From 2004-2007, Fred Strickler spoke with dance historian Lizbeth Langston and videographer Robert Backstrand in a series of four video interviews about his life in dance. This article on Bella Lewitzky is largely based on the January 2004 interview. The complete set of original videos and transcripts are available at the Special Collections Library, University of California, Riverside. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Additional topics are available at www.fredstrickler.com
In 1967, newly graduated from the program in modern dance at Ohio State University, I came to California to teach dance at the University of California, Riverside. The person who hired me was the dance historian, Christena L. Schlundt, whom I had met earlier that year, when she was at Ohio State looking for someone to teach modern dance technique and choreography at UC Riverside. Although I didn’t interview for the job, Christena and I talked over coffee one day. I remember asking her about a Los Angeles dancer whose name was all I knew: Bella Lewitzky. Did Christena know that person? She said “Oh yes, she’s a very fine choreographer and a magnificent dancer.” Oh, so Bella Lewitzky is a woman, I realized. I was familiar with the name, but it was spelled strangely. The only Belas I knew of were Bartok and Lugosi.
Surprisingly, a month or so later, Christena offered me a teaching position, which I accepted. Within a week of my arrival in California, Christena and I drove from Riverside to Los Angeles to take a class. I was actually going to meet Bella Lewitzky. In that very first class, I recognized that Bella was to be my teacher. There were things she was capable of technically and choreographically that were just beginning to occur to me as a young artist. I thought, “I’ve got to study with her.” I continued to take classes with her that fall, loving the new techniques, developing my instrument.
Busy with my new life in Riverside, I missed a few of Bella’s classes, so, near the end of my first term at UCR, I drove to L.A. to take what I thought would be one last class with her. I knew I’d be especially busy at the University for the next term, so I was going to say to her that I wouldn’t be around till the end of March because “I’ve got this program coming up. It’s my very first time to direct a whole concert. I’ll need to put all my focus on it.” That was my story. When I arrived, I happened to be a little early for the class. She said, “Oh Fred, it’s nice that you’ve come back. I’ve been looking forward to seeing you again. Would you would be interested in joining my company for a concert in March?” Elated, I heard myself say “Yes”, and didn’t tell her my story.
From that moment onward I did double time. I was teaching full time at the University, directing my first concert and rehearsing three times a week with Bella. Three months later, the two concerts opened within one week of each other, with Bella’s concert at Cal State LA, then mine at UCR. Crazy, but wonderful. And all the time I was driving in and out of L.A., sometimes twice a day. There were no freeways in those days. You had to drive to all the way to Fullerton Road, which is a good 30 miles from here before you could even get on the freeway to L.A.
I did this because I had this opportunity to dance with this amazing woman, and I was learning so much, so quickly. She had tremendous influence on me. Of all the mentors I’ve had Bella was the most influential.
Bella Lewitzky. Mmmmm… mmmm…mmmm. When I met her she was 52, but with the body of a 25 year old. She was in phenomenal physical condition. She had a precise, physically powerful technique. As a teacher, she was able to articulate verbally, in fine detail, whatever it was that she herself was doing. She was able to communicate to us in such a way that we would begin to understand as well. She addressed details, like: not just the shoulder, but specific parts of the shoulder. I remember seeing her in that very first class, at the center of the room, while we were at the barres on three sides of the studio. She was balanced perfectly on the ball of one foot, heel very high, the other leg extended at 90 degrees in front of her, pelvis absolutely level. As she would turn to us, gesturing with her large, expressive hands how to do the exercise, her ankle never wobbled once. It was an extraordinary technical feat that she was doing effortlessly.
She had met Lester Horton in 1934, when she was 16. She had travelled to L.A., out of San Bernardino, to take his classes. She’d heard he was a wild man, doing very exciting work. Immediately drawn to his brash way of creating dance theatre pieces, she became a devoted dancer in his group and stayed with him for about fifteen years, forming a partnership that had a profound impact on her artistic development.
He built his technique, which is now known as the Horton technique, on her body. Specifically. On her body. Lester himself was a good mover, she said, but not a technical mover. He was a dramatic dancer, coming out of American pageants and theatre. All of the technical exercises that he developed, he developed first on her body, then on others. Alvin Ailey, of course, James Truitte, Joyce Trisler, Carmen De Lavallade and her sister Yvonne, and several others, became major exponents of Horton technique, which is now taught throughout the world.
When Bella taught our classes she would identify Lester’s exercises. “This is a Lester exercise and this one is mine.” The keys, though, were the same. More. Deeper. Farther. Higher. Wider. Bigger. Sharper. Bella was very precise as a choreographer and dancer. I actually liked all that, so I soaked it up.
For a long time I was very much a Lewitzky dancer, and was acknowledged for being one of the best (early) exponents of her style in the early years of her company. As a choreographer she was really still making her way. She had already made some pieces, but when I met her in ’67 she was still very much at the beginning of her choreographic career, which eventually made her quite famous worldwide. The West Coast was home to a major American modern dance company. I stayed for nearly eight years. She had a company for another twenty.
Another thing about Bella that I will always be grateful for is that she encouraged me to choreograph. When I did that first concert at UCR in March of ’68, I invited her to come to see what I had done. I had made a couple of pieces that year, thinking that she would like one in particular, which she didn’t much care for, actually. But she did like another piece, Bags and Things, which I had imagined she wouldn’t like, as it was aesthetically very different from her pieces. She asked me if I would be interested in mounting that piece on the members of her company, including myself. Well, sure! How could I pass up the opportunity to have my work performed by a professional dance company? Then in 1972, she made it possible for me to get my first Choreographers Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Bella had told the company manager, Darlene Neel, to approach me to make the application. Darlene did a great deal of the grant writing, and I received a $1200 grant to make a new piece, “Pomander”, for the company. It was a pleasant little piece; not a great piece of choreography, but it got me started.
