A mover and shaker of modern dance Bella Lewitzky doesn't pussyfoot around

January 09, 1992|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,Evening Sun Staff

THE DANCERS sit at Bella Lewitzky's feet like eager students, soaking up her pithy admonishments and the knowledge of body movement she has gathered for more than half a century.

Lewitzky, the driving force in modern dance in Southern California, is in Baltimore this week running a workshop at the University of Maryland Baltimore County for 15 local teachers and choreographers.

The workshop, sponsored by the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Art and Culture, has brought together some of the most talented choreographers in the area who vied for the privilege to have their work ripped apart by one of the founders of modern dance.

And rip Bella does.

Lewitzky, 76, can look at a dance and tell within seconds what arm gesture works and what foot work doesn't, what phrase of body movement is trite and what is poetry. Not afraid to bruise an ego, she even advised one dancer to throw away all her choreography and start over again.

Lewitzky makes one thing clear to them: Don't ever say something is impossible.

"I once asked one of my dancers: 'Nancy, can you walk up Walter's back and down his front without stopping?' And she said, 'Sure.' It took her a while but she could do it."

Lewitzky has quite a reputation for doing what other people won't.

Last year she sued the National Endowment for the Arts on constitutional grounds for forcing artists to sign a pledge promising not to produce obscene art.

While Lewitzky's dances are anything but obscene, she refused to sign the pledge and turned down a $72,000 NEA grant for her Lewitzky Dance Company.

Lewitzky announced her rejection of the NEA grant in a press conference at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood.

She chose the spot, she says, for its historical significance. It was at the hotel in the 1950s that Lewitzky and others were called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which asked for the names of communist sympathizers.

"I was an outspoken advocate of the anti-war and the freedom of expression movements and a member of the anti-fascist league," says Lewitzky in explaining why she was called before the committee.

After she refused to testify, she was bombarded by members of the press, who asked her what she told the committee.

"I'm not a singer, I'm a dancer," she recalls telling the press.

Back then, she remembers, even her friends in the art world were afraid to speak to her.

"They would turn their faces."

But today, the response in the arts community to her stand against the NEA was much different.

"The support was unbelievable. It was no longer my case. It became everybody's case," she said.

The obscenity pledge was later withdrawn and Lewitzky won her lawsuit.

But in the aftermath, Lewitzky fears "the arts community has been maimed. It has been damaged by the [Senator Jesse] Helms attack. The artists are the victims in this setup, and some of them have begun to censor themselves," she said.

"What do you call decency? You are left at sea trying to determine [what is not obscene]. I am afraid for the arts community," she said.

Lewitzky's decision to fight the system was no surprise to those who know her well.

"Suing the NEA, for her, was not a decision. She couldn't sign that pledge," says Nora Reynolds, Lewitzky's 36-year-old daughter, who is a dancer and choreographer living in New Mexico.

Reynolds, who has performed with her mother's internationally known company, is attending this week's workshop with her mother and teaching warm-up class each day.

"I don't think she did it to make a show. She could not go along with what's happening," said Reynolds, who started dancing when she was 3 and was changing lighting gels for her mother's company by the time she was 12.

Working with her mother this week and watching her critique other dancers' work, "is like being handed a box of jewels," said Reynolds.

"I like the way she pushes people and forces them to take [dance] more seriously. She's had a lifelong belief in the value of this art form."

On Monday, the first day of Lewitzky's Baltimore workshop, she challenged her students, who are teachers and choreographers in their own right. The group included Juliet Forrest from Goucher College, Iantha Tucker from Morgan State University and Elizabeth Walton from UMBC.

She forced these pros to improvise movement with split-second commands. She took one dancer's choreography and told the other 14 to reinvent the movement in their own variations.

She also gave them bits of advice on how to create.

When Lewitzky needs to create, she tells them, she simply begins to walk "to loosen me up for choreography.

"You have to develop a process where you can free your mind of the debris of the day. Choreography is always the unknown," she says.

Her manner is gentle, yet firm.

"It's a kindness and compassion but a dynamic force. You don't doubt you're being led and carefully led," says Susan Grubb, a dance faculty member at Towson State University.

This is Grubb's second workshop with Lewitzky. The first was about 15 years ago at University of Texas.

Back then, Grubb said, "I thought I was going to blow everyone away."

Instead, Lewitzky asked the class to perform a very simple step, but Grubb couldn't do it.

"I just remember she spoke to me directly and said there is always something to learn," Grubb recalls.

Today, Grubb finds that Lewitzky "has that same charisma, that same authority. And she's so young."

She sees in Lewitzky's approach to art a quality that dancers of Grubb's generation lack.

"I think people dancing in that time knew they were important. They knew they were changing history."

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