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Bella Lewitzky's Unchoreographed Future

As the Lewitzky Dance Company enters its 30th and final season, its founder and director prepares to seize the next unexpected opportunity to pass her way.

September 15, 1996|Diane Haithman | Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

During a recent rehearsal one very hot day at her home studio, nestled where the 213 and 818 area codes meet in the hills across from Universal Studios, a squirrel came to visit choreographer Bella Lewitzky and her 10-member Lewitzky Dance Company. On a concrete patch just outside the rustic class and rehearsal space, where one wall opens wide to the outside air, the squirrel found a puddle of water and flopped face down in it, furry belly on the cold concrete and arms outstretched.

The bodysurfing squirrel wasn't scared off when giggling dancers drew around either, Lewitzky said. "It was just hysterical!" she continued. "This wild animal entertained everybody. It was like he was saying: 'I don't care if I'm in danger--this is so cool.' "

The thing is, you have to seize opportunities where you find them, no matter how unexpected; it's a philosophy that works both for squirrels and choreographers. And that's why, following this season, the 80-year-old Lewitzky is disbanding the Lewitzky Dance Company after 30 years, and confidently waiting for the next wonderful opportunity to present itself.

While Lewitzky remains committed to dance, last spring she announced her intention to disband the company after the 1996-97 season, expressing a disillusionment with the nuts and bolts of maintaining a dance "organization."

"I brought my organization into being to make art, and the single thing that has become unaffordable is choreographic time," she says now. "I went into a beautiful theater, and I sat with the CEO of this facility, and I said to him, 'I bet I know for whom you work. You work for this building.' He says, 'You're right, and it drives everybody crazy.'

"This [decision] has been creeping up on me gradually, and it suddenly congeals on me and I want out of there yesterday! It seems like an immediate decision, but it isn't.

"There has to be a better way. It's time."

Lewitzky has not decided exactly what comes next after running a dance company, but she's sure it's something. "I never have plotted what I am going to do, ever. In three years I want to be here, in five years I'm going to do this--I would find that to be so boring for myself, so dull," she said. "I like that which drops into my lap. You have to have availability to everything around you. And when it drops, I'm ready."


While she waits, however, Lewitzky appears dedicated to celebrating the continuing life of choreography--not the end of an institution. Instead of planning a retrospective of previous work, Lewitzky is centering her company's final season around a new piece called "Four Women in Time."

At rehearsal, Lewitzky, a petite modern dance Buddha with cropped silver hair, calmly observes her dancers from a tall chair in the front corner of the room--but is likely to jump to her feet and demonstrate the nuances of a turn, a lift or the position of a foot with equal parts patience and firmness.

"Four Women" will have its Los Angeles premiere Sept. 20-21 at Keck Theater on the Occidental College campus. The work will be performed locally again next May at Luckman Fine Arts Complex at Cal State Los Angeles, the company's final L.A. appearance. At that performance, Lewitzky hopes to bring together everyone who participated in the company's success through its 30 years to receive acknowledgment.

"Four Women in Time" was inspired by artist Judy Chicago's 1979 feminist collaborative sculpture "The Dinner Party." At first, Lewitzky balked at the idea of doing a "feminist piece" when she was invited to be one of five women choreographers presented at an April "Women in Dance" residency at the Krannert Center in Urbana, Ill. "I thought I should be doing a woman's piece, and then I thought, 'Oh, my, I really don't want to,' " Lewitzky said. "Any piece which is foisted on me, I really resist.

"So I was dragging my heels, the deadline was coming closer and closer, and it was my daughter [choreographer Nora Reynolds] who said: 'Why don't you do something out of 'The Dinner Party'? I thought it was a brilliant idea."

So did Chicago, who had met Lewitzky in the early '70s at CalArts, where Lewitzky was the founding dean of the School of Dance (the only female dean on campus) and Chicago was in residence, developing "Dinner Party" as part of the school's feminist art program.


Despite similar backgrounds and intentions, the two women initially clashed over how Chicago's massive work--a triangular banquet table with 48-foot sides and 39 highly individualistic place settings for as many important women in history--might be translated into dance. "We nearly lost our friendship," Lewitzky said. "She had an idea about being the costumer, the designer. She was seeing it from the point of view of an easel artist, and I was seeing it from a dance perspective. So the tension grew." Finally, they decided Chicago's work was just too huge for anything short of an epic film, and abandoned the project.

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