Bella was fierce in the classroom. If your leg was supposed to be at a right angle, and you had 89 degrees, you got it up to 90. If you were at 95, she brought it down to 90. She meant what she said, and the interesting thing was that she always had a way to get you there. She knew how to produce an instrument that worked. I was so happy to have her as my teacher.
I used to imitate her…. There was a time, for about a year, when I decided to try to be her, because there were certain things about her technical capacities that continued to elude me. I just wasn’t getting it, like how she used her spine. So I would start imitating everything about her personal way of dancing. Perhaps if her back was ramrod straight, I’d try to go ramrod straight. If the pelvis was a tiny bit tilted, I tilted my pelvis a little bit. If the finger was spread…she had a mannerism…I can’t remember…if I can really produce this…it was kind of like that. [Holds R arm out to the side, places hand] She held one hand kind of like that , middle fingers pressed together and the little finger stuck up. I knew it was a mannerism. That was just how she held her hand. I did it, too. Then she’d correct me to relax my hand, and I’d laugh to myself, “I’m just being you, Bella.”
As I said, she was fierce, would brook no opposition. You did it her way. At the same time, she was tremendously generous with her knowledge. She loved for people to ask questions, because she wanted everybody to know. I would say, “Bella, do it for me. Sing the movement,” and she would sing the movement. I’d say, “Can I just feel your back when you’re doing that leg lift?” She would let me feel her back. She’d say, “No, no, no, put your hand a little lower, you’ll feel the source.” She guided me, personally. Hands-on stuff. You don’t get better training than that.
We toured throughout the United States, and then went to Europe. I had tremendous experiences with her, not all of which were easy. Bella held strong opinions and she was a great arguer. There was a bit of the arrogant rebel in me, always resisting, arguing, so she would let me argue with her, but she would never let me win. She was very competitive that way, about being right. When she felt she was right, she held her own, and either you persuaded her or you didn’t. Rarely could anyone persuade her that her point of view was not the right point of view. For the most part, she was right.
Bella was also fierce about our being representatives of the company and of her, personally. Whenever we were out on tour, there were codes that she expected us to abide by. Like, you didn’t get drunk. You just didn’t do that. She would monitor you at receptions. “You’ve already had a glass of wine. That’s enough.” Of course, she was protecting us, and protecting the future of her company. It’s not easy to establish a dance company. Not at any time has it ever been easy to do that. She knew that if we were going national that our reputations would always follow us. If we had been some place, and we had behaved badly or immaturely, that became a reflection on the company and had a negative impact on our getting future bookings. She was quite practical. Very demanding, but then, she was a great artist. Every great artist is demanding.
She always expected everything from us. We never marked in rehearsals. For example, we never used to “sort-of-like” go through the dance during in spacing rehearsals on stage. We danced full out. Always.
Here’s a typical day with Bella on the day of a performance. We’d arrive at the theatre at 10:30 a.m. for a full class with technical instruction, with detailed corrections and new choreographic materials. Then, she would give extensive notes from the previous rehearsal, for each company member. On the spot, we would practice our corrections ten times while she kept track to be sure we were embedding the material the way it was supposed to be performed. Then we would rehearse the entire concert, full out. By that time, it would be about 4:00 or 4:30. We’d go back to our hotel to eat lightly and, perhaps, have a short rest. We’d get back to the theatre by 6:00 p.m. and get into costumes and makeup for the first piece of the concert. Then we would do an hour-long company class on stage, with new materials and corrections, always dancing full out. After that, there would be more notes from the afternoon rehearsal– again, long lists for each dancer — which we were expected to implement during the concert that evening. Then we would go downstairs and finish our makeup. Fifteen minutes before curtain, we would go to the stage for a final warm-up. The choreography was always physically intense, of course. Immediately after the final bows, there was always a minimum twenty-minute warm down, which was another short class – often with corrections. Then we would greet people who had come backstage to see us, or go out and eat, but there was no staying up late, because the next day we’d go through all that again, with new notes and corrections. That was absolutely typical.
That’s rigorous work, but you get so strong. The only part I didn’t care for was the warm down at the end. I always felt like I had peaked in the performance, that I’d already done my work, and I just wanted to go back to my hotel room, or go out for a meal, or greet my friends. But nobody escaped the warm down. I don’t know of any other dance company where that happened in those days, and I’m not sure that it is common practice even today. Bella really is the one who developed that idea. It really makes a difference in your longevity as a performer. She saw to it that we took care of our bodies. That’s what I mean about her toughness, her discipline, and the rigor that she brought to all of us who were the beneficiaries of her artistry, which, of course, translated into my own practices and teaching for many years.
Postlude: Looking back at the work of Bella Lewitzky, it is clear that she had a profound influence on the ways I have worked, especially as a choreographer and teacher. She was a great American artist whose legacy continues in the work of many excellent choreographers and teachers, notably Loretta Livingston, Diana McNeil, Sean Greene, Iris Pell, Gary Bates, Lynda Davis, Rebecca Bobele, John Pennington, Walter Kennedy, and Bella’s daughter, Nora Reynolds. I am certain there are others, too, who carry Bella in their hearts and minds as someone who touched our lives immeasurably.
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