Born January 13, 1916, in Los Angeles, CA; died from complications of a stroke, July 16, 2004, in Pasadena, CA. Dancer and choreographer. Widely acclaimed dancer and choreographer Bella Lewitzky established her career in Los Angeles where, after developing as an artist in ensemble companies, she nurtured a prominent modern dance troupe that bore her name. She won many honors during her 60-year career, including five honorary doctorates, the Dance Magazine Award, a Guggenheim fellowship, the prestigious Capezio Award, the first California Governor's Award for Lifetime Achievement, and the National Medal of the Arts. She created such works as "On the Brink of Time" (1969), "Kinaesonata" (1970), and "Greening" (1976). Because her fiercely independent work was remote from the mainstream East Coast establishment, she and her productions were less famous than might be thought, considering her impressive list of honors, awards, and appointments. An ardent advocate of free artistic expression, when accepting a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in 1990 Lewitzky scratched out a mandatory anti-obscenity pledge. Later, she successfully sued the NEA to remove the pledge from its awards process.
The younger of two daughters of Russian immigrants, Lewitzky spent her childhood in a utopian community in the Mojave Desert until her family moved to San Bernardino, California, where she studied dance and learned to play the piano. As a teenager, she moved to Los Angeles and began taking ballet lessons. She became a devoted dancer at the age of 18 while studying under the renowned Lester Horton at the Norma Gould Studio. By age 21, she had already won widespread recognition. In 1940, she married a fellow dancer and architect, Newell Taylor Reynolds, and six years later joined efforts with him, Horton, and William Bowne to found the Dance Theatre. In that troupe, she performed works by Horton such as "Salome" (1937) and "The Beloved" (1948). But in 1951, Lewitzky left the company to found Dance Associates, which she dissolved in 1955 after the birth of her daughter. Also in 1951, she was summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee but refused to cooperate in its efforts to identify communists in the arts.
In her early years of motherhood, she directed her professional attention toward education, becoming a highly regarded instructor at a number of institutions, including the University of Southern California, the Idyllwild School of the Arts, and the California Institute for the Arts. She also taught abroad. From 1966 to 1997, she led the acclaimed Bella Lewitzky Dance Company in Los Angeles, which toured in 43 states and 20 countries. Departing from the emphasis on ethnic dance that had characterized Horton's approach, hers had intensely feminine energy that was able to "appeal, always vehemently and often poignantly, to the emotions," wrote Martin Bernheimer in the Los Angeles Times. The company's New York debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1971 firmly established her as a leading national artist. According to Lewis Segal in the Los Angeles Times, she was called "one of America's great modern dancers" by the New York Times ' Clive Barnes. Jack Anderson of the New York Times noted that fellow Times writer Anna Kiselgoff referred to Lewitzky as "an extraordinary artist with an astounding mastery of technique." Lewitzky retired as a performer at the age of 62.
Vivacious and exceptionally prolific, Lewitzky created a minimum of one new production each year, directing her company until she was 80. She was noted for the motherly care she took in the welfare and livelihood of her dancers, providing them with health insurance and year-round salaries regardless of their work schedule. The choreographer Loretta Livingston, who was once a member of Lewitzky's company, told Segal that Lewitzky was "an extraordinary and rare role model, a powerful woman who was every bit as strong as the men in society." In 1997, President Bill Clinton presented her with the National Medal of the Arts in recognition of her contributions to modern American dance. She was also honored in April of 2001 at the annual Lester Horton Dance Award ceremony in Hollywood.
Lewitzky served both on the panel of the NEA and on the California Arts Council. Disheartened after 15 years trying to acquire sufficient funding for a proposed school for dance in Los Angeles—the Dance Gallery on Bunker Hill—she abandoned the project in 1992. Then, at age 83, her right leg was amputated as the result of chronic arterial disease from which she had long suffered. She and Reynolds spent their later years near their daughter, Nora Reynolds Daniel, and grandchildren in Albuquerque, New Mexico, before moving to an assisted living home in Pasadena, California. She died there on July 16, 2004, at the age of 88 from a heart attack after a stroke. She is survived by her husband, their daughter, and several grandchildren.
Los Angeles Times, July 17, 2004, p. B17.
New York Times, July 19, 2004, p. A19.
Times, (London), July 19, 2004, p. 25.
Washington Post, July 18, 2004, p. C9.
—D. László Conhaim