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Lewitzky, Bella


LEWITZKY, BELLA (1916–2004), U.S. dancer, choreographer, educator, and arts activist. Lewitzky, who was born to Russian-Jewish parents near California's Mojave Desert at the socialist commune Llano del Rio, was raised in San Bernardino. At 18, she moved to Los Angeles to dance, joining the Horton Dance Group in 1935. Lester Horton built his technique and choreography on Lewitzky's technical prowess and ability to extend and clarify his ideas, particularly in works like Salome (1937) and The Beloved (1948). In 1950, after Lewitzky and her husband, architect and former Horton dancer Newell Reynolds, left Horton over artistic and management concerns, her style evolved into non-linear explorations of pure motion that evoked the human condition through the imagery of sculpted, gravity-defying movement.

A renowned master teacher, Lewitzky cultivated dancers of strength, control, and expressive range. From 1956 to 1974, she was dance chair at Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts, and from 1969 to 1974, founder and dean of the School of Dance at California Institute of the Arts. In 1968 she taught for two months at the Batsheva and Bat-Dor dance company schools in Israel. The Lewitzky Dance Company, which she founded in 1966, undertook extensive U.S. and international tours until 1997. Committed to creating and sustaining a company far from the acknowledged dance center of New York City, she employed her dancers year-round at union scale with medical benefits for over 20 years, a rarity in American dance. Lewitzky often sought the challenge of artistic collaborations. Newell Reynolds' transparent plexiglass sheets formed multi-leveled, mid-air dance platforms for Spaces Between (1974). Fashion designer Rudi Gernreich created dynamic costumes for Inscape (1976).

In 1951 Lewitzky was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee for activities that included integrating local ballet schools. "Uncooperative," she was blacklisted from the film work that supplemented her income, enduring several years of intimidation. In 1990 the National Endowment for the Arts began requiring grant recipients to sign an anti-obscenity clause. Guided by conscience and fearing a new era of censorship, she refused to sign, and successfully sued the nea to eliminate the clause and regained her $72,000 grant. Numerous grants and awards included a 1977 Guggenheim fellowship, a 1997 National Medal of Arts from President Bill Clinton, and five honorary doctorates. She was designated by the Dance Heritage Coalition as one of America's Irreplaceable Dance Treasures.


R. Eichenbaum, Masters of Movement, Portraits of America's Great Choreographers (2004); R.C. Smith, A Life in Motion, Oral history of Bella Lewitzky completed under the auspices of the Oral History Program, University of California, Los Angeles, Regents of the University of California (1997); L. Warren, Lester Horton, Modern Dance Pioneer (1977).

[Karen Goodman (2nd ed.)]

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