Bella Lewitzky is a modern dance choreographer with a strong need for connecting to the past.
"Without a sense of history, it is impossible to be free to address the future," Lewitzky said in a recent phone interview from her Hollywood Hills home.
"Otherwise, one makes a kind of a rootless approach to moving in any focused direction. And like anything without roots, the life is often very temporary."
Lewitzky, who at 71 is often considered the doyenne of West Coast modern dance, will lecture on "California's Influence on Dance" at 6 tonight at Chapman College in Orange.
Her talk is part of her three-day residency at the college. On Saturday, the Lewitzky company will present three of her works--"8 dancers/8 lights," "Pietas" and "Facets"--at 8 p.m. at the Memorial Hall Auditorium.
"I've discovered that very few people are aware of how prestigious an area this is," Lewitzky said.
For example, she cited:
- San Francisco-born Isadora Duncan, whom she called "the progenitor of modern dance."
- Denishawn, "the very first American school of dance," which was founded in Los Angeles in 1915 by seminal figures Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn.
- Her own mentor, Lestor Horton, with whom she studied and in whose company she danced locally for 15 years until 1950.
"The tendency is either, because (all this) happened so long ago, for people not to know it, which is certainly forgivable, or to disregard it, which is less forgivable.
"But I believe in it. And I feel that it gives a sense of pride to the community."
Still, her lecture won't cover everything meticulously. "It's an incomplete, personalized view of California dance history," she said.
Looking back, Lewitzky recalled that in the 1930s and 1940s, dancers were very supportive of each other.
"There was more touching of each other than there is now. Possibly the dance community was smaller," she mused.
"And there was a dance organization then (in Los Angeles) which dealt with dancers' problems up to and including auditions. I heard of that only happening (again) once--much, much later in New York. "Both (organizations) attempted to address problems of how can we somehow do away with the enormous expense of having a separate company. Neither of these worked. But we had it first."
For all that, Lewitzky is not fixated on the past, she said. "I like living very much in what is happening at the moment."
Reminded that the great ballet choreographer George Balanchine also focused on whatever he was doing at the moment and seemed utterly indifferent to preserving his legacy, Lewitzky commented:
"That's not quite as unreasonable as it sounds. Balanchine would rather deal with his antecedents, not his legacy. . . . Merce (Cunningham), too, doesn't see any purpose in retaining anything. What he has done--the changes he wrought within his lifetime--have affected people in his lifetime. He has altered their careers out of what he has inspired. But in discussing his background, he goes way back to a tap teacher he had during the early part of dance.
"History is determined differently by different people. Those who lived it, perceive it one way. (But) if you want to savor it, you perceive it in a very different fashion."