My Experience as a Los Angeles Dancer 1970-1985 (Part 1)

In this first article, Iris Pell, writes of her dance studies at California Institute of the Arts with Bella Lewitzky, founder of the School of Dance, where she also studied with Donald McKayle, and Mia Slavenska.  Iris was in the first graduating class of Cal-Arts dancers.  While still a student, she became a member of Lewitzky’s dance company, performing and touring for the next twelve years.

The Beginning: 1970-1974

I traveled to Los Angeles for the first time in my life during late September 1970. Looking out the window of the jet I saw smoke from the ground and a multitude of small fires. There were fast moving freeways cutting through a landscape ready to ignite at any moment. I was soon to find this true of the dance scene. It was hot and ready to ignite. There were many powerful forces in the dance world down there, and I was fortunate to be going to face one of the great ones, Bella Lewitzky.

I began studying at California Institute of the Arts with Bella Lewitzky as Dean of the dance department and Donald McKayle and Mia Slavenska as my Instructors. Bella also taught classes. I also would have Critical Studies once a week with famous artists, writers and designers. I was in heaven! There were no grades. I just had to write an experience report each semester and work hard. I had studied at a private arts high school (North Carolina School of the Arts) and I was ready for this rigorous schedule. After one month Bella invited me to be an understudy in her dance company! This meant I would rehearse with her company Tuesday and Thursday evenings and Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Bella was introducing me to her workaholic philosophy and with her as a role model it was definitely doable.

It is fortunate for me I was ready for all this. I had decided to be a professional dancer when I was seven years of age. I had studied with some fine teachers on the east coast and performed in the junior company of the Norfolk Civic Ballet when I was nine. I had a very supportive family and continued in my quest when we moved to Florida. I performed with the Miami Ballet Company (ages 13-15). I then went to North Carolina School of the Arts (ages 16-18). I had worked hard and had some great teachers. I was not yet a dance artist. Working with Bella Lewitzky’s Company would change that.

I remember the first time I met the Company. Bella introduced the new understudies: Lynda Davis and Iris Pell. There was a warm feeling in the room. Melanie Alexander, Gary Bates, Rebecca Bobele, Teresa Nielsen, Leslie Brown, Jan Day, Charles Edmondson, Sean Greene, Fred Strickler and Anna Zika were all smiling and welcoming. These people radiated love for dance. They were united in performing Bella’s dances with soul and commitment.

Bella was still performing. It was powerful ; it was influential; every gesture mesmerizing. She enriched every moment of movement or stillness with an intensity of deep meaning.

I began learning the dance “Orrenda”, an American Indian word meaning oneness. Everyone was very helpful. June, Rebecca and Teresa knew the role and taught it to me with quality and intent. My first performance with Bella’s company was a few months later in Riverside, CA at U.C. Riverside. I was officially in the company and there would be no turning back. I was committed to dancing the best I could for Bella and for myself.

It was now 1971 and Bella Lewitzky was part of a national pilot program for “Artists Impact In the Schools.” Susan Cambigue was the energetic, committed dance coordinator. Bella gave impressive lecture demonstrations in the public schools. The Company would move as Bella spoke. After the lecture there was never a doubt in the room that movement could have a positive impact on learning in the classroom. The company did some structured improvisations in the lecture demonstrations. A whole new word opened up for me. I was impressed by the brilliance of the company in the art of movement improvisation. Their individual creativity in the moment was magical.

Bella was choreographing the dance “Pietas”, when Anna Zika left the company. I was put into her role. This was the first dance of Bella’s that would be partly choreographed on me. It was an amazing and wonderful experience to be in the same room with Bella as she choreographed. She would form fantastic images in time and space with a concentrated intense energy incorporating you, her dancer as an integral part. Bella guided you and told you exactly what she wanted. It always contained depth and feeling. Sometimes Bella would evoke an image to help you internalize the movement.

Bella Lewitzky Dance Company became a National Touring Company. The Lewitzky dancers were always paid for rehearsals and performances. Bella and Darlene Neel, her manager constantly applied for public, state and federal dance grants. During the 70’s we toured throughout the U.S.A. including Hawaii and Alaska. We gave concerts and lecture demonstrations in universities and grammar schools as part of The National Endowment for the Arts touring program.

I had the good fortune to study at Cal Arts with Bella Lewitzky, Donald McKayle and Mia Slavenska from 1970-1973. Because of the flexibility of Cal Arts my performing with The Bella Lewitzky Dance Company counted towards my degree. It was definitely on the job training with a master artist and teacher. I was part of the first graduating class of California Institute of the Arts in 1974. I had my Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree in Dance and I was a dancer in The Bella Lewitzky Dance Company!

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