Life & Culture

Celebrating the work of pioneering ‘powerhouse’ choreographer Bella Lewitzky

A sometimes overlooked icon of dance, the Jewish Californian is being recognised at the Royal Opera House


Strength in depth: dancers perform in California Connections: Three Pioneering Women (Photo: Jimmy Parratt)

When the Yorke Dance Project was created in the late 1990s, a work by Bella Lewitzky was included in its first programme. Twenty-five years on, the company is marking its anniversary with a celebration at the Royal Opera House of Lewitzky’s work, alongside two other pioneering women choreographers: Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham, called California Connections: Three Pioneering Women.

“It is nice to bookend these 25 years with a work of Bella’s,” says the event’s artistic director Yolande Yorke-Edgell, who credits Lewitzky, who died in 2004, as being a major influence on her own work as a dancer, choreographer and teacher.

If Lewitzky’s name is not particularly familiar to dance fans on this side of the Atlantic, Yorke-Edgell says it is because she chose to be based in California and not make the journey, like many other choreographers, to New York. “She stayed on the West Coast and had a harder time of being more visible because, especially in Los Angeles, the film business is the dominant art form there. But she stuck it out, she wanted to stay.”

Yorke-Edgell describes Lewitzky, Duncan and Graham as “powerhouses. I think they had a common thread in that they were survivors, they were resilient. Each of them knew where they wanted to go and what they wanted to do, no matter what was put in their way.”

Born to Russian-Jewish immigrants in 1916, Lewitzky studied ballet as a child. “It wasn’t right for her. She was much more interested in how the body could describe movements, so in a way her roots are more from abstract art. She was very inspired by painters, artists, sculptors. She was more about form than about narrative.”

Discovering a different way of moving through modern dance, Lewitzky formed her own company and develop her own  technique. Keen to pass on her legacy through dance, she taught throughout southern California and at the University of Judaism (now the American Jewish University). Yorke-Edgell danced in Lewitzky’s company during its last years, before it closed, and gained a lot from the experience, sitting in on the many educational workshops Lewitzky held for students.

“She was so full of insightful information, not just about dance but about how the body works, about spatial design, with absolute clarity in her vision. There was no wavering – she knew what she wanted and she was very clear with the dancers about how she wanted it. She was a great creator, very inspiring and also very nurturing in that she wanted the dancers to be great educators, so we trained to be dance teachers as well.”

The Lewitzky technique is exceptionally difficult to master. “It is very physically challenging. That is why she insisted on dancers staying with her for so long, to understand the technique and gain the strength. It takes a lot of strength to do her work. It is very specific in its alignment and in your understanding of how the body moves.

“It takes a long time to understand that, and then when you get it, it makes so much sense, but it is very strengthening – I never had an injury when I was with her. I was the strongest I have ever been.”

Lewitzky was a dedicated political activist throughout her life.

“She didn’t think that any art form should be contained or follow any rules,” says Yorke-Edgell. This came to a head in 1951 when Lewitzky was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, accused of being a member of the Communist Party. When blacklisted because she refused to answer questions that might incriminate her or others, she said: “I’m a dancer, not a singer.”

Nearly 40 years later, she refused to sign a contract for a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, as it required a pledge not to create obscenity. (The issue went to court, and Lewitzky won.)

“She believed that no art form should have any clause in it. We should all be free to express and say what we want in art,” says Yorke-Edgell, who thinks that her mentor would not have remained silent about the current rise in antisemitism.

“She would definitely have had something to say or do. She would speak out and was not afraid to say things.” An icon of contemporary dance, an educator and fearless in the face of political and social pressures, Bella Lewitzky deserves to be remembered.

California Connections: Three Pioneering Women is at the Royal Opera House Linbury Theatre, 21-22 March and at the Theatre Royal, Winchester, 23 April

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive