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Bella Lewitzky, 88; Innovative Dancer and Choreographer

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles-based modern dance pioneer Bella Lewitzky, who transformed herself from a powerhouse dancer into an indomitably independent, internationally known choreographer, master teacher and arts advocate, died Friday at an assisted-care facility in Pasadena. She was 88.

The cause of death was complications from a massive stroke she suffered Tuesday, said her daughter, Nora Reynolds Daniel.

Lewitzky’s 60-year devotion to her art proved that it was possible to sustain a major dance career without reference to the powerful East Coast dance establishment.

But her relative isolation from the modern dance mainstream left her large and distinguished body of work undervalued in the United States outside her home base.

Lewitzky served as vice chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Arts dance panel and was an appointee to the California Arts Council. In 1984, she produced the unusually diverse and groundbreaking dance component of the 10-week Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles.

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She won numerous awards and honors, including five honorary doctorates, the Dance Magazine Award (1978), a Guggenheim fellowship (1977), the first California Governor’s Award for Lifetime Achievement (1989), the National Medal of Arts (1997) and the coveted Capezio Award (1999).

To her dancers and supporters, Lewitzky was “an extraordinary and rare role model, a powerful woman who was every bit as strong as the men in society,” said Loretta Livingston, one of the most prominent Lewitzky company members and an acclaimed director of her own locally based ensemble.

The dance company Lewitzky formed in 1966 toured to critical acclaim in 43 states and 20 countries.

She lived her life as if it were a test of her principles and, in the process, took the legacy of her mentor, innovative Los Angeles choreographer Lester Horton, in a whole new direction.

Lewitzky was born Jan. 13, 1916, in Los Angeles and spent her childhood with her parents and older sister in a utopian colony in the Mojave Desert and on a ranch in San Bernardino.

She moved to Los Angeles in her early teens and studied ballet briefly.

But at age 18 she surrendered to the lure of modern dance when she enrolled in a class given by Horton at the Norma Gould Studio.

“It was wild and wonderful,” she recalled decades later.

In less than three years, she became the leading dancer in the Horton Dance Group. Writing of early performances, dance historian Margaret Lloyd described her as “a small girl with heavy, dark hair and big eyes, a dancer of quality from the outset.”

In 1940, local dance critic Dorathi Bock Pierre wrote that “she has it in her power to create an immortal place for herself among the great American dancers.”

That year, Lewitzky married Newell Taylor Reynolds, an architect and fellow Horton dancer.

Her prowess as a teacher grew and, in 1946, she co-founded the seminal Dance Theatre (with Horton, Reynolds and William Bowne) in a reconditioned store on Melrose Avenue.

She also earned critical raves throughout this period for her strength and intensity as a dancer.

Growing artistic and personal differences caused her to leave Horton and, in 1951, found Dance Associates, a school and company that lasted until 1955, when her daughter was born.

Her new role as a mother led Lewitzky to focus on educational activities that had long interested her, including teaching residencies across the country and abroad as well as periods of employment at USC, the Idyllwild School of the Arts and the California Institute for the Arts, where she served as the first dean of dance.

She made a belated New York debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1971 with her Bella Lewitzky Dance Company.

Reviewing her performance in the New York Times, critic Clive Barnes called her “one of America’s great modern dancers.”

She retired as a performer seven years later at age 62.

As a choreographer, Lewitzky forsook the narrative and ethnic emphases of the Horton repertory for painterly movement compositions that explored the drama she found in the interaction of her dancers and in the division of the stage space.

“Even when they dabble in illusion and abstraction,” her works “appeal, always vehemently and often poignantly, to the emotions,” wrote Los Angeles Times critic Martin Bernheimer in 1982.

“Creative, progressive, glamorous dance doesn’t always have to be imported from Brussels or Amsterdam or New York. It can flourish in our own frontyard,” he wrote.

Beginning in the late 1960s, Lewitzky was in great demand as a teacher and speaker, and in the period after retiring from dancing she served on various art boards and the NEA’s dance panel.

However, her uncompromising, lifelong stand on freedom of expression more than once led to conflict with the U.S. government.

In 1951, she was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee to answer questions about possible communist activities in the art world.

“I’m a dancer, not a singer,” she replied defiantly.

Forty years later, she successfully sued the NEA over the anti-obscenity clause written into grant contracts, arguing that although she had never choreographed anything that could be seen as obscene, she and others might want to do so in the future and ought to have the right.

Not all her battles ended in victory, however.

Fifteen years spent planning and promoting the visionary Dance Gallery on Bunker Hill downtown ultimately came to nothing because of funding shortfalls. She resigned from the project in 1992, and it collapsed soon afterward.

Her attempt to hand over the running of her dance company to concentrate wholly on choreography also proved unsuccessful. The troupe folded with a gala at Cal State L.A. in 1997.

But what Lewitzky acknowledged as the worst thing that ever happened to her took place two years later when, at age 83, she lost part of her right leg to the same long-term arterial disease that had ended her dancing career in 1978.

Lewitzky and Reynolds had moved to Albuquerque to be close to their daughter and two grandsons, and the amputation was performed there.

“You just have to accept that things are going to be different,” she said two months later as she was learning to use a prosthesis. “I’m very glad to be alive. I’m glad I still have one leg and a half.”

Early in 2001, Lewitzky and Reynolds moved back to California, living quietly in the assisted-care facility in Pasadena and visiting with family and friends. However, she grew physically weaker over the last few years.

“Her spirit remained really strong until the end,” her daughter said Friday. “And she slipped away without any struggle. She died with the same kind of mastery as most of what she did in her lifetime.”

In April 2001, Lewitzky accepted a special honor from the California Arts Council during the annual Lester Horton Dance Awards ceremony in North Hollywood. It was one of her last public appearances.

“This is my home,” she said in her acceptance speech, sitting in a wheelchair at the back of the auditorium. " ... What I am, I am because you made me. So thank you.”

She is survived by Reynolds, her daughter and grandsons Keenan and Ross McCune.


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