux that flows into eddies. It’s never-stopping motion. It has emotional content that is not as visible as the physical motion, but which represents the walls that come tumbling down when you start becoming true to your emotions.”
Because “Deep Thaw” is the first choreography she has done since her graduate thesis, Lanier found it scary:
“I was afraid to start because I thought I would come up with choreography that was too Lewitzky. I’ve been doing Bella’s movement for so long, I feared it wouldn’t have me in ‘Deep Thaw.’ ”
No longer. “I’m sure it’s influenced by Bella,” she says, “but I’m delighted that it looks and feels like me.” She finds an additional bonus in that she returns to Lewitzky’s company with “a feeling that I have something to offer, because I can go away, set my own work, come back and still do Bella’s work.
“Living in the Lewitzky world is wonderful protection, but once in a while you have to climb out of the nutshell. When I can do my own choreography I feel broadened, more of a total artist.”