Lewitzky Closes an Era With a Warning for the Future
On a night of tribute to her, the choreographer
issues a call to protect the arts.

By LEWIS SEGAL, L.A. Times Dance Critic


  By LEWIS SEGAL, Times Dance Critic  

"The arts are under threat more than ever before," California dance matriarch Bella Lewitzky said Saturday to the audience that had just seen the gala final performance of her 31-year-old modern dance company. "What legacy I have left here will die unless you become responsible for keeping it alive."

Wearing a black gown glittering with sequins and two giant silver-gray thunderbolts, the 81-year-old choreographer, teacher and arts activist looked frail and maybe even a little lost on the stage of the Luckman Theatre at Cal State L.A., the campus where the company gave its first performance in 1966. However, as a host of local arts presenters paid tribute to Lewitzky's groundbreaking accomplishments, it became obvious that she is a woman more accustomed to hurling thunderbolts than wearing them.      

Calling her a "petite powerhouse," Ellen Ketchum of the Occidental College performing arts program celebrated Lewitzky as a defender of artistic freedom--a reminder that seven years ago Lewitzky rejected a National Endowment for the Arts grant and subsequently sued that agency over creative restrictions imposed in a so-called obscenity clause. She won, of course, and the National Medal of Arts she received earlier this year managed to draw a glowing halo around her periodically thorny relationship with government. But the risk she took should not be underestimated.

     Indeed, Lewitzky's professional life has been defined by high risk--and by declarations of independence. For example, after helping pioneer modern dance in the Southland as the lead dancer for Lester Horton in the 1930s and '40s, then as a partner in his L.A.-based Dance Theater, she left Horton in the early 1950s to seek her own path. Successively forming three companies of her own and creating an uncompromisingly contemporary style, she also refused to kowtow to the all-powerful New York dance establishment, eventually becoming the first regional American choreographer to attain international renown in modern dance.      

On Saturday, in what Luckman executive director Clifford Harper called "an evening of bittersweet memories," tributes to her daring shared pride of place with the body of work she created. Co-sponsored by an unprecedented alliance of 11 California arts organizations, the event provided film clips offering tantalizing glimpses of Lewitzky's fabled dance prowess: at rehearsal in Berkeley in the 1930s, in Horton's proto-feminist duet "The Beloved" and, finally, in her own solo "On the Brink of Time" in 1975.

Giving its last public performance, the Lewitzky Dance Company performed two pieces: the 1996 feminist ritual "Four Women in Time" (her final choreography for the group) and a revival of "Nos Duraturi," a large-scale societal abstraction created for the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival. The highlight of the formal program, however, may have been the procession of some 70 former company members--dancers, technicians, office staff--introduced by Lewitzky and composer Larry Attaway in groups defining whole decades of dedication and high achievement.      

"Tonight is not the end," said Gerald Yoshitomi, executive director of the Japan America Theatre, but "the first step of another journey." True enough, for Lewitzky has always insisted that shutting down her company isn't a sign of her wanting to leave dance but rather her increasing dissatisfaction with having to be a full-time CEO forever seeking money to keep the company or corporation afloat. Ironically, that search for money continued well after the last dance ended on Saturday, with a $250-a-ticket silent auction of company memorabilia and donated merchandise in the Luckman Gallery, plus a buffet dinner for 325 in an adjacent tent raising funds to document Lewitzky's career and repertory in archives nationwide. The evening netted more than $200,000, company officials said Sunday.      

Hosted by Andrea Van de Kamp, president of the Los Angeles Music Center Inc., the gala dinner events extended past midnight with tributes galore, including official city and state commendations. Locally based choreographer Lula Washington called Lewitzky "a strong warrior," and Washington's husband, Erwin, spoke feelingly of her sponsorship of local companies. Actor and former dancer James Mitchell, a major longtime Lewitzky supporter, noted the fiscal bottom line and said it gave "a tragic edge" to the event.      

But easily the most poignant statements came from Lewitzky dancers--for example, John Pennington's disarming farewell to the professional family he's belonged to for the last 14 years: "We are a vintage tribe that I will miss dearly." Or former company member Loretta Livingston (now a prominent local choreographer and company director) fighting back tears as she described Lewitzky's working methods:      

"When she creates," Livingston said, "she's childlike, really, truly ageless."

(Portions of this review appeared in the LA Times)


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